September , 2011
By David Huff
From Hellcat to Mainstream
JAM Magazine Interviews Al Barr
In 1998, when singer Al Barr decided to foresake the ‘oi' punk roots of The Bruisers for a more Celtic route with the Dropkick Murphys, little did he realize how much his life would change. Up to that point, he'd been the leader of the band and its singular voice. With one phone call, a decade of highs and lows would become nothing but a footnote in Boston music history.
There were no tears for Barr to shed as he unceremoniously said goodbye to his past. The future was so bright he literally had to wear shades. The invitation founder Ken Casey extended to the singer lifted a tremendous burden off his shoulders. Surrounded by musicians that believed as fervently about a career in music as he did, the creative environment Barr found him self in rejuvenated his once sagging spirits. Over the next several years, the lineup in the Dropkick Murphys would undergo some changes, but the hungry attitude remained the same. And let's face it, when you inadvertently are responsible for lifting the dreaded ‘curse of the Bambino' from the Boston Red Sox organization, your street cred goes through the roof.
This past year, the staunchly Democrat Murphys offered one of their songs, "Take Me Down," to the Wisconsin Public Union members to rally around. The protests centered on the new Republican governor's insistence that state workers contribute to their pensions and health care to help plug the $3 billion dollar budget the state was facing. It was also done as a way to avoid massive layoffs and pay cuts. Wisconsin state union workers didn't care. They were adamant they should not have to pay a dime toward their own health care or retirement no matter who it hurt. To make a long story short, the state union lost its fight, and their collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin balanced their budget
Recently, the Dropkick Murphy's performed two sold-out shows at the venerable Fenway Park. A portion of the proceeds went toward the Massachusettes 9-11 fund to help support families of victims of the terrorist attack.
JAM: Did the Dropkick Murphy's rise through the independent ranks of the music business turn out to be a great asset to the band when technology, i.e. the Internet, totally transformed the way labels and groups had to survive in today's wired world?
Al Barr - That's a loaded question my friend.
JAM: You're in the perfect position to answer that question considering your history in the music business.
I can remember when the whole Napster thing came out, and everyone was up in arms because of what was at stake. There was all this talk about how the free downloading of music was only going to affect the big guns - not the little people - which turned out not to be true. It ended up affecting every artist in the business. Today, artists and bands alike are wondering how they are going to sell their music in this digital age we live in. I understand there are good things about downloading. But myself, I am old school. If I like a band, I go out to a store and buy the record. I want to look at the artwork, read the lyrics. I want to know who wrote the songs. There used to be a ritual to purchasing music. That custom has been lost to this gigabyte, download generation of kids. There's no face that purchases music any more. Where is the human factor that goes into buying music these days?
JAM: You started out in the music business with your original band, The Bruisers, hustling records, selling tickets to your shows, passing out flyers, whatever you needed to do in order to get the word out. Did that sort of self-sufficient leg work carry over to the Dropkick Murphys and help the band absorb the upheaval that took place in the music business a few years after you joined them?
That's not something I could just answer off the top of my head. I think in some ways it probably did. It's hard to chisel away at that question. For example, in today's world, if someone had never heard of the Dropkick Murphys, they could instantly check us out on the Internet. That is definitely cool because if they like us, more than likely they'll buy a ticket to see us in concert. Seriously though, I think the Internet, overall, ended up hurting everybody. People had no idea what was going to happen with all this technology at their fingertips. This thing of people purchasing one song off your record instead of the whole thing - that was weird. Again, I'm more of a traditionalist. If you like the band, buy their record. Three years ago, I finally got my first computer because my wife refused to answer any of my emails until I got my own computer.
JAM: When the Dropkick's entertained the idea of hooking up with Warner Bros and abandoning their independent roots, was the band conceding a fact they needed the big boys to cope with the changing conditions in the music business?
Well, we aren't on Warner Bros.
JAM: It says you are on your Wikipedia page.
