August is here, and with it has come festival season. For those of us who without sufficient funds for four days of live music and the wanton destruction of brain cells, there is some consolation in the form of the number of bands fitting in small tours and one off gigs around their festival commitments. Last Wednesday, a pre-Rebellion warm up saw East End Riot, Bishop’s Green, Reagan Youth and the Street Dogs tear up the Underworld in Camden. I caught up with frontman Mike McColgan, bassist Johnny Rioux and drummer Pete Sosa while they washed down the jetlag with caffeine to discuss festivals, side projects, country music and booze.
MG: Hi guys. So this is the first day of the tour, how does it feel for it to be with one of the forefathers of East Coast punk Reagan Youth?
JR: We were super excited, we didn’t actually realise it until we got off the plane. It was a crazy surprise – whenever that happens with our group, we kind of think ‘man, we should be on their show’, know what I mean?
MM: I remember in ’82, it was controversial having a band called Reagan Youth…ya know, it was a pretty conservative time in America. I was never a fan of Ronald Reagan, not at all. For those guys to take on that name and write songs about how disaffected they were, pissed off they were, it was a pretty bold move. For them to start back up and right back at it, it shows that they really mean it –for a band to be around that long, it’s pretty inspiring.
MG: I didn’t even know they were still touring, so I was hyped to see them on the bill! You’re both also playing Rebellion next weekend, where I saw you guys play a killer set last year – how many times have you played there? Are you hyped to be going back?
JR: It’s our third or fourth?
MM: I believe it’s our third time. The good thing about Rebellion is that I think they always have their finger on the pulse – with regards to what purists, or lifelong punks, or new punk kids like. They do a good job with the bands on the bill and its always exciting to play if the crowd’s great, the people are great, and the line-up is too. The bands you get to see, as a fan of the music…its always great to come and play Blackpool.
JR: You get to see people who are our age too…people find babysitters. (Laughter)
MG: This tour takes in quite a bit of the festival circuit, are there any other particular European festivals that stand out for you?
JR: Well Rebellion is the main one, without Rebellion I don’t even know if we’d be on tour right now. The other one we’re excited about doing is Endless Summer in Germany, there’s a lot of friends’ bands on that.
MM: It’ll be cool to see Agnostic Front, the Casuals, you know Lars’ band, and we’re looking forward to seeing Stomper 98 as well.
MG: The Crooked Drunken Sons EP was a return to the fray after a break - did it feel good to get back on it? Is the EP a precursor to a new full length?
JR: We’re currently sitting on a bunch of songs. We need to get into another writing session before we jump back into the studio, but we’re all keenly aware that before we can do any extended touring we need a new record. That’ll be the next move for sure before we plan out another in depth tour.
MM: Songs like ‘Crooked Drunken Sons’, or ‘Rustbelt Nation’ from the Rustbelt Nation EP, are songs that deserve to be re-approached. They say a lot, I think they’re capable of going to a higher level and being done better. I think all of us agree with that – there’s nothing wrong with what we did, but it could be better.
JR: It felt awesome to do that because we did it in my garage, we’d never recorded like that at all and it was fun to do something kind of lo fi with a DIY ethic too. But like Mike said, a bunch of those songs will probably make it on to the full length and I’m excited to hear how much more they jump out.
MM: A song like ‘Eighteen for Life’ is screaming out to be on a full length record, and it could be better. That’s the thing, when you’re in a band and you put something down, after its completed, you always hear additional things that you didn’t hear when you were doing it…but then you’re on timelines, things of that nature. So in a way it’s good that we released them as EP’s and we can listen to ourselves critically and say ‘we could do this or that better’.
MG: Almost like a test run?
MM: Yea, and the good thing about this band is, we can work fast in a DIY fashion, or we can work over an extended period of time. We’ve recorded under a number of different circumstances since starting the group, so it behoves us to have that type of versatility; to move quickly or to lie back, give something time to breathe and think it out. We worked with Ted Hutt – Ted Hutt was the kind of guy that would be searching for ideas right up until the last moment, to the very, very end. That was a new approach compared to other people I had worked with, who would say ‘right, this is how things are gunna be’, while with him it was always trying to push it. I think that’s rubbed off on all of us, which is good.
