The Tossers are from Chicago, but they make a pretty convincing Irish band. The septet plays tradition-minded Irish folk using mandolin, fiddle, tin whistle, accordion, and banjo—complemented by guitar, drums, bass, and punk-rock zeal. Tony Duggins sings in an Irish brogue about Eire’s history, Dublin, St. Brigid, and Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s tallest mountain), but speaks with Midwestern ease. A label known for punk and emo is releasing the band’s new album. All of that could set off shtick alarms, but for The Tossers, it’s not affectation. They’ve released four records over the past decade, and the fifth, The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death, drops this week on Victory Records. Before leaving for a quick tour, which will culminate in a record-release show at the Double Door this weekend, Duggins spoke to The A.V. Club about punk, Irish folk, and The Tossers’ inherent laziness.
The A.V. Club: Your new label seems like a weird fit. How did you end up working with them?
Tony Duggins: We were fans of a couple of the bands that were on their label, so we went after them, actually. We wanted to be on their label.
AVC: Was it weird pitching them?
TD: Not really, because we had started playing at pubs and taverns and bars and stuff on the South Side just for fun, just to play folk tunes. We started to get popular, and we would book shows where we would go see shows, and we started booking shows at the Metro after a while. But the people that were real receptive to it, even more so than the bars, were the kids at rock shows and punk shows. So we knew we were doing okay that way, and it never seemed like it was a strange fit to us. That’s the music we grew up listening to anyway.
AVC: What made you decide to take such a neo-traditionalist approach?
TD: When we started, we were strictly a folk band. We had no drum set, no nothing. I had known about folk music all my life. I heard it growing up in my house, and especially in the neighborhood we lived in. Down there, a damn good percentage of people are from Irish heritage, or at least say they are. So it was that, but I never really thought anything of it. I was always made to know I was an Irish kid, an Irish-American kid, but I didn’t think it was very cool. Then I heard The Pogues, and I was like, “Wow, this shit is excellent.” Then you go digging back through the old man’s records and shit, and you find The Dubliners and all this wonderful stuff, and it’s definitely something I think was missing. There was something that this music had that all the stuff I was listening to didn’t have at the time.
AVC: Have you been able to put your finger on it?
TD: Yeah. It’s rebellious music in the first place, just as much as anything like hip-hop and Public Enemy or Stiff Little Fingers. It’s standing for a cause and believing in it—like Dead Kennedys, Subhumans, and that shit, the stuff I would listen to. But the thing that was totally missing from that is a vulnerable side, which none of them ever really had, you know? You could sing songs about love, or you could sing songs about loss, and that was something that was completely missing from the music that I had at the time. If anything, it’s another identity, and I think that’s why punk kids gravitate to it, too.
TD: No, it couldn’t have been, man, because we were just so lazy about it. We were content just playing gigs. All of us were working, and only now did we quit our jobs, now that we’re contractually obligated to. I guess we were content enough to never reach totally beyond that, never to really push for anything. I could only work so long, and I was like, “Screw this, man. I want to be a professional musician now! I cannot take this anymore!” So we went for it.
AVC: Your prior albums have had their share of political commentary, and The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death has “A Criminal Of Me” and “Go Down Witch, Down.” Do people miss that and just assume you’re a silly Celtic-punk band?
TD: It’s been the contrary to that; people have actually come up and talked to me about the political songs, or said, “I used this for a paper I wrote,” or “I was reading this, and I used a couple lines here and there.” People get it. But that’s the thing, too: I’m meeting them at shows, and shows are for having fun. Unless people are asking for it, calling out the songs, I usually don’t play the political ones. I play the ones that are more fun live, because it’s a totally different setting.
AVC: Of course, there’s plenty of drinking on the new one, like “Goodmornin’ Da,” with the lyrics “I’d only 15 pints.” Only 15 pints? That would destroy most people!
TD: Ah, dear. I just don’t know what to say to that. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you what, though, drinking has been a part of my life that has brought a lot more destruction and guilt and sadness than being sober has, that’s for damn sure.