Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with their annual concert at Metro Friday night, I spoke with Tony Duggins about the impact of his south side roots on the music of The Tossers, the influence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement on the latest Tossers studio album Smash The Windows and the continued quest for equality in America…
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Tony Duggins was exposed to Irish folk music at an early age.
And while the music itself didn’t resonate right away, the rebellious spirit and social awareness that characterize it eventually did.
That spirit of rebellion is one you’ll find in spades on the south side. And once he was exposed to the music of The Pogues, the connection was made and a bond with Irish music was forged.
Duggins is well versed in Irish history. And the plight of the Irish, both at home and as immigrants, is one he’s not just familiar with but empathetic toward. It’s a notion that looms large on the Tossers’ latest studio effort, Smash The Windows.
Long a live staple, traditional “Danny Boy” finally gets the studio treatment on Smash The Windows, one of several songs on the new album to address the idea of immigration.
“1969” takes from the marches and protests that marked the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, while opening track “Erin Go Bragh” kicks things off with a nod to the early immigrant experience at Ellis Island.
Gearing up for their annual St. Patrick’s Day party at Metro (the group’s fortieth concert performance at the iconic venue), I spoke with Tossers songwriter, vocalist and mandolin player Tony Duggins about the immigrant experience (as the subject takes on renewed meaning in America), the growth in songwriting that spans the group’s latest Victory Records release Smash The Windows, the importance of a 2016 Tossers performance at the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (as part of the “Ireland 100” series) and the band’s quickly approaching, once unthinkable 25th anniversary.
A lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation follows below…
Q. How does growing up in and continuing to live on the south side identify the music that you make?
Tony Duggins: Wow. It’s a huge part of it. It’s my whole identity.
I grew up around a lot of Polish, Italian and Irish kids. There was a lot of Catholicism that I grew up around. And there’s parades. You see them all the time – big celebrations.
I had heard Irish music all my life and I never thought it was any big deal. It was always on the back burner – like country music or something like that (for me).
But The Pogues came along and that was really cool. And I said, “Wow! I can really relate to that – because of where I’m from. I can do that!”
Q. I think that the idea of rebellion is one that really characterizes Irish music whether it’s the more folk oriented stuff or something with a bit more of a punk edge like The Pogues. Having grown up there, it’s also something I kind of equate with the south side. What were some of the first bands – regardless of whether they’re Irish bands or not – that you identified with because they carried forth that idea of rebellion in a song?
TD: Like a lot of normal kids, I think the first kind of music I was into was heavy metal. Twisted Sister was my first band that really shocked me and I loved. And that is like the anthem of rebellion – “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” It was like, “This is great!” I absolutely loved it. And eventually I got into punk.
But I’ll tell you one thing about Irish music… Of all the bands – punk music and metal or reggae – there’s a vulnerability in the slower songs that you don’t get a lot in metal or punk as much. I thought that was really the attraction of Irish music too (some of the love songs and some of the songs about immigration and hope).
I thought that was pretty neat. I wasn’t getting that anywhere else.
Q. You mentioned Irish music as being kind of on the back burner for you early on (and country music). Where were you eventually exposed to it? Was that at home via family?
TD: Yeah. Because Johnny Cash was huge. The Clancy Brothers. The Irish Rovers (everybody listened to them). So, yeah – from parents and from friends around the neighborhood. Everybody’s parents listened to it. There was a lot of Frank Sinatra! There was a lot of Polish music and Mexican music.
That is what it seems we need to focus on a little bit more. A little more empathy. A lot more empathy. And a lot more kindness.
Q. I would imagine one of the songs you heard growing up was “Danny Boy.” You’ve done it live for years but a studio version is finally included on the new Smash The Windows album. There’s such a wide range of artists who’ve covered that traditional song. Everyone has heard it a million times and expects to hear it a certain way. How difficult was it it to put your own spin on it while remaining true to the song itself and do you have a favorite version?
TD: The Pogues did one. I’ve just heard that song all my life.
You know, probably the last person that I can remember hearing do that song was Susan Boyle. Remember her? It was sweeping [with] string sections and stuff. Then I heard The Pogues. There was an unreleased version that they put out on a box set that was pretty cool.
I knew we were going to do it. I wanted to do it. We had decided to do that song. And I wanted a little bit of both: I wanted the strings and I wanted a good production – but I wanted it to keep some of the grit for lack of a better word. Like us (or like a pub band or a rock band or whatever).
