Avid followers of the band Pearl Jam are no doubt aware that by the mid-1990s, the band was in the throes of a sort of internal crisis of faith. The highest highs of their popularity found them at the apex of what, in hindsight, was an all-too-rapid ascent into the cultural stratosphere. Enter Neil Young. The rock icon recruited Pearl Jam to play his annual fundraising Bridge School Benefit and to serve as his backing band on his 1995 Mirror Ball album and corresponding tour. The band credits Young’s influence with teaching them to not worry about what other people thought, to make music that they like playing, and that if they weren’t enjoying the process, to just stop for a while.
Rick Barton and his comrades in FM359 appear to be musical kindred spirits, taking a page from Neil Young’s playbook. “At this point in my career, I don’t care what the fuck I play, as long as I like it. You know what I mean? I’m over that whole fear of if it’s going to fit in to something,” Barton explains. “Don’t be worried about what people think of what you write, because that’s going to hold you back from so much.”
Barton, Johnny Rioux and I gathered for an impromptu chat amongst the straight-outta-Fenway-Park seats that line the wall of the basement of McGreevy’s, a sports-themed Irish bar in Boston co-owned by Dropkick Murphys’ bassist Ken Casey. FM359, which features Rioux and Barton on guitar, Mike McColgan on vocals, Hugh Morrison (of Murder The Stout) on accordion and, on this night, Jamie Walker on guitar as well, had just finished their inaugural set, playing as part of a record release event in honor of their debut full length, Truth, Love & Liberty (Pirates Press Records), the brick-and-mortar (and painted Dropkick Murphys mural) providing a noteworthy (if not a tad ironic) backdrop.
All but the most casual observers of either the punk scene in general or the Boston music scene more specifically will undoubtedly appreciate the tangled layers of subtext in the paragraph above. McColgan and Barton, for the uninitiated, represent half of the original Dropkick Murphys lineup, and Rioux worked as Barton’s guitar tech. McColgan left in 1998 after the release of the band’s debut full-length, Do Or Die, to be replaced by Al Barr, formerly of The Bruisers (for whom Rioux played guitar). Barton, meanwhile, made his departure in 2000 prior to the release of Sing Loud, Sing Proud. The Dropkicks’ timely alignment with the Red Sox successful run in the mid-00s (not to mention a certain Scorcese film) catapulted the band into the mainstream, effectively making McGreeveys “The House That Tessie Built.”
McColgan and Rioux went on to found Street Dogs, while Barton has played in bands like Everybody Out! and, most recently, Continental (in addition to producing the last Street Dogs full-length). FM359 marks a musical departure for sure, with their traditionally raw, distorted guitar street punk sounds traded in, in favor of acoustic guitars, accordions and the occasional tin whistle. But perhaps the biggest difference is the deeply personal, introspective nature of the lyrics.
“All hell was breaking loose personally,” says Rioux. Though the album was recorded at his house, it was done so amidst his actively separating from his wife. “We did it in my studio, and my wife and I were going through a separation, and I didn’t know if I was even going to be allowed in the studio,” he continues. “It would be sort of an on-call situation, like, ‘things are a little rough right now, let’s hold off tracking for a little bit.’ (The situation) also affected the songwriting to a degree.” McColgan agrees: “(This album is) the most fearlessly introspective songs we’ve ever done, literally cutting our arteries open on this one. And when I got up there and I sang tonight, I’m channeling that.”
For a band that has effectively never played together, even in the studio, the performance on this night was stellar, and universally appreciated by the capacity crowd (which featured McColgan and Rioux’s fellow Street Dogs Lenny Lashley and Matt Pruitt amongst many notable Boston scene staples) who’d ventured from all points on a Wednesday night to catch the unique performance. “I thought tonight was great because it felt exactly how it started,” Rioux said. “Just in that shitty room in my garage with acoustic guitars, you know what I mean? It was a perfect record release… a little rough around the edges, which is good, I think.” “It’s hard to just have basically one jam and go play…but I think it adds to the show,” adds Barton. “I give myself a B+ on my performance, and if we just went on tour from now until like Sunday night, just around New England, by Sunday night, the thing would be clicking on all cylinders and I’d feel fucking great.”
