DS Esclusive: Lenny Lashley On Finding Happiness, Sobriety, and his Killer New Album, “All Are Welcome”

Sometime in the late spring of 2013, Lenny Lashley and I connected via social media to arrange an in-person meet up as a way to help promote Illuminator, his then-upcoming debut solo album under the Lenny Lashley’s Gang Of One moniker. It was a bit of a crossroads moment in Lashley’s career. He’d long been respected, especially locally, as a singer and songwriter of the beer-soaked punk rock and whiskey-soaked cowpunk varieties through his years in Darkbuster and Lenny and the Piss Poor Boys. By the time the 21st century’s first decade had closed, however, Lashley had struggled rather publicly off and on with some mental health and substance use-related issues, and both of those aforementioned bands had flamed out under less-than-ideal circumstances.

I hadn’t done many interviews at that point in time but wanted to take a more active roll in ramping up that area of Dying Scene. I’d known of Lashley professionally since Darkbuster won the coveted Rock ‘N’ Roll Rumble in Boston in 2000, but we’d only met in passing a time or two (including once at the infamous local real-deal dive bar known as the Cambridgeport Saloon, though that incident was more memorable to an underage me than it was to him for sure). So I took the opportunity to put fresh AAs in my old-school cassette recorded and met up with Lashley for coffee on a bright, sunny Jamaica Plain afternoon in June of that year. He struck me as open and honest right from the first moments of our conversation. Not only was it a week before the release of Illuminator, but it had also just been announced that Lashley signed on to join Street Dogs as they regrouped after a very brief hiatus. There was a lot of uncertainty, but things certainly seemed like they were trending in a positive direction.

Fast-forward to 2019 and that upward trend has shown no signs of going off track, both personally and professionally. In the years since our last chat, Lashley’s reconnected with his “one true love,” Shelley. He’s gotten sober, recently surpassing the five year mark from alcohol and cigarettes and the three-year mark from drugs of all kinds, perhaps no easy feat for a guy who’s previous band’s catalog includes the likes of “Booze N Pills,” “Lenny’s A Drunk,” “Miller,” “Cheap Wine” and “Whiskey Will.” He put out a new Darkbuster record, albeit under the name The New Darkbuster because, well, time hasn’t exactly healed all wounds yet. He toured throughout Europe and the States as a solo artist and with The New Darkbuster. He and his Street Dogs brothers put out a few 7-inches toured Europe and the States some more, and finally put out an excellent new full-length, Stand For Something Or Die For Nothing, last year via Century Media.

February 15th marks the release date of Lashley’s sophomore Gang Of One album, All Are Welcome (Pirates Press Records). For this project, Lashley enlisted not only the production services of Bouncing Souls’ Pete Steinkopf once again, but teamed up with fellow Street Dog Johnny Rioux and Mighty Mighty Bosstones drummer Joe “The Kid” Sirois for the core of the recording process. The group worked quickly throughout a much tighter timeline than the one that resulted in Illuminator a half-dozen years ago, resulting in a sound that is familiar sounding yet no less stellar than its predecessor. Echos of Strummer and Springsteen and Hank Williams and, well, Darkbuster, all somehow abound without one emerging as a clear leader. That’s part of what has made Lashley such a compelling songwriter over the years; an ability to float between styles and influences in a way that pays homage rather than simply aping, thanks in large part to a trademark New England accent that’s thicker than clam chowder (sorry, that’s a cheap analogy).

Where Illuminator found Lashley turning the lens inward and processing some of the struggles he’d been going through in the years leading up to its release, the better place he’s been in these days allowed him to shift his focus in an outwardly direction. One needs to look no further than the album’s cover art and the theme of its title track, “All Are Welcome,” complete with its bridge section that contains a portion of Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, for evidence of where Lashley found more than a little inspiration. Punk rock has long talked of revolution, and one of the fortunate side-effects of the present sociopolitical climate is that its proven fertile ground for talented artists to inspire the proverbial troops. But it’s not all Clash-style combat rock on All Are Welcome; there are songs of heartache and loneliness and unrequited love and Revolution, but the kind that’s found on the Major League Soccer pitch and not the kind that’s fought in the streets.

