This piece was written in 2004; it was first published in Stone Roller and appears in one of my books, Cabin Life Ain’t Easy. Watch for an upcoming sequel to this saga….
I first caught The Tim Malloys’ act about two years ago at the Half Time Rec (located at 1013 Front Street in Saint Paul) on a Tuesday night. I didn’t go there with the intention of watching their show—I didn’t even know that they were playing—but I was pleasantly surprised. As it turns out, The Malloys perform at the Half Time every Tuesday, as well as at various other times according to a rotating schedule of about a half-dozen groups such as The Old Triangle, Irish Brigade, Bedlam, and Peter Yeates.
I was barhopping that night; I had been to about five other places before finally making my way to the Half Time to finish off the evening. I had put in an appearance at the Dubliner (formerly the Ace Box Bar), a swanky little Irish pub at the corner of University and Vandalia. I don’t remember who was performing there that night, but the friends that I was with tell me that it was some long-haired weirdo strumming a banjo and doing his take on old Irish folk songs.
Whatever it was and whoever he was, the overall impression that it left on my buddies was a bad one … and it left no impression on me whatsoever. All that aside, they tell me that I didn’t like it. I’ll have to take their word for it, but since I can recall a few other live performances at the Dubliner, I don’t doubt the fact that I found it a colossal disappointment. Speaking with a fan of The Malloys at the Half Time later that same night, I heard the Dubliner condemned as a hangout for girls from St. Kate’s and a “lame popcorn bar.” Indeed.
But fuck the Dubliner. We’re talking about The Tim Malloys, a local band that’s been around for ten years now, first coming together in 1994 around founding member and bassist, Neil Johnston. It’s a shame that it took me eight years to discover them, and it’s a pity that when I did it was a drunken accident that I barely remember.
But what the hell, right? Some would say that heavy drinking is deeply embedded in the Irish culture. I’m not sure if that’s a fair or accurate statement, but there are a lot of references to alcohol in a lot of Irish songs, and The Tim Malloys themselves encourage members of their audience to go ahead and have another, or as guitarist/vocalist John Sjogren puts it: “Remember—the more you drink, the better we sound.”
Drunk or not, I immediately recognized the talent that The Tim Malloys possess … and the potential for a story. Luckily, I was armed with my tape recorder and camera that first night, so I was able to bring an otherwise blurry picture back into focus. I believe the most striking thing that I remember is the repertoire that The Malloys have with their fans and the obvious admiration emanating from the audience.
At the end of their set when they asked everyone to stand—The Tim Malloys’ Sobriety Test, as they put it—for the Irish National Anthem, every person in the bar did so. I can recall the look in people’s eyes, the reverent way that they raised their fists…. I’ve never once seen that kind of devotion from a crowd anywhere else, even at baseball games when the spectators are admonished to rise for our own National Anthem. Instead, the kids behind you go on squabbling, the fat guy next to you takes another bite of his Dome Dog, and some asshole two rows over seizes the opportunity and uses it to go to the bathroom.
Once the show was over and everyone had been hustled outside, I had a chance to talk to a few of those people that had shown such great enthusiasm throughout the performance. In fact, wandering around outside of the bar and up and down Front Street, it was obvious that the energy from inside had carried over and was still going strong. It was 1:30 in the morning and no one wanted to leave. That, in itself, is not uncommon … but it is when you’ve already been thrown out of the bar and there is no more drinking to be done. Instead, people stood around talking and laughing, and more than a few revelers pulled up a piece of sidewalk and sat down, leaning on the Half Time’s exterior brick wall.
I spoke at length with one young man, Victor, who praised The Malloys’ diversity: “They’re willing to delve into rock ’n’ roll, country, rap … anything. It’s super upbeat.”
I remarked that I was surprised at the number of people that were there, especially since it was a Tuesday night. It was standing room only, which I was used to seeing on a Friday or Saturday … but on a Tuesday? Victor explained that wherever The Tim Malloys went, the crowd went with them. He said that he, personally, very rarely misses going to the Half Time on Tuesdays. He then went on to say, “Wherever they play is crazy. It’s energy—wall-to-wall energy. They’re fucking brilliant. They’re a great band to see live.”
