Catch up with Dermot Mulroney of LA-based folk punk rock band Cranky George and watch the video for single "Misery Road" off the band's debut full-length album, Fat Lot of Good, out now.
What first got you interested in music?
Dermot: Wow, you're jumping way, way back! You know, I've always been a musician, from even before my first instrument; there was never any question in our house that we would all play something. I got more and more interested as my two older brothers started stringed instruments in front of me in that third grade year - we were all public school students in Alexandria, Virginia and they had a great program - this was in the 70s. So, when I was old enough to start, there were a couple things. I was really eager to follow my brothers but, also, it was kind of a given - I guess I said that - in our family, it was never really a question of whether you were going to play something, it was just which instrument. I even know the day that I pointed at an orchestra at the cello and said, "that's the one that I want to play" and asked my mother if she thought I'd ever be big enough to play it [laughs]. So, the long and the short of it, cut to the end, I am big enough to play the cello, as it turns out, so that worked out great! I played all the way through public high school in Virginia: I played solo competitions, won a concerto competition and played a concerto with an orchestra at 16 or 17 - just locally with Arlington Symphony - I was mentored and a student of the National Symphony cellist, and was a top cellist in the state as a student at the high school level so, when we went to state orchestra - which you audition for - I was in the first chair in that year. Even then I was a really dedicated and gifted musician. Really, at this age, I'm allowed to look back at myself as a kid and see that I had a lot of natural talent. You can see it on stage with Cranky George because Kieran's got the same thing and we're sort of living proof that there's a music gene or a music ability heredity factor that we both have; my siblings have it, my kids have it. It would be like The Proclaimers! [Laughs] I'm laughing, but you know what I mean, the twins that sing exactly like each other and harmonize so beautifully? Yeah! Kieran and I would be kinda like that, except not twins.
Obviously your brother's in the band, but what brought you all together and made you decide to start Cranky George?
Well the interesting thing is, Kieran and I grew up together across the aisle from each other in these student orchestras in Virginia but it never occurred to us to do anything but read the orchestral music on the stand in front of us. Really, until both of us had moved to Los Angeles - in both our mid or late 20s - and friends who played guitar would ask, "hey, you wanna play along with this or quickly record a little thing?" and it was almost like a light bulb going on when he and I both realized that we can make up our own music or play with people that have rock and roll songs and you don't need to read it, you can just hear it and improvise the music or play along with somebody for fun at their house. It was enlightening moment.
What that evolved into, really, were these home living room, what we called, hootenanny's. We'd sit around my living room in the center of LA in the 1980s and early '90s and just jam with anybody who walked in the door. Ultimately, that's how I met James because he, as you know, ran around with The Pogues for all those years but married an American actress that I knew and that Kieran had worked with in a cast together on a film and they moved in up the street just a couple houses from us. It was a very un-LA kind of thing where you get to know your neighbor, actually, and become friends with them and share a love of music together. We'd pull in friends at the time including River Phoenix, Melissa Etheridge, Flea - random people like that would just stroll through these informal hootenanny's. Then, somehow, James, Kieran and I grouped up ourselves and, just as that was happening, Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks and Thelonious Monster, was putting together an outfit and he called James and said, "hey, do you know anybody that plays violin or anything else?" so James called us and we became the Low & Sweet Orchestra and had a great run in the mid-90s that led us as far as playing at The Fillmore in San Francisco and a whole festival on New Years Eve up there; we played all the clubs here - the Troubadour, the Whisky, the El Rey, House of Blues - as Low & Sweet Orchestra, which was basically a punk band with the 3 of us thrown on stringed instruments - I added mandolin in those years and Fearnley on the accordion. You can still find that album I think for a couple pennies, out there wherever you buy old CDs, but it still stands as a great album. A great album. Interscope signed us, the whole function of the record industry at that time was much different than it is now, obviously, so we got ground into that big machine. It never turned the corner as an album but it stands to this day as incredibly well produced and beautiful songs that Zander and Mike Martt, the singer of the Low & Sweet Orchestra put together.