Well, there you go! The fucking Internet! By the way, it is also a great source of misinformation which I will now point out. We never signed with Warner. The Dropkick Murphys only have a distribution deal with the company. This band has its own record label, Born & Bred Records, that is run how we see fit. We've hired people to help us out with it, but we certainly haven't signed with any major label. The Murphys have never waved any white flag. Let me tell you something, I live in New Hampshire where the motto is "Live Free or Die!" Surrender is not in my blood brother.
JAM: Well, that clears up that confusion on your Wiki page. By the way, how did the Dropkick Murphys become the unofficial band of the Boston Red Sox?
Initially, we got involved with them early on in 2004. We resurrected the old Red Sox fight song, "Tessie". It was something that got us deeply involved with the organization. Some of the people there at the Red Sox front office pitched us the song. We thought it was a great idea. At the time, the band was touring Europe. They sent us a cassette of the original version. The music was like barbershop quartet stuff, written before rock and roll ever existed. I remember all of us sitting around listening to the tape. We looked at each other and said, "How in the hell are we going to deal with this? It's terrible, there's nothing we can do with it." Trust me on this one. There was a lot of work on our part that went into the reconstruction of that song. "Tessie" ended up being our ticket into the organization.
JAM: When did you perform the song at Fenway Park?
It was July of '04. The front office wanted us to perform our version of "Tessie" during of all things, a Sox and Yankees game. Let me tell you, nobody in that sold-out crowd wanted to see the fucking Dropkick Murphys. They were there for the game. We went out on the field and the guy on the P.A. says, "Now back from a world tour, the Dropkick Murphys!" Literally, you could have heard a fart it was that quiet. Slowly but surely after that, the song started to take off. Also, the Red Sox fortunes on the ball field changed as well. The people of Boston had lived with the ‘curse of the Bambino' for decades, so whether or not bringing back this song changed anything is up for debate. A lot of people will say 2004 was Boston's year, but here is one fact I know. The Red Sox had not won a World Series in the previous 86 years. That song had never ever been performed at games during that entire time. Well, boom, we sing the song and things started to change. The Red Sox come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Yankees to win there way into the World Series. From there, they dominated and finally win the whole thing.
JAM: I thought the punk scene in Orange County had died out in the early 90s when bands like Rancid and Social Distortion more or less went corporate. I was sort of shocked to learn that Boston had a thriving punk scene of its own in the ‘80s. Your original band, The Bruisers, was in the middle of it.
There was a big thriving scene there, but as you well know, everything was always word of mouth. When I was buying punk records, I wasn't actually buying them per se but rather trading tapes in the mail. Unfortunately, grunge came along in the early ‘90s and redefined the music. When the press started saying Nirvana was a punk band, the movement was literally swallowed up in the process. Nobody ever saw Nirvana as a punk band. I never lost my eye on the prize for the ten years I headed up The Bruisers. I lived through the era where punk got big in Boston then died down
JAM: It's kind of strange how a defining type of music can get watered down by a sub genre here or a sub genre there.
When you are a fan of a particular style of music, you just hope those bands stick to their guns and do what they do. People are always going to classify you no matter what. I've heard people call the Dropkick Murphys an Irish punk band from Boston. Actually, we are a very diverse seven-piece group. Our audience loves it when we play a hard core song, or a punk song, yet we can also play a traditional Irish ballad as well. Fortunately, this band isn't stuck in any mold. In terms of sub genres, that whole thing is confusing as hell to me.
JAM: Sometimes it's the quirkiest of situations that can lead a musician down the path of success or failure. Over the years, have you noticed that directions you took with your career actually panned out despite the anxiety you felt when you made the decision? I mean, abandoning the Bruisers to go with the Dropkicks had to be a total change in direction for you.
You're right about that, it was. The Bruisers was what you call an ‘oi' street rock and roll band. The Dropkicks was an Irish influenced punk rock band. The staccato of the singing was always off a beat whereas the Bruisers style was right in the pocket. The old singer in the band had a totally different way of approaching the Murphys' music. The transition took a bit of getting used to for both of us.
