DS Interview: Mike McColgan on FM359, what’s next for Street Dogs, and his return to Boston

We last caught up with Street Dogs frontman Mike McColgan early last spring. At the time, the band had just announced that their recently-revealed hiatus was going to be incredibly short-lived. Little did anyone really know just how strong a year the band would have.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Mike again this week, and we caught him at a pretty good time. The Street Dogs capped a successful 2013 with their most successful Wreck The Halls tour to date, and his side project FM359 (with fellow Street Dog Johnny Rioux and fellow founding Dropkick Murphy Rick Barton) is readying their debut full-length (due January 15th via Pirates Press Records). We chatted about all things Street Dogs (including new music in the works!), FM359, and Mike’s recent return to Boston after some time spent in California. Check it out below.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): I had a moment when I was watching you guys at Wreck The Halls at House of Blues, thinking that, when the year started, (Street Dogs) were on hiatus somewhat indefinitely, at least at the time, and nobody really knew publicly, what was going to go on. And then to fast-forward to the end of the year, it seems like it was obviously a really good year, between a couple of new releases, a couple of new band members, a few tours. It seems like (Wreck The Halls) was a real emphatic way…a triumphant way…to put your stamp on 2013.

Mike McColgan: Yeah. Last year, I think, there were a lot of road-weary people in our group. You, know Tobe wanted to move on and do various things and work for Alkaline Trio as a guitar tech. He’s our friend and our brother and we support him with that. Marcus wanted to explore his own band, I Love Math, in Texas, so we decided to take some time off and retool the band. Then we brought aboard Lenny Lashley and we brought aboard Matt Pruitt. That was a lateral transfer of sorts for them, with Matt having been in the Have Nots and Lenny being in Gang of One, Piss Poor Boys and Darkbuster. We spent time on the road with the Have Nots and we spent time on the road with Gang of One with Lenny, so we knew those guys real well, we knew them as friends and players. So when they came into the band, it was seamless.

I think we expected an adjustment period, or maybe some weirdness or being tentative or (it) not exactly feeling like Street Dogs, but all things considered, from the beginning up until now, I think it’s retooled us and made us stronger. I don’t think that was the expectation at the outset. I thought there would be growing pains and setbacks and things like that. But, like you said, we ended the year on a high note, having played the most successful Wreck The Halls Run ever, since the group’s been around. That was unexpected, and we’re grateful for it. We’re grateful to our friends and fans and families for supporting us. Oddly enough, it seems to be growing more now than it ever has, and that’s something we didn’t expect.

Yeah, not a bad way to end a year that started at least a little bit up in the air.

It’s funny how, and this is no disrespect to Marcus and Tobe because we love them and we wish them well and we’re on great terms with those guys, and anyone who’s been in our band, for that matter. It’s a big family. But the addition of Lenny and Matt has elevated us somewhat. I think where they’re Boston guys, it works to lighten the mood for me and Johnny. There’s levity there. There’s comedy there. There’s a common understanding because we all come from the same area. If I could be guilty of anything in Street Dogs, it’s maybe being a little too serious or a little too dramatic. Having those guys aboard has made our band better, and it’s made it more fun to be in the group, I dare say, because, they’re Boston guys. We break each other’s balls, we don’t take things too serious. And that’s something that I think has helped me and Johnny out a lot.

If those two guys, if they ever felt like you were getting to serious or whatever, does it seem like either of them have any sort of hesitation as to whether they were going to bust your balls or not, especially being the new guys in the band?

None. Especially, like I said before, because we knew them.  We’d been on the road with them before. You really can’t have them be ‘the new guys’ as it were because there’s some history there. They were in some pretty great acts from Boston prior to coming on. It’s weird how it just so seamlessly worked out. More often than not, that’s not the case when you bring aboard two new guys. But they don’t even feel new, they feel like they fit in right away. They’re great, and they serve to make Street Dogs stronger than ever.

How did the (Matt) Pruitt thing come about? Tobe leaving and Lenny coming in was sorta more public, but Marcus leaving and Pruitt coming aboard seemed like it was sort of under the radar.

MMc: Well, you know, I believe it was Marcus’ wish for things to be circumspect and quiet, and he wanted to do his own thing. He didn’t want any fanfare or any public announcement or things of that nature. So we honored that and brought Matt aboard in lieu of that. And Matt is somebody that Lenny was really excited about and somebody that Tobe actually had recommended to us. So him coming on board was great, and it’s just worked out very easily. I think, like I had stated earlier, that’s something that I didn’t anticipate at all. I thought it would be difficult. That was my expectation at the beginning, but it’s been not even close to difficult at all. It’s been great and fun and those guys are great players. I can’t wait to make a new album with them probably sometime this spring or in the fall. I’m looking forward to that.

That was going to be my follow-up…you must be pretty excited to get those guys and their influences, especially with Lenny being the sort of songwriter that he’s notorious for being. It must be pretty exciting to get those two guys on record, no?