Lashley and I met up for a mid-week lunch recently to talk about All Are Welcome and the mental and physical work it took to pull the album together. As always, we covered a lot of ground, from writing without the aid of foreign substances, to the difference between the two Gang Of One albums, to how, despite being on the other side of 50 years old, life as a musician can still be full of surreal experiences. We also talked a lot about the upcoming Dropkick Murphys tour, that’ll feature support from Lashley’s Gang Of One project backed by a full band, which will be a first for a tour of this magnitude. Head below to check out our chat, and head here to pre-order All Are Welcome while you’ve still got time!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): When did the idea to actually put out a new album of solo music start to percolate?

Lenny Lashley: I’m always collecting songs, but a lot of times it’s sketches, and I won’t always go back and try to make anything of them, because I like to keep them kind of fresh. Pete Steinkopf was the one that kinda suggested it. And to paraphrase him, he told me after we finished this that I was one of his favorite – if not his favorite – person to record and make records with. He’s the kind of guy that just kept after me. We were both busy – he’s always busy recording and with the Souls, and I’ve been busy with the Street Dogs – and he just said “hey, listen, we should find some time. It’s been four or five years, and I’d really like to do another thing together.” I think you’ve got to be an idiot to not jump if you’ve got a guy like that keeping after you..

Was everything on this album written ahead of time, or did you get to write anything with him in the studio?

I had Joe (Sirois) from the Bosstones and John Rioux (Street Dogs) both fly in to Jersey to do a weekend that we had booked at the Lakehouse, a place that Pete has done some side work. And I don’t think either of them had even heard any of the demos or anything. We basically just worked stuff out and started playing ideas in the studio and they kind of gelled together to the point arrangement-wise where they became songs. There’s a song that toward the end (of the weekend) we spent like three hours on and it didn’t even make the record. It just didn’t seem like it was getting anywhere. But the magic of that is you’ve got a guy like John who can play anything, he’s a real quick study. So if he hears something, an idea comes and he’s proficient enough to play it. And Joe is the same way. I was the slow study. All my parts are like scratch parts and I’m mumbling along as they played perfect parts to songs that I don’t know where they’re going. (*both laugh*)

But they’re your songs!

Right! It was magical, and nobody does that stuff anymore. It’s not really cost-effective for bands to say “hey, we’re going to write an album on the fly!” It’s all written and rehearsed and you get everything down as tight as you can and then you go in to the studio to blast it out as quick as you can.

It’s got to be a cool feeling to to have a guy like Pete be the one to hound you about working and call you one of his favorite people to work with.

It’s pretty surreal. I always think he’s kidding. Whenever I talk to people that I guess you’d call peers, whether it’s John or Joe or Pete or even Dicky Barrett was at me the other day, I always think they’re just ribbing me, like they’re saying “no, I really think this is good” while they’re making some sort of face on the other side of the phone. But I guess that’s my own paranoia, which I have enough of.

Obviously I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but there’s pretty apparently a theme that seems to be running through at least part of the album. Was that a conscious thing?

Not so much. Lyrically, a lot of the subject matter sort of developed after we had tunes and format. That’s usually the last thing that I kinda develop. But as it was going along, there was some stuff that was happening in the media at the time. I was struggling with lyrical content for the tunes we were working on, and I kinda had to work on things in the hotel to make sure that they were ready for the next day (when we were recording). I was working with that particular song, “All Are Welcome,” and really putting my nose to the grindstone. Usually I’ll pick out little phrases that I’m mumbling, and somehow it just dawned on me to Google what is inscribed on the plaque at the bottom of the Statue Of Liberty, because of what was going on in the standoff at the Mexican border. It really rattled me, seeing women and children getting turned away from the border. These aren’t terrorists, these are people trying to make a better life and willing to do whatever it takes to do that. It disturbed me enough to say “ what are we doing here? What do we stand for?” I would never, ever delve into that side of things as a songwriter before, you know? But it disturbed me enough personally that I had to say something about it.

And then to include the Martin Luther King audio at the end… Did you have to clear that?