Recently I stumbled across my files from that night and thought to myself, Wow … I can’t believe that I never wrote this story.
Having decided that it required immediate attention, my friend Brian and I sauntered over to the Half Time that very Tuesday. “I don’t even know if they’re still playing here,” I said, “but I sure as hell hope so.”
“Well, if they’re not playing here tonight, they’ll be at Kieran’s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Brian said, pointing to an advertisement in The City Pages.
Awww … Kieran’s Irish Pub, located at 330 2nd Avenue South (in the Towle Building) in downtown Minneapolis. Kieran’s is a cozy bar—it is dimly lit; it has high ceilings; there’s magnificent woodworking; it has a huge outdoor patio section; and best of all, they feature live entertainment, The Tim Malloys playing there about two or three weekends a month.
“Still,” I said, “I’d like to catch them here again—it was a hell of a good show last time.”
We had just wandered into the Half Time, and as usual, there was a decent-sized crowd—but I didn’t hear anyone playing on the stage and the volume of people present wasn’t as impressive as I had remembered from my last trip out there.
We grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered our drinks. We went to work on those and started talking a bit, but we still hadn’t made it around to the other side where the stage is located.
The Half Time Rec basically has two sections: on one side, there is a couple of pool tables and video games as well as a handful of tables against one wall. The lights are kept up in that area; it’s almost totally isolated from the other part of the bar, making it possible to drink, talk and shoot some pool even if there’s a band performing live. The other half of the establishment is kept in semi-darkness; it’s where you’ll find the stage, a makeshift dance floor, and a whole bunch of little tables to sit at while watching the show.
We had only been there for a few minutes when I heard a few chords struck and the voice of John Sjogren boom out over the PA system. It was a few minutes past eleven, and it looked like we were in time to catch The Malloys after all.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “They are here…. I have to go get my bags.”
Brian secured us a table towards the back while I returned to the car to retrieve my tape recorder and camera and notebooks and all of the other shit that I haul around with me as a working journalist. Bars are dangerous places for sensitive sound equipment, and you don’t want to put it at risk unless you absolutely have to.
When I returned, The Malloys were in full swing, belting out a cover of The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” There was no doubt about it: The Malloys did a much better job than the original … but then again, I’ve never been able to stomach The Femmes anyway.
The Tim Malloys were paying tribute to a soldier in the audience who was scheduled to deploy to Iraq the next day, and what better way to celebrate one last night of freedom than by tying on a good one at the Half Time, eh? Sure, and he seemed to be enjoying himself, along with the rest of the crowd. Three-quarters of the people present were male. I saw a lot of leather and tattoos; a few of the men in the audience were even wearing kilts. The women were all exceptionally attractive; one young lady stands out in my memory in particular, mainly due to the way that she completely lost herself in the music, dancing and bouncing and skipping all over the place, expertly maneuvering around the tables and other patrons. More than once I shielded my eyes in anticipation of a spectacular collision—one that never came.
We took in the whole show, staying until the very end. While The Malloys were tearing down, I wandered over to Sjogren and introduced myself. It was a little too late in the game for an interview that night, but he handed me his card and invited me to come and see them on Thursday at Kieran’s.
“We can talk during the first set break,” Sjogren said.
“I’ll be there.”
The Tim Malloys are a collective effort; the band is made up of rhythm guitarist John Sjogren, lead guitarist Adam Stemple, and bassist Neil Johnston. All three men share vocals—usually Sjogren or Stemple lead, depending on the song, while the others provide accompaniment. Each man’s style compliments the others’, creating a wonderfully warm and unique sound.
The name, “The Tim Malloys” originates from Glasgow, Scotland, where in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was a Scottish folk hero named Tim Malloy. Malloy was many things, including a priest, a rebel, a gang leader, and in the words of Neil Johnston, “a soccer hooligan.” Apparently, Malloy and his followers were all fans of the Glasgow Celtics soccer team, and today fans of the Celtics are known as The Tim Malloys.
