Flogging Molly frontman Dave King is an Irish Springsteen. He writes songs that celebrate working-class values and the everyman’s indomitable spirit. Not surprisingly, the songs are occasionally dark, especially when King recounts his impoverished Irish upbringing (“Life in a Tenement Square,” “Screaming at the Wailing Wall”), but even these tunes are hoisted by the vitality and hope at their center.
King has long since said goodbye to the Emerald Isle, and today he resides in Detroit, Mich. with his fiddle- and tin whistle-playing wife and bandmate, Bridget Regan. Thanks to his Irish upbringing and the fact that he is now able to witness the Motor City’s woes on a day-to-day basis, King is uniquely qualified to sing about poverty and the hopes of those holding onto the bottom rungs. In fact, this grim subject matter is the focus of Flogging Molly’s fifth studio album, Speed of Darkness, which was released last year.
The frontman notes that the album title was inspired by a question a Croatian boy once asked his teacher during the Balkan War. King says that the child asked his instructor, “You told me what the speed of light is, but can anyone tell me the speed of darkness, because the war came so quickly?” King says. “That really stuck in my head, and became a metaphor for the album because of how quickly the economic crisis hit here.”
The album’s like a soundtrack to a nation’s troubles, from the enforced darkness of “The Power’s Out” to the blue collar odes “Revolution” and “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down,” which was inspired by some graffiti King spotted on a dilapidated house.
“I walked around the neighborhood while writing the album, like three times a day with our dog. I met people, and you would never know they were going through a hard time because they don’t have that defeatist attitude. That really affected me as a songwriter,” King says. “I wanted to portray that. I didn’t want to look at this as doom and gloom. It’s not doom and gloom. Something good will also come out of this.”
And that journey is something that the Flogging Molly singer knows first hand. In 1983, King was living in Dublin squalor when he was plucked to be the lead singer of Fastway, a band headed by former Motorhead guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke. He toured the world and later fronted a new band, Kathmandu, with former Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer. When that disbanded, King got a solo deal with Epic, but he eventually turned it down.
“They wanted me to be a certain way and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that anymore. I’m just tired of you guys telling me what you want me to do.’ So I said to myself, fuck it, I’m leaving,” King says. “The first song I wrote on my own after that was a song called ‘Selfish Man.’ I thought, ‘I found something there. Let’s get to the swords quickly.’ ”
Writing what burned in his soul would eventually make King and Flogging Molly stars, but success has been slow in coming. For several years in the ’90s, the seven-piece band played in a pub that paid them $40 cash plus drink tickets. During their lean times, they experienced the camaraderie that comes from making music for its own sake. “That was better than getting a record deal at the time. Drink tickets, that’s what it’s about,” King says.
It’d take seven years before Flogging Molly released their debut, 2000’s Swagger. The even sharper Drunken Lullabies built on that momentum in 2002, cracking the top 10 of Billboard’s independent albums charts, while 2004’s Within a Mile of Home ended up on Billboard’s top 20 albums chart. Energetic, mesmerizing performers, Flogging Molly toured their asses off around the world. By the time of 2008’s Float, they were international stars.
Along the way they’ve broadened their sound, but never so much as they did on Speed of Darkness. While still packed with the racing Celtic-punk and traditional Irish sounds they’re known for, the band steps out with tracks like the spunky new wave-flavored “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down,” the cosmic country tones at the edges of “The Heart of the Sea,” the ’70s hard rock overtones of “Oliver Boy (All of Our Boys),” and the pretty country-folk ballad “A Prayer for Me in Silence,” where beneath the Irish-folk exists a hint of Laurel Canyon warmth.
“Every album that you do should be like that,” he says. “Obviously, Speed of Darkness is completely different than say Swagger, but it should be because you can’t make the same old record over and over. You have to grow and experiment and do your own thing.”
King’s happy that the band has become successful, but he hasn’t forgotten the lesson of those down times. They’re at the core of Speed of Darkness, and pretty much everything else that King has written.
“I went through painting houses and driving trucks. Then I met Bridget, we started playing music and we met the guys and then it went from there,” he says. “I’d never want anybody listening to our music to leave without a sense of hope. No matter what you sing about, no matter how shitty things are, there is always hope.”