Article by Tom O’Leary
Photos by Victoria Duffy
Hidden away in South Boston lies an unassuming building in the back of a plain-looking parking lot. Across the street is a small convenience store, as well as a number of office buildings with people coming and going. You can hear the sound of booming drums and crashing cymbals, although it is hard to tell where the sound is coming from exactly. After wandering around trying to find the entrance, I give up and send a text. The drumming stops, and a minute later, an old door opens up into the parking lot. Standing there smiling is Matt Kelly, longtime drummer of the legendary Dropkick Murphys. Originally formed in Quincy, the Dropkick Murphys are one of the most beloved and successful bands to ever come out of Massachusetts. With hard work, spirited live shows, and of course, a little luck, they have become a stadium-filling Celtic punk force, and Kelly has been along for the whole ride, from 1998’s Do or Die to the most recent 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory.
Bassist and founder Ken Casey has nothing but kind words for his drummer, saying “Matt is the best. He is the the backbone of the band. He’s so solid on the drums and he’s a solid guy, too. In over two decades of traveling together, we’ve never even had a single disagreement.” As if proving Ken’s words true, the amiable “backbone” shakes my hand firmly when I greet him, and repeatedly tries to help carry my bags before turning to lead us into the band’s rehearsal space.
In keeping with their punk rock roots, the inside feels like a huge basement, lacking windows and air conditioning. Broken instruments and gear are strewn across tables or forgotten about in corners, and two huge industrial fans strain to provide a breeze. Hanging almost carelessly on the walls are countless posters, backdrops, and flyers spanning the band’s long career, still on the rise after all these years. “We’re still waxing instead of waning, you know? Every year the shows seem to get bigger and bigger,” says Kelly, as he gives a brief tour (complete with a warning about large rats) before we sit down on an oversized couch to chat. He has a working-class restlessness about him, in the sense that you can tell he can’t stand laziness and enjoys work. Luckily for Matt Kelly, work means drumming with the Dropkick Murphys, and he has a lot to say about his wicked cool job.
TO: Thank you again for meeting up. I know you’re a busy guy. I feel like I’m in a secret clubhouse right now!
MK: It’s a secret, rat-ridden, loud, metal hot box. But yeah, no problem.
TO: (laughs) So what’s new with you?
MK: Well the band has been off for almost two months. So, I’ve been home spending a lot of time with my son, and my wife, and my dog. Everyone else has been pretty much doing the same thing. People have been taking the time to travel and that sort of thing. I’ve been jamming with friends, and I keep saying I’m going to set up my record player. Nothing really crazy at the moment.
TO: Is there a system you have for getting ready to go out on tour?
MK: We’ve been rehearsing, and I step up my personal practice schedule. I come down here (to practice) a few hours a day. I’ll work on some things. There’s plenty of stuff to work on, plenty of deficiencies to bring up to snuff. So yeah, doing that, and I try to go running when I can, but that doesn’t usually happen. The whole band steps it up too, though. Gotta keep things tight.
TO: Any pre-show routines for you?
MK: Oh yeah. About an hour and a half before we start, I go through a series of gentle stretches with my hands, my wrists, and my arms. Then I hit the practice pads for about 45 minutes with a metronome. There are a few different things I do every time, little things I’ve picked up here and there. Count Basie had a cool thing I always use.
TO: What is it?
MK: (picks up sticks and plays on snare) It’s going eight on each hand, then seven, six, down to one, and back up again to eight. I’ll do it at various tempos. It just makes you have to think a little and limbers you up.
TO: Which is necessary. The Murphys go hard for most of the set.
MK: We usually play about 90 minutes, 25 to 27 songs.
TO: And it’s not chill playing.
MK: No, not for the most part. We throw in some slower songs we like to play for dynamics, and it gives people half a second to breath. But for me, it’s mostly non-stop. I’m working hard back there, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
TO: You’re going to Europe in the winter, correct?
MK: Yeah, in January and February we’re going over there with Frank Turner and his boys. I know there’s a big show in London at the Alexander Palace. After that, the world will have to wait. We have other stuff planned. I can’t say it yet though.
