Flogging Molly Discusses 20th Anniversary of ‘Swagger,’ Writing With Poignancy

In Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, a small pub named Molly Malone’s was the place to be every Monday night. That was when the band Flogging Molly played their raucous, feel-good brand of Celtic punk, which quickly earned them a fiercely loyal following. In 2000, Flogging Molly’s debut album Swagger earned rave reviews and brought the band fame well beyond their pub playing roots. On October 23, they’re releasing a Swagger 20th anniversary limited edition vinyl box set that includes the original album plus additional tracks, a documentary DVD, and extensive artwork and other keepsakes.

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Calling from Wexford, Ireland, frontman Dave King says that compiling the songs and extras for this box set triggered nostalgia for the band members. With a laugh, he recalls how a clip on the DVD reminded him of a particularly memorable show in San Jose, California.

“I remember after the show that night, we were escorted from San Jose by the police to the freeway because we were causing mayhem on the streets! They were like, ‘You guys have to leave!’ Just hilarious.”

Although there is this “fun and hilarity of it all,” as King puts it, he adds that Flogging Molly’s music can also have seriousness and depth, as well. “Musically and lyrically, we’ve always just been honest. I make sure I write how I really feel,” he says.

This means that many of King’s songs have a certain poignancy.

“A lot of the lyrics, especially in the early days, were about my dad because I never really grieved over him because I was so young when he died,” King says. “I think when Flogging Molly got together, it was the first opportunity I had to delve into the grief of losing my father.” King’s songs have, in turn, helped others cope with similar sorrow: “We’ve had so many families come up to us who have lost loved ones and have our lyrics on their gravestones.”

This authenticity – and the strong bond it creates with fans – is a particularly important point, because King admits he didn’t always approach his career in this way. Before Flogging Molly, King moved from his native Dublin, Ireland to London in order to become lead singer for the heavy metal band Fastway. He recorded four successful albums with them, scoring significant hits with songs such as “Say What You Will” (1983). Unfortunately, King says, he never felt like he was being true to himself during this phase of his career.

“When I was in Fastway, I was listening to the Cure and The Smiths – all sorts of different types of music,” King says, “and I always remember the rest of the band going, ‘What the hell are you listening to?’ I wasn’t happy being that almost, I felt, pretender. I felt like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’”

King quit Fastway and immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1990s, intending to get a fresh start. “I wanted to go on a different path. I wanted to explore a different avenue of what I was trying to be about, because anything I ever wrote about before that was pretty much meaningless, in my opinion – lyrically, that is,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was just trying to make things rhyme and stuff like that.

“But then a pivotal night happened when I was playing acoustically on my own in Molly Malone’s and I met Bridget [Regan],” King continues. “Bridget said, ‘Well, I play the fiddle.’ So I went over to her apartment the next day and when I heard her playing fiddle over songs I already had, it did something I’ve never felt before.”

Knowing they’d hit on something special, King and Regan formed Flogging Molly, which soon swelled to seven members – more than could fit on Molly Malone’s small stage all at the same time. Their blend of punk and traditional Irish instrumentation felt right to King. “I felt like I’d kind of neglected my Irish roots a little bit. When I met Bridget, it flipped the switch on. And we just went from there.”

Flogging Molly has gone on to release six critically acclaimed studio albums. Their most recent one, Life Is Good, came out in 2017 and reached #8 on the Billboard U.S. Top Alternative Albums chart. King says they’re working on their next album now.

“I’ve been writing a lot lately about immigration, and how hard it is to make a life for yourself and your family going through all those things – especially in the climate that we live in right now,” King says. His own immigration experience is a big inspiration for this topic. “I went through a very difficult period in America where, unfortunately unbeknownst to me, I was illegal and I couldn’t leave the country. It was a really, really heavy time. I mean, I didn’t see my mother for eight years.”

Mentioning his mother prompts King to recall how she was the one who sparked his interest in music when he was growing up in Dublin. She was a gifted piano player and singer who would play at the local pub, and she’d often bring him along. “Everyone would sit on the floor and my mother would play piano. We’d all have a sing-song and I was involved in that.”

When King was six, his parents bought him a guitar and encouraged him to play. Unfortunately, King’s father passed away when he was only ten years old. His mother’s support for his musical talent continued, though: “When I went to join Fastway, my mother was cleaning houses at the time, and she borrowed the money from one of the people that she was cleaning for, for me to get an air ticket to go to London to audition for the band. So I always felt that I had her backing.”

These days, thousands of fans around the world recognize King’s talent, and he’s immensely grateful. “It’s the fans that have carried us all these years. Without the fans, we’d be nothing. We always had a great rapport with our fans. We still do. They’re very special to us. And I know we’re very special to them, too.”

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