While the future may be a tad on the uncertain side for the FM359 project going forward, the band and crowd alike on this evening seemed to view the evening as a celebration, a welcome sign of hopeful things to come. McColgan and Rioux will always have their punk roots planted firmly in the Street Dogs, just as Barton will long have a home with his Continental project (which also includes his son, Stephen, on bass). But if Truth, Love & Liberty, and the energy and ease with which the band performed on this evening are any indication, FM359 have the chops to be anything but a one-off project.
During our thirty-minute chat, Barton, Rioux, McColgan and I covered an awful lot of real estate, from the origin of the project (a solo record for McColgan?), a debate between Rioux and Barton on the ability of artists to grind out a living wage as musicians in 2014, a fired-up Barton railing on ever-increasing commercialism in the music scene, and McColgan channeling his inner Rod Stewart. It’s a lengthy read, but we think you’ll enjoy it. Check it out below. Most of the photos scattered throughout are my handiwork. The cover photo, however, is courtesy of the great Boston-area concert photographer Jo M. Wood. Check out her gallery from that night here.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Like I told Mike when we talked a week or so ago, this album is such a departure from what you’d expect coming from the minds of Rick Barton, Johnny Rioux and Mike McColgan. And yet it still sounds like you guys, without sounding like anything you’ve ever done before…if that makes any sense whatsoever…
Rick Barton: Yeah, perfect sense…
Johnny Rioux: Oh yeah….
RB: And that’s exactly what we wanted, too.
JR: Yeah, we thought to ourselves…”when this gets out that we’re doing a record (people) are going to expect (debut Dropkick Murphys album) Do Or Die.” And we were happy… I think that’s kinda the textbook definition of punk rock, almost, is doing whatever you want to do.
RB: I made it very clear that we weren’t going to make a punk rock record (*all laugh*). I’ve said before, there is no sense in doing that. It makes no sense. Punk rock isn’t actually a musical term anyway.
Well, especially now more than ever…
JR: It was more or less the initial idea to make a solo record for Mike. I forget about that sometimes now. We were going to take a break from the Street Dogs. I was going to do a project, and then we were talking about doing a solo record for Mike. And when we started doing it, it had more of a band vibe.
Why this sort of musical feel. Obviously you guys could have done Do Or Die 2, not that you wanted to, but come to the folk/Americana or the “non-religious gospel” feel?
RB: I just started strumming some chords, and Mike just started singing some stuff. Didn’t it just happen instantly? We kept saying “oh my god, I don’t know what the record label is going to think.” The whole time we thought they were going to be pissed off and say “what the fuck did you guys do?” And then, it turns out they’re our biggest fans.
JR: Absolutely. And as far as that goes, Mike comes from the school of these big rock bands, these big influences like U2 and the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. I want to say…Rick obviously is way into Americana. I feel like it was probably 1998 or something like that where Rick gave me a Whiskeytown record. And back when I was in The Bruisers with Al (Barr, current Dropkick Murphys vocalist), he got me into Steve Earle and Dave Alvin and a lot of good songwriters too. So, I think the Americana thing came from those big influences. A good songwriter is a good songwriter. We’ve covered every angle there is to cover in punk rock, so it just felt right to do this.
How long did it take to go from “oh, this is fun, let’s play a couple of chords and see what happens” to “wow…this is good, this should be its own dedicated thing”? You know, to make the transition from a bunch of guys just having fun to it really becoming its own thing.
JR: When we started working with Rick on Street Dogs projects, and even a little bit before, everything was written on the acoustic anyway. In my old studio, I had a sitting room where I’d stick a room mic and we’d write the songs acoustically like that anyway. It always sounded really great. Mike’s voice just fits that so perfectly. Then we’d add distorted guitars and drums on it afterwards…
So it was super natural…we never even played these songs as a band. We started out with songs, and then we went right to a click track and laid down acoustics and then built it from that.
