The drinking song: That most ignoble of inebriated customs is a time-honored tradition, dating back to, well, who the hell knows when. Wikipedia claims the first drinking song dates back to the 11th century, but there is no historical record of when the first wannabe troubadours got pissed and burst into song. Conventional wisdom proposes that Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a poem inspired by the Battle Of Ft. McHenry, belongs in the subgenre of “drinking war songs.” Nearly every culture with drink has its own version of the drinking-song custom. In Germany, drinking songs are called trinklieder. Sweden even has drinking songs associated with the onset of Midsummer. In America, the drinking song can metastasize to full-blown drunken sing-along at parades, sporting events, funerals, and generally anywhere a Neil Diamond song or “Living On A Prayer” can be queued up.
Flogging Molly has been leading the charge for bringing Celtic punk and the drunken sing-along to the masses since 1997, when lead singer Dave King and mates (including future wife and fiddler Bridget Regan) starting playing small gigs at Molly Malone’s bar and eatery in Los Angeles. Now, 15 years later, Flogging Molly is on its eighth annual Green 17 tour, this year in support of the group’s fifth studio album, Speed Of Darkness. Before Flogging Molly’s March 14 show at the Ogden Theatre, The A.V. Club caught up with King to get some insight into the drinking song, drinking in public, and why Americans aren’t doing either properly.
The A.V. Club: You were born in Ireland, but how much time did you actually spend there?
Dave King: I spent the first 18 years of my life in Ireland. Then I moved to England for a bit, then back to Ireland for a few years, and then I came to America in ’89. My wife, Bridget, and I still have a house there, in the countryside in Wexford, so we go back whenever we can. The rest of the world is having a really, really hard time, but you can never really tell with the people in Ireland. They just have a wonderful outlook on life.
AVC: What are the ingredients that make a great drinking song?
DK: I think the main ingredient is humor. That was the thing about great Irish drinking songs; they had great humor. One of my favorites is “Seven Drunken Nights” by The Dubliners. If you were to take the lyrics away from the music, you’d be like, “This is dismal. This is horrible. It’s about a man who goes back to his house seven nights in a row to find seven different things belonging to some other guy in his house, because his wife has been cheating on him.” But when you mix it with the music and the rollicking nature of it, it’s just a classic drinking song. Even when I was a kid, it was the humor that I always loved. If you look not only at drinking songs, but Irish writers—Beckett and Joyce and that—I love the humor. They take a certain subject, and it could be a dismal situation, and you can see that wry humor, that Dublin sense of humor, come through. I think that is inherent in all good drinking songs.
AVC: When you walk into a pub and want to raise a glass, what songs do you put on the jukebox?
DK: Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” The Pogues’ “Streams of Whisky,” Shane McGowan’s “That Woman’s Got Me Drinking.” There’s an Irish singer called Frank Harte, who passed away a couple years ago, who had the biggest collection of Irish music of anybody in the world. He had a song called “Dicey Reilly,” and I listen to him every time I go home drunk. It’s a great drinking song. It reminds me of my mother, and my father who passed away. Frank Harte is a great fucking singer. The Pogues, I mean, where do I start? Everybody just thinks, “Oh, get drunk to The Pogues!” Or, “They’re just an Irish drinking band.” But if you read MacGowan’s words, that’s fucking way beyond drinking. I mean, obviously it’s still great to hear in the pub when you’re trashed and it comes on the jukebox, but the lyrics stand alone. The Dubliners were always classic for me too. If I hear The Dubliners’ “Song For Ireland” when I’m miles and miles away from home, I know it sounds cliché, but it’s amazing and takes me back.
AVC: Do you find that Ireland embraces the drinking song more than America? Here, you can put on “Sweet Caroline” and everyone will chime in eventually, but it seems like the Irish embrace the whole song whereas Americans stagger along and wait for the chorus.
DK: Drinking in Ireland is more social, and America attaches such a stigma to drinking, in a way. When Bridget and I are back in Ireland, we probably go out once a week—but when you do, you meet your neighbors, and there’s always someone with a guitar, and it almost seems like there’s more camaraderie to it or something. We live in the farming community over there, and you go to the pub, and the farmers come out and talk about this and that, and it’s a social thing to do. Over here, people just go out with the mindset that they have to get hammered. It’s weird.
AVC: Is there one song that your fans rally behind as the big drinking anthem?