JAM: Why did you entertain the idea of switching gears back then? After all, you were The Bruisers.
I had done The Bruisers for a decade, and it was toward the end of the ten-year plan I had with the band. I had gone through 17 line-up changes myself. I was the only original member left. In terms of commitment from the other band members, in terms of getting from point A to Be, I didn't feel it was really there. That said, it wasn't like I sought out the singing gig from the Murphys. Ken Casey, the bass player and founding member of the band, called and said their singer, Mike McColgan, had quit the group unexpectedly. They had already written a new album, (The Gang's All Here), and they were trying out new singers. Everybody in the band had heard my voice and knew I was doing The Bruisers thing. They weren't trying to steal me. They just wanted to hear a voice to go along with the songs they had written. At the time, unbeknownst to them, I was dealing with this internal stuff with my band that wasn't public knowledge.
JAM: When you say stuff, does that mean you were basically fed up with the whole situation?
The Bruisers were finished as a group. I had told the other members I was not going to do the band anymore. It was by sheer coincidence I received the phone call from Ken. I drove down to there rehearsal studio and sang half of one song. All the sudden they stopped playing and sent me out of the room. I thought, "Damn, that didn't go well at all." Then they opened the door and said the job was mine if I wanted it. Now it's not like I jumped into a tour bus and landed this dream situation by any means. Basically, a car door opened and inside there were these talented guys. They were willing to do what I always thought had to be done to succeed in this business, and that's throw out any caution to the wind and go for it. That's what it takes to at least get your foot into the game. That's the story of how I ended up in the Dropkick Murphys.
JAM: You went from a being footnote in the Boston punk scene with The Bruisers to the unsupervised pages of Wikipedia as a Dropkick Murphy.
Don't get me wrong about The Bruisers. I was surrounded by some great guys, and I loved them all, but they weren't willing to take that leap of faith with me. They couldn't fully commit to tour solidly for a year. A lot of times they could only get time off from work to do tours here and there. What I wanted to do would require them to quit their good jobs. We may not make any money. We might lose our apartments, it doesn't matter. We have to go out and do this. I'm not going to blame anybody for not being able to make that type of commitment.
JAM: I think every musician, in the course of his or her career, is faced with the ‘what if' moment that literally is going to change their lives. I'm assuming the invitation to join the Dropkick Murphys was yours?
Yes it was indeed. I almost had a panic attack when they asked me if I wanted to be a part of the group. I remember telling my wife I'd been asked to join the Dropkick Murphys. At the time, she didn't even know I had talked with Ken about coming down to sing some of their songs. Jessica, my wife, had been with me through nine of the ten years with the Bruisers and didn't have a clue as to what was going on. I went home after accepting the offer, walked into our living room where she was sitting and said, "Listen, the Dropkick Murphys have just asked me join their band. I want to do it."
JAM: I bet the look on your wife's face was priceless when that nugget of information landed at her feet.
Jessica looked at me and goes, "Baby, ever since I've been with you, The Bruisers has been your thing. It has always been your dream." I knew what she's talking about, but here's the thing. The Bruisers had just come back from a European tour and we had nothing to show for it. Already, I was going to have to change out two members. It was like pushing a giant boulder up the hill once again. I was growing tired of it. Then I flat out told her I wanted to have children one day, and maybe buy a house. I felt the Dropkick Murphys was the best way we could have that silly little thing called the American dream. I wanted a family, but I didn't feel I could do that with what I was doing. That was my "what if" moment where I decided to go for it with the Dropkick Murphys. For sure it was a scary moment because of the uncertainty, but something inside was telling me you've got to do this.
JAM: I want to congratulate you on finding the right woman to marry. I've never met or even spoken with you before, but I can say without a doubt, if it wasn't for your wife, I wouldn't be talking to you today.