Yeah. It is exciting. And I really can’t wait to track a new record. We’ve got a split with Noi!se coming out that’s going to have three new songs on it and then we’ve got the FM359 side-project and Lenny’s got his own thing. But we’ll look to track a new Street Dogs album sometime in the spring or the fall. I think we’ll be working with Lars Fredericksen. It’s something that we’re looking forward to doing. I think Lenny particularly being on board adds a pretty strong dimension songwriting-wise, and adds some levity too; some much-needed levity to our group.

The new guys are on the Noi!se split right? You recorded that more recently in Waltham at (Dave) Minehan’s place, right?

Yeah, that’s tracked already and that’s getting ready to go. We’ll be announcing a release date for that sometime this month. I’m excited about that too. We’re excited to work with Noi!se because we’re huge fans of those guys. I feel like they’re probably the most underrated band in the genre right now

And that’ll be a Pirates Press release too, right?

Of course, yeah, without a doubt. We work with Pirates Press, and we’re grateful to be working with Skippy and the crew there. They’ve done well by us and it’s always great to work with those guys.

They’ve had so much good stuff come out over the last year especially. I know that Skippy and the guys have been around a long time, but over the last year especially, between the Harrington Saints and you guys and…I’m totally drawing a blank on who I was going to reference…

Downtown Struts?

There you go, Downtown Struts. Thank you. (Editor’s note: In hindsight, I was actually trying to come up with Bishops Green and the Sydney Ducks but getting them crossed in my head and coming up with “Sydney Green.” I suck sometimes.) What a hell of a label he’s got going now.

He does. That label is like the ‘people’s champ of punk rock.’ It’s down on street-level, and it’s acknowledged that it’s the best thing going right now. It’s exciting to be a part of that.

I obviously couldn’t get out to San Francisco for their 9th anniversary party, but Marc, who’s a friend of mine and who does a lot of great photos for Dying Scene went to all or parts of all three nights, I think, and he spoke of it as being one of his favorite weekends in a long time.

Yeah, that was a really good time, the ninth anniversary party for Pirates Press at the Bottom of the Hill venue in San Francisco. I had a blast, it was such a good time. And San Francisco’s such a great city, probably my favorite part of California. We had a good time, we had good shows, we played with bands like The Ratchets and Downtown Struts and Johnny Peebucks’ side band Druglords of the Avenues. So it was great. Bishops Green played, Harrington Saints played.

You’re (personally) back to Boston again full-time this year. Was it like you never left, or are there things that are different since you were away?

No, I fell right into it. I’ve been home almost six months now, and I fell right into it. It didn’t feel weird for me at all. I’m just grateful to be back. It’s where I belong. It’s where I love to be. And all things considered for me, it’s the right choice.

Are you back in Dorchester now?

Yeah I am, actually.

I miss living down there. It’s definitely changed. I moved away officially a little over ten years ago, before I got married, and I go back for Dot Day every year, and it’s changed, not in a bad way…

Yeah, I think it’s more inclusive and a little more progressive and eccentric and I’m happy about those changes.

Moving to the FM359 project, I think we talked about it a little bit when we caught up nine or ten months ago when (Street Dogs) first got off hiatus, but how did that project come about, and specifically, how did the sort of Americana, as you’ve said before, the “non-religious Gospel” aspect come into it? Because I’m sure that throws everybody for a loop.

Well, me and Johnny had talked for a long, long time about doing a side project. And we enlisted Rick Barton, because he’s such a prolific and extraordinary songwriter, and we had Hugh Morrison come in and we had Halston Luna, who’s a great guitar player out of Houston, play some amazing, amazing guitar. We had a bunch of other musicians come aboard, and the thing about FM359 that was liberating and different and new was just, writing the songs that we were excited about and tracking them immediately without any formal pre-produciton. So it was loose, it wasn’t so tight, and you know, somehow it became a cohesive album. I think a large part of that has to do with a couple of the songs that Hugh Morrison wrote, songs like “Sons of Liberty” and “I Saw The Light.” They made it cohesive, and I’m really proud of the project.

It’s a lot more introspective and honest about where we are as people than anything that we’ve done before. I think it’s liberating to get honest and go into dark places about what’s going on with you good, bad or indifferent. Maybe that’s the gospel element or the spiritual element, throwing down the pretense and defense and letting out completely what’s inside you.  I feel like the record speaks to that. It gets honest, you know, that everybody’s looking for a little truth, love and liberty at the end of the day, regardless of what they say.

Having listened to the album a couple times now, I think one of the things that I got out of it is that even though, sonically, it’s different than you would expect as coming from, at least, the names ‘Mike McColgan’ and ‘Rick Barton’ and ‘Johnny Rioux,’ but it still sounds like you guys. You can hear Rick’s influence obviously, you can hear some thematic elements that are the same to Street Dogs fans. It still sounds like you guys, collectively, but it’s a totally different sound. I don’t know if that makes any sense whatsoever…

That’s the highest compliment in the world. Once I hear the word “different,” I’m immediately sold. I’ve been doing press for FM359 and that continues to come up. And I want to hear that. The last thing in the world that I want to hear is “this could easily have been a Street Dogs record.” (*both laugh*) You know? I’d be bummed! But I feel like we got it right. And we didn’t try hard to get it right, we just sat down and wrote songs, and we were a little bit more open-minded about where we went topically and sonically and that’s easily reflected on the effort. And the reception to it has been a lot stronger than we had anticipated. We felt like there would be some fans that were ambivalent to it or were standoffish. Clearly there’s no such thing as a project or a band or a record that everybody loves. I used to think that would never happen to us, no matter what we do. But the people who have always been supportive to us have really reacted strongly in a positive way, so we’re happy about that.