We went around once, me and James and Kieran. As that ran its course we just kept maneuvering around and then it became Cranky George. We added bass and then drums after that and we've been together ever since [laughs]. I guess that's probably been 10 years ago, but really I've been playing with Kieran and James for 25 years. I don't even know if we're supposed to admit it, but some of the songs that are on this album have some age on them, we've known these songs for a long time so they mean a lot to us and they went through several evolutions over time and, I guess mainly, I'm referring to a couple songs that didn't quite make it onto our album. We have a lot of material so we were really happy to put together these 14 and cut it on vinyl and double discs and, as you know, you can get it as a CD or you can buy it digitally online. So we tried to adapt from the old school that we've been run through, record company and advance and make a video and all that. And now, you do that all yourself and you talk to nice people like you that help put the word out and get a ground swell off of social media and YouTube and so we're trying it this way and, what we know, is we've consistently been making great music all these years and now you can hear it all put together.
Which musicians have you been influenced by, individually or as a band?
The ones that come to my mind, right off, are Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, that kind of storytelling song you'll definitely find in each of the songs on our album. Even as song to song they're very varied, they're really driven by telling a story of a feeling or a desire or a need or, in some cases, a tragedy in our songs. In that way they really are related to those songwriter acts. But coming up, as a kid in our house, we were always listening to folk music in those days - this was when I was a kid in the '60s and '70s - we'd always have albums on: Peter, Paul and Mary but mix that with orchestral music on the record player, Irish Tenors, Songs of the Spanish Civil War - [laughs] my dad had some really bizarre choices - Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. So when we started buying our own music, it was all the great acts; The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller. That was that era, great epic rock. Right when it was starting, that's when we were moving away from the music our parents played so that feel is in here, too. But that's a rundown of some of those influences. The way Kieran plays violin is so unique for classical music or for rock and roll, these influences go directly into his interpretation of these songs, especially on that instrument. He plays rock violin like a classically trained; it's this weird combination of hillbilly and highbrow and the way he plays is just a phenomenal thing to behold. You usually have the pretty girl on the violin playing along with somebody in the background [laughs] and that's just not how Cranky George functions. He really brings all those influences and pours them through this instrument but then, really, you see it more-so in his songwriting and vocals. The same way that James is an accordionist, he has a super unique technique of playing that has its own sound and, cobble those pieces together and that's the sound of Cranky George.
Is there anyone you're hooked on now that you think everyone should take a listen to?
Sia. Yeah, I've found myself at two of her concerts recently - one in Brooklyn and one here - which I found very interesting. I can say that genuinely, I've been listening to a lot of Sia. She's an amazing singer but yeah, let's just go with Sia for fun because that's true, that's the one I've been listening to [laughs]. And you can see the equation there too in that beautiful melody sung at top volume and full force singing, that's what we do as singers. All 5 of us sing, many times it's just a duet, Kieran and myself, but we really pride ourselves on singing in 5 part harmony at the top of our lungs. That always gives us a kick and adds to a unique sound because you don't really hear that that often, not with that many singers. It's just a real male, real powerful sound mixed with traditional instruments; we love that weird combination.
How does your sound as Cranky George compare to what you did as the Low & Sweet Orchestra?
Well the Low & Sweet Orchestra really had punk guitar in it so I'm the electric guitar player in Cranky George so I am definitely inspired by Zander's type of playing, that was really the core of Low & Sweet Orchestra. There are more than undertones, there's really shared sounds with that band without a doubt, especially the more traditional instruments - the accordion, the strings, and mandolin. But I think, if you call it punk folk music, that's about as close a description as I can come up with. I would say it's a tile wall that has different types of music on each tile but it's holding up the ceiling. We play songs ranging from country music to murder ballads - is what Kieran calls some of his songs - to seafaring songs, shanties, jigs, really spooky music. It's not necessarily in our favor that our music is hard to describe with words but, once heard, I think everybody knows it because it's music that we lifted out of that plane of existence that's up there where music exists and everybody recognizes it for being the real thing. What I mean is, it's not that easy to define it, so I'd hate for that to be the thing that keeps people from giving it a try because once you hear it, you're in.
What your inspirations behind your single "Misery Road"?
"Misery Road", I thought up that tune where it's got a couple extra beats in the measure just ambling down the street one day and then it wouldn't go away at all so I wrote a song on that accordion melody. We can't really hide it, that's a country tune. That's about a guy getting in his truck and going for a ride, not knowing quite where the road's going to take him or which way to turn - in the song, he even stops to ask directions and gets told to take the road to despair and to sadness and instead the guy misses the turn on Misery Road, really is the turn at the end of the song. We always like to do, even on some of our rock n roll tunes, we like to have a little story where it'll go one way in one verse and then the next verse something else happens and then, at the end, there's that little twist. It's a great tradition in the songwriting that we honor and "Misery Road" really is probably our most blatant country tune. It's just a rambling song just for driving around to or walking your dog.