You are absolutely right. It's cool you are able to pick up on that. I'm coming up on my 18th wedding anniversary Aug. 7.
JAM: To find someone who understands, and accepts, the lifestyle involved with the music business is very difficult. The fact you met and married her during your underground punk phase is even more amazing.
I am very blessed and extremely lucky to be doing what I'm doing right now. The fact I have someone to share this with, well, I can't even put it into words.
JAM: Does the calmness your wife provides on the personal side of your life, carry over to the business side as well, most notably the songwriting?
She has definitely been something of an inspiration to my songwriting. For instance, the song "Forever" off the Sing Loud Sing Proud album, was one of the first originals I ever wrote for the Dropkick Murphys. My wife inspired the song. I definitely am very lucky and grateful to have a solid family base that is very supportive of my dream. Now I am able to take care of them. It's an amazing thing. Listen, I know that nothing lasts forever. Maybe one day I'll have to be in the 9-5 world. Right now, I am thankful to be able to do music with a group of guys with the same tenacity and commitment to go for it that I have.
JAM: Where did you meet your wife, at a Bruiser's show?
No, no, we never met chicks at a Bruiser's concert (laughing). I mean the women that showed up at our shows weren't the kind you take home. It's funny, but Jessica worked at a store in town that had a lot of cute girls in there. I knew one of the manager's and he would let me put up flyers advertising our shows. I was coming home from my shift at a dishwashing job, and had these flyers for an upcoming Bruisers concert I was passing out. I stopped in the store and gave her one. Apparently I made quite an impression on her with the smells of my job - you know salad dressing and soap. This October, we will have been together for 22 years – 18 years of it marriage and we have two children. I always felt like I hypnotized my wife by softly saying, "You love me, its okay. You love me."
JAM: Today's music fans have the attention span of a gnat, literally, because of the wide variety the Internet offers them. What challenges does that pose to the Dropkick Murphys and you as a songwriter?
Actually, I think the instant accessibility has been a benefit to this band. I remember in my teens, when I got into punk rock, the only thing I listened to was the hardcore stuff. If a song was more than a minute long, I lost interest in it. Nowadays, you have the Facebook thing, MySpace, and you can check people out on YouTube. People listen to all types of music these days. In the last couple of years, besides our core audience, we have been drawing a cross section of people, almost like a working class crowd, to our shows.
JAM: When the term Celtic punk is used to describe the sound of the Dropkick Murphys, the description almost compels people to check out the band because it is such an unusual musical reference.
It definitely has piqued the curiosity of people. I know that we have fans that only listen to us as far as punk goes. They listen to the Murphys exclusively because they like our particular take, or style, on the music. In the early days, before the Internet became a key source of information, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to spread our wings because we had to rely strictly on word of mouth. We used to call ourselves the "dude band" because that's the only type of audience we could draw. I remember back in 2000 when we did this Punk-o-Rama tour. We were on the road with the Bouncing Souls, The Dwarves and The Distillers. We were headliners and the Souls would go on before us. When they performed, the chicks would be all over the place, especially up front watching the band. I'd see the crowd from back stage and think we'd be playing to a roomful of girls. I was wrong. Right before we went on stage, our manager whispered in my ear, "Hey Al, it's about time for the penis show." He was right. As soon as the Souls left the stage, the girls totally disappeared and the guys were the only one's left in the audience. The routine repeated itself the entire tour. Finally, when the band started writing slower songs, including ballads, we started getting some girls to finally hang around and watch our show. Then we noticed that the more chicks that showed up, more guys would follow. It was an interesting phenomenon.
JAM: Since you're grounded in reality, I want to ask you this question. I have grown quite weary of successful artists succumbing to alcohol and drugs, and the music world mourning their fate like the screwed up Amy Winehouse. When do musicians take responsibility for themselves, and their fate, of living a dangerous lifestyle that isn't glorious no matter how you spin it?
