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Cover Story: Flogging Molly

| May 1, 2017


Flogging Molly 2017

In a few short days, the life of Django the Irish wolfhound would be over. At the age of eight – a long span for such a large breed – the gentle giant was suffering congestive heart failure, and in the past two months had lost over 40 of his original 195 lbs., and was deteriorating so rapidly that his veterinarian had suggested euthanasia at the end of the current week before the pain worsened. Pain for the animal and pain for his owner, Dave King, who was trying to make his pet’s final hours on Earth pleasant. “He’s getting a steak from Ruth’s Chris Steak House,” he declared. “But he’s happy – he’s lying beside me right now as I’m talking to you. And we’re going to be going for a walk pretty soon – we want to spend as much time as we can with him right now to make his passing as easy as possible.”

King was phoning from Detroit, where he and wife Bridget Regan – the fiddle-playing foil to his boisterous, brogue-inflected frontman in the Celtic punk combo Flogging Molly – are based in the States when they’re not back home in Wexford, in his native Ireland. People on his block would miss Django, too – three times a day, he walked him around the neighborhood, he says. “And on a sunny day like today, people would be out in their gardens, and – because Django was monstrous – they always noticed him. So he was like a beacon for strangers to come over and just talk – not about anything specific, just nice, neighborly stuff. And they were learning something because they’ve never seen a dog like this before.”

King and Regan had always wanted an Irish wolfhound, and they acquired Django – named for musician Django Reinhardt – when he was just a pup. They were with him constantly for eight months straight before they had to head out on tour again, at which point Regan’s mother was recruited to pet-sit. And so it went from year to year – pay the rent from roadwork, return home to enjoy their big couch potato of a dog. “They’re really mellow dogs, and great with kids,” says King, a longtime animal lover. So much so, he says, that he judges other folks accordingly. “Hey —  anybody without any cats or dogs, I’d be a little bit wary of.”

King exhales a long, lugubrious sigh. “So it’s sad times,” he murmurs. “Very sad times.” Which underscores the whole point of dubbing his band’s rollicking new album – its first in six years — Life is Good, he adds. “Because when you dig into it, life is not good. I mean, it can be good, if it’s positive, and I want to have a positive twist to it. But basically, we’re all just trying to do the best that we bloody can, aren’t we?” The cover photo adds to the cynical effect – it’s a three-year-old picture of the couple’s nephew Connor, now 6, grinningly flipping the middle finger to his mom from the backseat of the family sedan. “We needed an image that would humorously point that out, too,” the singer chortles. “Like, ‘Life is good, eh? Fuck you! No, it’s not!’ And once we found that photograph, we thought, ‘Oh, my God – can we actually get away with this?’” Can. And did.

And Flogging Molly spends the entire album doing exactly what it’s best at – turning sadness into celebration, death into life affirmation, darkness and despair into light and hope, and political turmoil into some sort of edifying, optimistic narrative. It’s King and company’s most enjoyable work in years and hearkens back to the swaggering, Guinness-fueled brilliance of their definitive 2002 sophomore set, Drunken Lullabies. Life is Good doesn’t open with the customary bang – it starts with “There’s Nothing Left Pt. 1,” and its subtle fiddle-embellished acoustic notes buoying King’s inimitable Irish-inflected — and tyrant-taunting – observations: “Dear majesty I kneel at your feet/ Though my heart tells me I am wrong…The devil has spoke and he’s not very bright.” Could be Trump, could be France’s equally radical-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen – the song doesn’t name any ignoble names, just hints at an emboldened villainy within the walls of government. Already, you can pick up the socio-political vibe – the guy is mad as hell about what’s going on in our corporate-greedy, climate-change-denying, soullessly-corrupt society. And he’s not going to take it anymore.

Track two hits you right in the mug like a bare-knuckled jab. “The Hand of John L. Sullivan” – originally released a year ago as a stand-alone single – is the group’s stock in trade, a Celtic jig on punk-tempo methedrine, touching on the subject of immigration by celebrating one of Ireland’s most renowned immigrants, the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing, Sullivan was arguably America’s first celebrity. And in his halcyon late-1800s era, just shaking his meaty paw gave you bragging rights for life down at your local pub. Then, King and crew are off at a furious gallop, beginning with the mariachi-horn-punctuated anthem “Welcome to Adamstown,” about a carefully-conceived boom town West of Dublin that went bust when the Celtic Tiger economy tanked. Then: the swaying title track, honoring King’s mother who passed away a year ago last Christmas; two sea chanteys, “Crushed (Hostile Nations)” and “The Last Serenade (Sailors and Fishermen),” that tackle the plight of the disappearing middle class; a Biblical-metaphor-rife reel “The Guns of Jericho” (another earlier single); two chant-along potential crowd pleasers about mass resistance, “Hope” and “Reptiles (We Woke Up)”; and a pint-lifting stomper that’s a showcase for fiery guitarist Dennis Casey, “The Bride Wore Black.” The gently-lilting ballad “Until We Meet Again” closes the treatise with more ruminations on death, and a carpe diem exhortation to treasure each day you’re given, because – spoiler alert, folks – they’ll be over all too soon.

The presence of King’s late mother hangs wraithlike over the album for good reason, the frontman admits. “She supported me so much over the years,” he says. “My mom used to clean houses and office buildings, and when ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke was looking for a singer for (his post-Motorhead band) Fastway, I said I wanted to go audition for him, and my mom said, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And I said yes. So she actually borrowed the money from a woman she used to clean with to get me my plane ticket over to London. So she was a huge part of me doing what I wanted to do with my life.” He pauses to think of that gig-landing trip’s implications. “If I hadn’t gotten on that plane and gotten involved in doing what I wanted to do, I probably never would have left Ireland.”

