Interview: Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms

The Lawrence Arms

You never expect your record about the impending apocalypse will actually release when the entire world is on fire but that’s where The Lawrence Arms find themselves. On July 17th, Chicago’s finest return with Skeleton Coast – the trio’s first collection of new material’s since 2014’s impressive Metropole. It’s been a long six years since then and the new record reflects that – as a creeping dread is felt throughout its fourteen tracks (as opener “Quiet Storm” bluntly puts it, “Listen closely: Some horsemen are calling. Lay back, the night sky is falling”). Skeleton Coast is a wild ride featuring the best work of the band’s career. I spoke with bassist/vocalist Brendan Kelly about recording Skeleton Coast in the middle of the Texas desert, being inspired by the Beastie Boys and Outkast, and how this record is the perfect record for this unprecedented times.

How are you doing today?

Man, I’m okay. I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to do this fucking record release, but I think it’s interesting, working in the times of quarantine and COVID and all of that. I’m trying to do something that seems at least a little bit interesting for the day of the release.

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That kind of leads into my first question. The first thing I love about the whole Skeleton Coast release is Epitaph pressing a vinyl variant on Malort color, which is the best because it’s also the worst drink in the world. But it feels like every day of 2020 the world drinks an entire bottle before unveiling the daily horrors, because it’s always something. And it’s just there’s so much fatigue. So it’s like, exactly. What’s life been like for you and the band during the pandemic and trying to promote a record?

The thing is, I don’t think it’s been that different, right? Because we wouldn’t be out there doing that much right now because the record’s not out yet. I think there’s going to be a point where the reality sets in that it’s like we’re supposed to be on tour and we can’t be, and that will become very concrete reality, but we’re very… I really hesitate to use words like lucky and fortuitous to describe anything surrounding a pandemic. You know?

Right.

But in terms of what we were planning on doing, so far nothing has been affected. We went and we were able to record our record, and then we came home and there was a lockdown. We weren’t going to be playing any shows at this point anyway. So this is all the part where we email back and forth and I talk to you over the phone.

None of this would really be any different. There will be a point in August, on the day of the release, where I go, “Oh, we’re not playing a show.” That’s going to be fucking weird. And then I feel like that reality will start to set in. But, yeah, so far it’s been fine. I usually work from home anyway. Chris works from home. Neil, I don’t know what Neil does. I work with a few trusted people, so I think he’s doing pod quarantining and stuff like that. So I don’t really think that it’s had too much of a negative effect on us. Obviously the excruciating mental toll of watching this whole thing kind of destroy society, which it can’t be overstated. Right?

Right.

But in terms of our day to days, I don’t think it’s been… There’s nothing that I haven’t been able to do in the promotion of this record that I would have done otherwise so far, I don’t think.

That makes sense. So, you recorded at the Sonic Ranch down in the desert of Texas with Matt Allison. It had to be one of the last “social gatherings” you had.

Absolutely. It absolutely was. Yeah. Which is weird because it was in the most isolated place in the world. It was like training for social distancing and quarantining. You know? But, yeah, it was a very, very unique experience down there, to be just in the desert, to live in a house that’s 500 feet away from the house that has your studio in it. It’s like when sun goes down, you can’t see. There’s nothing out there at all. We were very, very much in the desert. The closest thing, I’d go to buy a can of beer or whatever, and there was a Dollar Store, it was a 25 minute drive to the Dollar Store. It’s no joke. That place isn’t like it’s a little outside of town. It’s like the place is… The studio itself is housed in a fucking 3,000 acre pecan farm.

I’ve said this before, I don’t want to be repetitive in these fucking sound bites or whatever, but if I die and when I list the most interesting things I’ve ever done, being at the Sonic Ranch isn’t on there, but I still got a lot of really interesting shit I got to do.

Yeah. My family used to live in Texas, and when I would visit them, it’s a big state for a reason, there is a city and then there’s nothing for feels like 300 miles. So I can totally understand that isolation feel being in that state.

Where’s your family from?

They lived in Houston.

