From Darkness into Light
By Arrissia Owen
Detroit got under Dave King’s skin. The Flogging Molly frontman’s adopted hometown looked like a natural disaster roared through its forsaken streets, yet FEMA was nowhere to be found. The devastation was not at the hands of Mother Nature. It was pure human calamity fueled by hurricane banks too big to fail.
As Flogging Molly songs started to pour out of King—verses privy to the woes of the working class—Detroit, the foreclosure crisis and the downtrodden 99 percent pushed their way into the lyrical content. The result was the band’s fifth studio album, 2011’s Speed of Darkness.
The perpetually touring band stops by the Fox Theater in Pomona on Friday, March 8, as part of its annual Green 17 tour leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. Flogging Molly will play songs from Speed of Darkness, as well as material from its 16 years as Ireland ambassadors.
“It wasn’t the album we set out to write,” King said about Speed of Darkness. “It became the album we had to write.” It’s less a collection of love songs to his adopted hometown and more a commiseration session turned pep talk over a pint.
Known for their traditional Irish music with punk rock attitude backed by melodic multi-instrumentalism, the seven-piece band is no stranger to tackling social issues and politics, most often the Irish variety. But this time, Detroit served as the backdrop, an inspiration ever present as the band holed up in King and his wife Bridget Regan’s basement to bang out their next album.
Hard to Label
King originally came to America while fronting a British band with former Motörhead guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke called Fastway, touring with acts like AC/DC. That was followed by a stint with Katmandu, a hard rock band with Mandy Meyer of Krokus. He landed in Los Angeles after ditching New York and his label deal with Epic Records to go in a different direction than the heavy metal they anticipated.
For his next project, King envisioned incorporating rock and classic Celtic instruments like the bodhrán drum, fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin and accordion in homage to his Irish roots. Having grown up on a steady mix of The Dubliners and Johnny Cash, followed by a ’70s glam rock phase, his vision was more eclectic, moving beyond metal.
When King relocated to LA, he met Regan, who played fiddle, and they put together what would morph into Flogging Molly. They began gigging Mondays at a local Irish pub, Molly Malone’s. While beating the place to death as its house band, the name came from their famed tenure, with a snicker. It stuck.
By then, the lineup was solidified with all band members proficient on multiple instruments. The roster includes guitarist Dennis Casey, bassist Nathen Maxwell, banjo and mandolin player Bob Schmidt, drummer George Schwindt and accordion player Matt Hensley.
Hensley is famous in his own right for his years as a professional skateboarder pre-squeezebox in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He left the competitive side of the sport and turned to music as a refuge. Drawn to pawn shop accordions, he threw himself into lessons and thanks to a chance meeting with King at Molly Malone’s secured a spot in the band.
Hensley’s fellow band members had no clue their accordion player could throw down a mean 180 no comply on pavement or a caballerial over a picnic table. But it unwittingly boosted the band’s popularity in skate circles. At one of their first shows away from LA in San Jose, the place was filled to the brim with skaters, making for a rowdy bunch.
With Casey’s punk-inclined playing and some blues progressions, the band took on a grinding, amped up sound reminiscent of The Pogues and The Waterboys spliced with The Clash and Lemmy. They cultivated their own brand of what the BBC called “sham rock.”
From Flogging Molly’s first independent release, the 1997 live album recorded at Molly Malone’s Alive Behind the Green Door, the band’s following grew steadily. They signed with indy label SideOneDummy Records and by 2000 were on The Warped Tour as they promoted their label debut Swagger. Tours followed supporting Mighty, Mighty Bosstones and Bouncing Souls. Their fan base exploded.
“We got so much exposure from those three tours that we moved right into headlining tours,” Schmidt says. Two years later, Flogging Molly released Drunken Lullabies. By then the band’s following comprised a demographic across the board drawn to King’s personal songwriting worthy of a raised Guinness.
Flogging Molly’s 2006 acoustic/live DVD-CD combo pack Whiskey on a Sunday went platinum, and critics gobbled up the 2008 release Float, lauded for its political subject matter and anti-capitalist sentiment. The band does not take its unlikely, uncompromising success lightly.
“It’s one thing to have a connection with people in pubs,” Schmidt says. “If we can get them in front of us we can convert ’em. But to sell that many records—you know it’s such a different world.” Because the fan base relied so heavily on word of mouth and record execs didn’t know how to market them, when the packed shows translated into record sales—in the millions—the band was delighted.
Flogging Molly has become increasingly political during the band’s years together, outspoken on issues from OxFam to the Pussy Riot imprisonment to their recent involvement with Amnesty International. The band reprised Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for the cause, contributing the track to the organization’s compilation CD Chimes of Freedom.