RB: Yeah, that was the fascinating part. We never had a single band rehearsal. All we did was Johnny would put up the click track and I’d lay down an acoustic guitar, he’d lay down an acoustic guitar, and then after we got about ten or twelve songs down, I said “let’s bring in the drums now!” And then the drummer (Street Dogs’ Pete Sosa) came down and he nailed it. And then Mike started singing. It was kind of a weird process to record. But every morning, Johnny would be out there fine-tuning things, and when I’d go out there, I’d hear songs like “Some Folks” and I’d be like “that sounds like a hit song! That’s incredible music!”
Because, at this point in my career, I don’t care what the fuck I play, as long as I like it. You know what I mean? I’m over that whole fear of if it’s going to fit in to something. Whatever comes out, I love it. If it suits me, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. That may sound egotistical, but in my opinion, that’s the only way to go. I only want to hear music by people that write with that same philosophy. Like, don’t be worried about what people think of what you write, because that’s going to hold you back from so much. Especially if you’re a natural writer or any kind of person exploring music or making music, just let it pour out, don’t worry about it. Kids are like “oh, we can’t do that” or “oh, we have to do that.” No, no…do whatever comes out. Satisfy yourself with your music. That’s what more people have to do, and I think we’ll have better product. That’s my opinion, though.
That’s sorta what I was getting at when (Rick and I) were talking upstairs; that you can tell with this project, and I shouldn’t even say that because I think it’s true of the projects you guys have been aligned with throughout, that’s something that comes through; you can tell that you guys aren’t out playing folk music because punk guys play folk music now. (FM359) sounds genuine, and it sounds like you guys are enjoying it. Which segues to …how do you think tonight went? Now that you got to play these songs together as a band?
JR: I thought tonight was great because it felt exactly how it started, really. Just in that shitty room in my garage with acoustic guitars, you know what I mean? I felt like it was a perfect record release. It all came together. And also, a little rough around the edges is good, I think.
RB: That’s what I was going to say. I give myself a B+ on my performance, and if we just went on tour from now til like Sunday night, just around New England, by Sunday night, the thing would be clicking on all cylinders and I’d feel fucking great. It’s hard to just have basically one jam and go play. That is not easy to do, but I think it adds to the show. We were improvising some endings and some parts, but that’s cool, you know what I mean?
JR: The other thing, too, that you’ll never get from Mike is just how much…like…how much weight we had on recording the record. We were given money to record the record, a small amount of money, we did it in my studio, and my wife and I were going through a separation, and I didn’t know if I was even going to be allowed in the studio. So it was almost like we’d have a powwow where we’d be like, “alright, it’s working today, everything’s working out, let’s get to work.” It would be sort of an on-call situation, like, “things are a little rough right now, let’s hold off tracking for a little bit.” So it was a lot of that going on behind it, too. A lot of urgency with the tracks. And it also affected the songwriting to a degree.
That’s heavy. And in talking to Mike, about it, he certainly didn’t go into the details about how heavy the time was, but he sort of intimated that for him. Because the boundaries of “okay, this has to be a street Dogs record, this has to sound like A-B-C “…he still had to be honest in what he was singing, but he’d do that anyway. But I gathered that for him it was easier than a Street Dogs album where it’s more defined and procedural.
JR: I think that’s why we work so well with Rick. In the past…I’m usually way more negative than Mike is. That’s not to say that there’s not songs that I’ve written for the band …usually the songs that I’ll write for Street Dogs, I’ll have to get behind my own verse or whatever, and you can see it with Mike, when he attacks a song that he hasn’t penned himself, he’s gotta really get behind it and believe in it, you know?
So working with Rick is great, because (Mike) and Rick usually see fairly close to eye-to-eye on songs and subject matter, and he can really get behind the sentiment and add his own things to that. It’s a good partnership that, whether it’s 359 or the Street Dogs, having Rick around is a real key aspect of it now. We were talking about working with Lars (Frederiksen) on the next Street Dogs record, and we were like “how are we gonna keep Rick involved, because that’s still gotta happen…”
How tough was it for you to get Mike to sing …like (Rick) said upstairs during the show…how tough was it to get Mike out of doing a song that’s a union song for your sixteenth cousin, or however you worded it, into doing more of, as you said, a sexy rock song (“Forbidden Love”)?
JR: He was all about it.
Yeah? Was he?
RB: He’s wanted to sing songs like that.
