Don't Shut 'Em Down: An Interview with Flogging Molly

Dennis Shin

Another recording session for the successful Celtic-punk troubadors took a change of course once the economic crisis hit Ireland hard. Yet as Flogging Molly's Dave King points out, never has the band felt as vital as right now ...

Flogging Molly

Speed of Darkness

Label: Thirty Tigers
US Release Date: 2011-05-31
UK Release Date: 2011-05-30

Flogging Molly takes pride in a close-knit relationship to their fans. Whether it's through non-stop touring, including an annual succession of concerts leading up to St. Patty's day, each taking on the feel of a homecoming reunion, or a body of work that tracks the day-to-day travails of the working man, the seven-piece Celtic punk band formed in Los Angeles have always been committed to a sense of community. "In Ireland," says Dave King, the band's founder, "you go to the pub to have a conversation. That's what we do every night on stage, go to the 'pub' and trade stories."

Flogging Molly's most recent release, Speed of Darkness, speaks directly to what's on the mind of the band's friends, fans, and the band's newly adopted home of Detroit: the collapse of the American dream in the wake of unrelenting economic turmoil. Continuing the band's movement towards more politically themed material exhibited with Float -- the 2008 breakthrough released to both critical and commercial acclaim -- Speed of Darkness documents the human toll of the economic crisis in placing the most vulnerable at risk, and threatening the economic security of the working class. But in contrast with the didactic edge of other politically charged bands such as Black 47, Flogging Molly pursues these themes with a more subtle, poignant tone that accentuates the human side of the recent economic crisis. The band demonstrates a deft touch that weaves in glimmers of hope and humor amidst the darkest themes, drawing upon the tradition of songwriters such as Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg, and Joe Strummer.

While it's a standard ritual for indie bands to pay their dues through steadfast touring, Flogging Molly is unique in tracing its organic musical development as a band to its interaction with fans at live shows. Through weekly Monday night shows at Molly Malone's, their home pub in Los Angeles, the band took almost a free form approach to its sound, testing out new material and expanding the set list. Molly's and its patrons held such a special relationship for the band that it gave rise to the band's moniker as Flogging Molly, a good natured reference to the band's dependence on the bar for their development (literally: flogging it). It's the type of interaction between the "local band that made good" and a home base that was quite common back in the day, when session musicians took up residence in Chicago blues clubs and New York jazz clubs. Band's returning to their roots through an extended residency is rare today, with the exception of places like the Continental Club in Austin (long-time home to Junior Brown) or Paddy Reilly’s in New York (once home to Black 47, and now the jig-punk band the Prodigals). As their fame spread, Flogging Molly adapted the community-based approach of the Molly shows to an annual series of shows dubbed the Green 17 tour. Starting in 2004, the band undertakes a mad-dash sprint of shows that serve as an annual countdown to St. Patty's Day and an opportunity for bands and longtime fans to reconnect. The shows have the feel of a homecoming show in each city. The seventh iteration of Green 17 this past year consisted of 30 shows.

In an interview earlier this summer, just hours before the band was set to depart for a series of European festival appearances, Dave King shared his thoughts on the band's latest release, Speed of Darkness, while reflecting on the band's good fortune to work with great people in an industry that typically does not encourage risk-taking.

Dave notes that the album was a long time coming. "We had just finished three-and-a-half years of touring. When we took time off to do the album, we had no real idea what direction the album would take, musically or lyrically." And then while sitting in Ireland, the financial crisis hit. "We were in Ireland at a time when the country was all very tense. There was no getting away from it." That's when the idea of the album clicked. "We're here for a reason. While there were no immediate solutions or answers, the first hand effects of the crisis were felt by family and friends. When we all got together in Bridget's basement to write, the energy was all around us."

A defining characteristic of Flogging Molly's music has been a rich musical diversity, a reflection of the diverse musical influences of the band members. While the songs feature musical arrangements that integrate traditional Celtic instruments such as the fiddle, the mandolin, and the accordion, the driving energy of the songs are a reflection of Dave King's roots as vocalist for Los Angeles hard core punk legends Fastway. The contrast in styles is most readily apparent when catching the band live, whether in a small club like Emo's in Austin, or a larger music hall like the House of Blues in Chicago on the eve of St. Patty's day. The band seamlessly switches between up-tempo numbers like "Salty Dog", to solemn ballads like "Far Away Boys" or "Float", to sing-along anthems such as "What's Left of the Flag". This musical contrast has the added effect of underscoring the complexities of the issues they raise, evoking a wide range of emotions. On Speed of Darkness, the styles range from songs that plumb the depth of heartbreak and hardship on "A Prayer for Me in Silence" and "The Cradle of Humankind", to a sense of yearning captured in songs such as "This Present State of Grace" and "Oliver Boy" to the black humor of "Power's Out".

The title track "Speed of Darkness" takes off with the trademark aggressive pulse of Dave's work in Fastway. A song like "Heart of Sea", is very reminiscent of the wanderlust found in the work of Mike Scott of the Waterboys, perhaps a distant cousin to "Fisherman's Blues". The band uses the imagery of the sea to apply to the challenges of everyday life on land. And then there is the pathos of a song that features Bridget Regan, "A Prayer For Me in Silence". Dave is clearly proud of the attention "A Prayer For Me in Silence" has received so far. "This song is a testament to the ability to share a moment with someone, even when going thru hardship." The insertion of a love songs like this adds a different color to the broad themes of the album. "It's the remarkable idea of two people singing to each other, during the lowest point in time."

