During a stop in Rochester, NY, as part of Flogging Molly’s Green 17 Tour, I had the chance to chat backstage with Flogging Molly accordionist Matt Hensley. In the interview, we discussed Matt’s other interests like skateboarding and his pub. Matt also spoke candidly about the challenges of being on the road and away from his family.
Thom: Flogging Molly is releasing a new live CD/ DVD set this week, it premiered at your Hensley’s Pub this past week, what was the reaction?
Matt: Well I wasn’t there, but I called and I heard a lot of people showed up and it was a good time. The report was good, a solid report.
Why did you choose the Greek Theater to record this project?
Matt: Well, we got lucky enough to play it. L.A. is where we founded this band, and the Greek Theater is a very famous, prestigious place to play and we had been thinking about doing a live DVD for a while now. The Greek Theater just made sense. One reason was because it was in L.A. and that was a respect issue for our original fans from California and Los Angeles. Second, it is just a beautiful venue, it is stunningly beautiful either when you’re onstage looking at the fans, or in the crowd looking at the band. I think it worked out from both those angles. And when our manager told us we were doing a DVD from the Greek Theater, we were all like “hell yeah!”
Los Angeles is certainly special to Flogging Molly, what are some of the other places the band really enjoys playing? The kind of place that when you see it on your itinerary, you know it is going to be a great show.
Matt: There’s a big list. When we play L.A., we play to people that have been watching us since we were in little bars and so there is something that is special about that. But the same thing can be said about some of the places we have played on the east coast. When we first toured the east coast, sometimes we only played to ten people, then came back and ten turned to twenty and so on and we just tried to keep it real all those years. Rochester is special because Dennis is from here, and his family is here, and we know everytime we are here, it is an extraordinarily good time. And it always is, we get a lot of great love here. When we play San Diego, it’s great because I am from San Diego and people there are proud that someone in this band is from there. That makes it special. Holland always treats us well, Germany, Europe, Japan. I mean, Japan is one of the greatest places to play of all time. I love Japan. There are not too many places I don’t like to play to be quite honest with you. Most places treat us fairly. I like to play to New York because the food is great. I mean, you can get any kind of great food.
Japan kind of surprises me, you play this Irish punk rock. Was it a shock to the Japanese people getting into Flogging Molly?
Matt: No it wasn’t, but only because I used to be a professional skateboarder and I went to Japan a lot as a kid to skateboard. I found that when Japanese people get into things, they go all the way. I don’t want to sound like I am classifying them all, but they take it all to the next level. If the kids are into punk rock, they are like 1977 punk rockers to the extreme with the big Mohawks. And the biker kids have the best stuff. They do everything really well. So if they are going to do Irish music, there are going to be two thousand Japanese kids with Irish drinking hats, like you’ve got on, and having a great time and just going for it.
You were a professional skateboarder and so you toured the world before you joined Flogging Molly. So touring wasn’t anything new to you, but you did leave Flogging Molly for a short time and the reason you gave was the constant touring. Would you mind talking about that?
Matt: Sure, I’ve been in this band since ’96 and my son was born in 1998 and we had to pay a lot of dues over the years. Now we are doing good. We got a tour bus outside that is warm. We have a TV and I have a light if I want to read, but for a lot of those years we lived in a van like a lot of bands did. I spent a lot of years away from my kid and over the years, I started to feel bad about it. In my own life, my father was a hard working man, he wasn’t around a whole heck of a lot either and I told myself if I had a child I wouldn’t do that, but then I wound up in a position where I did just that. Then this internal guilt haunted me for awhile to the point where I finally just snapped. We had just finished a huge tour and I had missed so much of my kid’s life. I would go to a baseball practice or something and the kid’s coaches would look at me and kind of give me this crappy look like I am the derelict father that is not really around. They didn’t say that, but that’s the impression I got, and I love my son more than anything in this Fu*kin’ world. It was those kinds of things I responded to and I left the one thing in the world I loved the most besides my son, this band. Less than a year later, I was back in the band because I realized that I kind of had to do that to figure it out. My own son was still wearing Flogging Molly backpacks to school, and he knows that even though I am not home all the time, that when I am home I am really home with him. I learned a lot from him and he was only ten and I am almost forty. He kind of looked at me with these eyes that said “Why did you quit? I didn’t ask you to quit.” Then I realized he has known nothing but this life. It’s like if you grew up being a billionaire and got chauffeured all around and then you lost it all and became a blue collar worker, you would be screwed up. My son grew up with me in a band, he was used to me being around and then gone and then being around again, that was his life, he did not know any better or worse. It was only me who had a guilt problem.
Flogging Molly is a band that has always been very good to their fans. I have been to shows where all of you come out and shake hands after what looks like and exhausting performance. It’s obvious everyone in the band loves music. In your case, you play an instrument that does not get a lot of respect. It seems like every kid grows up wanting to be a guitar hero, so how did you wind up playing accordion?