And this allowed him that voice that maybe he couldn’t do in another avenue, then…
JR: Yeah. I mean, we’ve had producers in the past say things like “make this one more sexy.” Actually use those words. And we’re just like, “what the fuck are you talking about?” But now, that song was a sexy song the way it was being played. Rick just started downstroking it and got really into it and he was screaming “IT’S ONLY GONNA BE THREE CHOOORDS! AND I’M GONNA HOLD DOWN THIS CHORD FOREVER!” (*all laugh*) He’s screaming it! And it just ended up sounding sexy. When you hear it, that little drony piano thing and tambourine thing and the effect on his voice, that all just happened naturally. You know what I was actually thinking about when I was recording it and laying down the tracks, I kept thinking about Love & Rockets for some reason.
RB: Yeah, that’s a good analogy.
You think? I hadn’t thought about that at all really, but I’m sure every time I hear that song now I will.
JR: Yeah, I don’t know why, I kept thinking about “Me and my motorcycle” (editor’s note: here’s a link so you can see for yourself – )
It sounds nothing like it, but for whatever reason, I was hearing that effect on his voice, and just kind of a lackadaisical vocal take that he had, you know?
Right, right…Does this (referencing the successful turnout of the record release show) and how well tonight went make there a plan to keep 359 as a perpetual project, or was it a goal to have (tonight serve) as a one-off and see what happens?
JR: You know, it’s difficult because Rick’s got Continental. Hugh has his other stuff going on. Hugh is a real integral part in this whole deal too. So my thought was that it’s going to be difficult to fund this project unless we get in a van and just go, which we’re not gonna do. So we had a thought that whenever Street Dogs do one of their big festivals, we’ll book an FM359 show in that town or whatever. And we’ll fly in the few extra guys. We were thinking about doing something like that. So we’ll see what happens. If the record is really well received, we’ll do a week or two I’m sure. We’ll put something together.
I mean even in terms of writing, too, going forward…
RB: I think we have to write the next album really soon and get it out by fall. I just came up with this idea, Johnny. You bring in two songs, Hugh brings in two songs, Jamie brings in two songs, I bring in two songs, I help Mike with two songs and we all just commit to the songs and we do it soon. Right away.
JR: That’s a good idea.
RB: I just came up with that idea about a half-hour ago.
JR: I like it. I like it.
I’d be curious to see how that sounded. How something like that could come together and sound cohesive as an album…
RB: That’s why I want to do it. To see what each person brings in and see what happens. See how it comes together. Jamie’s like our new… Jamie’s played with me before, and I just love him. Jamie is one of two people, Jamie (Walker) and my cousin Bill, that it’s criminal that those two people can’t make a living playing music. I mean, it’s criminal that about ten million people aren’t able to make a living playing music, including myself. I can’t make a living playing music.
But I hold Jamie and my cousin Bill up there as high as it could possibly be, that it is an absolute crime that they can’t make a living playing music. That guy is one of the most talented people that I’ve ever been around. And that tells you that our society values salesmanship and bullshit so much more than the arts and music and creativity. We don’t value that! We value bullshit! We value all of this fucking sports stuff and selling these products for millions and billions of dollars, and there’s these beautiful people out there playing music and spilling out their souls and it goes nowhere and they can’t even do it as a job for minimum fucking wage. And that’s bullshit!
Do you think that’s getting worse or better?
I tend to agree with you.
RB: Constantly getting worse! It’s bullshit! As long as these guys (motioning to the images of Red Sox players adorning the walls) are marching out on the field and we’re paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars to go see them play, and other corporations are taking over, us guys are always going to suffer. And I don’t want to become a rich, millionaire musician by any stretch. But it would be so nice to be able to make a nice little living playing your songs. You know what I mean? That’s part of the reason that I really want to bring Jamie in and keep him playing music. Not only will it be a tremendous gift to him, it’ll be a tremendous gift to us. Johnny, you heard it tonight…
RB: That was just a smidgeon of it. I think the sky’s the limit with FM359. I’m really getting behind it. At first I wasn’t sure. But now, if Johnny and Mike become willing, I’m in the van. I live on the road anyway (*all laugh*). It doesn’t matter to me. If things start to line up, I’ll go in a second. Because I’ve never really toured with those guys. I mean, I toured with them individually…
JR: I was his guitar tech! (all laugh)
Yeah, that goes back a few years.