And I think the scene in general, or at least as whatever classifies as ‘punk’ music now, is so diverse now, especially because the folk element has crept in so heavily over especially the last half-dozen or so years. I think that most people are way more open-minded than they used to be.

That’s true. And privately, in the past, before this more open-minded or more out-front period where punk artists and folk artists crossed paths or united or worked together or do both genres, I think a lot of punk rock fans or artists listened to Dylan and listened to Billy Bragg and listened to Pete Seeger and listened to Woody Guthrie. Because ideologically, folk and punk are very similar. Sonically they are clearly different. But as time went on, I think the parallels and the uniting factors between both genres have become more apparent to most fans of both genres. It only became logical that there would be hybrid projects, or punk artists turning folk or folk artists turning punk, things of that nature. It’s good to see that that’s evolved and that’s happened, as opposed to the mindset that ‘if you like punk, you can only like punk.’ I think that’s outrageous. You can like whatever you want to like and you can say whatever you want to say and play whatever you want to play and stand up for whatever you want to stand up for. There are no rules.

Did the writing process, especially with how quickly and easily it seemed to go for FM359, does that change things going forward with Street Dogs, where maybe you adopt some of that approach, or is the Street Dogs approach still the Street Dogs approach?

That’s a difficult question to answer. That’s something that only time itself will show. I think a Street Dogs process will stay a Street Dogs process. But maybe, I guess, I suppose it could be a little bit more spontaneous and a little less studied, and maybe that could be beneficial. But I think only time itself will tell that. I think, you know, when you make a Street Dogs record, it’s a lot more intense. There’s a little bit more aggro associated with it. FM359 is something that’s definitely divergent and different and you’re a little bit more laid-back and free-form with it than you would be with Street Dogs.

I think free-form is a good word for it. I think that for both you and Rick, your singing on the album is probably as good and as ‘free’ as it’s ever been. If not better. And Rick talked about that a bit when I talked to him a while back, both with FM359 and with the stuff he’s working on for Continental, about how he feels like he has before. But I think his singing on the FM359 album is better than it is, even on the last Continental album.

Well, I mean, you take a song like “I Saw The Light,” and you take the verse that he hits. It’s pretty poignant. That’s pretty much his mission statement and his M.O.  and his real life. So when he hits something like that, it’s personal and he’s coming at you full-bore. He’s feeling it from the bottom of his feet and giving you everything he has. That vocal really resonates with me more than any other vocal on the entire album, because I know how real it is. It’s not feigned or abstract or made-up, “Johnny on the spot.” That’s the way he lives his life, that’s what makes him happy. So, when he hit it, we all had goosebumps. And I think his singing in regards to this effort was great. I think for me, I had a chance to sit back and actually have a little bit more time to sing. And this project took me vocally to another spot. It made me go outside of my comfort zone and it made me really have to be conscious about what I said and what I sang. I think, all told, it might have made me a little better, it might not have. That’s stuff for people who listen to it to decide.

What’s the lineup going to be at McGreevy’s in a couple weeks? Is everybody from the project going to be there?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that we’re going to have the full FM359 project there. I’m really excited to play at McGreevy’s. I’m  excited that Ken Casey invited us down and, I mean, as far as Boston is concerned, McGreevy’s is the epicenter of Boston as far as sports, as far as gatherings…it’s a pivotal spot and it serves so many different functions, and to have been invited down and to do something there and present the FM359 record Truth, Love and Liberty there, it’s an honor. I’m grateful to Ken. It should be a great time. It’s a really good atmosphere to present the music, let people listen to it, and then play a set. So we’re excited.

I’m excited about it too. I’m as excited about it as I have been about any album in a long time. Not just because of all the names on it, but now that I’ve heard it too; not that you guys in particular could probably put out a bad album, but now that I’ve heard it a couple times, it really is better than I even expected it to be.

Thanks for saying that. Anybody reading this, if you want to check out FM359’s Truth, Love and Liberty, you can pre-order the record at Pirates Press (click here for info) or wait til January 15th and it’ll be out at Google Play and iTunes, or in record stores. We’ll have it on vinyl at the show too. At the end of the day, no disrespect to MP3s or CDs, though CDs will probably only be around for another 20 minutes, but vinyl is clearly the superior form of listening to music that there is. It’s stood the test of time, and I think, when you put it up against everything else, there’s no comparison. In lieu of that, Pirates Press Records is great, because that’s their hallmark, that’s their carrying card. They are the preeminent vinyl maker and distributor in the world, so it’s great for us to be aligned with them.


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