MK: Awesome. It’s amazing. I mean, you’re playing places like Monheim and Dortmund, places that hold 10,000 people and it’s sold out. I’m not talking festivals. These are our own shows. We’re just up there like, “This is insane.” I remember playing with Dropkick when maybe 20 people would show up, so it’s amazing to see the development. Europe is just awesome. I love playing Germany, Spain, Italy, and Belgium. Greece has been a newer place for us. Eastern Europe as well, we recently played Bulgaria for the first time. It’s great. The people are very…
TO: They freak out more, right?
MK: They do! They’re not like us, where we’re so reserved and too cool for school. I’m guilty of the same thing. I’ve folded my arms and nodded my head while watching a band instead of going bananas, you know? Unless it’s Iron Maiden (laughs). But yeah, we Americans are a bit more uptight than the Europeans. They’re a bit more loose, and like to have a good time, and they show it.
TO: That being said, I caught you guys a few years back in Brockton on the From Boston to Berkley Tour with Rancid.
MK: Oh, that was great! That was fantastic!
TO: That was one of the best hometown crowds I’ve ever seen. People were going crazy.
MK: That show was off the hook. That was up there with Europe. Absolutely.
TO: Then, after that tour with Rancid, you went on the road with Flogging Molly. What was it like playing with another Celtic punk band?
MK: Well, we’ve known them since they were playing in bars. Our producer, Ted Hutt, used to be in their band. So it’s kind of familial. We would hang out and just shoot the breeze a lot. They’re great dudes and put on a hell of a show, and people love three hours of Celtic music and punk rock stuck together for some reason.
TO: (laughs) It’s true. Fans loved it. Does playing with bands like Flogging Molly or Rancid make you guys play better? Is there any friendly competition in that setting?
MK: I can’t speak for everybody. For me, whether I’m in front of three people or 30,000, I just want to fucking destroy it. People are paying money to see you. For (musicians) who are like “Oh, I don’t feel like giving it my all today,” screw you! Go get a day job if you’re it’s like that. Play your ass off no matter what, because people are there to see you play. Give them a show.
TO: I think that kind of attitude comes from staying grateful.
MK: I can say that everybody is very grateful to be where we are. There isn’t any rock star crap. You know, we’re just a bunch of dudes, and it’s important to show that gratitude.
TO: It seems like the band hasn’t stopped touring for years.
MK: Eh, I mean, we’ve been off for a couple months. That’s pretty cool.
TO: Right, but some groups will take a year or two off, you know what I mean?
MK: No! We don’t do that. I think I would lose my mind. I think my wife would kill me.
TO: So you don’t want a year off?
MK: I’m already getting antsy. I’ve been antsy, sitting around like, “Alright, let’s go.” I’ve been in the band since 1997. It’s what I do. If I’m not doing this, I feel like I’m not earning my way.
TO: Oh, I thought you joined in 1998.
MK: Nope. I joined in May of 1997. I sang background vocals on the Boys on the Docks EP, and that was me saying “Get a job, you bum!”
TO: I didn’t know that was you!
MK: Yeah, I was the quiet little guy trying to act like some squatter scumbag (laughs).
TO: And you’re still singing background vocals to this day.
MK: Yeah, it sucks (laughs). There’s like twenty guys in the band but I guess I need to help them out and sing.
TO: I don’t like singing and playing either. My attention span starts going haywire. I’m already trying so hard to keep the tempos and my shit together, and when I sing it starts getting messy.
TO: I always assumed you did it because you wanted to.
MK: No, I don’t want to (laughs). I mean, there are certain things I like to sing, but I rather be able to just concentrate on drumming. I do it because I’m a “Get Along Gang” kind of guy. It could be worse. I could be singing songs I don’t like.
TO: Do you have a favorite album, or are they kind of like your children and you can’t pick?
MK: One of ours?
TO: Yeah. Maybe you have a few favorites?
MK: I mean, I don’t really listen to my own music.