DK: I don’t think so, because we’ll go from playing “Drunken Lullabies” to playing an acoustic song. We run the gamut of what Flogging Molly is all about. People will come up, and it’s never the same song that they want us to play, which is great. Five albums in, I think we’ve run the gamut of what we’re all about. They let us do what we want to do.
AVC: St Patrick’s Day and Green 17: Pain in the arse, or time of celebration for Flogging Molly?
DK: Well, it’s always the last gig of the Green 17 tour, so it’s a bit of a celebration in the sense that, “This is it. This is what we’ve been heading towards these last couple months.” So in that respect, it’s a celebration. But it’s also kinda nerve-racking, because it’s a pretty big gig. So, no matter how long we’ve been doing this, my nerves are still a huge factor.
AVC: Was that something that was more pronounced when you were a younger guy?
DK: The older I get, the more nervous I seem to get. It’s stupid things! I can’t even really describe it. I used to actually get physically sick when I was younger. I feel like I was born to do what I do, but I still feel like it’s a very unnatural thing to do what I do, which is stand up in front of a bunch of people and say, “Here ya go; here I am.” It’s just weird.
AVC: Do you worry about practical things, like, “What if I suddenly forget the lyrics to ‘Drunken Lullabies’?”
DK: Oh, absolutely. That’s a big one: forgetting lyrics and stuff like that. Things like falling over, like tripping over monitors—stupid shit like that!
AVC: Tell us about Speed Of Darkness and the tour. Do you find yourself looking out at younger or older faces?
DK: It’s all over the place. It never ceases to amaze me the range of people that come out to see our band. I can look down and see a 10-year-old kid front row, and then I look to my left and see a 65-year-old. So it really is quite crazy.
AVC: Was the creative process for Speed Of Darkness a departure? Do you have traditions when preparing to write?
DK: We recorded this one in our basement in Detroit, which kind of became the catalyst for the album. It was shaped by that environment. You get a couple of songs, and it kind of maps out which direction it’s going to go. With this album, we just didn’t want to be afraid to do whatever we wanted to do. We’ve done five studio albums, and I think with being an Irish band, you need to reinvent yourself. I think we kind of did that on this album. There were no laws or rules. The thing about this album is that writing it in Detroit, in our neighborhood where at least 50 percent of the houses are abandoned, it affects you. Our album Float feels like a very free-spirited album because it was written and recorded in Ireland, which was something we had never done, and it was an amazing experience. But writing in Detroit was another amazing experience, but I think musicians are definitely affected by their environment. At least we are. I could relate, because growing up in Ireland in the ’70s, it was pretty horrible. The song “The Power’s Out,” on our new album, is about the joy of growing up during that time, but also about when my mother couldn’t pay the electric bill and the power would go out on us.
AVC: Did you have a mission statement in mind with Flogging Molly starting out? Did you think, “I really want to jump from rowdy punk to acoustic ballads, while remaining true to Irish traditions?”
DK: I met Bridget one night, and she told me she was a fiddle player. I went back to her house the next day and she started playing fiddle over some songs that we had already written, and it kind of hit me over the head. I couldn’t go back to Ireland at the time because of some legal issues, and hearing her play the fiddle over those songs was kind of my way of going home. It kind of went from there, very organically. I know it sounds crap to say, “We’re such an organic band,” but it’s really true. We were playing Molly Malone’s—that’s where we got our name from—and we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We just knew that we wanted to write songs and have as much fun as we possibly could. There was no plan or laid-out ground scenario.
AVC: How rowdy were some of those early Molly Malone’s shows?
DK: [Laughs.] Yeah, I wish I had some photographs from back then! People from the audience drunk onstage and all that. It was hilarious. We played for $40 and two drink tickets. Splitting $40 between seven people was pretty impossible. But they were fun days. They really were. I met so many great people, and we’re still all together.
AVC: Do you yearn for those days?
DK: Well, like I said, we’re creatures of our environment. We played Molly Malone’s when Speed Of Darkness came out last year. Now they have a bigger room with a bigger stage. We went down and played a full set, and had a great old time. We still got paid $40 and two drink tickets… it was great!
AVC: Irish musicians come from hearty stock. It seems like The Pogues will never stop until Shane dies, which doesn’t seem likely. Do you see yourself going until you’re old men who can barely climb onstage?
DK: We view music as a celebration. No matter what it is that you’re singing about, playing those songs is a celebration. That’s the way we treat life. God, to have the opportunity to do this in the first place is amazing, so why stop? Not many people get this opportunity.