Flogging Molly's Matthew Hensley Talks Celtic Tunes, Punk, Politics, and Skateboarding

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Best known for blending an upstart attitude with Celtic tradition, Flogging Molly can not only claim a sonic but also a geographical bond with the old country.

The band's founder and frontman Dave King is a Dublin native whose familiarity with Irish insurgency is underscored by the fact he's able to draw on his own roots and reflections to shape the songs' themes, from childhood memories of religious and political strife to his forced relocation to the United States.

Last week, Crossfade spoke with another Flogging Molly member, the band's piano, concertina, and accordion player Matthew Hensley, about Celtic tunes, St. Paddy's Day, punk, politics, and skateboarding.

Crossfade: Is there a special affinity and kinship with bands like the Dropkick Murphys, Black 47, and the Pogues?

Matthew Hensley: For the most part, yeah. I loved the Pogues growing up. Anytime they're around and I'm not touring, I go to see them play. I actually got to meet a few guys from the band and occasionally I email them and say hello. It's a big honor for me to even be in that game. We're friends with Black 47 and I've sat in with Dropkick Murphy a couple of times so I try to keep up with as much as possible. 

Your bookings for St. Patrick's Day must extend well into the next decade.

We usually only book ourselves a year in advance. I'm just happy we have a holiday we can count on.

Obviously, Flogging Molly is also well known for the energy you put out on stage. Plus, the band plays like 300 gigs a year. Given that combination, how do you maintain your stamina?

When we're together, that energy just comes naturally. Even when I'm sick or exhausted, by the time I get back onstage and the crowd starts reacting, all the energy comes back. I just feel like I'm going to make it work for the people who have paid their money to see us. They anticipate all this energy and I just can't let those people down.

You guys also have a unique musical mix of the traditional music of Ireland and this rowdy punk-like attitude. How do you go about achieving that blend?

Dave was born in Ireland and he writes almost all the songs, and a lot of the lyrics are about how Dave sees his world, growing up in Ireland, coming to America, and all the different facets of those situations. I play accordion. But before I joined Flogging Molly, I would do a lot of Irish sessions. That helped me learn traditional Irish music. When I'm not touring, I'll go and do an Irish session here in San Diego. So that helps me keep my chops up with that kind of music. I do love traditional Irish music on its own -- I play it, I listen to it. But Floating Molly takes it to another level. Obviously it's more punk- and rock 'n' roll- influenced. We give it everything we can.

There's also a political element that enters into it too, no?

Oh yeah, absolutely. We don't try to be a political band, but the world just keeps on forcing the issue. I won't ignore anything either. When certain things happen in this world, we'll take notice and we'll pick a side. And whatever little influence we have, we'll use it for the betterment of this world.

What kind of issue would you guys feel like you have to get behind?

A lot of our new record -- especially a lot of the lyrics -- has to do with the fact that the world's kind of gone to shit. You have people that are oppressed and there are a lot of things about our country that are just coming apart. This album has a lot to do with that, because we're looking around at our surroundings and that has a lot to do with how we feel as a band. When Bush ran for his second term, we were pretty public in our opposition. We didn't back him, we didn't believe in him, so we were rallying against him. And we regularly auction off old instruments to raise money for homeless people. None of us are millionaires but we try to do what we can. So we work with different organizations and raise money around the world.

You were a professional skateboarder at one time. How does one make that transition, from skateboarder to musician?

I'd been a skateboarder my whole life. But I always felt drawn to music. When I was growing up, punk rock first hit, and those two scenes, to me, kind of went hand in hand. Punk and skateboarding went right together. I always played some kind of music -- I was in ska bands early on -- so I always loved music.

And why the accordion?

I love the instrument, and once I got my hands on it, it all kind of made sense to me. My mother was from Maine and her family was from Scotland. When they came to visit, they'd bring their fiddles and accordions and play all this Scottish music and French music, and it would just go all night long. For me, playing accordion just means I can play all kinds of music from around the world. I can make it sound like France, I can make it sound like Ireland, I can make it sound like Germany or Poland. There aren't too many instruments that can do that. I'm not wearing lederhosen and I'm not dressed like a traditional dancer. But I am giving it all I can.

But you could be wearing lederhosen and be right in your element, right?

Well, I guess I could be wearing lederhosen during Octoberfest and try to play some beer drinking songs. But I probably won't.

What's the name of the new album and when can we expect it?

We don't have a name yet. Dave and Bridgette are in Ireland, and some people are in New York, and I'm in San Diego, so we're emailing each other back and forth with ideas. Hopefully, we'll settle on a name shortly. The actual date of release is May something.

When the band sits down to strategize a new album, what usually comes first -- the songs or the concept?

Our process is that Dave will write a song on acoustic guitar and then he'll sit with all of us and he'll play it. Then we'll take that and go with it. It can start as a waltz and turn into a 4/4 song, or vice versa. Everything on our records just happens naturally to some degree. We did three months of rehearsing in Detroit, where Bridget's from and where Dave and Bridget have a house. I think it was the natural effect of going to Detroit for three months and seeing it first hand, and seeing a part of the country that got hit pretty hard by this economic meltdown. I think that just by osmosis or whatever, that kind of rubbed off on it.

You could also have a Motown or Bob Seger or Ted Nugent sound. That's also part of that Detroit tradition as well.

On one of the songs I'm playing accordion through a Lesley pedal and it sounds like it has a real Motown style. You'll hear it. Even the punctuation on it is very Tamla/Motown.

It's kind of strange to imagine that a Celtic outfit like Flogging Molly is practically based in Detroit. Dave and Bridget have a house in Ireland. But it would be really expensive to fly the whole band to Ireland. It's a lot simpler to have the band, who are scattered all over the country, fly to the center, so to speak.

True. The whole notion of you guys congregating in Detroit just seems a bit strange.

Well, yeah. But it is what it is.

Alright then, we'll see you when you play here in Miami.

I won't be the guy in the lederhosen. But I will be the guy with the accordion.

Flogging Molly. Saturday, February 12. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. and tickets cost $26.50 plus fees via livenation.com. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.

Follow Crossfade on Facebook and Twitter @Crossfade_SFL.

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