Tell It Slainte

Flogging Molly isn't punk, traditional Irish or rock & roll but all these things at once

In the liner notes for Flogging Molly's new album, Drunken Lullabies,frontman Dave King thanks all those people you'd expect him to thank -- family, friends, contacts, everyone who's helped or been there when needed: his wife, Gina; his son, Graham, for making him feel older; all the great people he's met on the road through the years. He also thanks Mike McCarthy and the entire Irish football team for making it to the 2002 World Cup. Closely following that, only a few people further down on the list, comes the inevitable "Did anybody say Guinness?" and "Slainte."

Yup, Dave King is Irish (on the last album, it was the Manchester United Football Club and Arthur Guinness himself who crept into the acknowledgments list). Born in Dublin, on the rough north side of town, King came to America ten years ago. But a decade in the states hasn't had much of an effect on his accent. His voice on the phone has that same reedy, soft, lilting, sometimes-slow, sometimes-mile-a-minute Dubliner brogue that you pick up from time to time among the musicians at McGurk's or the Focal Point.

Yup, Dave King's Irish -- on the surface almost typically so, with short-cropped flaxen hair, rosy cheeks, the lot of it. Flogging Molly appears to fit nicely into the idyllic little Irish picture: seven members, an accordion, a couple of guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, the odd banjo thrown in here and there, sprinkled with a bit of the pipes or tin whistle -- typical, all typical. Nothing surprising.

Then you find out Flogging Molly played the Warped Tour last year, and you start to look closer at this nice little Irish picture.

Matt Hensley -- ex-pro-skateboarder Matt Hensley, who helped usher in the modern era of skateboarding, along with then-little-known guys such as Jason Lee (think Chasing Amy) -- he plays accordion, with tattoos up and down his arms and an almost-shaved head. Dennis Casey, the man who's wearing a scallycap in almost every published picture of him, he plays guitar -- loud, thick, distorted punk guitar behind a wall of acoustic Irish folk instruments.

Flogging Molly's Web site opens with the tagline "A Guinness-soaked musical body blow," and it manages to convey what a thousand journalists, promoters and literary hacks can't seem to do with ten times the words. Flogging Molly isn't a punk band, they're not a traditional Irish folk group and they're not rock and roll. They're all of them at once.

For a band that has called the drunken acoustic hurricane that was the Pogues "pure genius," Flogging Molly is somewhat short on pure Irish members: King is the only one who hails directly from the isle. Founded after a few years of King's every-other-night performances on the stout-and-porter circuit, Flogging Molly actually originates not from Ireland but from Los Angeles. Almost all the current members joined when they came up to King after one of his shows -- "Everyone who's now in the band approached me to say they loved my songs," King says. "We start off talking, and they'd say, 'Oh, I play violin' or drums or whatever, and then I'd ask 'em to join the band. I just knew."

Two years of playing every Monday night at Molly Malone's Pub in LA lent the group its name. Feeling as if they were beating the bar to death, beating the music to death and flogging the hell out of those who came to see them, the band members got serious and embarked on a few tours of the West Coast. Last summer's Vans Warped Tour, that nationwide traveling mix of punk, pro skateboarding, sweaty people and tattoos, opened up a whole new audience for the band. Drunken Lullabies,their second studio album, is selling better after two months than their first, 2000's Swagger. They credit the jump in sales largely to Warped.

"I think the Warped tour had a hell of a lot to do with it, as far as getting our name out there," says Bob Schmidt, the man behind the mandolin. "We were lucky -- you go out there, and you're playin' to so many kids. I think nobody really knew how the punk crowd was gonna take it, because we've got that energy, but it's a whole different thing with the mandolin and the fiddle. You come onstage and kids don't know what to expect, but they really took it to heart. I think it really brought us up to a profile level that we didn't expect to get to that quickly. We were surprised last time out that people knew who we were."

Indeed, people soon found out who they were -- though Schmidt tells tales of the whole crowd getting quiet when the band walked onstage early in the tour. Well-dressed, with an accordion, mandolin and, heavens to Betsy, a girl (fiddle player Bridget Regan), they were definitely not standard Warped fare. Toward the end of that summer, though, they had whole crowds pumping fists in the air. Clearly this is music that strikes people in the gut, full on, whether they're Irish or not.

"The style of music we play ... it just kind of happened," Schmidt says. "Half of the songs on the first album came about when we were playing Molly's every week, and the other half were ones Dave had written beforehand, on his own -- but it just sort of happened, from us hanging out. Up until this album [Drunken Lullabies], we never really sat down and thought about song structure or planned it. Lullabiesis probably closer to what the band's about because we were able to sit down and actually think about what we were aiming for. It was a more organic process."

It may have all fallen into place somewhat by chance, but the albums certainly don't sound thrown together. A fistful of acoustic instruments backed by a drum kit, a Telecaster and an electric bass could end up being a recipe for a disjointed mess, but here it's almost exactly the opposite. You know the music fits together right when an accordion sounds as if it was meant to play the lead line over a distorted guitar. Flogging Molly's songs sound like century-old traditionals that simply forgot to become part of the public domain. King credits their authentic flavor to his background in the traditional music of his homeland and his desire to write about things that have mattered to him ("This band," he's said, "is my life's story put to music"). His lyrics encompass everything from personal loss -- "The Likes of You Again," from Swagger, is about the loss of his father at age 10 -- to the fist-in-the-air shouted tales of past glory and brotherhood. Perhaps because of this wide-ranging subject matter, Flogging Molly has a diverse following. Its audiences are filled with everyone from the 15-year-old hooligans-in-training combed off Warped to pint-in-the-air, misty-eyed men of 50 and 60 in wool sweaters and flat caps.

"I think," Schmidt concludes, "people are realizing, traditional music, there's a serious amount of heart in it. People are automatically being drawn to it and rockin' out."

Rockin' out. Idyllic little Irish picture, indeed.

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