So I just tried to mix it as best I could between those two ideas. And that’s kind of what we came up with. The version we have is what we came up with.
Q. You’ve spoken about your experiences growing up on the south side of Chicago amidst a number of different ethnicities. Obviously, the subject of immigration is front and center right now in America and you guys address that on the album – particularly in the first track (“Erin Go Bragh“). How important was it to you to make that point and address what has become a controversial, divisive topic?
TD: Right. Well, maybe that’s why it was in my head.
As far as my approach to songwriting, I just let everything to come to me. And I write it down. Even little pieces of songs – a piece of the lyrics or a small snippet of the melody line. I just wait and when I get a good one, I’ll write it down. And then I build on top of it from there. And sometimes it goes really fast – like I’ll think of a good line and a whole song appears. Sometimes it takes me months or years even to put something together.
But I started writing that song and I had an idea of what I was going to do. I started with the line, “Uncle Sam, as you know, changed our names long ago.” And that’s something that I’d always been hearing – from my grandparents, from everybody. You’d always hear people complaining about the Irish names being changed at Ellis Island. And I thought that was a line that a lot of people could relate to. So that’s as far as I was thinking in writing the song.
Now… maybe that stuff was on my mind because of the political climate today. And it does reflect it, yeah. I’m just sort of praising the hardship and the struggle and the accomplishment of immigrants coming over to Chicago specifically.
And the story of the Irish is that there are some that overcame a lot of that. And what I guess I haven’t dealt with in the song is that there’s a lot that did not overcome that. That is what it seems we need to focus on a little bit more. A little more empathy. A lot more empathy. And a lot more kindness.
Because our country seems at odds with like two different sets of ideologies and thinking. And, yeah, maybe I brought up the issue – I didn’t deal with it but I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was just writing that particular song. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of conversations that need to be had on this immigration issue.
Tolerance and empathy.
Q. You haven’t made a political album per se but you’ve never been afraid to go there in a Tossers song. Speaking out politically or advocating for social awareness is a big part of the folk music tradition that you were exposed to early on and it kind of feeds into the idea of rebellion that we discussed. I feel like we’ve lost a little bit of that in music today. We’ve seen some artists pay a price when they’ve tried to speak up. Does it worry you at all when it comes to trying to make some of those points in your music?
TD: I don’t give a hoot. Like I said, when I write my songs, I just write them. They just come to me. The song that makes a record? It is what it is. If people can relate to it and it has a catchy melody – if it’s a good song – we put it on [the album]. If not, we get rid of it. So it doesn’t really have much to do with that.
But I think a lot more bands are going to come out. Especially in the punk scene. It’s gonna be like the Reagan years but ten times more (in the punk scene anyway). I see that coming. That’s going to be huge. They’ll all tackle the Trump stuff in the punk scene.
Yeah, some people have paid the price for it – old folkies. But that’s what I grew up listening to and I’m fairly aware of what’s going on around me. It’s just the person I am. But I’m not worried about anybody saying anything to me or doing whatever. We’ve always been political but it does just come out of us.
Q. On the new Tossers album, “1969” references the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and the protesting and marches that kind of defined that year. While it’s not necessarily a religious fight, protesting in regards to civil rights has certainly come back to the forefront in America now. There have also been times lately where the idea of civil rights and equality have been front and center here in Chicago in particular. Were you telling the story that you did in “1969” to try and draw some parallels to the fact that the fight for equality is still a struggle even in 2017?
TD: Well, it always is. That is a given: civil rights are always stepped on by other people. And it’s always money.
Even the ’69 civil rights marches in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and Derry, were not about religion as much as they were about fair housing and issues like that – fair housing and jobs and other forms of public needs. That’s exactly what they were about: they were about basic human rights. And asking for more. They were just asking for more. They weren’t even livable wages they were earning. They weren’t habitable homes a lot of people were living in. That is really what it’s always been about.
It’s never about religion. That’s the thing that the media plays up. And that’s the thing that gets expressed because that’s the thing that a mass of people can understand and relate too. So that’s what gets reported.
It’ll never go out of fashion because it’s already out of fashion. It’s already out of style. So the crowd that we have is very loyal and we’re just lucky to have them.
Q. This past May, you guys did an hour set at the Kennedy Center as part of their “Ireland 100” festival, marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Day Uprising. What was it like to get that kind of honor and recognition?
TD: It was one of the greatest shows we ever played.