When Johnston formed the band in 1994, it was with a man from Glasgow, hence the Scottish connection. He was the fourth member, and quit the band quite suddenly. According to Johnston, this man from Scotland—Brian—rounded up the other members of the band in the middle of one of their gigs and said, “Lads, I need to talk to you after the show.” Johnston then explained that at the end of that night, everyone got together and listened to Brian say—and here all three members of The Malloys assume a Scottish accent and chime in simultaneously—“Lads, that was my last gig.”
Apparently, he left to pursue a career as a used car salesman.
The Malloys had fifteen performances lined up over the next three weeks, and having their fourth member quit with no notice constituted somewhat of a crisis. Stemple was leaving on an airplane the next morning for Chicago … and he wasn’t scheduled to return until their next show.
“How did you guys pull through that?” I asked.
“Trial by fire,” Johnston chuckled. “We learned some songs pretty quick.”
So, The Tim Malloys ended up spending the next three weeks rehearsing in front of live crowds; by the end of those three weeks, they felt fairly comfortable doing the material as a trio. Besides, as Johnston put it: “We liked the raise. We only had to split the money three ways instead of four….”
Despite the rather abrupt circumstances under which Brian left, the remaining members of The Tim Malloys still speak fondly of him. “He was the source for a lot of our music at the beginning,” Johnston said. “He had just a wealth of stuff in his head—songs that he had grown up with, because his family immigrated to Scotland from Ireland.”
“He came up with the band’s name,” Sjogren added. “He was the one that was really immersed in Scottish history…. Very much the rebel—definitely for the IRA…. He’s got some actual IRA stories.”
Stemple simply said, “He paints houses in Florida.”
Johnston then clarified, saying, “We have no idea where he is—we haven’t talked to him in years. The rumor was that he’s in Florida somewhere, doing something.”
The matter of Brian was then closed when Sjogren grinned and said, “Let’s move on.”
Johnston, Stemple and Sjogren have been playing together as The Tim Malloys now for eight years. Johnston met Sjogren when he needed a rhythm guitar player for another band that he used to play with at the Renaissance Festival—Sjogren still plays with that group. Stemple was brought in to produce The Malloys’ first album in 1995 at about the same time that Johnston’s wife was leaving the band. He had joined full-time by 1996 when their second album was released.
The Tim Malloys have released a total of four CDs, however the first one is out of print. All of the albums are produced by Stemple and his label, Fabulous Records (http://www.fabulous-records.com). The Malloys record their material at P.O.D. Studios in Minneapolis and make their CDs available for sale mainly at their shows and through their website (http://www.timmalloys.com), where PayPal is accepted. Fans can also find The Tim Malloys’ CDs at various local bookstores and at Irish on Grand. They also have T-shirts and hats, all of which are fifteen dollars.
“Thank God we don’t sell bumper stickers …” Johnston said.
“… Because math is hard,” Stemple finished.
Everyone chuckled at this and Sjogren added, “Fifteen’s getting a little bit … tricky. I was thinking of making them twenty.” Another round of laughter.
The Malloys got their start playing at the Old Irish Well, which used to be located inside the Twins Motor Lodge Inn at Prior and University in Saint Paul. They also used to appear at O’Donovan’s and Mr. Pattom’s (now called Shamrock’s), which is at the corner of Randolph and West 7th Street, also in Saint Paul. Besides his musical endeavors, Johnston also paints; his artwork can be seen at both of those establishments. He jokingly said, “Every place I’ve painted a mural, we don’t play anymore.”
“The Half Time’s our longest-standing gig,” Johnston said. “We’re there every Tuesday. We’ve had that for quite a few years now.”
“It’s our bread and butter,” Sjogren added. “The crowd’s great.”
In addition to the Half Time, they have been playing at Kieran’s since it opened. “Kieran gave us our break in Minneapolis,” Johnston said. “The Well was going under at the time and Kieran used to own Molly Malone’s over on Washington Avenue, and then he opened up this place. He was looking for bands, and we were desperate for gigs at the time. He was the one that really got us going here. Ever since, we’ve gotten two or three gigs a month on the weekends. It’s good.”
