Be it from middle America or Ireland folk is folk is folk. And while this gang of Americans and one Irishman mix punk rock with the sounds of the fiddle, people of all different colors are taking notice ... just as they should to all good, edgy folk music.
Sitting at the table onboard Flogging Molly's continental tour bus, David King is cradling a book in his lap. Magazines are strewn about the table; most contain a feature story or at least a small article on the band. Behind King's head, a bottle of scotch sits on top of a small refrigerator, flanked by cans of Guinness. The wind rattles the bus and his bandmates roam around the club. But right now, King's attention is on the book sitting atop his knees.
"I'll show you a picture; give you a physical view of what it was like," says King, excited to be sharing his past with someone. "Here's Beggars Bush. Now, none of this was here, right. This was ... this was a ghetto when I was born."
Such is the Bread of an everyday life.
And so goes King's story of a boy who grew up in Beggars Bush, Ireland, a tenement that was once military barracks and is now a renovated retirement home for Dublin's elderly. King once called it a gray and ugly place. Today there's grass and a green landscape. Flogging Molly's singer smiles when talking about the tenement he grew up in. It was here that King remembers being called inside by his mother to watch David Bowie perform "Space Oddity" on television. It is this place that he left at 17 and would returned at 40, that is the heart of King's story.
"I walked around the complex like this, and when I came back around the backside of the building, I turned around," says King. "And when I was a kid, I painted a soccer goal post on the wall so we could play football. It was still fucking there!"
"I'm looking at Dublin being completely different than anything I've ever experienced. You know, the Dublin that is now is completely different," says King. "And I turned the corner and seen the goal post on the wall; it was like CRRRRRRUUKKKK! Unbelievable! Unbelievable."
The facts are strange. A line of paint etched out of necessity a long time ago survives a Dublin otherwise changed. Imagine a 7-year-old playing soccer, poised to take a shot in between those old goal posts and for a split second wonders where the goal posts came from. But the question doesn't matter as much as the fact that the posts exist. These are the threads of folk music weaved into Flogging Molly's sound.
Mysterious and warped, but still standing, folk is a strange gift of blood and earth. The people who listen to it, study it, and pick it apart are uneasy in quantifying folk. Folk music, simply, is un-quantifiable. Folk is something deep, something gone but not dead, mutated with its passing (often by mouth) from one generation to another, familiar and foreign at once. It's a Faustian deal struck at the crossroads a long time ago; between the devil and a dream. It's a religious ode in the context of a cry for help and a plea for salvation; an ave maria muttered in the middle of the night on a breath stinking with alcohol and smoke. Every region has its folk. There are the obvious places like the Appalachians, the Mississippi Delta, the Yellow River, the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the stories of La Llorona or John Henry. But in the everyday, in the subconscious of our actions and routines that go unquestioned, is where folk thrives.
"As the song goes, you know, As such is the bread of an everyday life, that's all I am. I'm just one person in an everyday life and everybody is in that life," says King. "When people sing of themselves, they sing about other people, even if you don't know it at the time when you're writing the song."
"When I sing -- His eyes they close as his last breathe spoke/He'd seen all to be seen -- that's about my father. That's about me seeing my father in a coffin. Now, there is millions and millions of people who've had the same experience."
Folk is everyday people. It's the way Flogging Molly's fiddler Bridget Reagan learned to play from pub-going Dubliners who, as she says, no one has ever heard of.
"I started when I was about three and I learned basically just off -- kind of -- hanging out in pubs, watching other people, sitting in on sessions and stuff," says Reagan.
On board another tour bus, months later; Regan's eyes glow as she reveals her musical past.
"That's the kind of music I love to sit and watch. Just off the cuff, a bunch of people who may or may not be friends, just kind of show up at a pub and the next thing you know, they're all playing together and it just sounds brilliant," the Dubliner reminisces. "Nothings rehearsed. Everything is just ... everybody kind of all knows the old tunes."