We played with The Pogues on St. Patrick’s Day once in New York. That was about as good as it gets. But the Kennedy Center was right there.
Playing with The Pogues, with that crowd – that crowd was all crazy and roaring and singing along and swinging their scarves – that was beautiful. That was rock and roll. But the Kennedy Center was the heritage and culture and tradition that is also a huge part of our band. We just felt so honored to be asked to do that and to be able to represent, from our little niche of culture, that heritage and tradition.
It was just an amazing honor. To even be in a room that John F. Kennedy built – and it’s free! Every concert there is free to the public. He did that for people because he cared about people being educated and people enjoying their lives. [Viola Davis] on the Oscars [recently] said, “the artistic profession is the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” And that is really what we’re all about. It’s a big part of what I’m all about anyway.
So it was beyond an honor. It was one of the greatest days of my entire life. I have never been more proud.
Q. Well, let’s talk about the Metro. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day show actually marks the fortieth Tossers show at Metro. We’ve spoken previously and I know that venue is important to you. What does it mean to you to be able to fill that venue every year after all these years and all those appearances?
TD: We just found that out. That’s amazing. You know, I’ve never thought about it but now that you ask me… We’re just really lucky. I’m really grateful that the people do come. And it’s nice to know that people do relate to what we’re doing and people see what we’re doing and they can enjoy it.
And the relationship that we’ve had with Metro over the years is the best relationship that we have. Because we are performers. We just want to play. That’s what we do. Our albums aren’t too… There’s not a lot of gimmicks or anything. It’s just us. It’s what we do. We play songs. And the Metro just is the best place to play. And they allow us to be who we are. And the relationship we’ve had with them over the years has made it possible for us to keep doing what we do.
And we’ll always do what we do – but for sure a lot better when you’ve got friends out there. Joe Shanahan… he’s just always been there for us and always done anything he could for us. That relationship with the Metro is great.
This is something that we’ll always be able to do – we kind of picked playing this music because I knew I could do it. Also, it’ll never go out of fashion because it’s already out of fashion. It’s already out of style. So the crowd that we have is very loyal and we’re just lucky to have them. We just try to do to the best job that we can for the people that are listening to the music.
And now, more so than ever, we’re a little more mature. We’re a little more grown up. We’re really trying hard to put music out for people to listen to.
We’re thinking about doing something for the 25th anniversary: an album maybe. But we’ll see what happens when these ideas start coming together…
Q. You guys have also played your fair share of Double Door shows over the years. What’s it like losing that venue?
TD: Oh, hell yeah. Oh my god. Sean. I love [Double Door co-owner] Sean [Mulroney].
One time I was hanging with Lee Rocker from The Stray Cats [at Double Door]. I was just standing there talking to him – and we were engaged in a real heavy conversation – and I said, “Oh, hold on…” I had a bottle of whiskey I was drinking and I said, “Pardon me, I have to vomit in this bucket.” Kept the conversation rolling. (laughs)
But the millions of shows that we’ve played at Double Door with friends… The Double Door is a bit of a smaller sister venue to the Metro but it’s the one that we would play all the time. And the flippin’ Rolling Stones played there for Pete’s sake! That place was a monument to Chicago.
It’s just sad to see it go over some petty land issue. But that place has been our home on the north side of Chicago.
Q. This morning I went back and re-read the piece I wrote the last time we talked. At that point you guys had just hit 20 years. Next year marks The Tossers‘ 25th anniversary. Anything special planned to celebrate that?
TD: You know… I do want to celebrate it. It’s a big anniversary. It’s a milestone.
About a couple of weeks ago, when we were rehearsing for this tour we’re going on, I just started asking the guys – I planted the seed to see if we could get the idea going and the ball rolling – I said, “Let’s put out another record. Let’s just do it. Let’s just record a bunch of old traditional songs and put out a celebration of us being together for 25 years.”
Then we can do it again at 30 years, we can do it again at 40 years, 50 years, just like The Dubliners did – lord have mercy if we live that long.
But we’re thinking about doing something for the 25th anniversary: an album maybe. But we’ll see what happens when these ideas start coming together.
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Friday’s Tossers St. Patrick’s Day concert at Metro below)
St. Patrick’s Day Party With The Tossers
St. Patrick’s Day
Friday, March 17, 2017
Doors open at 8PM
Show starts at 9PM
Also performing: The Siderunners, The Avondale Ramblers, Gallows Bound
Tickets: $17 in advance, $20 at the door
Click HERE to purchase tickets