The Tim Malloys have about seventy percent of their weekends booked at either Kieran’s or the Half Time, but they still manage to appear four or five weekends a year at the Pizza Luce in Duluth, Minnesota. They are also available to play at special events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs. They have played some out-of-state shows in places like Wisconsin, Nebraska and Kansas. The Malloys try to limit their time on the road, however—all three men have families, and as Stemple puts it: “I was in bands for a period of about ten or eleven years that toured a lot, so I could never leave town again and be quite happy.”
The Tim Malloys have had plenty of local exposure, though. They’ve been written up in the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and The City Pages. They do a radio show in Duluth once in a while, and they also do the KQ Homegrown every year.
“We ring in St. Patrick’s Day—the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day—on KQ [KQRS 92.5 FM],” Johnston said.
“Now that’s a fun party,” Sjogren said. “We have a good time. We get Mae Young and all of her crew drunk, we bring in a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey….”
“Now, Mae Young—I’ve never actually met her. Is she as good-looking as she sounds on the radio?” I asked, not able to help myself.
“Absolutely,” answered Sjogren.
“She’s beautiful,” said Johnston.
“All right, well then I’m going to have to catch her at the State Fair,” I said, laughing.
The members of The Tim Malloys have a wide range of interests and talents besides music. As I mentioned before, Johnston paints and he is also a professor at a local college. Sjogren and Stemple both enjoy golf, and Stemple’s first novel, Singer of Souls is scheduled to be out at the end of this year or early next year, published by Tor Books.
“So, how did you guys get your start in music?” I asked.
“I started playing cello when I was six,” replied Stemple. “Then I cut the tip of my finger off when I was playing piano. I switched to guitar from piano because I cut the tip of my finger off on a broken beer bottle.”
“When you were six?”
“No,” Stemple laughed, “that was when I was fourteen.”
“I taught myself guitar at twelve,” Sjogren said, pausing for a moment before adding, “then I learned how to play guitar later—”
“—And you stopped learning when you were thirteen,” Stemple interjected, laughing.
Sjogren continued: “I played trombone in high school …”
“You mean the skin flute?” Stemple asked, obviously enjoying good-naturedly ribbing his friend.
“… but I wanted to play the trumpet,” finished Sjogren.
Johnston then offered his background in music, saying, “I taught myself how to play bass at fifteen, and I played in a band for almost ten years until I was twenty-five. I was in band in school—I played in the jazz band, and I actually learned on an upright bass … but I’ve been playing electric for so long that I don’t think that I even have the muscles in my hands anymore.”
Johnston’s roots are in music, as he explained: “My grandfather played fiddle in a country swing band, and my grandmother sang a lot. I was kind of around Irish music since I was really little…. Irish and Scottish music, actually.”
“And what would you say are some bands that have influenced you?” I asked.
“I like the Pogues, and also Shane McGowan and the Popes—they’re brilliant,” Johnston said.
Stemple stepped in and said, “I listen a lot to Frank Black, and the Pixies. I was a Sex Pistols fan for a long time, and we like Flogging Molly, and uh …”
“… Drop-kick Murphies,” Sjogren finished.
The mention of the Sex Pistols brings to mind the fact that a lot of The Malloys’ material has a punkish feel to it. Brian had mentioned it at the Half Time, and I told the band members that we had noticed the influence.
“Good,” Johnston said. “We were written up in The City Pages and someone described us as something like that—”
“—Acid/Folk/Punk,” Stemple said.
“Yeah,” Sjogren said, “a lot of our numbers are jam numbers.”