Honestly, that's a tough one to answer. As human beings, we just have to take responsibility for the part we play in this world. It's not so much a musician thing. Listen, the Amy Winehouse thing was indeed a tragedy. She somehow slipped through the cracks. Yes, you can say what you will about her, and go on about her addictions, but here's the thing. This woman was not in control of herself. Somewhere along the line, you surrender to that part of yourself. Yes, you can say she was to blame for her situation, but at some point, your family, friends and business partners have to step in and say enough. People around Amy were too greedy to realize the woman was too fucked up to go on stage. All they saw was the money being made, not the person who was slowly dying inside. By the time they figured it out, she was dead.
JAM: I don't mean to rant here Al, but coming up the way you did through the punk scene, you saw it all.
It's sad when death, especially preventable ones, happen. Hell, it's sad when anyone dies from an alcohol or drug overdose. When you talk responsibility, you're right about one thing. The addictive person has to be held accountable for placing themselves in that situation in the first place. There's a large amount of people in this country that are alcoholics. I'm not preaching here, but it is a disease. I'm not saying put a band-aid on a shotgun wound, or try to water down this problem by any means. Educating people to the evils of alcohol and drugs needs to be an ongoing process. One thing that especially needs to happen is teachers talking about this problem in classrooms. When an Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain, someone in the public eye that makes a big impression with the youth of America, dies from a drug overdose or takes their own life, it needs to be discussed in an open forum. This is something that shouldn't be internalized, or even allowed to be seen as cool in any way. The last thing you ever want to do is romanticize these senseless tragedies.
JAM: If any musician should have died from excess, it was Mike Ness of Social Distortion. It's a miracle this guy survived. But he took the responsibility to clean himself up after hitting absolute rock bottom.
He got help as well. Mike Ness didn't clean up on his own. There was help out there, he sought it, and it saved his life. You have to sincerely want the help as well. Johnny Cash was another one that was able to pull his self up by the bootstraps.
JAM: There are two things about the music business that bugs me. First, I don't give a damn about any musician's sexual preference. It's their music that interests me, not what sex they decide to sleep with. Second, musicians getting themselves involved with politics. I don't understand any reasoning behind it. I noticed the Dropkick Murphys found themselves in the middle of the Wisconsin political protests. Why?
I don't feel we got involved with politics. If you go back to the beginnings of the band in the mid ‘90s, one of the band founder's, Ken Casey, his grandfather started the first cold-storage union in Boston. He went up and down the East Coast fighting union busters, the Klan, you name it to make people aware of what he was representing. The Unions have always been in the Dropkick Murphy's blood. When the shit went down in Wisconsin, it was a natural thing for the band to get involved. It wasn't about politics so much as it was about supporting our union brothers and sisters.
JAM: These protests weren't being threatened with a loss of their livelihood. The governor of that state wanted public union employees to start paying a small percentage of their income to health care and there pensions. It would preserve jobs and avoid pay cuts. What's wrong with that?
We saw an injustice and we weren't going to keep quiet about it.
JAM: The fight in Wisconsin was totally about the fact state union workers didn't think they should have to pay a dime toward their own health care or retirement. The state couldn't afford it any more. That's why they were $3 billion in the red. That's why the people elected a Republican governor and legislature to tackle the state's budget problems. Exactly where is the injustice in asking these union members to pay a small portion of their salary instead of nothing at all? Why should the private sector, which pays the salaries of the state union workers, also shoulder the entire financial burdens of their retirement and health care?
We did what we thought was right. I will leave it at that.
JAM: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to somebody who is a thinker instead of someone reading off a list. This was a nice discussion so thank you.
JAM: See, you can get a long with a conservative Republican and you didn't even know it.
There you go. I think Johnny Cash said it best, "If you got political in you, keep it to your self and everybody will get a long." I am a card carrying NRA member that voted for Obama and practices yoga, so you are talking to a multi-faceted individual. Some may call me confused, but I feel pretty confident I'm not.