Could you tell us more about your album Fat Lot of Good and what new listeners can expect to hear?
What you'll hear with Fat Lot of Good is this amazing combination of sounds that you already know, but you haven't really heard them in this combination before. You'll hear songs ranging from waltzes to foot-stomping punk rock to epic stadium rock n roll. "Nighttime" really is our most conventional, real, epic, rock and roll tune. That came out as our first single and there's a great video for that as well. It's Kieran's song that he sings his heart out on so when you first listen to Fat Lot of Good you'll follow us down a crooked path but you'll see that it all makes sense together. The songs aren't as similar to one another as people are accustomed to when listening to an album but the way people listen to music now isn't the way it was when I was growing up, as I'm here describing to you listening to the Johnny Cash album: you'd hear the whole one side then you'd flip it over and you'd hear whole the other one. So, our album is intended that way, it's designed that way, to be an entire journey. If you look at what's happening in each of the songs, as I said earlier, you'll feel that quest and you'll feel that path of what's beyond where I am now; that yearning, that wandering, that hope, that despair of what is yet to come. That's interwoven throughout all these songs, even if they're very different from one another, they share a wanderlust in the lyrics and a very melodic adventure, I'll say, in each of the songs. We really respect melodies and we really play hard on great harmonies, vocally and between the instruments. You'll hear a really well produced and beautifully constructed album and then you'll want to listen to it again and tell you friends about it and, on iTunes, buy up all 14 tracks, too.
If you had to choose, which track off the album would you call your favorite?
Oh, that's nice. "Nighttime" for sure, but I really love "Waltz In Blue", such a beautiful song. Other ones I love, "Burning Eyes, just 'cause it's super dramatic and it's about making a deal with the devil or trying to avoid looking at evil in its face. Fearnley's songs are just amazing to begin with, so the ones I'm thinking of as I say that are "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Greenland's Ice"; these wonderful, visual songs. It's hard to choose. "Misery Road" too, of course, just 'cause it feels so real to me.
In one sentence, how would you sum up Fat Lot of Good?
Fat Lot of Good is the album that you feel like you've already heard.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music, from this album or as you continue?
Well, we're definitely going to continue. At this point in life and in my musical journey there's no stopping us now. Really, it's a thrill to be releasing this album this way and to have finished a labor of love while we put this album together; it took a long time for us as we all have other endeavors we pursue. I know that listeners will feel the love of the music, they'll feel our hand prints on it, it's really tight recordings but you hear every instrument. It really will stand apart from other recordings in this day and age. If you compare it to other bands, maybe Arcade Fire rings a bell with us... Who else was I thinking of? Well, I don't know why The Waterboys ran through my head from before but, recently, Mumford & Sons and all those types of bands, we definitely have that same appeal when you hear it. Hey, here's the deal, we're playing Molly Malone's this Saturday, it's our last show of the year, so we always pull a really nice crowd, a lot of times people are coming back to see us again, so we're just thrilled that we can get this music out for people to enjoy and get a sense of accomplishment amongst ourselves for completing something that we really care about and, as always, it's this great privilege to work with great musicians, to work with my brother and great friends. The whole endeavor's been nothing but a great adventure and a distinct pleasure, so I think you hear that on every song when you're listening to Fat Lot of Good.
Is there anything you want to add?
Here in Los Angeles we play on Good Day LA on live television in the morning [laughs] and do "Misery Road" for the morning show so that will be a new leaf to turn over for me. I've been on plenty of morning shows over the years as an actor [laughs] but I've never played live music, so that's something we're really looking forward to and we plan to keep the music coming. Obviously fans can find, not only, all of our tracks on YouTube, but a couple of videos. We have 2 or 3 more to come and right now we have "Nighttime" and "Misery Road" out, but we also shot a video for "Ne Me Quitte Pas" that'll be super classy and really, hopefully, like a viral type video for the song "Yes!" which is another favorite of mine. And Molly Malone's this Saturday in Los Angeles on Fairfax there in Midtown.