"Where the album goes the darkest is in noting that while events may happen overnight, they often take root and start to affect people a long time before that. The album shows the impact of events on everyday men and women, not the people making decisions, and shows the effects of these decisions on working people, those who suffer." The album lays out timeless themes such as the enduring notion of perseverance, whether applicable to the days of the Irish potato famine or yesterday's headlines. Overall the album conveys the message of never taking things in life for granted, the Speed of Darkness reflecting the rapidity with which life can suddenly change.

Dave is surprised at the early reaction to the album and the numbers of people who view it as a concept album. "It was not originally intended to be a concept album. Usually by the time we are ready to record the album, we are musically almost nearly fully set. We don't waste too much time in the studio, usually only tweaking the lyrics." And yet, as events unraveled during the writing and recording of the album, the album's themes seemed destined to follow suit.

The most visceral track on the album would seem to be "Power's Out", a direct blast at corporate greed and malfeasance. The song states: "The power's out, there's fuck all to see/The power's out, like this economy/The power's out, guess it's par for the course/Unless you're a bloodsucking leech CEO".

"I expect quite a reaction to this song, but this track refers to the dark humor of the situation. The song reflects the spirit of what I see in downtown Detroit, which reminds me of what I've seen back in Ireland. It's the sense of humor and pride that warns 'kick me while I'm down, but you better be careful.'" But he sees the pride captured in that song as really something good. "That was a fun song to write in the studio. It's very electric, and has generated an immediate reaction from a lot of people."

The darkness of the themes, combined with the underlying sweetness of the characters struggling to get by, are in many ways a reflection of Dave and fiddle player Bridget Regan's surroundings in Detroit. David and Bridget, who got married several years ago, moved to Detroit from LA to be closer to Bridget's family. They have found a comfortable place in the community.

"Detroit reminds me a lot of Ireland in the 1970s. It is an economic shell for the people that live there. For people living in Ireland back then, there was not much opportunity for work, not much of a future for many people." Yet there was always this sense of humor, this really dry, humor, a similarity he sees between people in Detroit and the Irish. "It's really something how proud they are, even though things are not great. I saw firsthand how a lot of people in Ireland were able to maintain a lot of hope there, which helped Ireland emerge out of its saddest days." Dave agrees when comparisons are drawn between the band's approach to addressing hardship and the tradition of celebrated Irish storytellers such as Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, or director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot) .

Dave feels at home in the Detroit community of Ferndale. He's seeing a renewed sense of hope translate into a lot of activity. "It's an incredible community. There is this abandoned Old Navy on Woodward that has just reopened as an artist market. You see all these stalls, artists bringing in their wares, music, painting. Down the road from that we have a friend who left his day job on Wall St and opened up a vodka brewery. It's so positive, people who are opening up new businesses, investing in old buildings trying to make the area better. We're seeing a lot of that."

The band had intended to record Speed of Darkness live in a studio in Detroit, only to discover that it had been rented out by Eminem. Thus the decision to record the album at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, housed in a converted church in North Carolina. "Our producer Ryan Hewitt found us a great space in Asheville. It was great working in a church, quite an interesting experience for many of us, who for lack of a better word, are renounced Catholics, to be singing in a room with a stained glass picture of Jesus on the wall."

While the band has enjoyed a lot of local notoriety, particularly since Dave and Bridget decided to take up roots in the community, Dave has not really had the opportunity to gauge the impact of the new album in Detroit. Nor have they really run across too many Detroit figures, though he notes that "Michael Moore is a friend of the band already." While it's still too early go get a sense of the public's reaction to the album's darker themes, the band looks forward to playing the songs live, and taking them to the people.

With respect to its experiences within the music industry, the band feels a real commitment to putting back in what they have got out of the business, an inspiration for the band's decision to start its own label, Borstal Beat. Over the course of four albums, beginning in 2000 with their debut release (Swagger) through the breakthrough critical and commercial success of Float in 2008, Flogging Molly have worked with independent label SideOneDummy, which provided the band with a level of creative control and flexibility that is not the case with bands signed to major labels. "We have been very fortunate. We have had a great relationship with SideOneDummy. We were never told to do this, do that. We were lucky enough to be allowed to go our own way, experiment, and take chances." Flogging Molly pursued the same artistic approach in working on their new album.

Speed of Darkness represents a new phase in the band's career, released on the band's own label, Borstal Beat Records. As DIY pioneers, Flogging Molly is in a position, with their own label, to work with other artists. He would love to work with Drowning Men (who opened for Flogging Molly on its recent tour). "It's a new adventure. In these times, we consider ourselves lucky." He notes that many bands these days are not as fortunate as Flogging Molly, and were not allowed the opportunity to grow the way their band did. "It's a great opportunity for a band with something to say, to get out and say it. A lot of record companies tend to be very wary, very cautious with their musical acts. Fortunately, we were not a part of that culture."

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