The collective memory of a people, a town, a family; next to oral tradition, folk music may be the purest form of history. Unabashedly subjective, details become obscured and names may change, but a lesson is taught in the guise of a story that speaks of familiar haunts and tangible events. Stranger, the tongue and rhyme may be regional, but the themes are universal. Love, death, loss, struggle, celebration, friendship, and revenge.
Matt Hensley, Flogging Molly's accordion player spells it out.
"This is not an Irish thing. We're an Irish band and [David King] is an Irish man so we sing Irish shit, but I mean, the struggles that we try to fucking sing about are people's struggles anywhere in the world."
Hensley, a professional skater from Southern California, stands outside Slim's in San Francisco, the wind rippling his sweatshirt over his small frame. Pausing between questions to formulate a response with which he's comfortable, the accordion player hints at the confusing musical concept of Flogging Molly. Flogging Molly is not an Irish thing? The four-leaf clover backdrop, a reputation for Guinness swilling and the distinctly traditional Irish folk formula they lean on would say otherwise, but Hensley is right. Flogging Molly isn't Irish.
Regan, openly puzzled by the bands strong punk following, struggles to explain Flogging Molly.
"If someone had never heard the band and you asked me to describe us, I would have a hard time," she says. "We get compared to the Pogues way too often ... I suppose that's the closest comparison you can come up with, but I think we're miles away from that as well."
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles on a few days break, Dennis Casey, Flogging Molly's "rock guitarist," considers the question when asked about the LA based band's upcoming gigs in Ireland.
"The only thing I wonder is what they're going to think of all these Americans playing Irish instruments. But, people have asked me that and I was like, well, the Rolling Stones played blues and they're white guys," Casey laughs. "It's just our interpretation of it. ... We all love the music, it's not like we're jumping on some bandwagon."
The soft-spoken guitarist who confesses an interest in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Adrienne Rich, Casey's carefree sentiment flies in the face of purists who would seek to keep the lines of folk music clear and easily identifiable. But that's the thing about folk music. It was never clear cut or easy. An acoustic guitar doesn't warrant a folk label, nor do lyrics of days long gone. Can a band not yet a decade old, whose lyrical material is entirely original, be called folk? As easy as it would be to label Flogging Molly folk and to compare them to the Shane McGowan or the Pogues, that's shortsighted.
"I don't care what people fucking call us. It's not my job. If people say, 'Ay, what a great punk band,' I'm not going to be pissed off. People say we're a great folk band and I'm not going to be pissed off at that either. You know, as I said, it's not my job to label what I do," says King.
"I read one review of a guy, I forget what magazine it was in ... he reviewed our last album too and he said exactly the same fucking thing. You know, 'When is this novelty going to wear off?' It's just like, talk about somebody missing the point. I wanted to meet him, talk to him and see where this person had come from."
What would the founding member of Flogging Molly say to that person?
"I'd sit down my KISS guitar and play him a song. You know, this is where I came from. Okay, so it's like ... so there's fiddle and mandolins thrown in; that's part of the traditional sound, that's part of our sound. But it's like, sit down and listen to song. Don't be worried about what you think are novelties, you know, because we are probably the least novelty-fucking band I know of."
You can sing a folk song, but folk isn't something you can be; it's something that is bestowed upon the music, not the musicians. Just as Flogging Molly isn't Irish, they aren't a folk band either.
Flogging Molly is an American band, in sound as much as lyrics. As American as Los Lobos, Lead Belly, and Bruce Springsteen. Casey's searing lead on "Swagger," a crackling, distorted riff backed by a raucous country beat and the screaming chorus Don't know where I'm going/Don't Know where I'm gooooinnnng isn't part of Ireland's musical cannon. As much as this Los Angeles band draws from Ireland in musical form, each member comes from experiences American. The frantic and urgent sound of "Drunken Lullabies," Flogging Molly's latest release, is emotionally laced with the trauma and fear of witnessing the televised disaster of two planes plowing into the World Trade Center and then having to record days later.
