A year and a half ago, Flogging Molly accordionist Matt Hensley felt like he had to make a choice: fatherhood or the band. His son Oliver was 8 and growing up fast. Touring was a blast, but it kept Hensley away from his family for months at a time. He awoke one day and decided to call it quits with the Celtic Oi!-punkers.
“Before [Oliver] was even born, I was in this band,” Hensley explains. “He grew up in this lifestyle, but I always felt guilty. I never planned on this situation happening to me, with the band and everything. For all those years, the guilt just ate me alive. It screwed my brain up.”
But here's the funny thing about guilt—sometimes it's entirely self-perpetuated. Oliver, Hensley says, continued to wear Flogging Molly T-shirts every day, perhaps as a not-so-subtle reminder that having a dad in a successful rock band is the coolest thing ever on Career Day. Finally, an unspoken father-and-son moment between the two quashed Hensley's qualms once and for all.
“As young as he was, he was looking at me like, ‘Well, I never asked you to quit doing what you want to do. Of course, I want you to be here more but—.' He didn't say it, but I got this vibe that he was telling me to follow my dreams.”
The 37-year-old Hensley hardly chilled out during his short-lived retirement from Flogging Molly. Before re-joining the band in time to record 2008's stellar Float, the former pro-skateboarder, co-founder of Innes clothing and full-time music lover opened Hensley's Flying Elephant Pub & Grill in Carlsbad, where once a dreggy dive called Squid Joe's used to drag down the neighborhood.
“I had to do something with myself,” Hensley jokes. “So I screwed up and bought a bar. It's going well now, but it was a lot more work than I ever would've imagined. Just 'cause I can drink doesn't mean I know how to run a fucking bar. I've stepped on every landmine along the way. But the good news is I'm stepping on fewer and fewer as we go along.”
Flying Elephant, Hensley says, is all about music. Sure, he has a ton of friends in the biz, but the Elephant just seems to attract musicians, whether they're old pros or wide-eyed newbies. On any given night, while patrons wash down an “Elephant Burger” with a Guinness, a former Pogue might be playing alongside a punk band from Oakland. The pub has breathed new life into a recently revitalized Carlsbad, and had a similar place been around a little more than a decade ago, you almost certainly would've stumbled upon a younger Hensley trying to woo bargoers with his wheezy newfound love: the accordion. His anachronistic instrument of choice comes loaded with a whole arsenal of anecdotes.“Well, I didn't take it up 'cause I thought I'd get a lot of chicks playing it,” he quips. “I just love the accordion. I love the sound that comes out of it.”
When he was growing up, he'd spend summers in Maine with his Scottish grandparents, who listened to all sorts of Celtic music. During his “young whippersnapper” years, he loved it, but by the time he hit his early teens, Hensley was a snarl-lipped hardcore kid who “thought it was crap.” It wasn't until much later, when he got into bands like The Pogues, that he says he realized the accordion's punk potential.
“And then I got into my head that I'd learn to play. I figured the only way I'd get good was to bring it everywhere—to even sleep with it. You've got to live it, breathe it. A year-and-a-half later, I was in Flogging Molly.”
The path to that particular pot of gold wasn't as lined with four-leaf clovers as he makes it sound. For one thing, he almost got shot at a bar in San Marcos.
“I was in the parking lot playing a song,” he recalls. “When all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this dude pulls out of the bushes in Tarzan tighties, screaming, ‘Shut the fuck up!'”
With his accordion blocking his downward view, Hensley thought the guy was simply poking him in the side with his finger while screaming obscenities. He yelled right back. Though he noticed that everyone else had ducked behind cars, it wasn't until the “crazy-eyed” loon backed away that Hensley saw the 9mm in his hand.
“I guess maybe I shouldn't have told him to stick it,” he laughs.
Hensley's life is less perilous these days, but considerably more busy. He's taken up the banjo (“Now I play the two most hated instruments on Earth!”), contributed accordion on a few tracks on Tim Armstrong's (of Rancid fame) new solo album and has been working on a “world-reggae-street punk” side project with Flogging Molly bandmate Nathen Maxwell. He still feels the occasional gnawing of guilt over leaving Oliver—this tour, especially, has been unrelenting since February—but Hensley says he's come to terms with his long-distance fatherhood.
“I still miss my son and would kill to be at home right now,” he explains. “But rejoining the band was one of the best things I've ever done. I love playing music for people. I love everything about what I do. It's just, now I appreciate it 40,000 times more because I have the regret and privilege of having lived it both ways.” Flogging Molly play Sunday, Sept. 28, at Viejas Concerts in the Park in Alpine. 619-659-1996. www.floggingmolly.com, www.myspace.com/hensleysflyingelephant.