A Boston Punk's Journey Towards Americana
Editors note: I originally wrote this piece for American Songwriter Magazine, which was published on February 12th, 2014. I am re-posting the story here.
Mike McColgan says he had golden dreams, but that was a long time ago.
A 9-year stint in California afforded the Boston native financial stability and perspective on his musical career, but it was a midnight drive on the farm-to-market road 359, a highway whose blacktop winds through the suburbs west of Houston, Texas, that provided inspiration.
Mike is a pioneer of the modern Boston punk scene, co-founding the band Dropkick Murphys, best known for their song “Shipping Up To Boston” from the film The Departed. Now, he’s the face of Street Dogs, a socially conscious punk band from Dorchester that sing of inequality, justice, organized labor, and their love for the Commonwealth. He was in Texas on a whim.
“There was all sorts of different talk about me doing a solo record so I called Johnny Rioux [Street Dogs guitarist] and Rick Barton [songwriter/guitarist] and asked if they wanted to contribute anything. Naturally, they were excited and said ‘yeah!’ so we got together for one session in Houston and started to get immersed in songwriting,” he says. “We responded to what moved us and tracked it immediately—we hadn’t rehearsed at all, and the album was done. It was a big departure to how we operate.”
He and Rioux travelled that highway every day and one night noticed the sign “FM359” glowing brighter than usual. “That’s it, that’s the name of the band,” he says with a laugh. “This sort of enlightenment never happens to us.” With a full-length Americana album dubbed Truth, Love, and Liberty, and the name of the band established, the band was born. Punk is all Mike’s ever known, but he is now embarking on a new journey, juggling his old band with his new one, and establishing himself as a folk artist in a scene that’s becoming familiar throughout the punk rock ethos.
The band is back in Boston to debut the record at McGreevy’s, an Irish bar that’s owned by Ken Casey, Mike’s Dropkick Murphys co-founder, and current frontman. It’s an unseasonably warm Wednesday night in mid-January. I find Mike blending in with the crowd, dressed in a charcoal plaid shirt, interwoven with a much more subdued grey and red line pattern. He’s standing patiently at the bar, trying to capture the attention of a blonde bartender who’s juggling one too many beer orders. A simple nod of appreciation for the work she’s doing reels her in. Standing amidst his peers and a sea of scaly caps, he’s forfeited his signature punk headpiece for the night, opting instead a slicked back hairdo that would typically bestow an aura of youthfulness, if not for the salt & pepper specks on his goatee that unapologetically reveal his true age.
“Hey, it is good to see you” he says with a friendly smile to the fans that surround him.
20 feet past the bar, a couple of table booths have been removed to create a makeshift stage area. There are three different guitars of different shapes and colors lined up against the wall. An accordion lays stage left, and a mandolin graces the opposite end.
With the exception of the punks and friends in attendance, this is not a typical scene from a traditional Street Dogs show. But everyone is there for one reason: To catch their Boston barroom hero unveil his brand new band. FM359 plays music that they pitch as a “revolutionary, humanitarian gospel Americana,” or to the lucky few whom have heard the promotional releases, the sound is a confluence of folk and western-blended punk rock & roll. Unless the crowd is in-the-know with what Mike has been up to these past couple of months, most people expecting a direct lineage to Street Dogs will be taken by surprise.
In a sense, this project is a re-branding for Mike. His working class upbringing shines through the band’s music; the black and white pictures of early 1900’s life that adorn the bar are appropriate for the folk music the band plays. He finds comfort in those tiny details; he feels right at home.
“The feel of the album is about introspection. It’s deeper than the group’s ever gone, deeper than I’ve ever gone as a lyricist,” he says. “We mined the depths of our souls and we put it all up on front street and it served the project well. I think a lot of people can identify with it.”
It’s fitting that the band has settled under an old Americana banner and a sign that says “Boston Americans 1908.” — “That obviously wasn’t by design,” he stays and we share a laugh.