MK: When you record an album, you’re psyched and you listen to it a bunch, but then it’s a little weird after a while. Let me see though… I mean, Do or Die was special because it was my first LP with the band, and it was the first time I was in a studio and there was, like, an actual budget. I never had that before! We spent a day getting drum sounds and recorded the drums over two or three days instead of two or three hours. So that was cool. I listen to it now and and cringe about the tempos or what I played.
TO: Was there a click?
MK: No, we didn’t use a click until about three albums ago. Wait, was it four albums ago? I don’t know. But besides Do or Die, I would have to pick 11 Short Stories of Pain and Glory. It was the first time we recorded out of state. We went to Texas, way the fuck down near the border of Mexico. We were there for 13 days, and it was awesome being able to wake up in the morning, have breakfast, and then go be creative for 12 hours a day. It was probably my favorite to work on, because we were just doing it, you know?
TO: Those are cool bookends, being your first and latest albums.
MK: I know, it’s odd and it’s kind of cliché, but it’s true. We had never been away from home to do an album before. So we were eating, living, and sleeping the album. It was all just swirling around. We did a lot of cool, wacky stuff that ended up working.
TO: Did you use a drum tech?
MK: Yeah, it was Charles from Sonic Ranch. He’s an engineer there and he tuned the drums to the key of every song. That can be overkill sometimes, but for the slower songs like “Paying My Way” or “Until The Next Time,” it really helped. He did a great job, and he’s a hell of a guy.
TO: Can you talk about some specific tracks off the new album? For instance, “Blood” sounds like The Who with bagpipes to me.
MK: Well, thank you. The Who are one of the best bands ever, so I like that. That song went through so many changes with the time signature. For a while it was almost in 7 and there was a little hiccup at the end of each phrase. Finally, we decided to try and play it in 4 and it just clicked. So that took a while to get right. The melody was always there, and the tempo stayed the same, but the feel became more anthemic. All of a sudden you could dance to it.
TO: Was that your idea?
MK: No, it’s always a group effort. I can’t remember who suggested it, but I was in agreement to put it in 4.
TO: Like any good drummer (laughs).
MK: I like odd times, though. I love playing in 5!
TO: Not many punk drummers would say that.
MK: That’s because they only listen to punk. That’s the problem.
TO: And that’s not you?
MK: No, man. I mean, I don’t listen to punk for the drums. I like the aggression. I like the songs. A good punk song is a good pop song, you know? But I like listening to Dave Brubeck Quartet and shit like that. That stuff is cool. It bums me out when people only listen to one type of music or only current music.
TO: If this was 1998, I would have to ask if you consider yourself a punk drummer. But I feel like nobody cares anymore.
MK: I play in a punk band, and I have a lot of punk friends. I’ll leave it at that (laughs).
TO: Any other tracks you want to mention?
MK: Throw me something.
TO: How about “Rebels with a Cause”?
MK: Yeah! That one sounds like The Jam or The Clash, and the vocal delivery has a Paul Weller kind of thing to it. It’s a badass tune. The subject matter is a bit dark, talking about two drug addicts, but it’s also about them fighting their way out of things.
And I want to say that Ted Hutt did such a nice job producing all these songs. He greases the wheels of creativity very well, and is really easy to work with. We love him.
TO: What kit did you record with?
MK: I used this SJC acrylic kit. We call them my green precious emeralds.
TO: Those really are the prettiest drums I’ve ever seen. Look at the Celtic knot work on the hoops!
MK: Yeah, they’re alright man. They’re beautiful.
TO: You’ve had a long relationship with SJC Drums. So many drummers play them now, but you were with those guys way before they blew up.
MK: Yeah! It’s amazing. I’m so psyched for them. I remember when I got my first one. It must have been about ten years ago. I got it sent to me in St. Paul, Minnesota. I think we were playing with H20. I loved them immediately. Mike and the guys are really cool, and I love supporting a local company. I have yet to try their hardware but I want to. I hear it’s good.
TO: Do you use specific hardware?