It was discussed. I mean fingers crossed, at this point. I hope that at the very least if there was any kind of permission or stuff like that needed, that they would take the context that we’re trying to convey with the song. I went back and forth and back and forth about what to do in the space. We didn’t know if it was going to be a guitar solo or what it would be in the arrangement of the song. I was searching and going through a bunch of stuff, but for me, really, in the back of my mind, as a 54-year-old, historically, that was a pivotal, pivotal moment. (Dr. King was) such a dynamic and charismatic person, and to put himself on the line to try to convey that message. And it kinda fit. Pete heard it once and was like “we’ve gotta use it.” It’s giving me goosebumps right now even talking about it.

It gave me goosebumps to me to listen to the first time, which is not a thing that happens very often to me, but it happened also with the Emma Lazarus poem in the verses. Do you have a plan on how you’re going to approach the Dr. King stuff live?

I do! Actually, Pete, if you see this interview beforehand, I’m still waiting on the .WAV file! (*both laugh*) Technology being as good as it is now, Boss has got a looper pedal, and the newest version of this looper will actually allow you to transfer. WAV files from a computer to the pedal. Lord knows what’s going to happen once I figure that out. For this run, just having the one thing to step on is enough. I think eventually I’ll have Godzilla sounds and every other fantastic noise I can think of. (*both laugh*)

Are you going out with a full band on the Dropkick run?

I am. It’s the core of the guys that I’ve been playing with in the New Darkbuster, really. John Rioux was actually going to do the tour. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to take the time, but he really wants to. I’m not sure if that’s something we’ll be able to continue, but that’s my hope. Halston (Luna), the guy that’s usually playing guitar with me, now has a job as a guitar instructor and he’s developed a following, and he was worried about letting that go. He wanted to really bad, but I want people that play with me to ultimately be happy first and foremost, so it actually worked out really good that this guy Cody Nilsen who plays in Girls Guns & Glory is going to join and fill in for Halston. Pete (Sosa) is going to play drums, and Nate Sander, who plays with Pete in CJ Ramone’s band and me in The New Darkbuster, is going to be there too. It should be pretty full sounding. The difficulty comes with the more complex arrangements, but Nate is great with that. He can play keyboard, he can play trumpet, he can play melodica. There’s not much the kid can’t do if you give him a little time. He’s like the Tim Brennan (Dropkick Murphys) of the Gang Of One.

Why the decision to go full band this time? Last time you did a full Dropkick tour, you went solo, right?

Last time we did a Dropkicks run was New Darkbuster, actually, so we had a full contingency going out with that too. Just to give Ken (Casey) and those guys credit, they gave me the option to do whatever I liked to do. I haven’t had the opportunity to really go out (like this); the first record, I didn’t have the opportunity to go out and tour it because it wasn’t economically viable and you had to go out and find people that can do this stuff. This time it was worth it. Even if I come home and I don’t make a ton of money, which I know I won’t, but if everybody in the band can get paid weekly and we can go out and play and represent the two records and try to get them to sound like they did on vinyl, then that’s worth it for me, you know?

Is it a different sort of excitement than going out on a New Darkbuster run?

That nervous energy is the same probably with all of them. There’s a little bit of nervous energy; I hate to make a sports comparison, but it’s like before a big game or something like that. There’s definitely some of that, I guess.  I’ve done enough of them where I don’t let it permeate, you know? It’s the other stuff…the financial stuff and the time away from home and the being concerned for everyone else involved other than me…I don’t expect people to come and help me do something and not get compensated for it. That’s a different kind of concern, you know?

We were talking before about how you’re obviously five years clean and sober now. Does that affect how you write?

It did. I think that’s one of the big mis-associations with substance and music. A lot of people – me included – got the feeling that that was part of my muse, because it was so ingrained in how I did things. Smoke a joint, sit down with a guitar, and you think everything you play is amazing. But I think that’s really a myth. Now that I’ve gone through it, I think it’s about trying to quiet the inner critic, which is probably what I was trying to do with the drug use anyway, you know?

I was going to say, is that more of a self-confidence thing for you? To have that…I guess crutch…

For me it just dulled it. Even in the live performance aspect, it was a way for me to turn down the inner monologue. It’s harder to do that for most people when they don’t have something aiding that, you know? There are people that have substance abuse problems and people that don’t — a lot of people are fine with having a glass of wine at the end of the day, and it’s cool. Me? It eventually became a thing I was dependent on for whatever reason. For the creative side, I thought I needed it to create, and that’s a lie. It really is. You’ve just got to work a little bit on it. I’m in a much better place than I was when I wrote Illuminator, and although I still think it was a great record, but it’s different now.

