Quick. Check your fingernails for dirt. Before Matt Kelly took over the drum throne for Boston-Irish punks Dropkick Murphys, he unloaded trucks in a warehouse, and stocked shelves at the local grocery store. Bassist Ken Casey “swung a sledgehammer, doing demolition for his father in law. I think [vocalist] Al [Barr] was working in a kitchen. [Guitarist] James [Lynch] was working in a restaurant, and at some repair place. [Guitarist] Mark [Orrell] was at Blockbuster, he started with the band when he was 17. Scruffy [Wallace, bagpipes] was a pipe fitter.”
When you hear the distinct gravel in Kelly’s voice, you hear the epitome of “work hard, play hard.” The band formed in 1996, winning over fans with a unique blend of blue-collar Irish and American folk, punk, and straight up rock and roll that got them signed to Hellcat Records in 1998, and saw their debut Do Or Die produced by Rancid guitarist Lars Frederiksen. For their fifth full-length studio album, The Warrior’s Code, the band kept production duties in the family — bassist Casey turned knobs as the Murphys dropkicked 14 gems onto tape in three short weeks at Q Division in Somerville. Kelly’s drum tracks were thrown down in even shorter order, which led to the need to creatively pass the time.
“When we went to the studio the songs were written,” he comments, referring to the months of pre-production, “but we were in the studio for three weeks, and I finished my drums in about three days. So, the boredom factor really set in. I ended up dressing up Mark, our guitarist, in used Budweiser 24-packs and seltzer water 12-packs — he was the defender of the Q Division realm at one point. We literally used duct tape and these boxes, and kind of made armor for him, and used the trash can lid for a shield and stuff like that. It’s pretty benign as far as shenanigans go.”
Three scant days on drums can’t mask the ripping sixteenth-note fills of “The Walking Dead,” the duple uppercuts of “Your Spirit’s Alive,” and the sublime snare rudiments of the traditional Irish ballad “The Green Fields Of France.”
“We all come from that background,” Kelly explains of the band’s occasionally covering traditional folk music, “When I was in 19, I was over in Germany with a couple cousins, and my cousin and uncle were on the streets playing Irish folk tunes. We have some cousins who have a band over in Europe, and they’ve always done traditional Irish folk tunes, so I had that growing up as a kid. A lot of the guys in the band had that going too. Growing up around New England, there’s a big population of people who are descended from Irish ancestry, and/or people who are right off the boat, you know.
“[For ’The Green Fields Of France’] I just threw in what I thought was appropriate. I didn’t even know if there was any drum music for it. I just played that, and mimicked some of the chords with the timpani. It was just snare drum and timpani. The snare was called ’The Terminator.’ It was a 50-pound drum, I’m not sure of the brand, but it was made out of bell brass. The thing weighed a ton. It was 8" deep. Big bastard.”
Speaking of big, Leominster-native Kelly comes from a big family, many of whom play instruments, including his drummer father, but young Kelly’s first love wasn’t drums. It was saxophone, “because my dad listened to a lot of blues. The Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full Of Blues, I was like, ’That’s pretty cool. Brass is pretty cool.’ Then when I was nine, he was at his drum kit one night, and I just kind of jumped on. ’Yeah, maybe I’ll play this.’ He said, ’Okay, well, you’ve got to take lessons.’”
Over the course of listening to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and AC/DC, Kelly not only learned about drumming, but the power of songs — something Dropkick Murphys authoritatively command. It’s particularly evident on the remarkably poignant “The Last Letter Home,” which takes some of its lyrics from letters written by Andrew Farrar, a soldier and band devotee who was killed on his 31st birthday while serving in Iraq.
Kelly couldn’t help choking up a bit as he recounted, “This song, we actually had the music for, and were pretty psyched about it. Kenny was writing some lyrics for it, but he wasn’t sure what he was doing with it. Then we got this letter, and it hit us really hard. [The soldier] was a real big fan of the band, from Weymouth, which is a couple towns down on the south shore. One of his two brothers contacted us, and the guy had done his tenure over there, he was going to come home, was going to start a new life with his wife and two kids … and a couple days before he was supposed to return home, on his birthday, he was killed fighting in Iraq. We corresponded with his family afterwards, and they sent us some of the letters he had sent, and he said, ’If anything should happen to me, [choking up] I want the Murphys version of ’The Fields Of Athenry’ to be played at my funeral.’ We read this and we were really taken aback.
“So Kenny, myself, and a couple of the guys went down to the funeral, and Scruffy, our bagpipe player, played ’The Fields Of Athenry’ outside the church. Even though we didn’t know the guy or his family, it was one of the hardest funerals to attend. The emotion showed by Andrew’s brothers and his wife, the kids, the rest of the family, it was brutal. It was bringing the horrors of war home. We asked them if they’d mind his letters being the subject matter to this song, and they said he would have really loved that. Our songs are about real-life situations for the most part. This just gave it a lot more meaning.”