MK: I have a DW 5000 kick pedal, some piece of crap high hat stand, and I use Zildjian cymbals.
TO: And Zildjian is of course another Massachusetts company.
MK: That’s right. They came over to Quincy, MA in the twenties. My dad played them, and so do I. I love the Avedis line (taps hats). They sound right out of the sixties, real mellow. I just went to the Zildjian headquarters. One of the perks when you’re with them is that they let you trade in cymbals, and they take the time to make sure you’re set (of cymbals) are in tune with one another and sound harmonious together. They always have cool stuff hanging around too. I’m pretty sure an old Buddy Rich kit was on display.
TO: I read you started playing drums because your father had a kit in the house. Do you remember what kind of drums they were?
MK: It was a Rogers kick and floor, some no-name rack tom, and a Tama snare. I forget what model the snare was but it had this beautiful wine red finish. There were also some timbales he tuned down as some additional toms. I actually was supposed to start playing saxophone, but one day, he took out the drums to clean them up and I asked him if I could try them. I sat down and didn’t want to play saxophone anymore. I’m like “Dad, I want to play drums!” His only thing was that I had to take lessons.
TO: And who did you study with?
MK: Don Kirby. He still plays today. He taught at the Music Box in Fitchburg for many years. He started out as a lefty, but taught himself to play a right handed kit. He’s such a killer drummer. I think I was with him for six or seven years. What a great guy and mentor.
TO: What kind of stuff did you work on?
MK: Reading, right from the beginning. He held off on the rudiments for a while and then slowly integrated them, showing me how to apply them around the kit. We worked on a lot of styles like Motown, jazz, rock, a little bit of reggae and Latin stuff. I loved his teaching and I still use a lot of the stuff he showed me today. I can just picture him sitting in the corner smoking his tobacco pipe.
TO: I can hear a lot of your schooling shine through with the Murphys. Some songs swing so hard, and you use a lot of open rolls and other rudiments in your fills. It makes for a very unique sound.
MK: Thank you. I do use a lot of open rolls. I suck at singles. I’m not very fast or accurate with them, so I use singles sparingly. I’m moving a lot of open rolls and other rudiments around the kit. It’s all thanks to Don Kirby, man.
TO: Would you recommend lessons to an aspiring drummer?
MK: Definitely. There’s only so much you can learn by strapping on headphones and playing along to records, which is invaluable by the way. That’s how my dad learned, by playing along to the Ventures and Rascals. But it really helps to have someone looking out for you and pushing you. I learned a lot of things with Kirby I never would have taken the time to figure out on my own. I mean, the first song I ever learned was “Come Together,” by the Beatles. I never would have picked that, but it’s such a cool song. So yeah, I would say take lessons if you can afford them.
TO: Has your son started messing around with the drums yet?
MK: He has his own little kit, but he likes to come down and play mine. You know, it’s bigger and louder so he likes it. I don’t want to push him with drums. We’ll see when he gets a little older.
TO: You’re quoted as saying you “want to be as unobtrusive as possible while still playing tasty stuff.” Can I just say, I love that! More drummers should think like that.
MK: I want to do that! I don’t think I’m always successful, as sometimes I can get percussive diarrhea. That is the goal, though. I think Art Blakey or some other killer drummer said “I’m still learning what not to play.” Some people just have it. John Bonham had it. He always knew where one was. Showing off just isn’t my cup of tea. I definitely try to play to the song.
TO: But you do play intricate things, and you pick your spots really well.
MK: Well, that’s calculated. I try to play interesting things without just crapping all over the kit.
TO: What other drummers do that well, in your opinion?
MK: John Bonham, Phill Rudd, Ian Paice played a lot but was still awesome…
TO: Stewart Copeland?
MK: Ugh. Oh yeah. Stewart Copeland is a motherfucker. He is the hi hat master. My teacher had a cardboard cutout of his head in the drum room.
TO: His playing is so cool, but he manages to stay out of Sting’s way, right?.
MK: Yeah, he’s so good, and I of course love all the old jazz guys like Art Blakey, Joe Morello, Max Roach, and Philly Joe.
