By O’Hara Shipe
Over the next two weeks, the Alaska State Fair will play host to eleven musical acts representing every genre from country to hardcore punk. These traveling musicians come from small-towns in the midwest, urban metropolises like Boston and sandy beaches in California. As seemingly disparate as their backgrounds may be, many of the acts share a remarkable similarity that is rare in today’s music industry. They’ve all stayed together for over two decades. Or in the case of Tower of Power, just over a half-century.
Of course, there’s been turnover in each band. Tower of Power has had sixty musicians grace their lineup. Shinedown only has two original members still performing, and the Dropkick Murphy’s have one original member on the roster. However, the fact remains that the 2019 State Fair lineup is in many ways, a historic one with most of the acts enjoying fanbases that encompass generations.
“It always strikes me when I sit down with these interviewers who are 25 or 26-years-old, and they tell me they’ve been listening to our music for ten years—so since they were teenagers. I think, ‘holy shit, that’s crazy!’ When I think about my own journey through music and what I was listening to at fifteen, it was definitely different than what I was listening to in my twenties. But to have people who have stayed with us so long is lucky,” explains Dropkick Murphy’s frontman Al Barr.
The Dropkick Murphy’s aren’t just retaining fans, they are continuing to garner new ones. Hailed as the sound of Boston, the band penned the Red Sox theme-song the year before the team finally broke the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004. The group subsequently went on to record “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” which prominently featured in Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning film “The Departed.” The movie and the song brought the band international notoriety and cemented their place in Boston’s rich musical legacy.
That level of success is typically the name of the game for any musician, but in the punk world, mainstream success is the antithesis of what it means to be punk. So, how does a punk rocker cope with becoming what he’s supposed to be rebelling against? Well, if you ask Barr, you don’t give a flying fuck—you just make the music you want to make.
“As far as responsibility [for creating anti-establishment music] goes, I feel like I am responsible for making sure that I’m as good of a person as I can be, and I try to do that. I don’t feel like I have to go out there and change the world because I don’t think that’s a realistic goal,” Barr says.
The personification of working-class Boston—despite hailing from Portsmouth, New Hampshire—Barr’s sometimes painfully blunt manner of speaking is a product of the genre that has defined the last thirty-five years of his life.
“I got into the scene right around the first wave of American hardcore. You know, before it became something that other people became aware of—before it became mainstream and was no longer what it was intended to be, which was always just a rash on the diaper of music,” Barr states emphatically with a thick Boston accent.
If hardcore was a rash, then it must be contact dermatitis, because as Barr found out, once you catch it, there’s no going back.
“I didn’t choose punk [music], it chose me! It wasn’t like I went out there one day and decided I wanted to be a punk rocker. It spoke to me when I first heard it in a car driving by, and it resonated,” he says.
The music of the Dropkick Murphy’s did not have the same effect.
“[Johnny Rioux had] seen them in New Hampshire and he had this demo of this band the Dropkick Murphy’s. I remember he put it in, and I immediately knew it was this band that had robbed us from all these good spots of opening for all the national acts that would tour through. And I ripped that tape out, and I threw it across my kitchen and I said, ‘Don’t ever bring that in my house again. Those guys are going nowhere quick,’” Barr told WGBH’s Edgar Herwick in 2014.
Barr’s resentment was fueled by the sudden popularity of the Dropkick Murphy’s who quickly began snatching up gigs from Barr’s original band The Bruisers. His hate fire towards the Dropkick’s slowly faded when his own band began crumbling and the Dropkick’s original singer quit mid-tour in 1998, just two months after releasing an album. Not expecting much, Barr showed up at an informal garage audition to take over the lead singer position. After belting out half of a song, Barr was asked to leave. Figuring he’d bombed, Barr was surprised when the band asked him back into the garage and offered him the job. That was twenty-one years ago.
“[The Dropkick Murphy’s is] definitely a family and we’ve come to accept everybody with all their ugly warts that go along with that and I think we’ve all shown each other those,” laughs Barr. “We all love each other—not to get all mushy and hippie—but we do love each other. I think we’d all walk through a room of fire for each other, or at least I know I would, and I assume the other guys would too. I think that’s the glue that holds us together.”
Whereas brotherhood is what Barr credits with the Dropkick’s longevity, Shinedown’s frontman and founding member Brent Smith cites extensive touring as the reason for his own band’s success.
“From the moment the band formed, it was all about getting on the road,” explains Smith. “I mean, I’ve played in every single situation you could possibly come up with. I’ve played in front of five people before, and I’ve played in front of 500,000 people before. So, the road can be rewarding, but you have to respect it.”
Not unlike the Dropkick’s who had to hustle in an underground scene to establish their name, Shinedown pounded pavement above ground.
“Growing up in the MTV generation, I thought for sure that we were going to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone and our videos were going to be on MTV. That did not happen,” recalls Smith with a laugh. “When we released our first album—‘Leave A Whisper’—in 2003, it wasn’t met with any critical acclaim. If anything, a lot of people said we sucked and that we were ugly.”
Visual media had shunned Shinedown, but Smith saw an opportunity with rock radio, and he seized it. Tabling expectations of superstardom, the band never rejected the chance to meet with a program director or news media. They became the “yes men” of the rock world, and it worked.
