Mike Barnhill plays bagpipes during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Mike Barnhill plays bagpipes during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Celtic rock band talks 13-year history, unique songs and upcoming St. Paddy’s Eve show

Fire on McGinnis’ repertoire includes Police covers and ancient fiddle tunes — at the same time.

It was Saturday night and members of Fire on McGinnis went to where streams of whiskey were flowing.

In this case, that’s drummer Kelly Henriksen’s garage, which is the Juneau-based Celtic rock band’s typical practice space.

“The only thing to drink in my garage is like six different kinds of whiskey, so you have to be a whiskey drinker,” Henriksen said during an interview with the Capital City Weekly ahead of the band’s St. Paddy’s Day eve show at the Red Dog.

Despite the rowdy sentiment and a sound in line with punk acts including the Pogues, Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys, the members of Fire on McGinnis aren’t necessarily hearty-partying, wild people.

The band is a quintet made up of people with day jobs and life experience — most are older than 50, Henriksen said.

[Grammy-nominated artist and Broadway star talks Motown]

All members have keen interest in music and a love of performance that has kept the band filling venues and Henriksen’s garage with the sounds of bagpipes, fiddle and hard-charging rock since 2005.

Martha DeFreest plays fiddle during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Martha DeFreest plays fiddle during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Martha DeFreest, the band’s lead singer, fiddle player and sometimes guitarist, said the band’s had such longevity because it’s fun to get together and bash out rock music intertwined with traditional Scottish and Irish instrumentation and arrangements.

“It’s a hobby band,” Henriksen said. “It’s fun to get together. You blow off steam, say inappropriate things, drink whiskey and play music.”

During a practice at Henriksen’s the band displayed a locked-in familiarity, breadth of electronic equipment that most hobby bands don’t have. But, the band’s volume was suitably wall-shaking for a garage band and members insist on either practicing through in-ear monitors or wearing headphones when amps are used.

“It gets loud,” said DeFreest. “Mike (Barnhill) plays highland pipes. There’s no volume control.”

Mike Barnhill, who is a former member of City of Juneau Pipe Band, is the band’s piper, lead guitarist and a throughline for the band as its sole active founding member.

Mike Barnhill plays bagpipes during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Mike Barnhill plays bagpipes during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

“If you’re going to be a bagpiper, you know it from when you’re little,” Barnhill said. “It’s in your blood.”

[Song and art night back for Season 2]

He’s been playing the bagpipes for “too long,” which translates to more than 20 years.

Ceann Murphy plays bass for the band and Mark Lukey plays guitar and “has a pedal for every occasion,” per his bandmates.

The band’s name comes from Barnhill’s time with the city pipe and drum band and is a play off of the former Stroller White name for the pipe band.

“Around the Mendenhall Glacier, you’ve got this wonderful set of peaks, and one of those peaks is Stroller White,” DeFreest said. “Right next to that is McGinnis. It was a core group who of Stroller White members who formed Fire on McGinnis. Geographically, it makes sense.”

Barnhill also plays a modified tin whistle, an instrument common to Celtic music.

Mike Barnhill plays a modified tin whistle during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Mike Barnhill plays a modified tin whistle during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Bagpipes tend to make sound at a different frequency from most other instruments, which requires odd tuning, DeFreest said. So in order to strike harmony with the rest of the band’s instruments, Barnhill had to shorten a tin whistle with a hacksaw.

That sort of innovation is of piece with Fire On McGinnis’ setlists.

While the band does play some straightforward covers, they also have a handful of unique compositions that mash up classic rock and ancient pipe or fiddle tunes.

DeFreest provided a recent example.

“Somebody a few months ago said, How about ‘Message in a Bottle’ by the Police. I like that song,’” DeFreest said. “I thought about it, and I thought about bringing in this old Scottish fiddle tune called ‘For Far Hunt,’ and I thought what would happen if we played them together. It’s the most beautiful thing in the universe.

“They go together perfectly and nobody could have guessed,” she added.

Mike Barnhill plays guitar across from bass player Ceann Murphy during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Mike Barnhill plays guitar across from bass player Ceann Murphy during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

In addition to blending rock tunes with centuries-old melodies, Fire On McGinnis will sometimes incorporate the poetry of Robert Burns set to music in their shows. The poems are generally chosen by Barnhill and DeFreest helps set them to music.

The fiddle tunes usually come from DeFreest.

“It helps makes us interesting to the extent we are interesting,” Henriksen said.

[Met-all in the family: Juneau rock band is a family affair]

While practice is a close to weekly occurrence, shows are more sporadic for the band. That’s by design.

Members of the band have various time commitments that make the grind of being a regular bar band not only a slog but an impossibility.

When Fire on McGinnis do play for a live audience — like the Saturday night — members said its a relished opportunity.

“Who doesn’t like performing for somebody if you’re in the performing industry?” DeFreest said.


• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.


Mark Lukey, top left; Mike Barnhill, top right; Ceann Murphy, bottom left; Kelly Henriksen, bottom right; and Martha DeFreest, far right; are the members of Juneau Celtic rock band Fire on McGinnis. (Courtesy Photo | Ceann Murphy)

Mark Lukey, top left; Mike Barnhill, top right; Ceann Murphy, bottom left; Kelly Henriksen, bottom right; and Martha DeFreest, far right; are the members of Juneau Celtic rock band Fire on McGinnis. (Courtesy Photo | Ceann Murphy)

Mike Barnhill shoulders his bagpipes to play the keyboard during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Mike Barnhill shoulders his bagpipes to play the keyboard during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Ceann Murphy plays bass during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Ceann Murphy plays bass during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Kelly Henriksen plays drums during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

Kelly Henriksen plays drums during a Fire on McGinnis practice Saturday, March 9, 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt | Capital City Weekly)

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