Fitzsimmons (right) with Mike Cammilleri: 'I was hoping that I could write a song that'd inspire others to continue doing what they're good at.'
Madison hasn't been the same since The Kissers took a leave of absence back in 2008. Without the sounds of their enthusiastic protest songs played to the key of the Irish pub music that inspired them, the city has been missing their raucous sounds. But after a fresh break and reinvigorated by the political climate of the state, The Kissers have returned to action, brandishing their instruments at injustice in the morning and returning to the clubs after dark.
Front man Ken Fitzsimmons gives The Daily Page the inside scoop on what they've been up to and why they aren't going away any time soon.
The Daily Page: Since it's been a couple years since you talked to Isthmus, I was wondering if you could first tell me the current roster of the band and what The Kissers have been up over the last year or two?
Fitzsimmons: The current band is myself on vocals and bass, Joe Bernstein on drums, Kevin Youngs on mandolin, Bryan Elliott on whistle and saxophone, and Mike Cammilleri on accordion and organ. We'll also have a guitarist named Brendan Franklin joining us for the St. Patty's Day shows along with fiddler Jon Vriesacker. This band has been through a lot of changes throughout it's entire existence, actually [Laughs], but that's the current line-up.
Now let's see...in 2008 we very intentionally played not a "farewell show" but a "farewell for now show." We were pretty burned out at that time and lost a couple members, and I also went to grad school, which took me away from the band for a bit. We've had requests around the state to play, but we've kept to ourselves quite a bit. It was around 2010 that we started to look forward again as a band, and began working on new material. There was six of us then, but Sean Michael Dargan who was our guitar player then is no longer with us.
How difficult was it to get back together after a two year absence?
While we were taking a break, we all had these side-projects that we were working on, but then we'd get back together and play and realize the chemistry we still had as a band. We'd played hundreds of hours together and just as many shows. You don't realize how much time you've put into something until you try something else, so even though we took all this time off, when we came back together it was like nothing ever changed. But what really super-charged the band is when the protests began.
People often have a better perspective on your music than the artists themselves and someone else said to me that these times we're going through here in Wisconsin is what The Kissers were made for. Even though we don't consider ourselves a political band, we've always had political themes to some of our songs. When not playing Irish music literally, we try and play in the spirit of Irish music, which takes on current issues or things around you, including the land, your people, etc. So we were touring during the Bush administration, and we were touring plenty of "red states" and playing anti-war stuff everywhere.
And then the protests happened, and we started getting some calls to play at some of the rallies. At first, we were just playing stuff that we've done in the past; it all fit into the same mix, fit the same theme. But then I got inspired and actually pulled myself out of a long writer's block, you could say. If I have anything to thank Scott Walker for, it's for that.
For getting you pissed off enough to write new music
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. So I wrote "Scotty, We're Coming For You." My intention was to write a song that wasn't preachy. "No War" for example is a song that I like, but I feel it's a little preachy. So the idea was to write a song that people could sing-along to, but also have an Irish feel to it. I don't know if I accomplished that or not, but that's what I was trying to do. And it's almost like that one song revived the band in a way. For a while, I would go down to protests and rallies and try and do my part, but there were so many other people I met who were good at what they do, whether it was speaking or things like that.
So I thought: what can I do? I'm a musician; I write songs. So I was hoping that I could write a song that'd inspire others to continue doing what they're good at. And then the Solidarity Singers picked it up, and they've been singing it every day, which is really flattering. And then I got emails from other areas of the state saying, "You mind if we play this song?" Some people changed the lyrics to fit their own local senators around election time.
This year it's really picked up. I don't know what it is, but I've been getting a lot more emails now, and the "Scotty" song has put us on a lot more people's radars. Plus it's March, so things always pick up around March. But there's definitely a new energy.
Even before the Scott Walker protests, I think The Kissers have been one of the few bands in town who have secured an annual performance date that people look forward to. Because you play Irish-inspired music, it makes sense that St. Patrick's Day is a big day for fans of your band. But I'm curious what St. Patrick's Day means to you, being someone with American roots who is inspired by Irish music?
I guess I need to go back a little bit to why we started an Irish band in the first place. Now St. Patrick's Day is more celebrated in the U.S. than it is in Ireland. It's more of an Irish heritage day than anything else here in the U.S. People who aren't Catholic celebrate St. Patrick's Day, you know?
So we first fell in love with Irish music via The Pogues. Our very first gig -- March 17, 1998 -- we played 25 Pogues tunes. That's all we did. And since then we've gone backwards, from rock to Irish rock into traditional Irish music. So we've always considered ourselves rock musicians who learned Irish music. And then you start playing Irish music, and you get more and more into Irish heritage and culture.