The album once touted as a dud, worked its way up to certified platinum by RIAA and all four of the album’s singles charted in the top-five of the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. Shinedown rode the wave of ‘Whisper’ on a two-year tour before returning to the studio to record their sophomore album ‘Us and Them’ in 2005.
Following their well-established model of self-promotion, the band hit the road again and crisscrossed North America. By 2007, life on the road had begun to take its toll. Struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, Smith and former lead guitarist Jasin Todd started infighting so much that it nearly broke up the band. Ultimately, Smith fired Todd and worked to become clean. The result was a prolific writing period that saw Smith bang out sixty songs with Black Dog Sound Recording Studio’s Rick Beato.
Smith’s efforts were rewarded with the release of Shinedown’s junior album, ‘The Sound of Madness’ in 2007. The record is to-date the band’s most commercially successful, staying on the Billboard 200 charts for 120 weeks.
Shinedown has since released three more albums, all of which have received critical acclaim.
Their most recent album, ‘Attention Attention,’ marked another momentous occasion in the band’s twenty-year history. In November 2018, Shinedown gained sole possession of the most top-10 singles in the history of Billboard’s Rock Airplay chart.
“You know, our fans mean everything to us, and that’s ultimately why we do what we do. There’s something that happens with this band when we’re playing live. No matter what country or city you’re in, there’s just this unique thing that happens. It’s hard to describe—it’s just like this energy that swirls around. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, you just feel it. That’s why we do what we do,” explains an impassioned Smith.
It’s that undefinable feeling that has kept Shinedown on the road for ten months out of the year for the last twenty years.
“I think our band symbolizes the dynamic of not having a plan B in life,” says Smith. “Everybody in this band was told from a very early age that [being a musician] was a foolish pipe dream. You just can’t settle. Even if it takes you a while to get to plan A, you have to keep persevering.”
If anyone understands Smith’s perspective on touring, its Slightly Stoopid’s Miles Doughty. Before hitting the Alaska State Fair stage, Doughty and his band will have traveled from California to Spain and Austria before returning stateside to play shows in Utah and Oklahoma. And that’s just in the last two weeks.
“It’s pretty nuts, but sometimes you just have to take advantage of those opportunities because European festivals are big the summers. So, even if you’re going to Europe for just one show, you have to make it work,” Doughty says matter-of-factly.
Fighting fatigue, time-zone changes, and language barriers have become second nature to Slightly Stoopid over the years.
“Once you get on stage a button sort of turns on and it doesn’t matter how tired you are. I think you just kind of flip a switch,” explains Doughty.
Slightly Stoopid may not tour as much as Shinedown, but they’ve certainly paid their dues over the years.
Discovered by former Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell while they were still in high school, Slightly Stoopid began making the rounds at Coachella, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits from their inception in 1994.
“We’ve always toured since the beginning—like nonstop. We never relied on anything else but touring constantly to the same towns over and over again. That built this grassroots fanbase that just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Doughty says. “Our fans are a lot like the Dead Heads because they travel with the band, they’ve grown up with us, and now they bring their families to the shows.”
Occupying a difficult-to-define subgenre that mixes reggae, funk, and hip-hop, Slightly Stoopid has never been a radio band, but that’s something they are comfortable with.
“I think you get something special out of hearing the music live. You know, you can’t really take anything back, and you get to experience the energy that’s there between the fans and the band,” explains Doughty of their numerous live-recorded albums.
That living connection to their fans and the music is something that binds the Dropkicks, Shinedown and Slightly Stoopid together. As does their approach to making music.
“You know, it’s been interesting to see the industry change from analog to digital and now somewhat back to analog again. It’s been apples and oranges compared to what it used to be. When a new record came out, you used to go out and buy it and listen to it. Nowadays no one has any time for that. They download a song, maybe two, but nobody listens to a whole album,” says the Dropkick’s Barr. “But we make our music to be heard as a full-album, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Despite the changes to the way music is consumed—one song at a time—Doughty says that they put out records geared towards their fans, not to the casual one-song listeners. However, remaining steadfast to their traditional views on music comes at a price that many fans don’t think about.
Slightly Stoopid’s recently released single “One More Night” is a heartfelt reminder of what it means to be an old-school touring musician.
“[The song] kind of explains what we go through to bring music to people—it’s about what we leave behind. There’s children, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends that get left behind. We don’t just go out and play a set, you know, we leave regular life behind to do what we do,” says Doughty. “You just have a different appreciation for it, especially after you have children.”
Still, Doughty says he’s blessed to get to do what he does for a living.
“Music is a release for anyone, even for the musicians. As a band, we’re trying to create a release where people can forget about their everyday problems,” he explains.
For Shinedown’s Smith, the appeal of release comes in the form of occupying a different part of himself.
“The guy you see performing on stage is a part of me, but if I had to be that guy 24-hours a day, I’d be exhausted,” laughs Smith. “One of my favorite quotes is ‘a world without music would be a mistake.’ At the end of the day, I just want to make people happy.”
The Dropkick’s Barr sums it up perfectly.
“We’re so fortunate to be able to do this. You know, it was a life’s dream and how many people can say their life’s dream came true?”
Shinedown hits the Alaska State Fair stage Friday, August 23 at 7pm. Slightly Stoopid and the Dropkick Murphy’s play the following week on Thursday, August 29 and Friday, August 30. Visit AlaskaStateFair.org for tickets a full listing of performing acts.