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Street Dogs | Back to the World | interview | Mike McColgan | punk | Lollipop
Back to the World (DRT Entertainment)
An interview with vocalist Mike McColgan
By Ewan Wadharmi
Mike McColgan fought in Desert Storm, fought fires in Boston, and some consider him Dropkick Murphy's definitive voice. Now he's compiled an A-Team of musicians for Street Dogs: Johhny "Face" Rioux, Joe "B.A." Sirois, and Marcus "Mad Dog" Holler. Public Servant that he is, he does it all for us.
So your childhood, whatever happened with that?
Born on Sydney Street in Savin Hill, lived there until I was about six years old. Moved to Neponset, Cedar Grove area. Went to St. Williams grammer school in Savin Hill, my father was adamant about us going to his old school. I graduated out of there and went to Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury. After a summer of keg-a-thons, I joined the military for two years with the U.S. Army. I did a year in Germany and six months in Desert Storm, six months back in Germany, and then Boston. Got an honorable discharge and got a job at the Boston Globe as a pressman. I worked there until 1996 when I got involved with Dropkick Murphys. That took on a life of its own, and I moved away from the job. We saw the world for the first time. Then the fire-fighting bug bit me because it's been in my family for so long. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of firefighters. I left Dropkick Murphys to get on Boston Fire, and I've worked the fires for five years or so. For the last two and a half years I've been working on Street Dogs, and once again, the music has taken on a life of its own. It's grown into full-time status. Finally, I've come to grips with it. I could go back to fire fighting, but I'm going to stick to music. Once it gets in your blood, you can't let it go.
You find both professions rewarding?
I find them both rewarding, but music doesn't have the inherent danger that fire suppression has. That constant risk of calamity.
Unless you're in Pantera.
Yeah, the whole situation with Dimebag was a reminder of just how twisted some people are, and how maniacal fans can be. That was a brutal situation. Bringing that into the spotlight, I guess there is some danger there.
I hear those Social Distortions are a good band.
Phenomenal. They're consummate professionals. Super, super conscious about their sound. They usually soundcheck for about three hours a day before they play. Every night, they're flawless. We're talking about a band that's been together since like 1980, so they've got a lot of songs to cull from.
And they have all the living, original members?
Actually, Mike I believe is the only original member. Johnny "2 Bags" is on lead guitar, and Matt Freeman from Rancid is the bass player. I don't think there are any other original members.
Oh, well, I've been lied to.
Haven't we all been, at one time or another?
Daily. I expect it. Last time I saw Mike Ness, he jumped into the pit three times to pound on some guy who was hassling people. And that was the acoustic tour.
Yeah, he doesn't take too kindly to people mistreating others or spitting on him or throwing objects at him. He doesn't think those are reasonable actions. I tend to agree. I wouldn't appreciate things like that happening to me onstage either.
I wouldn't go up against him, myself.
Nah, he's a pretty tough guy. There was this guy he warned three or four times to stop spitting on him last night. On the fourth time, he just hit him with a short left hand and security took the guy right out of the club.
Is that like your wet dream tour?
I have a few wet dream tours that I'd like to see, but this is definitely one of them. Since I was 12 years old, I've been listening to Social Distortion. It's been sort of the soundtrack to my life. We feel like we're really lucky that they picked us. We get along well with them, and it's just a good pairing. There's a point in every day when you ask yourself, "Am I really on tour with Social Distortion?"
It makes sense with your sound: It's punk rock, but then it's Americana, and it's roots rock. It's one and the same, that energy.
Yeah, there's an element of folk in there, there's punk and straight up rock. We try to keep it diverse, and when we make a record, we don't want it to all sound the same. We want the power and somewhat of a message to be there.
It was interesting to me that the label you started with was initially a Bluegrass label. It just kind of goes with that blue-collar thing. American Records started bringing in country acts. And now Epitaph has signed Merle Haggard.
Yeah, you talk about a guy like Mike Ness and Social Distortion, it was the record with "Prison Bound" when they started throwing in elements of country. And with Mike's solo stuff, you can hear it more prominently: The bluegrass and country and the like. Like The Reverend Horton Heat and Supersuckers and other bands that traverse the genres, it's connected to punk, and there are similarities. They're bedfellows. Johnny Cash's records are owned by many punk rockers, me included. He was a phenomenal songwriter and a prolific entertainer. I think people now are finally catching onto that. It's coming out in more punk.