“Over the last eight to 12 years of American foreign policy, anyone with a functioning brain is calling into question what being an American means,” Schmidt says about the group’s political leanings. “As you travel the world, and your mind expands beyond the boundaries of where you grew up or where you’ve always lived, your involvement becomes more tantamount and you become more aware of it.”
Flogging Molly is more a social band than a political one, Schmidt says. “We don’t pretend to know much about politics in the true sense of the word,” he says, “but what we do experience from talking to people around the world is what the social effects of political decision are. That is where our real strength as political commentators lies.” They are compelled to ask the hard questions, even if through song.
“We all share the view of wanting to take what we do and help the less fortunate in some way,” Casey says. Each of the members supports these causes individually, and as a whole band.
Casey’s own interest in Amnesty International, the non-governmental human rights organization, was piqued as a young man by Peter Gabriel’s support of the nonprofit. “If we can open at least one person’s eyes, for me that would be something that I am glad we participated in,” he says.
When they were asked to cover a Dylan song for the CD, “The Times They are a-Changin’” seemed the obvious choice because it spoke to what their own album, Speed of Darkness, tackled. Change. “It was like we could have put it on the record,” Casey says.
The America Flogging Molly wrote about for Float no longer existed once the lyrics started to take shape for the band’s next album.
King and Regan, who married in Japan while on tour for Float, also have a home in Ireland, King’s native country. While the band’s sound borrows heavily from King’s Dubliner upbringing, it was Regan’s Motor City hometown where the couple also lives that dominated the recording of Speed of Darkness.
The global financial crisis escalated so quickly that regular Americans could hardly grasp what a subprime loan was before having to tackle the semantics of credit defaults, bank recapitalizations and stress tests. Detroit was hit hard, and King became a narrator for the proletariat.
“They were living there, and as the economy was falling apart Detroit was one of the worst hit,” Casey says. “Neighbors thrown out of houses, factories shutting down, stores closing down—it was like a domino effect. He was very moved by that.” Then while visiting Ireland, King saw the trickledown effect of America’s horrible economy worldwide. “He just couldn’t get away from it,” Casey says.
Songs like “The Power is Out” are a collective nod to blue collar folks who may not grasp the impact of deregulation but understand that the rich are nowhere near as screwed as the people struggling to keep the lights on. “It’s par for the course / Unless you’re a bloodsucking leech CEO,” King sings.
“Don’t Shut ‘Em Down” details the economic downturn, drawing parallels between Detroit and Dublin’s bleak outlooks with factories closing and populations dwindling. “The Present State of Grace” urges its audience to rise above the bull, find inner peace and persevere.
The title of Speed of Darkness comes from Miljenko Jergovic’s collection of short stories called Sarajevo Marlboro. The artist who did the cover art for the recording, Dino Misetic, was quoted in the book as a child. The book is a fictionalized retelling of how the Bosnian War of the early 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia disrupted lives.
The stories show the horrors of war, but the Croatian author also highlights how things became ghastly so quickly. The stories in the anthology illustrate the resiliency of humanity, even when under siege. Sound familiar?
Misetic is quoted in the book as an 11-year-old schoolboy, temporarily displaced in Zagreb from Zenica because of the unrest. “I know what the speed of light is, “ he said. “But we haven’t learned about the speed of darkness yet.”
“It was such a profound thing to say, sort of a from the mouths of babes thing,” Schmidt says. The situation escalated quickly, displacing the city’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs. The quote’s power stuck with King.
“Economically and politically, we’ve seen kind of the same thing happen in America, not to the same bloody extent, but certainly we saw how quickly things can change from a bright, cheery economy to a really dire, morose economy,” Schmidt says. “It seemed like a really appropriate quote for that switch. But the upside is that it can turn around just as quickly.”
“Rise Up” closes the album’s songs about life’s ups and downs with a call for resiliency. “Stand and be counted,” King sings, championing defiant hope in search of the fizzling American Dream. “Dig out the cancer / dig out the cancer of futility.”
Don’t Chute the Messenger
The album’s lofty message hasn’t been an easy sell. “This album has proven difficult for us (because) people are uncomfortable by some of the subject matter that we are talking about and that is fine, that’s why we brought it up,” Schmidt says. The mass media representation of a country on the upswing doesn’t match up with the picture they encounter on tour.
“We felt like it was our responsibility to tell the stories of some of the people we are seeing out there,” Schmidt says. “They are being told the hard times are over, but yet they’re losing their houses and their lives are collapsing and their jobs are gone and they feel like they don’t have a voice. We were able to be a voice for them.”
Still, the band members don’t want to come off preachy. “We’re not trying to tell anyone what to think, just that they need to think,” Schmidt says. Or they may sink like a stone. For the times, they are a-changin’.