Knuckles up

Chicago’s Flatfoot 56 prove that bagpipes are punk as f—

Photo: from left to right: Conrad Allsworth, Eric McMahon, TobinBawinkel, Kyle Bawinkel, Brandon Good

By Gary Spencer

To some listeners, punk seems like a sonically limited genre of music – distorted guitars, three or four chords, rough singing, sometimes fast, sometimes faster. However, there are many instances where a band has taken the sonic pallet of punk and integrated with elements of other musical styles and/or unusual instrumentation such as The Clash, X-Ray Spex, and Voodoo Glow Skulls to name just a few. On a similar note, punk has spurred a handful of related subgenres including what is referred to as Celtic punk, with British-Irish band The Pogues often credited as siring the style back in the 1980s; that added the sounds and instrumentation of traditional Celtic and Irish music into the sonic blueprint laid down by the foundations of punk rock from the decade prior. Celtic punk remains popular among punk fans thanks to the popularity of bands like Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, and another band that is growing in notoriety for hoisting the flag for Celtic punk is Chicago’s Flatfoot 56. However, when the group formed they did not set out to be another link in the Celtic punk movement.

“We wanted to start a street punk band and play good punk rock music,” says Flatfoot 56 songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Tobin Bawinkel. “A friend of ours who played the bagpipes asked if he could play with us. We thought it would be a cool idea to incorporate a different kind of instrument. Here we are 17 years later and we are still traveling and playing music all over the world.”

However, based on Bawinkel’s family background, it might not come as a surprise that the Celtic punk route seemed like a natural fit for Flatfoot 56, a band that also includes Tobin’s brother Kyle as well.

“We grew up in a household where bluegrass music was played regularly,” Tobin says. “Bluegrass is part of the same family group as Celtic music. It was invented by Irish and Scottish immigrants. When we thought about adding bagpipes to our punk band, the idea of adding more Celtic influence just seemed right. We always had an ear for traditional Celtic music and its storytelling elements – it is so down to earth and traditionally has a very working class background and history. Because of the area that we lived in Chicago and the heavy influence of the Irish community around us, it resonated with who we were.”

Growing up in gritty, working class southwest Chicago and wanting to tell stories with their music about things that resonate deeply with them and are easily relatable is one of the reasons why Flatfoot 56 connects with so many listeners, resulting in multiple appearances on Billboard charts. This attitude and approach has led Flatfoot 56 to call their style “positive natured Celtic punk.”

“The biggest thing we always wanted was to be authentic – to play and sing about what’s really on our hearts and have our music encourage people,” Tobin explains. “Because of our outlook on life, and the way we grew up, you’ll find a lot in Flatfoot’s lyrics about striving towards unity and hope. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t blind to what happens in the world around us. We’re from one of the most violent cities in America and we see the effects of that all the time, but the thing that influences us more is the hope that we have inside of us that anything and anybody can change.”

Obviously, another reason Flatfoot 56 gets a lot of attention is because of their intriguing instrumentation that includes Scottish Highland bagpipes and mandolin. While on paper the inclusion of such (literally) foreign instruments seems out of place in a punk group, the band actually has a different perspective.

“The bagpipes have historically been a war instrument and good punk rock should sound like warfare!,” Tobin says.

And if Flatfoot 56’s music sounds like warfare with melody on a Celtic battlefield thanks to its catchy riffs and traditional instrumentation combo, the band thinks it sounds even more appropriate for bonding with fellow revelers at its live shows whether they’re in the circle pit or enjoying the show from the sidelines.

“When you come to see the band play, you don’t come to see a show, you come to be the show!,” Tobin says. “For a few hours every night, we get a chance to become family with people that we’ve only just met that night. We always encourage people to participate. Our crowds are always very fun loving and extremely diverse – people of all ages have always seemed to enjoy what we do. It’s about making sure people leave feeling valued and knowing they aren’t alone.”

And while Flatfoot 56’s success has also included having its music used by popular TV shows such as Sons of Anarchy and WWE, the band’s aspirations for the future are simple yet admirable.

“Our biggest desire is to play the music that we love and see the friends that we have made,” Tobin says. “We want to do well by both our fans and family.”

Flatfoot 56 performs this Thursday, August 24 at Rockstar Pro Arena, 1106 E. Third Street in Dayton. FBS, The Loveless and Gee Gee’s Punk Rock All Stars open. Tickets are $8 in advance and the show is all ages. Doors at 7pm. For more information, please visit

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at

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