The composer added the line “Enjoy yourselves” to the “Life is Good” number to echo his parent’s deathbed wish. “Just before she passed away, Bridget and I were with her – and she was 94 – and she said, ‘Do us a favor – enjoy your lives. Because I surely did,’” he recalls. “So even though it was a sad time, to know that she had enjoyed her life was a celebration. That’s another reason I called the song and the album “Life is Good” – because when I took up songwriting if my mother for one minute thought that I would one day be singing my songs onstage for a bunch of people, all over the world, she would have lost her mind. So it is a celebration, a celebration of sadness.” Mom had another final request – she told her son and his spouse to go through her belongings after she was gone, take all the pertinent photographs and mementos they wanted, then leave all the furniture and appliances behind, lock up the flat, and throw the key away. And that’s essentially what they did.

After leaving Clarke’s punk-metal Fastway, King wound up in Los Angeles on a working visa and ricocheted back to his Gaelic roots by forming Flogging Molly out of a bar called Molly Malone’s, where the ever-growing ensemble (today it’s a septet) took up a popular Monday-night residency. But when he went in to discuss acquiring permanent US citizenship via a green card, he was blindsided by the news from his lawyer that immigration laws had changed and his visa had already expired. That’s why he feels the injustice of Trump’s proposed travel ban so acutely – he basically had two choices at the time: Leave the country and stay in Ireland for the next decade, or keep under the radar in Los Angeles and continue to pursue his craft. Wisely, he opted for the latter. For eight long years, during which he couldn’t see his mother, he was an illegal immigrant, the kind of scofflaw our current president would have deported if he’d caught him.

“And we were starting to get the band really going at the time,” says King, 55. “But we couldn’t go up to Canada or down to Mexico or anywhere, really – we had to stay within the four walls of America. So I eventually got my green card, and then we started traveling all over the place. It was still a scary situation, but because I was a white-looking guy who blended into the community I was living in, I was one of the lucky ones. That was 15 years ago, and it’s gotten worse now. Instead of working to make these citizens who were born here legal, it’s like, ‘No, we’re not going to do that – we’re going to go after them.’ It’s just despicable.”

For the recording of the Vanguard-issued Life, however, the band went back to Ireland and worked with U2 producer Joe Chiccarelli, who emphasized the musicians’ innate rabble-rousing oomph. The last Flogging Molly disc, the grim Speed of Darkness, was released six years ago, highlighting the unusual career problem it faced in the interim – its exuberant shows had become such popular affairs, they could easily keep touring, ad infinitum, and never bother to release any new material at all. It was a Herculean task just to piece together 2016’s two “Jericho”/”Sullivan” singles. Finally, late last year, the bandleader made a pronouncement: No more gigs until everyone had scattered to their respective home bases and written their heart out on an album’s worth of new material, which they would then arrange and track as soon as possible. They wound up with several extra songs, which might be issued this Christmas as an EP. “Or we could put out another LP in two years instead of six,” King proposes, laughingly.

Every day the group took the Dublin train to the studio they rattled past the real-life Adamstown. “It was the first city-like town built in Ireland since the ‘50s, and it had churches, schools, shopping centers – everything anybody would need,” King explains. “But obviously, the crash went down and businesses were not moving in, people were not moving in, and the commuter train that went there from Dublin apparently only had a couple of people a day riding it. But it’s starting to get there, and maybe with a bit of luck and a bit of hope, the Irish economy is beginning to grow again. But we had a huge housing crisis, and there’s a huge homeless population now. But hopefully, the government will come up with an assistance program to accommodate them, to makes these (Adamstown) places affordable for people. But to write a song about something so negative and turn it into a positive?” He chuckles at his own chutzpah. “That was something I just loved.”

With “Crushed,” the singer says, he wanted to remind everyone in America that at some point in our family trees, we were all immigrants. “Reptiles” was written before Trump came into power (“Or should I say ‘Abuse of power,’” he counters), and taps into the protest marches he witnessed as a lad in Ireland, proof positive that people getting together behind particularly strong causes can truly unite a population and turn the cultural tide. The Catholic imagery in “Guns of Jericho” he culled from his seven years spent in church as an altar boy, “Where I was brought up thinking there was an angel on your shoulder, always there watching your every move – I’ll never forget that.” he says. There are no visible signs that allow you to gauge the honesty of a stranger, he adds, not afraid to sound like Moliere’s skeptical The Misanthrope. “But like we were talking about before, at least if you see somebody walking around with a dog, you sort of know what kind of person they are.”

King will sorely miss his daily walks with Django – he’s steeling himself against the heartrending loss. But he has no other exercise or diet plans in place, he swears. “I think running around onstage like a chicken with its head cut off each night keeps me fit,” he says. “So there’s no gym routine or health food involved – I basically do whatever I want. Because life’s too short, you know?” He still likes his Guinness, and the legendary Irish brewery even attempted to tie itself in with Flogging Molly at one time, he reports. “They were going to pay for our tour buses and things like that, but they only wanted to promote the shows as 18 and over, and we were like, ‘no way!’ On this last tour that we did, there were kids at every show – kids with their parents at every concert. And they were singing along with all of our songs – it was unbelievable.”

As King and Regan prepare to pull up stakes for a grueling world juggernaut that won’t see them back in Detroit until September, there’s only one question that’s – ahem – dogging them: When, exactly, to pick out a new Irish wolfhound puppy to hopefully take Django’s place. “We will not do it until we’re completely done, because it’s just unfair to the dog,” King has decided. “It’s getting into our busy time, so we’re just going to focus on our careers right now. Then we can wind down and try to have a normal life with a dog. And a cat. Or dogs and cats. And who knows? Possibly some goats…”

Appearing 6/2 at Aragon Ballroom, Chicago.

-Tom Lanham

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