"You had all these images and these worries and concerns and thoughts in your head and then we had to go to the studio and record [Drunken Lullabies]," says Casey, originally from upstate New York. "I slept in a little room where the guitars were recorded. It's pitch-fucking black. You can't see a thing in there at night. I would just lie awake and I just keep seeing those planes hitting the building, all the devastation. I couldn't get it out of my head. I couldn't get away from it."
According to Casey, the subject was brought up often while recording with Steve Albini in Chicago.
"A day couldn't go by without somebody saying something or talking about it. It's definitely, I think, affected the record a lot," says Casey.
In the studio within days of the attacks, King agrees that the event affected the mood of the record, giving it a sense of "desperation." The band also found unexpected gratitude as they toured the United States in the following months.
"It's so humbling when you're on tour and people come up with bracelets from firemen who were killed in the buildings that used to play Flogging Molly all the time and they want us to know this, to be part of that," says King. "It's all a part of helping and that transcends everything. That really does. I mean, yeah, we're playing in Slim's tonight in a rock 'n' roll show or whatever, which looks like ... you know, we're on a bus here and it looks very grand and fucking gay or whatever, but if you take each individual thing and talk to it, there's a lot going on."
As echoes in King's statement, the individual is just as interesting as the whole. Contrary to the Irish aesthetic, Flogging Molly is a rag tag testament to the contemporary American experience.
Dennis Casey is one of hundreds of musicians cast a drift after Universal Music Group's merger with Polygram music. A $10.4 billion merger orchestrated by Seagrams in December of 1998, nearly 200 bands were dropped and 3,000 employees lost their jobs. Mention Matt Hensley's name to any skate rat and the reaction is not to an accordion player but awe of one of skateboarding's first professionals. Roadies and soundmen still stop Bridget Regan before she steps on stage, assuming she's a girlfriend or groupie, not a musician. Regan says she has learned to deal with the sexism, but it stings the fiddler nonetheless. Most importantly, David King's lyrics ring to the American immigrant experience. Sentiments of loss and of leaving, King's experience may not be identical to another's, but his feelings are universal. No longer a Dubliner, but forever Irish in American eyes, King lives in the immigrant's no mans land, a citizenship to which he is conscious.
"There's a part of me that wants to go back and live in Ireland, but I don't think I can. I don't think I fit in there. I felt like a tourist. It was fucking weird," recalls King, who returned to Ireland for the first time in eight years this past winter. "I think it was James Joyce who said that anybody who really wants to be a writer has to leave their home. Separation; you know what I mean. I wasn't really aware of that when I did it, obviously. I didn't really come here to write about [these] things, about me, I don't think. But because I have moved away, that's the way it has turned out. And on one hand, it's great and on the other hand, it's fucking heartbreaking. When I knocked on the door, when I did arrive in Ireland, my mother didn't know who I was."
And we all go the same way home
Folk music doesn't have a home. Folk music has its origins, but it resides in no man, no woman, or no place. In its transience lies its beauty. Folk grows with the places it has seen, with the experience of its people; folk people. Is David King a folk person? Maybe, but that's not for anyone to decide. Listen to David's story and follow the circle of folk music. You might find Flogging Molly there and you might not, but you will find something.
"It's really, really hard for me, because I'm as Irish as they fucking come. I'm very proud of that, I'm very proud of the people that Ireland, as a small nation, has produced, whether it be literary or musically or whatever, I'm very proud to come from there. It's just like I couldn't understand some people some times who leave home, who come from Ireland, and they say 'Oh, I'd never go back'. I never understood that. And now I sort of do. Funny, funny story about that. There was this ... I was born in a place called Beggars Bush."
Now Bless me father, for I have sinned
but it's the same old story again and again.
Portions of this story were taken from interviews soon to be published in Punk Planet.