MG: The FM359 side project and Johnny Rioux’s solo album both bought an Americana element to the fore. Who in particular influences you with regards to Americana roots/folk/country music? (This is followed by general approval of the question, with a sense of relish at the chance to talk music that is clearly close to their hearts)
JR: There’s a lot of good, rootsy modern stuff, like Lucero and Ryan Adams and Wilko. Steve Earle is more of a classic example, Townes Van Zandt. Chuck Ragan back on the newer side, there’s just so many good ones. For the Cowboi thing, that goes back to the late 80s and early 90s, I found rockabilly music to be really uplifting – I was so immersed in the punk rock scene and it was a pretty depressive and negative thing for the most part. Then somebody gave me a Stray Cats record and I was like ‘wow, this makes me happy!’ ‘It’s talking about girls!’ And this and that. I always had a soft spot in my heart for rockabilly, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, stuff like that. Pete, what’ve you got?
PS: I’m more of a classic – Hank Williams Sr., Patsy Kline and Loretta Lynn type stuff, Grand Ol’ Opry and Nashville stuff.
J: He’s the true Texan we got here.
MM: Speaking of Pete, when we’re talking FM359 and Street Dogs, he gives us our versatility to work with any type of song…he isn’t a one trick pony. With FM359, things were approached very differently from any Street Dogs recording process. Street Dogs for the most part is spitfire, then anthem, then there might be a couple of folk songs thrown in there. With FM359 the parameters were wider and nothing was excluded, everything was bought to the table. As soon as songs were worked up, they were tracked. They weren’t poured over in a pre-production way. When we record a song with the Street Dogs, we hammer it and hammer it, but with FM359 being so spontaneous and so fast…
JR: You know the first time we actually played together in a room to play those songs was the first time we played a show. We never jammed or practiced or anything.
MM: Street Dogs is so disciplined, so set out, it’s almost like boot camp in a way. With FM, I don’t even know if it was a conscious thing but we just wanted to do something different – we sat back, collected ourselves and fucking breathed, wrote songs then tracked them. We weren’t even mapping shit out, it was way different than anything I’ve ever done – we were sitting back fucking drinking coffee, guys were smoking cigars, then just banging tunes out and something special came of it. Hugh Morrison was a major, major contributor to the process – he wrote what I consider to be the best songs on it and he made what would have been a fair/good record…
JR: He bought in a lot of the Celtic influences on there.
MG: Will Cowboi or Truth, Love and Liberty have follow up records, or are they likely to be one offs?
MM: I wouldn’t rule it out. I mean we don’t have any immediate plans on the horizon, but that’s something that could be re-approached in the future. Street Dogs is a bit more organised, the mothership so to speak, and FM is sorta like…I mean if someone said one day ‘I’ve got a bunch of songs, let’s just sit down and knock these out’, I would probably do it, but right now we’re kind of focusing on other areas.
JR: With the Cowboi record I don’t know, I was thinking about it; I want to do originals in the same vein, but then I also would be keen to do some other punk rock songs, I enjoy doing that too. I’ve always done that, taking a punk or a hardcore song and doing something different with it.
MG: Speaking of which, how much of an influence has growing up somewhere with the OG hardcore credentials of Boston had on your music?
JR: Honestly, throughout the late 80s and early 90s there were so many great bands in Boston, but around the mid-90s it started to feel really stale; bands were sounding the same all the way through. Then the Dropkick Murphys hit, and when that happened…Jeff Erna, the drummer, was doing these 8 note things, and Rick Barton on the guitar was playing downstrokes ’77 style. Before it was all that classic sort of Oi! thing, then the Dropkicks came along and Mike didn’t sing ‘thought thought thought’, growling it, but he was singing it; singing a line into a line and bringing a totally different style in to Boston. Beforehand it was the same across the board and when the Dropkicks came in it was like the sun shone, and bands started popping up doing things differently.
MM: In fairness to the Bruisers, when the Dropkicks came around at that time the Bruisers were making headway. They’d slugged it out for a considerably longer time than we had and you could see they were making headway when we played with them. You could see it in the emotional impact they had on the hardest of the hard dudes when they would play anthems and stuff which was pretty powerful. It was influential on DKM. The 90s was a special time – I thought about this the other day when I was in a coffee shop, I heard some stuff come on the radio…it was just a whirlwind time. There was so much going on and so many bands, the energy was just fucking insane. There were so many shows…we got swept up, DKM was in the right place at the right time. In all fairness the Pogues were the first band to really take punk rock and take classic Irish music and create a hybrid.