Do you find it easier or harder or just different to write songs when you’re in a better place? There are people who do breakup albums really well or who do albums about struggling really well and then it comes time to write while they’re in a better place, and they maybe don’t have the anger or the pain to tap into as readily and frequently anymore. Do you find it just as easy to write from the new mindset?

Not at first, probably. I’ve always been kinda drawn to the sadder stuff, even when I was a kid with AM radio. Me and John were talking recently, because he got into a real 70’s kick on the last Street Dogs run, and before a gig he’d be playing these 70’s mixes and I heard this song “Wildfire,” and I can remember being a kid and crying in the back of my mother’s car while we were listening to that song. I just identified with that a lot, really. So it’s hard to let go of staying in that vibe. But that being said, if you are only looking for sad stuff to sing about, you’re going to sing about sad stuff. While if you’re looking at things around you, that’s why this is a little bit more of a socially conscious album. And it’s not all that way; I write introspectively. It’s therapy for me. So this is good therapy right here. It’s a reminder that “hey, things are going good. Don’t mess this up!”

That is sort of a difference between the first single here and really anything on Illuminator, that it does look outside. Illuminator is a lot of looking inside and being really honest – refreshingly honest – about what you went through. But that is sort of a notable difference, that this one isn’t just about you, but it’s about looking at what’s at stake for all of us.

There’s a little of both involved, I guess. I watched Springsteen On Broadway, and he’s brilliant. I’ve been lucky enough to see him probably twenty times. But to see him in that, the funniest thing was that he says something along the lines of “my biggest magic trick was that I made it all up!” Like good writers and good actors and all that, they make you believe. The guys in Trainspotting weren’t all necessarily heroin addicts, but they made you believe they were heroin addicts. And there’s something to be said for that. It’s fun in the creative process  and to make up a story as you go. “Judy” is the first song that I’ve written that I can recall that I’ve written from the perspective that it was just a storyline. It’s an unrequited love kind of storyline, and that’s not where I’m at at all, but it seems like such a theme that’s been going on since the beginning of time, and it kinda wrote itself.

We do get into this weird thing with songwriters, where if you’re the one who wrote it and you’re the one who sings it, a lot of us, myself included sometimes, fall into the trap of ascribing the feeling that’s in the song to the person who wrote and played it. I had a long conversation with Brendan Kelly about this once, and he’s written some really dark or disturbing songs, particularly on his solo albums, and he’s had to remind people that he’s never actually done that stuff. Like, he’s never actually killed hookers and buried them under his porch. He’s just telling a story. And yet, we don’t say the same thing about Anthony Hopkins in The Silence Of The Lambs. We know he wasn’t actually that guy. But you as songwriters get unfairly sometimes attached to the subject matter.

If you listen to early (Black) Sabbath, they got hooked into the whole dark side of things, like they were Satan worshippers, and most of the songs are pro-Catholicism. If you listen to them lyrically, you might not get that, because they just ran with the imagery. Everything else took off and it was “okay, this is what we are now.”

I did just watch the Springsteen thing, and I’d had on my bookshelf for a while the autobiography that he wrote that sort of inspired him to do the Broadway thing. I think he wrote it in 2015 or 2016, and he tells many of the same stories but because it’s a book he can go into much more detail. And he talked an awful lot about being at points where he didn’t really know if he had anything to say, and that people would like at him after something happened as though he’s the moral compass and should have something to say about an issues, but he didn’t really know what to say because he was so stuck inside his head, or dealing with depression and substance misuse, which are not really things we associate with Bruce Springsteen. And then something would happen socially that would jolt him and make him realize he had to say something about a situation. This was a long-winded question, but is that a thing with you? But with what’s going on write now, did you feel like you needed say something?