A lot of the same thing as happened in the last 10 or 15 years with the Irish influence: Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys, Swingin' Utters. People bringing that in is just the logical extension of people exploring their roots.
Yeah, when I was in Dropkick Murphys, I can recall myself and Kenny thinking about music and writing songs, and listening to The Pogues. Our families listened to Irish music, and we grew up listening to it. There's that sentiment and feeling of rebellion and pride and intensity in Irish music. And again, that's a bedfellow to punk rock. A likely and effective pairing. You catch it in a Swingin' Utters song, and you hear it absolutely 100 percent in Flogging Molly's songs.
You talk about the neighborhood, and I think that's where it starts: The search for identity and belonging. There are 800 punk songs about unity. You became a firefighter, and that's a brotherhood. Did you find in that the unity that's missing from the punk scene?
My experience prior to fire fighting were pockets of unity within the punk rock scene and pockets of separation. When you do fire suppression, inherently there's hazmat (hazardous material) situations and EMS that go within that job classification, and the stress and difficulty of the work binds the people together. There's a high level of camaraderie in that close-knit group because the occupation positively demands it at every level. Even the people who manage it recognize it. They build firehouses and allow them to work a 24 hour shift. The special circumstances are set up because of the complexity of the job. Being in Street Dogs full-time, I see again pockets of unity in the scene where people get along and places where it is more fragmented and separated. It's different all over the country and around the world. I don't think I could objectively draw comparisons to fire suppression and the punk rock scene.
I think that in human nature, we're looking to belong to something.
Absolutely. With me and Street Dogs and music, I've finally come to grips and accepted what it is I'm supposed to be doing: Singing and writing songs and being active and doing this for a living and do it for the rest of my life. I know that's a bold statement, but I tried to step away from it once, and obviously I came back again. I couldn't be happier now. It's my calling and it's a difficult calling. The demands of touring and the studio, it's a very taxing life. But at the same time, it's rewarding. We're not here by accident. No one held a gun to our heads.
The impression of your music, "You Alone" in particular, is a surface negativity, but the underlying message is a positive one.
"You Alone" is a situation where somebody is at a point of difficulty in their life, and has a negative mindset. And at the end of the day, you have to rely on self-empowerment and the ability to carry on, to turn the tide and make it positive. "You Alone" tries to paint that picture from verse one to verse two. At the end of the song, I talk about people who didn't get that shot, and unfortunately, passed away in accidents and things of the like. A friend of mine, Greg Reilly, passed away a year ago in a motorcycle accident. The song kind of became a eulogy to him. He was a guy who had tough times in his life and turned them around and had a lot going for him. He wasn't fortunate enough to continue that process, but he won't be forgotten.
One of the other things people try to identify with is sports. In Europe, there's a tendency to write songs about sports heroes and your team, and you don't see that a lot in the U.S., except for Slapshot.
When you take soccer in Europe, it's an extension of nationalism. People take it very, very serious, and have for years. In America, there's a level of people following their teams, but I don't think nationalism bleeds into the music like it does in Europe, compelling many bands to write songs about their team. Slapshot has always worn it on their sleeve. On their newest record on Thorp Records, Tear it Down, is a picture of the old barn, God rest its soul, being torn down. I think in Boston, moreso than anywhere else in the nation, people tend to take their sports very seriously. Just recently, DKM did "Tessie," an old Royal Rooters song. That was like an old battle cry in the early 1900s for the Sox, and they resurrected it. I think they did it justice, and it was very timely. The Sox went on to win the championship.
What do you think of this whole theory that now that they've won the Series, that Boston doesn't have an identity? The whole underdog persona is gone.
Somewhere within the Boston sports pantheon, whether it be the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, or the Patriots, there'll be some more misery in the future. People can piss and moan about the cold weather and traffic. I think Boston will hold onto its ability to remain sarcastic and be pissed off and bitter. I'm sure that'll come to pass.
Things are going good, but I'm optimistic that it will change.
At the drop of a hat. In a Congress Street second.