People start bands for a wide variety of reasons, from the esoteric (say, an overwhelming desire to find out how one's poem-cycle about the love life of a goldfish would sound set to music) to the obvious (to get laid). For the founding members of Chicago's The Tossers, the impetus for leaving their various fledgling bands to come together and focus on an energetic reinterpretation of traditional Irish folk and pub-music boiled, fittingly and perhaps predictably, down to one thing:
"The Tossers started just so we could get into bars and drink when we were underage," says Aaron Duggins. "We were a bar band that played old folk songs, and just a few of our own."
It was back in 1992 that Duggins' brother Tony, the vocalist and mandolin player, formed what would become The Tossers along with bassist Danny Shaw, drummer Bones and original guitarist Brian Dwyer. Punk and metal fans as kids, the friends came of age amid the proudly Irish heritage of Chicago's South Side; in their late teens, they developed an interest in the Celtic folk music they heard in their parents' homes and around the neighborhood — and saw in it an entrée into the city's countless watering holes.
But a journey of a thousand stumbles starts with one free beer. By the time Aaron Duggins joined his brother's band a couple of years later, playing the tin whistle, what started as a means to an end had become the end itself. While still largely unknown outside the metro area, The Tossers were on their way to becoming favorite sons of not only Chicago's Celt-philes, but also the city's fertile, eclectic punk-rock scene.
Now, five albums and more than a decade later, the septet — the Duggins brothers; Shaw; Bones; guitarist Mike Pawula; banjoist Clay Hansen; and violinist Becca — is rising through the ranks of a punk subgenre it presaged by several years. The popularity of Emerald Isle elements in mainstream styles like pop and country tends to wax and wane. But in fringe scenes such as folk, and especially punk, the Celtic influence has dug a niche for itself, and dug deeply.
The Celt-punk thing is most visibly represented by the blue-collar almost-hardcore of Boston's Dropkick Murphys and the driving bar-rock of L.A.'s Flogging Molly. It goes much further, though — these days, almost any street-punk band with jaunty rhythms and shout-along gang choruses can (and usually is) said to be influenced by Irish drinking songs.
So why do so many people see punk rock and Celtic folk as kindred spirits?
"Because they're both rebellious types of music," says Aaron Duggins. "I think it's the attitude. Some of the ways they've been put together, I don't like so well, but they're both powerful [styles]."
Despite the fact that The Tossers are fairly easily associated with the aforementioned acts — they're currently touring with Dropkick Murphys, after all, and are signed to hardcore/heavy independent label Victory Records — to call them a Celt-punk band is somewhat misleading. There's a surprisingly big difference between a punk act that incorporates characteristics of Irish music, and an act that plays music heavily steeped in the Irish pub tradition with a punky energy and bearing. And The Tossers are most definitely the latter, a group largely comprised of traditional instrumentation that recalls legendary Celt-punk precursors The Pogues far more readily than it does fast, guitar-driven, fist-in-the-air rock.
"I don't give a fuck if they do [lump The Tossers in with Celt-punk bands]," says Duggins of the tendency to pigeonhole groups. "We've been around so much longer than any of the other bands that do this, except The Pogues ... I don't think we sound like any of those other bands, but a lot of them are good bands. Say whatever the hell you want, it's not going to make me think it or say it."
The Tossers' commitment to recognizing their roots as they plunder them also sets them apart. The band's extensive knowledge and catalog of traditional drinking, protest and folk songs is displayed in its live shows, which can showcase as many obscure and well-known trad tunes as Tossers compositions.
The group's reverence for its inspiration also shows up in principal songwriter Tony Duggins' lyrics, which often employ Gaelic words and phrases. Many of them also hold to the savvy social criticism that lies below so many Irish songs' pint-hoisting singsong surfaces, though the latest Tossers album, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, is a little lighter on overtly political fare than previous releases.
"It is," agrees Aaron Duggins, who writes that off to the wealth of material his brother had prepared for the disc; some thinning had to occur. "We recorded a lot more stuff, then we left off six tracks or so. It came down to song preference. There's bits and stuff in [several] songs, but compared to other [releases], yeah, there's definitely less of that."
The group is currently working the all-ages club-and-theater punk circuit in promotion of The Valley of the Shadow of Death, mostly supporting better-known — and usually far more "punk" — acts. It's a format in which the band gets more of a chance to focus on plying its original material to captive audiences than the many Celtic festivals The Tossers play, where daytime slots, multiple stages, and a wealth of spectacle competing for patrons' attention sometimes make it difficult for the group to really come across.
But, more than 10 years along, The Tossers still do those shows (most of the groups associated with the punk scene won't, as they're often overridden with campy or overly folky acts), as well as the alcohol-drenched, multi-set hometown bar gigs that won them their original acclaim.
"We've played festivals, we've played bars," ruminates Duggins. "We've done 'em before, and we'll do 'em again.
"Hell, we'll still play anywhere, anything."