It’s hard to make a comparison like that with me; like, I don’t feel like people NEED to hear from me. I have my own views, and I’m not far left or far right in how I live, and I think the album title really says it all. I think that all are welcome, and I have had a few – very few – negative comments since the single came out from people who are leaning on the far right side of things about “what are you doing? Keep your mouth shut. Shut up and sing.” That kind of stuff. My commentary back is not to engage in a tit-for-tat argument, and to just say “listen, the title is All Are Welcome. That means all. Even you. Just because we disagree, that’s an important part of the message. It’s okay to believe different things. That’s one of the things that makes this country great! And to not let people in when they’re looking for a better life is not okay. It doesn’t matter where you are. That isn’t what they did to your grandparents! When they came over, if they did that on a boat and sent them back to Haiti or to Ireland or to wherever, none of us would be here right now. We’re a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, hopefully.

And then they get hear and realize how fucked up we are…

Yeah, and then they want to go back, or they realize that money isn’t the only thing that provides happiness, you know? We have a lot of opportunity in America. Even in the worst times, we have more opportunities than most of the rest of the world.

And the fact that we’re able to even just have a conversation about this right now over lunch means we have it pretty good.

Absolutely! We have to remember that perspective sometimes.

Now that this is just about out, are you as happy as you thought you might be?

Yeah, because we really didn’t have any expectations when we were doing it. That was a good lesson to be learned in recording it. Obviously you want to do the best that you can do. But this was kind of done in the moment, and that’s a rare thing. When you’re picking through songs, you pick the ones that you think are the best, and fortunately I have the luxury of working with some guys that are great at using their own thoughts. With the first record, I probably sent Pete twenty or thirty demos, and he picked through the ones that he thought were the best, which was not necessarily the ones that I thought were the best, and that was good! With this one, we didn’t have much to go with. I think the one song that didn’t make it, I really want to have a friend of mine Stress, in Philadelphia, does a lot of producing and recording, and I really want him to chop it up and make it into whatever he wants to and send it back to me and see if I can add something to it.

Was that the problem with it? It just didn’t fit together?

I think we ran into the issue where it was the middle of the day when we were recording, and we were getting to the point where your good ideas (have stalled) and it’s time to take a break. I think that’s what we did, we went and got pizza and came back and Pete was knowledgeable enough to say “okay, guys, I think we’re running into a bit of a wall.” You can’t really force it; the good stuff is going to happen when the good stuff happens. You can work on it, but if you ain’t quite getting it, you’ve gotta know when to step away.

I got the sense that it was a more cohesive recording process this time than with Illuminator.

Well, it was certainly closer together. I was able to do it in a tighter time frame, which probably helped, because for everybody, we were right in the project we were working on, not putting it down for six months and coming back to it. It’s best for me to not get distracted and to focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, I get ADD about things. If I have my spoons in too many pots, I’m definitely going to burn something, you know?

So then was it a calculated thing to focus on a new solo, Gang Of One record now versus a new New Darkbuster or whatever?

I never calculate it, I think it’s just the way it developed. Street Dogs have been working hard on the road for the last couple of years. Everyone wants to spend time on their own personal aspects, the stuff that people don’t realize is getting put on the back burner because we were trying to do that. It’s always good to step back and take a breather every now and then to let things go where they are supposed to go. I’m a big believer of that. I was saying to somebody the other day; when the pre-sales came out, it was right around Martin Luther King Day, and I couldn’t have planned that. There’s no way anybody could have planned that. To me, that was proof that I’m on the right path. Things like that don’t work out like that randomly.

How did the Revolution thing come about?

I had a tune, and it was going along a certain way and was mostly developed. And the one line that kept on coming back was “We are the sons and daughters of the revolution,” the first line in the song. I couldn’t really figure out what sort of direction to go in, so I was in the hotel room writing some stuff and it all kinda started gelling. I will say that the have been a team for like twenty years now or something? I think Weakness For Spirits, the Darkbuster album, came out in 2000, maybe 2001? The Revs were maybe three or four years old at that point, and I included them in that song (“Skinhead”), because it’s part of the culture, the skinhead, punk rock culture, you know what I mean? Lars (Fredericksen) too in The Old Firm Casuals led the way with that. I have a friend from Chicago who works for the organization and he reached out on social media, and I said “hey, I’ve got this song, can I send it to you to give it a listen?” And I did, and he liked it and I told him to pass it around. It wasn’t written to specifically go shop to the band, but I talked to Lars about the thing he did with the Quakes, and he said “I’m a season ticket holder anyway. I go to the games, so it just made sense.” I’m not quite at that level yet, but I’m willing to learn!

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