People think I'm Irish when in fact I have Scottish heritage, and was born and raised in Wisconsin. But when you start going to Irish festivals and getting into the lore and culture, there's just so much history. And it was just really interesting to me. I'm sure that's true of many many cultures, but we have this musical connection to it, so we wanted to know more about it.
Around the country, there are many bands like us who play Irish music. It's a subculture. There's not very many huge Irish rock bands. You have Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys, but even them I wouldn't describe as huge. So for us, I don't exactly know how to describe it, but St. Patrick's Day has always been a day where we're maybe appreciated more?
At the very least, you're surrounded by people who extend beyond the subculture you were talking about.
That's a good way to put it. We've been digging into this for so long, and it's the one day where we can be unapologetic and be totally "I Love Ireland." Of course, if you're not careful, it can get really campy. We can't stand green beer and rarely wear green during our performances. [Laughs] It's like The Onion headline that says, "Irish get ready for reinforcin' o' the stereotypes." But at its core there's a very honest love for the music and certainly for all things Irish.
For the layman who doesn't know anything about Irish music, how would you describe its musical and lyrical aesthetic that you tap into when you write Irish-inspired tunes?
What first attracted me to it while listening to [legendary Pogues front man] Shane MacGowan was this element of really happy music with really sad lyrics. You don't even know how sad the lyrics are when you first listen to a song, especially with Shane MacGowan, because he's hard to understand. But it's definitely that combination, and Irish music just seems to be keyed into that. That's what really got to me.
But I'm also a hobbyist history buff, and a lot of the songs are historical -- they talk about wars and aspects of the culture. And then a lot of the songs are just about drinking, as in, "This sucks so we're going to drink!" [Laughs]
It always seemed really alive to me, so when writing music, we try and take in all of those elements. Instrumentally, the music seems to also capture that same combination, sounding sad but strangely hopeful. So that's inspired songs about Wisconsin, and has inspired other songs like "American Folk Song," which is about a guy who just graduated from high school and is going to UW-Madison when he's then drafted into the Civil War.
Besides that, I just like to sing real honestly about stuff around me. I don't really sing about Ireland that much unless we're doing covers, because I'm not from there. I think Ireland is great and have been there several times, but this is where I'm from. But the music is very accessible, so we can walk into a place we've never been to and play this music that people will want to dance to.
Have you gotten feedback from Irish natives about your music?
Sure, we've certainly played the Irish festival in Milwaukee and play Irish festivals all around the country. Irish people who see us get it right away -- they get The Pogues influence and hear that. But I think they also appreciate our other stuff, too.
]. And two, I was trying to write a song like Nick Cave. Although, ironically, a lot of Pogues fans are also Nick Cave fans, so maybe we weren't branching out as far as we thought.
But we tend to stray from what some might consider the really "overplayed" Irish music, like the "Unicorn Song." We try and stay away from being too campy, and mix in the rock influence. It's extremely helpful when we're touring, because we can play a rock club one night and play at 'so and so's Irish Pub' in Cleveland the next night and actually make some money. [Laughs
So this year will mark your 15th St. Patrick's Day show. What have been some of the more memorable shows?
The first one was in a friend's basement. [Laughs]. We played a couple at the Great Dane early on. One year in our entire existence we actually weren't in Madison on St. Patrick's Day. We played an Indiana Pacers game.
In the actual arena?
Yeah, I know! [Laughs] It was bizarre. It's one of those things where you realize there's so much going on behind the scenes. You get a sense for how much people really do or don't know what's going on at those things. For example, [the band] had this plan that as soon as it got to half time, we would run out to the middle of the court where there were all of these microphone lines and just plug in and go. We wrote this medley of tunes for that one because we only had six-and-a-half minutes to play. So the buzzer goes off, the players run off, and we race out to the middle of the court. But no one has run any lines to our stuff, so then we were just standing there and waiting. [Laughs] But finally they ran the lines out and everything was fine. I also got to stand within close proximity to basketball players, which, if you've never gotten the chance, they're not humans. They're giants. [Laughs] And then we came back the next night and played St. Patty's Day at the Crystal Corner.
Before the shows, do you have any long standing traditions? Is there a preliminary shot or toast of some sort?
Something that I do before every St. Patty's Day show is that I pull out all of The Pogues albums I have on record. I don't have a record player, but where I work has a record player, so it's pretty much the only day that I get to listen to them. And then every year before a show we get together at a friend's house and have dinner. Sure, there's drinking, but not to an excessive amount. Our friend and Kevin's sister, Deirdre Youngs, makes something we call "Booze Pie." Or technically "Jameson Pie." It's a cream pie, but it feels like a shot of Jameson in every slice. It's actually very good. There's a little bit of the Jameson taste, but it's a good pie as well. So we'll go over there, have the pie and corn beef and cabbage. And it's nice, because the shows tend to get busy, so we have that time beforehand to spend with friends and family.