It's St. Patrick's Day and Milwaukee's own Celtic rockers The Finn MacCools have released their debut disc, "Rogue Nation."
That's two reasons to celebrate. It's also two reasons to do ask the veteran quintet what they've been up to. Despite having to get ready for four gigs on Saturday, March 17, singer and guitarist Dan Smars found the time to tell us a bit about the band, how it's spending St. Patrick's Day this year and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell us the Finn MacCools backstory.
Dan Smars: The Finn MacCools are: Dan Smars: vocals, 12-string guitar; Dan Brown: percussion, vocals; Jim Kiley: lead guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals; Tom Hansen: fiddle; and Tom Young: bass guitar, vocals.
Dan and I started the band near the end of 2009 and Jim was the first to join us. We had been in Steel Bonnets prior to starting the Finns and Jim had been a founding member of Reilly. So the nucleus of the band really started in January 2010. Tom Hansen – also formerly with Reilly – joined shortly after and Tom Young – also formerly with Steel Bonnets – after that. We're all veterans of the local Milwaukee music scene, although Brown started in Chicago.
OMC: What makes The Finn MacCools different than other Irish bands in the city?
DS: What makes The Finn MacCools a bit different from other Irish bands in the city is our take on traditional Irish folk songs and our ability to keep them fresh and give them a rock edge and attitude. With Dan Brown's unique style of hand drumming – he designed his own drum set comprised of hand drums like bongos, congas, djembes and blended with a traditional bass drum, etc. – gives our rock sound a kind of tribal feel.
Jim's lead guitar work makes it rock but can also bring in the traditional feel when he switches to mandolin or banjo. My vocals can be gritty and emotional and my rhythm guitar teams up with Tom Young's spot-on, solid bass guitar to form a rhythm section that hold things together. Tom Hansen's Celtic fiddle work weaves intricate melodies that can make you weep or get you to your feet and stomp around.
OMC: Tell us about the record.
DS: Our first album, "Rogue Nation", has just been recently released and it has this blend of our take on traditional songs like "Dirty Old Town" and the original music, like the title track "Rogue Nation," "Falling Forward," "Journey Home" and "Ten Years," as examples of all traditional elements being spun into what we like to call "reel" rock.
OMC: What's the scene like here for an Irish band? Can you stay busy all year long?
DS: The Irish music scene is very good in Milwaukee, which may surprise people from outside the area, who may normally think Chicago, Boston or New York for a thriving Irish music scene. But there are a lot of Irish pubs in Milwaukee and more opening up all the time.
One of our favorite places is McBob's Pub & Grill. It has a great atmosphere, the staff and clientele are great, as are the food and beverages.
OMC: I imagine Irish Fest and St. Patrick's Day are your high season.
DS: With the number of Irish pubs in the city, we can stay busy all year. Our sound, however, is accessible to other, non-Irish pub venues, so we can always find a place to play.
OMC: What's a St. Pat's gig like, in terms of atmosphere, for you guys?
DS: A St. Patrick's Day atmosphere in an Irish Pub? Well, it's usually very quiet, serene, sacred and holy. OK, an exaggeration. It can get raucous, but it's all in very good fun and spirits. There are moments for observing the true and original spirit of St. Patrick's celebrations; it's a religious holiday and observance in Ireland, after all.
So, at quite a few of the places we've played at there can be a moment to reflect on the spiritual side of the day. And then right back into the fun! We've always had a great time playing St. Patrick's Day, have met some great people and made some very good friends at our shows.
OMC: Where are you playing on St. Pat's this year?
DS: This year for St. Patrick's Day we are extremely busy. We actually started the celebrations a week before St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Rec Room, immediately following the St. Patrick's Day parade.
On St. Patrick's Day itself, we'll be at the Irish Rec Room again, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then on to the Blackthorn Pub from 3 to 5 p.m., Mulligan's Irish Pub & Grill from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. and we'll end the night at McBob's Pub & Grill from 11:30 until we drop or they kick us out, whichever comes first! So, yeah, very busy day!
OMC: Bonus question: Is whiskey really the devil?
DS: It can be if you're playing four shows in a day!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.