RB: Wow…I just went off on that speech. (*all laugh*)
I’m glad you did! I agree with you, and I think that it’s obviously easier for people to get their music out there now, because of the way that people can record in their living rooms and put something online that day, even if it’s just a crappy YouTube video. But then I think it’s become so saturated that it’s easier to get your stuff out there but it’s harder to get paid for it; to make a living at it.
RB: Yeah. (around this point, frontman Mike McColgan joins us, listening in at first…)
JR: See, I really think that I have a fairly different way of looking at it. I think that if you’ve made a record that people really like. Like, people really, universally like this record that you’ve made, and you’re willing to work and do whatever it takes and you’re not making a living, then you’re not doing something right. Or, the record’s not what you think it is. I still have to hold firm and believe in that ethos. If I’m unable to make a living doing a project, then I’m not doing something right.
RB: I don’t about that, but anyway, that’s Johnny’s opinion.
JR: Well, I mean, you can’t make a record and then sit in your living room and go “why aren’t I able to make a living,” you know what I mean?
RB: I know that, but you’ve put in some incredible effort to what you’ve done in music…
JR: I still think that going back to the 60s and 70s, maybe not the 60s, but the 70s and 80s, bands put in incredible effort. They were willing to go to any lengths. Any time anyone is willing to go to any lengths to do anything, it’s successful.
Mike McColgan: Half measures avail us nothing.
RB: Yeah, but I don’t know…that’s debatable. There are guys that have probably knocked down a lot of doors trying to get things done and the doors weren’t opening…
JR: Then they weren’t good enough, I don’t think.
RB: Well, no way! See, I don’t believe in that. I believe there’s probably like 50 Bob Dylans that we’ve never heard.
MM: I agree with that too.
JR: There’s probably 50 Bob Dylans that we’ve never heard, but those fifty Bob Dylans aren’t getting in a van and living anything, taking it to the people.
RB: Oh I definitely agree with part of what you’re talking about. But I also believe that there’s a cap on how much is going to be spent on the entertainment dollar. So if you can’t break into that…there’s only going to be X amount of dollars spent, you know what I mean? So no matter how hard you work, if you can’t tap into some of that money, you’re not going to make it.
Yeah, I think that, at some level, if there’s 50 Bob Dylans out there, it almost becomes like, “well, there’s 50 Bob Dylans out there, so am I going to go see the one playing at Johnny D’s in Somerville tonight, or the other next Bob Dylan who’s playing tomorrow night some place on the South Shore? But then the other next Bob Dylan is playing at a coffee shop up in Manchester, New Hampshire.”
JR: Right, right.
So, to go back to what Rick said, maybe you’re right, there’s only X amount of dollars that you’re going to spend…
JR: But, I mean, you know what we did in the punk rock days. We’d just all bill up together.
JS and RB: Yeah.
MM: Yeah, agreed.
JR: Like, all fifty Bob Dylans get together and…
And have a Dylan-fest!
JR: Yeah, you know what I mean? Let’s make a Bob Dylan show.
MM: Yeah, turn it into a festival.
RB: But if you look at any genre, pop music. Well, I call “pop music” the punk music from my day, like Buzzcocks. But say pop music like, who’s the outrageous chick?
RB: Lady Gaga.
MM: Oh right.
RB: So, if we’re going to call that “pop music,” every year there’s two or three that come out. Every genre has two to three, and that’s it. In this genre, you’ve got the Dropkick Murphys, and that’s it. No one is going to be able to penetrate that because there’s only so much money that’s going to be spent on it. You know what I mean? You don’t see a hundred acts breaking out in one year. So, Johnny, the part I disagree with is that I guarantee there are , like, several people working very hard to be one of the top two or three that are going to break out in that genre. They worked their asses off just as hard as Lady Gaga, but they’re just not gonna make it.
JR: Yeah, but you know what? That’s because…if you’re gonna take the Murphys, right? Like you want to hear some punk rock with some bagpipes, why the fuck would I go and listen to that other band when I could hear the Dropkick Murphys, you know?