TO: Was there a moment when you realized the band was really taking off?
MK: Uh, it was actually pretty gradual. We seemed to catch on more in Europe to begin with. Then we got involved with the Red Sox and recorded “Tessie” for them in 2004. We ended up playing at Fenway that year, too. I have to say, us getting involved with the professional sports teams in Boston really helped. All of a sudden we started getting a lot of hometown recognition. Before 2004, we were not a household name. If you were into punk rock you probably knew about us, but that was it. Then all a sudden, all these jocks and people I would have hated in high school started getting into us (laughs). The Boston sports fans really embraced us. It was good timing.
TO: Then a few years later the song “Shipping Up to Boston” really took off.
MK: That song was actually a throwaway. There was a demo of it that appeared on a punk rock compilation called “Give Em The Boot,” but the whistle was a little out of tune so we recorded it again for the album “A Warrior’s Code.” The first time we played it live, it was a complete flop.
TO: No way!
MK: Yup, we put it in the encore, and nobody cared. We were like “Wow, let’s not play that ever again.” Then it was featured in the movie “The Departed,” which brought it to a wider audience.
TO: “The Departed” is such a Boston movie.
MK: Yes, with some terrible accents (laughs). There were some good ones too I guess. Then the next year, (Red Sox closing pitcher) Jonathan Papelbon would walk out to the song. I still have him dancing a jig burned into my mind’s eye. The Celtics and Bruins started playing it at their games, too. It just kept growing, and eventually went platinum as a single.
TO: It actually sold over two million copies, and it happened so gradually over the course of so many years that it never cracked the Billboard charts.
MK: Right, and it didn’t really sell as a physical entity. It was mainly downloaded as a digital single, so we have framed platinum micro-chips or something. As a vinyl collector, I was like “Damn, I wanted a record!” (laughs). It was amazing though, that anything we did as a band was that successful.
TO: I hope you’re a sports fan, given all the associations you guys have with these teams.
MK: I am. I love the Bruins, the Sox, and el futbol. I don’t really like American football. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just don’t care for it myself. I can’t get into golf either. It’s like playing really expensive marbles. But yeah, I really love the Bruins. I remember growing up in the seventies and watching the games on my dad’s lap. It was such a good era back then to be a fan.
TO: And you’ve played NHL events, right?
MK: Yes, we’ve done a few. It was awesome. We played one of the Stanley Cup Finals. I was a season ticket holder too for a while. But you know, when you buy a house, your priorities shift a little. So those went away.
TO: My older brother is a doctor, and he had Red Sox season tickets for a while. Then he had a kid. He also had to get rid of his.
MK: Man, and he’s a doctor! You would think he would be able to afford it.
TO: Yeah, but Boston is expensive man, and so is Fenway.
MK: (laughs) Yeah, if I was still living in South Boston I would have no money. It would all be gone.
TO: What was it like playing Fenway Park?
MK: It was special, man. We played on the field during a couple games, and then we recorded a big show there for a live album. There was a stage on the field, and everybody sat in the bleachers. It was interesting, and there was a lot of pressure. It was a very big night for the band. I definitely tore up some grass and brought it home in a bag. We also played the World Series parade in 2018 for the second time. We were on the lead float. It was crazy. When my son went to school his whole class watched the parade on TV and he got to see me. That was so cool. He was so excited.
TO: Are there any songs you’re looking forward to playing live on the upcoming tour?
MK: I don’t know if we’re going to do it, but I would like to play “Wheel of Misfortune.” It’s nice to throw that in between all our fast songs. It’s kind of a slow burner, and all the guys really dig it. It’s powerful and has developed a lot since we recorded it.
TO: Do you still like playing “Shipping Up To Boston?”
MK: Oh yeah. It’s fun to play. I don’t really get sick of playing specific songs. I just try to play them better each time, and that can be a challenge when you’re sucking wind and tired. Don’t get me wrong… sometimes, especially in the last five years, you can see people leaning on the barricade and they’re playing with their phones, looking bored. Then we play “Shipping…” and they freak out and are all into it. It’s like “Really?” If you’re coming to see us for that one song, why wouldn’t you just stay in the back and let others enjoy the show up front?
