Yup, Dave King is Irish -- on the surface almost typically so, with short-cropped flaxen hair, rosy cheeks, the lot of it. Born in the rough north side of Dublin, King came to America 10 years ago. But a decade in the States hasn't had much effect on his accent -- his voice on the phone still has that reedy, lilting, sometimes slow, sometimes mile-a-minute brogue particular to Dubliners. King's band appears to fit nicely into an idyllic little Irish picture: seven members, an accordion, a couple of guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, the odd banjo thrown in here and there, sprinkled with a bit of pipes or tin whistle. Typical. Nothing surprising.
Then you find out Flogging Molly is a veteran of the Warped Tour, and you look more closely at this nice little Irish picture.
Matt Hensley -- the ex-pro skateboarder who helped usher in the modern era of skateboarding -- plays accordion, with tattoos up and down his arms and an almost-shaved head. Dennis Casey, the man wearing a scallycap in almost every published photo, plays guitar -- loud, thick, distorted punk guitar behind a wall of acoustic Irish folk instruments.
Flogging Molly's website opens with the tagline "A Guinness-soaked musical body blow," and it manages to convey what a thousand journalists, promoters, and literary hacks can't seem to do with 10 times the words. Flogging Molly isn't a punk band, it's not a traditional Irish folk group, and it's not rock and roll. It's all of them at once.
For a band that has called the drunken acoustic hurricane that was the Pogues "pure genius," Flogging Molly is somewhat short on purely Irish members: King is the only one who hails directly from the isle. Founded after a few years of King's every-other-night performances on the stout-and-porter circuit, Flogging Molly originates not from Ireland but from Los Angeles. Almost all of the current members joined when they greeted King after his shows. "Everyone who's now in the band approached me to say they loved my songs," King says. "We'd start off talking, and they'd say, 'Oh, I play violin' or drums or whatever, and then I'd ask 'em to join the band. I just knew."
Two years playing every Monday night at Molly Malone's Pub in L.A. lent the group its name. Feeling as if they were beating the bar to death, beating the music to death, and flogging the hell out of those who came to see them, the band members got serious and embarked on a few tours of the West Coast.
Flogging Molly's stints on the Vans Warped Tour, a nationwide traveling mix of punk, pro skateboarding, sweaty people, and tattoos, have opened up a whole new audience. Drunken Lullabies, the band's second studio album, is selling much better than its first, 2000's Swagger. The members credit the jump in sales largely to Warped.
"I think the Warped Tour had a hell of a lot to do with it, as far as getting our name out there," says Bob Schmidt, the man behind the mandolin. "We were lucky. You go out there, and you're playin' to so many kids. I think nobody really knew how the punk crowd was gonna take it, because we've got that energy, but it's a whole different thing with the mandolin and the fiddle. You come onstage, and kids don't know what to expect, but they really took it to heart. I think it really brought us up to a profile level that we didn't expect to get to that quickly. We were surprised last time out that people knew who we were."
Indeed, people soon found out who they were, though Schmidt tells tales of the whole crowd getting quiet when the band walked onstage early in the tour. Well dressed, with an accordion, mandolin, and a girl (fiddle player Bridget Regan), they were definitely not standard Warped fare. Toward the end of the summer, though, they had whole crowds pumping fists in the air.
"The style of music we play . . . it just kind of happened," Schmidt says. "Half of the songs on the first album came about when we were playing Molly's every week, and the other half were ones Dave had written beforehand on his own -- but it just sort of happened from us hanging out. Up until [Drunken Lullabies], we never really sat down and thought about song structure or planned it. Lullabies is probably closer to what the band's about, because we were able to sit down and actually think about what we were aiming for. It was a more organic process."
It all may have fallen into place somewhat by chance, but the albums certainly don't sound thrown together. A fistful of acoustic instruments backed by a drum kit, Telecaster, and electric bass could well be a recipe for a disjointed mess, but in this case, it's almost the opposite. Flogging Molly's songs sound like century-old traditionals that simply never became part of the public domain.
King credits the authentic flavor to his background in the traditional music of his homeland and his desire to write about things that have mattered to him. ("This band," he's said, "is my life's story put to music.") His lyrics encompass everything from personal loss -- Swagger's "The Likes of You Again" is about losing his father at age 10 -- to shouted tales of past glory and brotherhood. Perhaps because of this wide-ranging subject matter, Flogging Molly has a diverse following. Its audiences are filled with everyone from 15-year-old hooligans-in-training to pint-in-the-air, misty-eyed men of 60 in wool sweaters and flat caps.
"I think people are realizing traditional music [has] a serious amount of heart in it," Schmidt says. "People are automatically being drawn to it and rockin' out."
Rockin' out. Idyllic little Irish picture, indeed.