Matt: I played guitar too, I was with a ska band. My mother grew up in Maine, so when I was young I used to go to Maine a lot, and a lot of my relatives that were Scottish or French Canadian came by the house and played Scottish reels and jigs on fiddle and accordion. I thought that was the greatest thing ever when I was a little kid. Then when I turned 13, I became a skater and a punk rocker and I shied away from that stuff because I thought it was lame. Then when I got older, I fell in love with that music again and started listening to The Pogues and really fell in love with that music. From there, I just investigated that kind of music. Believe it or not, when I was on skateboarding tours I would go into pawn shops and almost buy an accordion but I just didn’t. At some point in my early twenties I said fu*k it, I am just going to buy an accordion. In my mind I wanted to start an Irish drinking band, a good time pub band. Then I started hanging out with some people where I live and playing with them and I have never looked back. It was only by fate, luck, weirdness or it was meant to be, that I went to L.A. to see this band called “Those Darn Accordions” play. A twelve piece all accordion band from San Francisco. After that we went to Molly Malone’s and met Dave (King). My friend Jeff was with me and he told Dave that “Matt plays the accordion if you ever start the band up again. If you need an accordion player he is your man.” Dave met me really quick, shook my hand, gave me a tape and told me we had band practice in two weeks, see if you can learn this and want to be part of this. I went home and told my wife not to worry about it and that it would only be once a week, but I really wanted to do it. Sure enough, I went to band practice and after it was over, Dave said, “you’re in.” So then my wife is like “OK, so now you’re in a band from L.A. and you live in San Diego, I don’t know what sense that makes but that is OK.”
How does the writing process work in Flogging Molly with all of the instruments coming together?
Matt: Most of the time Dave writes the songs, sometimes he just comes up with a riff that is really simple and then it will be me, Bridget and everybody else in the band who will come together and write stuff to it. It really happens very smoothly, it’s crazy how smooth it is.
“Float” was the only album you recorded in Ireland, can you tell me what that experience was like?
Matt: It was great! It was really great and not just because we were in Ireland. Everyone gets the impression that just because we were in Ireland it was magically delicious. It was definitely great and I loved being in Ireland and we were out in the middle of nowhere. Being in Ireland was important for Dave I think, but for the band, musically speaking, I think what was important was that for the first time we were doing a record that wasn’t downtown somewhere, where we all had too many friends and too many distractions. That’s not to say we didn’t give it our best on every album, but the closest gas station was twenty miles away. We were in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, it was beautiful. It felt great to not have the modern world mess with you and be able to do it old school style.
Thom: It seems to be the one album that came closest to capturing the energy of one of your live shows and Flogging Molly is really one of the great bands live.
Matt: Totally, if there is one place we shine it is live. The biggest challenge is to record us live because we are so in your face.
I have heard some previews of ‘Live at the Greek Theater’ and it seems like the sound quality is a huge improvement over ‘Alive Behind the Green Door’.
Matt: Yeah it is. I mean, we did that album with like a ten dollar budget. This was done with a little more money and we did it right. Hopefully our fans will like it. It really captures what Flogging Molly is all about and the fact you can see it, even though there is nothing like being there. I mean, I love records but I would much rather see a band live. Next to seeing us is the DVD, it gives a good representation of what we are all about.
I would like you tell us about Hensley’s pub. I have seen video of it and it seems to represent every aspect of your life, including music and skateboarding. What inspired you to start a pub?
Matt: For as long as I can remember I had wanted to start a pub and so when I left the band, I was not the kind of person who could sit around and do nothing. Like you just said, I took everything that mattered to me and made me who I am, skateboarding, music, accordions, artwork, and I mashed it together in the pub with a Celtic twist. From the jukebox to the framed art on the walls, I did everything myself. A lot of my paintings are on the walls. I put a lot of my heart and soul into that place. Aside from a Guinness mirror from the factory, there isn’t any commercial stuff. I mean, they will give you all kinds of pictures of half-naked chicks, Budweiser girls and that kind of crap, but I won’t put it on my walls. I wanted real photographs, real prints of Joe Strummer. Another thing I did was with the record collection near the roof, all the records are genuine first pressings, old reggae records signed by Lee Scratch Perry. The prints that I have are limited edition. I have a real kick ass print of Tom Waits. I probably have eighty to one hundred thousand dollars worth of art in my pub. I wanted to do that because I wanted to create something that was not all cheeseball and showy. I did not want the token Irish things on the wall like “top ‘o the morning to ya.” I wanted it to be something different, something more authentic. It really pleases me when an older couple comes in and spends an hour circling the pub and touching stuff. I mean, I have accordions on the wall near the tables so you can have a pint and mess with an accordion that is over one hundred years old. It’s cool! Of course you have to think an accordion is cool to like it, but still there is something cool about it being a real instrument, not some piece of crap thing on the wall.
My last question has to do with skateboarding, the last I read you were still skateboarding on a regular basis.
Matt: Yeah! Absolutely! My son, who is twelve, has been skateboarding a lot and more and more I have been going out with him. It is a little hard for me, especially when I was running the pub, the pub is still mine, but I have partners now that are used to the restaurant business. That freed me up to be a little more of who I am. Running a bar is taxing, plus I am not a good manager of people. I am not good at firing people. I am more of an artist-hippie guy in the corner figuring it out than I am the hammer. I can try to be, but people laugh at me when I try, so I realized I needed to find people that believed in my dream and knew what they were doing and I found them. Their names are Dave and Molly and they are just beautiful people. They used to come to my pub all the time before they became partners and it has been a beautiful thing to be able work with them. It is nice because now when I come home after three months away, I am not jammed with things having to do with the pub, so I can go home and say “hey Oliver what do you want to do today?” I can hang out with him and skate. When this leg of the tour ends, I will have a month to spend with him and I am really looking forward to that. We will probably skate every other day.
We would like to thank Jon Pebsworth from SideOneDummy records for setting up the interview with Matt. for more information on Matt and Flogging Molly, you can go to: http://www.floggingmolly.com/.