He takes center stage and downs a can of Red Bull. He’s ready to rock. Johnny Rioux gently strums his guitar, while his callused fingers navigate through I-IV-V chord progressions. Mike has written songs of hope in G, and the crowd approvingly nod in tempo to the tapping of his Doc Martens as he wails away, reaching some of the highest notes he’s ever sung, but didn’t even know he could reach.
With the first song over, he has shattered expectations of whether a punk singer can play this style of music in an Irish punk bar in Boston. The crowd cheers him on, song after song — they even raise their pints of Guinness to him.
FM359’s debut performance was well-received. Mike mingles for a bit, signing albums and taking pictures with his fans, a positive testament to his character. When he saw me purchase an album he called me over so he could sign it. It was a simple note that conveyed incredible meaning: “Thank you for the support. Mike McColgan.”
Mike’s old stomping grounds is Adam’s Corner, Dorchester; predominantly Irish and resilient, home to some of Beantown’s greatest boxing legends. I meet him there the following Friday at a restaurant — Gerard’s — that’s located inside an old, corner convenience store. There is only one way to reach the dining area, and that’s through the store, to the right of the cash registers, and finally through big wooden doors that seem out of place. Mike’s standing outside near the entrance to the store smoking a cigarette. He shakes my hand and takes one last drag and extinguishes the butt on the edge of a garbage can, flicking it away. There was something different about him this time around, electing to wear a black fitted Boston Bruins hat and going clean shaven. The razor did more than just get rid of his stubble, also shaving off years. He’s a regular patron here and unlike at McGreevy’s, has no problems getting the attention of the wait staff after we take our seat in a corner booth. He prefers breakfast for lunch and promptly puts in his order of coffee and french toast. With the pressure of his band’s first performance gone, he’s laid-back and eager to talk more about his journey to Texas to record the album, but not before he excuses himself as he waves to old friends as they walk past the window.
“I feel that by being in the middle of the road—studied, but not too studied—we’re going to be a little bit more laid back in our approach to making music. It’s a different feel and process when we do things like this,” he says. “It just works.”
They were simply doing something different, and having fun.
“We didn’t have time to really pull anything back. it just came from our heart and soul and it just found its way out there. In the past we’d probably review things a little bit more closely, but this time we didn’t. It was like, lets just make a bunch of songs and put them all out there.”
Mike has earned his folk credibility. His relevance now position him among other singers whom have left punk, to create music in a genre that shares common roots. While there weren’t any serious expectations set upon his band, there was precedence set forth by some of his punk-turned-folk compatriots. After all, his friend Chuck Ragan, the frontman for seminal punk band Hot Water Music had released 8 highly successful solo albums in 6 years, in addition to the discography his main band had chronicled throughout 20 years. Dr. Greg Graffin, frontman for the band Bad Religion, also released a critically acclaimed Americana album called Cold As The Clay. music that, as he’s stated in interviews, “honor the legacy of American music…[by playing] traditional songs that helped form the 18th and 19th century American cultural landscape.” They were Mike’s peers. If they could do it, why not him?
Jason Stone, senior editor of Dying Scene, a website that exhaustively and extensively covers bands such as Street Dogs, Hot Water Music, and Bad Religion, agrees that it’s those common roots that allow two entirely different bands to coexist. He’s been a fan of the Boston punk scene for years, and has known Mike professionally and personally for a while. Jason says, “They share a grassroots, working-class background that favors the working man and a distrust of the government and large corporate interests.”
And what about the sound? “They also share a lot of song-structure similarities,” he says. “There is a reason that folk and punk bands have both released albums called Three Chords and the Truth.”
The new Mike channels Neil Young’s Harvest Moon more than Joe Strummer’s The Clash, the definitive album young punks ground their influence in. He has traded in his spikes and leather jacket for a barrage of acoustic guitars. Mike acknowledges, “Now we’re finding that a lot of doors that might have been closed to us with Street Dogs are suddenly opening up again.”