RB: But at the same time, it’s like my brother always said, if it was easy to be a millionaire, everybody would be a millionaire. I really believe that some people can work their asses off and not make it in music. It’s not a matter of you working your ass off. I think the stars have to be aligned.
MM: I think that’s more the rule than the exception. I think the exception is when you do break out. All things considered, if you look statistically at all the bands that haven’t made it versus all the bands that have made it…
RB: It’s like ten million to one!
I wonder if that’s worse now than it was even ten or fifteen years ago.
MM: Absolutely. Positively. If you look at the landscape now, it’s way more difficult. Music can be shared all over the place, and it’s harder to sell a record. That’s irregardless of what genre. I think it’s more difficult now than ever.
Editor’s note: At this point in the festivities, the gang gets a little distracted by another group waiting patiently for their turn to interview the trio. When we get focused again…
RB: Thank you, Jason, for all your help and your encouragement.
Absolutely. I really do think that the project is that good, and I mean that sincerely. What sort of feedback have you gotten from other people now that they’ve all heard it. People seem to be on board. The turnout tonight was great.
JR: Yeah, I’ve been waiting for the negative feedback, you know? And I welcome it too.
RB: Yeah, we want negative feedback.
JR: I like that. I like negative feedback, because you can weigh that with the positive. But it’s been really encouraging and positive
MM: When you’re in our position, you’re compulsively over-analytical about everything. So, right now, just generally speaking, we’ve all talked about that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Where we come from in our history and our pedigree and what we’ve been through, we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ironically enough, that’s something that I’m really actively looking for and want to hone in on. Crazily enough. I’ve talked to people in bands, like Joe Gittleman (form the Mighty Mighty Bosstones) for example. A long time he told me “don’t listen to that.” And then a guy like (former Bosstone) Nate Albert would say “Have you ever found an act that everybody loves? Or a record that everybody loves?” That’s not realistic or plausible to think that way. We’ve done what we’ve done and we stand behind it. (This album is) the most fearlessly introspective songs we’ve ever done, literally cutting our arteries open on this one. And when I got up there and I sang tonight, I’m channeling that. And yeah, maybe I am channeling Rod Stewart a little bit too…
JR: From the “Hot Legs” era.
MM: Yeah, the “Hot Legs” era. “People let me tell ya…” It’s just, I really get behind these songs. All positive and negative feedback is welcome, you know?
JR: You know, all hell was breaking loose personally when the record was done. So that all adds a feel to it.
Does this sort of validate all of that?
JR: Fuck yeah! For me it does. Like, I had to finish this record in a closet in somebody’s house. That’s where I finished mixing it. It was really that bad for me. I had so much time and emotion invested – we all did – but for me, I’m a self-taught producer and engineer and all that. When I have the guy mastering the album send me a note back with the CD that just said “I really enjoy this record. You did a great job mixing it.” That’s great. It’s been a lot of encouragement, and it almost makes all that pain and all that shit and all the arguments I got into with (Rick)…
RB: I was gonna say, yeah…
JR: Rick was like “there’s no way you’re going to be able to release this. This just doesn’t sound good.”
MM: (doing his best Rick Barton impression) “Mike, you gotta talk to Johnny…”
RB: I’ll admit, Johnny pulled it together…
MM: Yeah he did. Above and beyond.
RB: Because it wasn’t sounding good. I thought it was demo quality. And I mean, it is still a little raw, but I’m very happy with it now. I even told Johnny that I was shocked.
MM: That little bit of raw, if I may interject, is so much better than super-glossy, super-slick, super-“not us.” If you look at where we’re from and what we’ve been through and what we stand for and all of that stuff and look at it all the way around, it’s better that there is a little rawness to it and that it’s not completely perfect. Because we’re not completely perfect.
JR: Nobody else had a hand in this at all, aside from Skippy at Pirates Press saying “we’ll fund this thing for ya,” nobody had a hand in it. There wasn’t an outside producer or an engineer or anything. It was just us doing the whole god-damned thing. That felt really good to.
Well, you nailed it. I know that’s just one man’s opinion, but you nailed it.
JR: Thank you.