TO: I’ve seen other bands ask the audience to put away their phones, even if they are just taking photos.
MK: Yeah, man. We actually have a sign that comes up on the screen that says something like “Only an asshole takes selfies on stage.” It’s not that we don’t want people taking photos or video. It’s about being present and having a good time, and it’s hard to do that if you’re always playing with your phone. I went to go see Iron Maiden and all my buddies were asking me to see pictures, but I didn’t take a single one. I watched the band and went bananas.
TO: Do you ever blow your chops out while playing live?
MK: Not any more.
TO: But you used to?
MK: Oh, absolutely! Everybody has, I think. Maybe super humans don’t. Especially when you’re young and getting up onstage like “Yeah! Let’s go!” I mean, I can’t say I haven’t made that mistake at all in the last ten years, but for the most part it doesn’t happen anymore.
TO: Well, it takes a lot of control to not hit shit so hard in your environment.
MK: Yeah, it’s tough when you’re playing in front of a psyched audience and you just want to let loose. These days I come out real strong, and by the second verse of the first song, I start laying back. I never used to do that. I would be going one hundred percent every minute. But then I figured out I can play so much better if I just ease up a little. Plus, I don’t want to get little injuries from overplaying. I don’t want to mess myself up and not be able to play or do other things I like to do.
TO: What else do you like to do, besides drumming?
MK: Well, I collect records, so I DJ now and then. If there is a cool punk show at the Middle East or something I’ll show up and spin some cuts. I show up with two turntables, no microphone, and only play vinyl. Also, I love languages. I’m very into etymology and language origins. It’s very dry, and my wife makes fun of me for it. Most people have better things to do with their free time (laughs).
TO: Let’s say you do get hurt. Who are calling to fill in for you?
MK: Well, I would call Kevin Rowe, but he’s playing bass with us right now until Ken gets better. I would call Tim Brennan too, but he’s our lead guitarist.
TO: He plays drums?
MK: He’s a great drummer. That’s his kit right over there (points to a drum set shoved in the corner). Tim’s one of those musicians who does it all.
TO: And he makes playing the accordion seem so cool!
MK (laughs) Yeah, because he’s such a big dude, all you see is him working it! He’s always yelling at the crowd and just crushing the thing!
TO: So who are you calling though? Your first two picks are unavailable.
MK: Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve had a few close calls, but I’ve actually never missed a show.
TO: You’ve never missed a show in 22 years?!
MK: Not that I know of. The band played with the Boston Pops once and I couldn’t make it. The percussion section covered my parts and it was fine. But besides that, no I haven’t missed one, and I never had to think about who I’d call. I mean there are thousands of capable drummers out there. I don’t know, maybe I’m calling you.
TO: C’mon, I can’t print that (laughs). I’m sure someone like Josh Freese could do it.
MK: I’m sure he could easily do it. I don’t know him like that, but I’m sure he would be all over it. Then the Murphys will be like, “Hey Matt, we’ll call you when we need you back!” (laughs) But yeah, Freese is an amazing and more than capable drummer.
TO: Well, let’s hope you never have to make that call, and that you have another 20-plus years of perfect attendance.
MK: Yes! This is all I know how to do, and we’re so lucky to still be playing. I’m so grateful. We all are.
TO: Any last words?
MK: Yeah, go listen to music before 1977.
- SJC Custom Drums, Green Acrylic (8×12 rack tom, 14×14 floor tom, 14×16 floor tom, 18×22 bass drum, 5×14 maple snare)
- Zildjian Cymbals: 14” A Avedis hi hats, 16” A medium thin crash, 17” A medium thin crash, 18” A medium thin crash,18” medium thin crash, 22” A ping ride.
- Pro-Mark 5A wood tip Shira Kashi Oak sticks.
- DW 5000 bass drum pedal.
- Evans G2 clear heads on toms.
- Evans coated Genera Dry on snare.