Right. And that’s what makes The Malloys’ music so unique. Whether they’re doing an original number or covering someone else’s material, whether it’s a ballad or a folk song or something that falls into the category of Faster/Louder/Shorter, they’re masters of their craft. Their music is fun—and that can be a damned rare thing in today’s scene. When The Tim Malloys are on the stage, all eyes—and ears—are on them. They interact with their fans and encourage audience participation. Some of the stretches between songs can be five minutes or more, but no one is restless. Instead, it’s fun to watch them heckle each other and tell dirty jokes and razz some yahoo against the far wall. Between sets, they get down off the stage and grab themselves a drink, and then they mingle in the crowd. Watching them, it’s obvious that they’re well-liked and respected … and that they know just about everyone there, surrounded by friends and loyal followers.
The night is winding down, and it’s time for The Malloys to play their last number. Silence hangs in the air for a moment, and then they explode into song:
“So bugger off
You bastards, bugger off
(and here the band stops singing and the audience takes over)
(and the band resumes)
You bastards, bugger off
(again, from the audience)
(and now the band again)
Like a herd of bloody swine that refuse to leave the trough
You’ll get no more this evening
So you bastards, bugger off….”
Yeah, and that’s just the chorus. This is actually a light-hearted song, the verses and chorus a salute to their fans—Malloys style. Whistles and cheers ring out through the entire number. When it’s over, Sjogren instructs the audience to stand for the Irish National Anthem (The Tim Malloys’ Sobriety Test, remember?), which he plays on a penny whistle.
When he’s through, the applause is thunderous. He then says, “You guys have a safe ride home … and I’d like to remind everybody that if you have been drinking tonight and if you’re driving … please—don’t forget your car.”
Earlier in the performance, another gentleman had stepped up to the mike for a couple of numbers while Sjogren took a short break. He had a strong voice that carried throughout the bar and demanded attention.
After talking to The Malloys, I introduced myself to him and learned that his name was Tim Fitzgerald. He told me this: “I’ve never been an actual member of the band—I just sit in once in a while. I manage here [Kieran’s], and I book them for here. I do all of the booking and I’m also the Entertainment Director for the Irish Fair of Minnesota. Since I book a lot of other stuff, I run across a fair number of gigs so I toss them gigs every once in a while. I’ve known John [Sjogren] for a long, long time—actually, Adam [Stemple] and Neil [Johnston] as well.”
Kieran’s was in the process of closing as I spoke with Fitzgerald. The band was tearing down, the lights were going up, and people were clearing out. We were interrupted by an attractive young woman who seemed to know Fitzgerald. As she approached, he said, “Uh, oh—there’s trouble.”
She weaved her way up to us and mumbled something about a broken cell phone before slurring, “Can I have one beer? Like, I’m out after one—I swear to God.”
“Like, passed out … or you’re going to leave?” Fitzgerald said.
“I’m gonna leave,” she said, and then seemed to change her mind. “Or Wait! I’m gonna leave it up to you. Can you carry me out?—’cause that would be fabulous!”
She wandered away after that. I don’t know if she ever got her beer or not, but it doesn’t make much difference either way. I resumed the interview and asked, “So, you’re the booking agent for Kieran’s and a close friend of the band?”
“Yeah,” Fitzgerald replied, “I do the booking here and for the Liffey and for the Irish Fair of Minnesota and I do a bunch of other stuff. I’ve been involved in the Irish community for a long, long time.”
I thanked Fitzgerald and made my way across the street to the parking ramp next to Sheik’s. Another nice thing about Kieran’s is the fact that they validate parking and it doesn’t end up costing you a dime. It’s a good thing too, because I had spent every cent that I had on beer. Come to think of it, I don’t think that I was in much better shape than that poor woman that was stumbling around looking for another drink.
But what the hell, right? It had been a rattling good show, and now that I know a thing or two about The Malloys, I plan on catching their act on a regular basis. Whether it’s at the Half Time Rec, or Kieran’s, or anywhere else, seeing The Tim Malloys is an experience that will stay with you. You’ll drive home singing their songs at top volume, drunkenly trying to maneuver your way out of Downtown—which is exactly what I did.
Check them out live and buy all of their albums—it’s worth it. I know that I’m going to. And I guarantee this: you’ll thank me … but really, you should thank The Tim Malloys.