JR: The biggest thing I’m proud of in my involvement in the Boston punk rock scene is that our thing is a lot different from, say, what I’ve seen in Europe. You would have bands that were ska bands, or punk bands, or hardcore bands, or just crazy bands, and everybody supported each other. You’d have a bill with say, the Kings of Nuthin or Bim Skala Bim, just these different bands doing different things and everyone was supporting each other. I don’t see that in many other places, where it’s like ‘I’m a hardcore kid, I’m gunna sit over here with the hardcore kids – you weird punk kids go sit over there’. But we had the Cambridge Quarter, different bars where everyone would bro down and hang out, set up shows…
MM: Or at the Rat – you would see punks, hardcore kids, everyday Joes, crusties, whatever, all in the same building. I never remember there being any static about it either - I always thought there would be but there was no static. I remember going to shows at Local 186, or going to Access, and it seemed like in those places things would get secular, or divided – but the Rat was kind of the epicentre of the scene at the time, and it was special. There was always a feeling in the air that four or five bands were gunna rise out of it and everybody else was just gunna fall off…that was just my thought process watching it all go down, and pretty much the four or five I thought were gunna pull out did pull out, make a mark and keep doing things. It was a special time.
MG: Your records have a thematic balance between good time drinking songs and serious social commentary. With regards to the former, what’s everyone’s’ tipple of choice?
JR: I’ve always been an Irish whiskey guy, that’s definitely my drink of choice – Bushmills or Jameson’s.
MM: Back when I wasn’t on the wagon, I liked Heineken a lot, I liked Guinness a lot. What we used to do was drink six Heinekens, then turn around and have a Guinness. It seemed like having a buzz on made the Guinness go down smoother. If you started out having Guinness and knock back three, you fucking can’t drink anymore because you feel weighed down. But if you turn around, have six Heinekens, or Budweisers, or Moulsons – Moulsons was pretty popular – and everyone seemed to do that, knock back five or six beers then have a Guinness, because you didn’t feel the weight of it when you had a good buzz on. Plus Guinness has a great fucking taste…except when it comes back up, when it projectiles out of you.
MG: With the latter, what issues do you find most influencing your songwriting at the moment? Has your focus changed over the years?
JR: For me, I’ve got a bit of a writer’s block…I went through some terrible shit with divorce and rehab, all kinds of shit in the last year, so I’d write all kinds of nasty, negative shit. Now I’m out on the other side of all that crap, I’m like ‘what the fuck do I write about?’ So I’m having a bit of a writer’s block with that, but I’m sure it’ll come to me at some point.
MM: I’m back in Boston, I’ve moved back and I’ll mention at least five or six times a day how much I love it there and how it feels like coming home in every part of my being. I don’t want to go overboard being all ‘Boston Boston, raa raa raa’, I just want to write human condition songs and not make it too quaint but just capture that somehow and make it into a good song…take real life experiences that I’m going through and make it universal. One of the biggest things that continues to move me and I’m compelled to write about is income inequality in America, it’s completely fucking hideous and grotesque and obscene and its at unprecedented levels. Then the political process is completely bought and sold, it’s transparent even to those who have pretty much checked out of politics and what’s going on in America. It’s sad, like Citizens United, that Supreme Court case about a lot of corporations giving unlimited resources to politicians – it’s fucking absolutely pathetic. With the Street Dogs, I’ve had people say ‘you need to reign it in a bit, stay out of politics and don’t write about that stuff, you guys are pigeonholing yourselves a bit, shutting yourself off to a wider audience’. Well fuck that - FUCK that – what am I gunna do, reign in how I truly feel to write some bullshit song? About tra la la, life’s good, don’t worry be happy? No, fuck that. Would Joe Strummer do that? No! Would Johnny Cash do that? No!
MG: Too right! So as a final, lighter question, have you got any good or insane tour story that has stood out over the years?
MM: Ooh! So we’re in Finland on the bus, we’ve never been before, it’s cold as fuck and we’re all kind of mystified looking out. Paul Rucker, who drummed with us on Fading American Dream and State of Grace had disappeared. Turns out he was on top of this double decker bus – you know in Teen Wolf, when he was on top of the van? Rucker’s completely shitfaced out of his mind, doing his best impression.
JR: He was smoking a bowl up there too.
MM: Yea, smoking a bowl, doing that. There was a load of high, electrical stuff…if he’d hit one of those wires, he’d have been done, crispy. Then the cops, when they pulled us over I thought for sure Rucker’s getting strung up, but we told them we were in a band and they just wanted to go to the show.
JR: They came to the show and checked us out too!
MM: It was either Norway or Finland, I’m pretty sure it was Finland though. Those are the only type of cops that would be that cool, most people would be like ‘get the fuck down, you’re locked up for the night.’
MG: That is a good one! Thanks very much guys.