The Saw Doctors have a containment problem. Over their 20-year stint on the road, honing and sharpening their music, they've picked up such an assortment of genres that one toolbox won't hold it. On any of their records, you're liable to hear a punk song followed by a reggae tune, nestled next to an Irish folk ditty, butting up against a hard rocker. "Only reason we can get away with it is because we're masters of our own destiny," says Doctors' lyricist and lead singer Davey Carton, calling in from his Irish home base of Galway.
The band began life as a melding of reggae and punk when guitarist Leo Moran left the Irish reggae outfit Too Much For the White Man, teaming up with ex-Blaze X punker Carton to form The Saw Doctors in 1986. They were signed to Warner Bros. in the early '90s when it looked like the Pogues were going out of business. "They saw us as kind of an Irish rowdy band," Carton says, "but we have a few more strings on our bow, and they just couldn't put us in that box where they could spend money marketing us."
One of the main reasons the band couldn't be boxed was there was no real game plan from the beginning. "We started writing Hank Williams songs and John Fogarty songs and Bruce Springsteen songs -- we just started copyin' people we knew and eventually developed a bit of our own kind of style."
That style incorporated a lot of American rock 'n' roll. But there's no typical Saw Doctors song, and genres are mixed even in the structure of the songs themselves. "We're the Popsuckers," from '02's Play It Again Sham! sounds like a collaboration between The Kinks, Doug Sahm and the Traveling Wilburys. "N-17" has Carton lamenting in his Irish brogue that you can't go home again set to a Mamas and Papas melody. "Red Cortina" is a Van Morrison take on first love with a Springsteen feel. Their biggest hit, "I Useta Lover," has a Zydeco feel with an Irish accent.
Carton calls many American rock 'n' rollers his heroes, but says there's one who was a huge influence and one who he's always wanted to play like -- John Fogerty. "What a voice," Carton says. "What a bunch of songs -- if we could have written one or two of those, we'd be happy."
Carton says the band has just written a song called "Goodbye Again" and would love to get Fogerty to sing backup vocals on it.
That feat would be part of a larger plan the Doctors have in development, hopefully with a little financial help from the Irish film board. "We're applying for funding this year to do a documentary about us -- an Irish band -- trying to find and link up with their heroes: Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, John Prine and John Fogerty," Carton says. "It's basically a road movie where we try and hook up, get them to sing one of their songs with us, on the bus or at a gig or whatever."
But asking for help from any part of the Irish establishment would have been a difficult task a few years ago due to some of their lyrics. Their biggest hit, 1990's "I Useta Lover," Ireland's best-selling single of all time, rattled the Catholic church with the lyric: "I used to see her up the Chapel when she went to Sunday mass/ When she'd go up to receive, I'd kneel down there and watch her pass/ The glory of her ass!"
The Doctors took another swipe at the church in 03's "Howya Julia," a song about the disgraced former Bishop of Galway who fathered a child with an American divorcee: "Oh, mighty, mighty Lord almighty/ It's off with the collar and off with the nightie."
But Carton says it's no big deal now. "These days we're all so liberal the church doesn't have the power anymore, but 15 years ago, Ireland was still a very oppressive, very religious-fixated kind of country."
These days the only politics the band comments on is a gentle jibe at the Celtic Tiger. "Out For A Smoke," from the band's latest, The Cure, reflects on how successful Ireland has become economically. "But have we really moved on in any way, quality of life or spiritually?" Carton asks. The singer says while he writes most of the lyrics, the sentiment on this one comes from guitarist Moran. "He loves going into the local pub for a few pints and it almost seems now like now that people don't have time to do that," Carton says. "We're all chasing the dollar and buyin' cars, luxury goods. We haven't enough of the time really to meet up with each other like we used to. I suppose it's a regret for the opposite of the fast lane."
That kind of sentiment and the Springsteen vibe to many of their songs got them dubbed The People's Band, which doesn't set well with Carton. "People just can't figure out what we are, so they invent this kind of very general term, the people's band," he says. "Most bands would be people's bands -- it's not a very descriptive term."
The Saw Doctors name is the perfect description, Carton believes, citing an unsolicited bit of testimony from a former Rolling Stones employee the first time they band played New York City. "It was 1991, all the Irish were still in America, and the place was heaving," Carton says. "The saw -- you cut through the bullshit," the former Stoner told him. "And 'the doctors,' you heal the people afterwards."
"It was a bit dramatic," Carton says, laughing, "but it got a bit of the feeling."
The Saw Doctors play the Visulite Theatre on Thursday Feb. 28 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door.