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Interview - Ken Casey (Dropkick Murphys): “Woody Guthrie was the original music rebel”

By Maxime Archambaud |

With the release of their 100% acoustic album “This Machine Still Kills Fascists”, dedicated to and inspired by Woody Guthrie, Dropkick Murphys singer Ken Casey talks about his connection to Guthrie and the influence the folk pioneer has had on him as a musician.

You went to Tulsa to record "This Machine Still Kill Fascists." Was this because you wanted to get closer to Woody Guthrie’s home turf?

Exactly, yeah. Tulsa is where Woody’s museum is and the archives of his music. We also travelled to his hometown called, Okemah, Oklahoma, a small town about an hour from Tulsa. It was very inspiring to travel to that town; it was very different to being in Boston. I think it helped get us into the spirit of the whole project.

Is it right that your 2005 song 'I’m Shipping Up to Boston' was based on Guthrie’s lyrics?

Yes, and 'Gonna Be a Blackout Tonight' was as well! We got to look through his archives of hundreds and hundreds of pages of lyrics that Woody never recorded. It feels like this is a historical project, not just an album! In America, he’s such a respected artist. I always describe his song 'This Land Is Your Land' as the People’s National Anthem!

Dropkick Murphys © Emanuela Giurano

Despite their age, many of the topics Guthrie touched upon in his songs are still relevant today.

Some of the songs were selected based on how topical they were today. Sometimes, it’s almost eerie to think that these songs were written 80 years ago but are still politically relevant today. The minute I looked at them, the melody popped into my head. Some of the songs that don’t seem political actually are—Guthrie was good at writing lyrics with double meanings. Take Cadillac, Cadillac, for example; in the era that Woody wrote that song, seeing a Cadillac pass by was the essence of the American dream. In some ways, it might be a statement about the American dream of wanting to have the next level above what you’ve achieved.

You chose to forego the electric guitars in this new album, which is totally acoustic. Was this to emphasise the lyrics?

Absolutely. Sometimes a loud guitar can cover up the message. It was also a challenge for us to make an acoustic album and “calm ourselves down”. I’m pretty proud of the fact we accomplished that goal, because even though it’s acoustic, This Machine Still Kills Fascists doesn’t sound mellow. Ted Hutt, who produced our last four or five albums, feels like a member of the band now. He really unites us all together and inspires us to work harder; it’s as if we share the same musical brain. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and this album really highlights that.

You’ve listened to Guthrie’s music since you were a kid. What impact has his music had on you?

As I said before, ‘This Land Is Your Land’ is the true People’s National Anthem. Guthrie has helped shape my way of thinking since I was a child and learnt this song in school. I mean, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was written by a slave owner. It’s a politician’s song. ‘This Land Is Your Land’ was more our song, the song of the people. When I became a teenager, I realised what an influence Woody Guthrie had on Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen and all my musical idols. I really became aware of the fact that he was the original music rebel. He had so much in common with the punks that I grew up with, and that inspired me musically. He was a guy who understood that you could write serious songs as well as lighter, more humourful songs. He even wrote lyrics about himself and his family. Woody Guthrie wasn’t afraid to be an all-encompassing artist.

That’s also the spirit behind the Dropkick Murphys.

If you only write serious songs, at some point your message gets lost because it’s all the same. Dropkick Murphys have always aimed to avoid this. Why were our serious songs so much more impactful? Because we’ve always had a side to us that is light-hearted and some songs where we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I’ve always gravitated towards musicians that showed me all their sides; when a band is one-sided, it feels like the music isn’t from the heart; it’s just about an agenda.

Dropkick Murphys © Emanuela Giurano

The song 'All You Fonies' on this album sounds like a really cool nod to 'All You Fascists' by Woody Guthrie

Fonies are basically fakers, pretenders, like all the people who say they’re into something but don’t really fight the fight. In this song, Woody is calling out those people. The song is specifically about trying to unionise the Merchant Marine Union that he was in. Put simply; it’s about pointing the finger at the people he was fighting for and asking them to do the same. He was asking them to fight for what they deserved. That’s what I love about Woody—he would often say that the message was more important than the music. He didn’t worry about repeating the same chords over and over again. In this way, there are a lot of similarities to punk rock. That’s why when I read the lyrics, which echoed 'All You Fascists', I decided to link them musically.

On the album’s closing track, 'Dig a Hole', you can hear Woody Guthrie’s voice. How did you react when you listened to the final result? I mean, I’m clearly talking to a Guthrie hyper-fan…

It gave me chills. It was the perfect way to end the album. Woody’s grandson, Cole, played guitar on that song with us and sang backup vocals. So when we were finishing up the song, and we were in the room together doing the backup vocals, his grandson was standing right next to me, singing into the same microphone as me. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. It’s like, “Wow, we’re spanning generations of his family here.” It really completed the album in a nice way for me; I almost felt like Woody’s ghost was in the room

I have to say; this album felt too short.

Well, I’ve got some good news! We’ve recorded ten more songs that will make a volume 2 to this album. The second album is a little bit more sing-along and has a brighter sound to it. I think we might release the second one in March 2023. For the US tour that we have coming up in the fall, the whole tour will be acoustic. We’re taking a lot of our older songs like 'Shipping Up to Boston' and 'Rose Tattoo' and putting harmonica on them and really kind of twisting them to give them a bit more of an Americana flavour. Maybe at some point we’ll do a live album so that everyone can enjoy them.

LISTEN TO “THIS MACHINE STILL KILLS FASCISTS” BY THE DROPKICK MURPHYS ON QOBUZ


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