Yeah. No, my parents lived in Houston for a while. They lived in Port Arthur, which is East Texas, the farthest east you can go. It’s right on the Louisiana border. It’s where a lot of True Detective was filmed. And so, I’ve existed in the gambit of Texas between outside El Paso, San Antonio, which is where I guess No Country for Old Men was filmed. Andele. I got Matthew McConaughey’s psychological thriller Texas.

Absolutely. Skeleton Coast is a great sounding record. And it sounds like a backhanded compliment when I say that, like I’m implying that your past records have sounded like shit, which they haven’t. But there’s a distinct crispness and energy on this record, not just in your discography, but in a bunch of modern era punk records, it doesn’t exist. It’s very aggressive and to the point. What influenced, if anything at all, the approach to recording this record?

Well, I think what you’re really getting at is the production aspect of it. So the Sonic Ranch is a very unique place in that they were like, “Okay, here’s our list of guitars we have. Pick off the ones you’d like. Here’s our drum sets, here’s our amps.” And so we’re able to play through a 51 concert amp with a 57 Jazzmaster and shit like that. Matt Allison is a just crazy nerd when it comes to this shit. But he walked in and the studio assistants who would have been our engineers if we had not brought in our own engineer, the in-house engineers or whatever, they worked as assistants on our session. And he’d be like, “Oh, you see this pedal, this is like the RG5-61.” And you can tell that it’s from 1968, because in ’69 they changed this housing. Shit like that. And they were like… The place could be a museum, no problem. And if Matt Allison walked in there, he wouldn’t even need any training to be curator of the museum.

I think that a lot of the sounds and the resultants, vibe of the record, had a lot to do with the fact that Matt was in a candy store and was just like, “Holy shit, this. Yeah, we want this. Holy shit, this, yes, we’ll use this with this. This will be amazing.” I think the end result is obviously… We did our Oh, Calcutta record on two inch tape, and that was a big deal at the time. It was right before Pro Tools sort of surpassed analog in terms of quality.

Our relationship with Matt, there’s always been an understanding we’re trying to get the truest sounds. Right? And I think with this just unbelievable amount of toys that he had to play with, he was able to really be like, “Try this.” It wasn’t always his thing. Sometimes Chris would come in and be like, “This guitar is not quite right. How about this one?” Or Neil would be like, “What if we use this amp?” Or all of us would suggest things like that. It was really like candy store experience for that.

The Sonic Ranch has, I think, seven little houses that are all studios. And they’re the seven nicest studios I’ve ever been to. And I’ve definitely… I hung out with the Suicide Machines back in the day when I was in Slapstick. Recording in Jerry Finn’s Studio or whatever. I don’t say that lightly. Those studios are so insane. I’d love to take more credit for how cool the record sounds. I don’t think it was necessarily us. Matt knew what he was doing, we had the best possible gear, we had the best possible surroundings. If you use the right tools and you come in focused and motivated, you know what you want, and we’re a band that’s been around for a long time so we do know what we want. And the results will kind of come there, but I think our knowing what we want and what we sometimes get are not always the same. This time I think it was. And also, I appreciate your whole thing because it’s legacy kind of bands, which we have not retired early enough to be put into that category. I think don’t often put out urgent sounding records, and I appreciate that. It sounds cool and different and interesting because that’s always a thing for us. It’s like the bullshit detectors are going to be on because people want to hear the old shit or whatever it is, to make new records. It’s always like, “All right, is this one going to be the one that goes to the top?” You know?

The record has a weird clairvoyant feel to it. Obviously, you guys didn’t write it in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s so relevant right now, because there’s such an apocalyptic undertone to this record. That’s just wild how it feels very relevant to the shit around us right now.

I’m really glad that comes across because we talked about this, obviously, internally or whatever, and it’s always like, “Hey, dude. It sounds like we wrote a record for these times. This is crazy.” To go back to what I was saying a little bit earlier. There’s no part of me that feels like there’s any good fortune in this pandemic actually. You know what I mean? Just to be perfectly, abundantly clear. But what I do think is fortunate is that we wrote a record that when the world took a sharp left turn or threw itself into reverse on the highway or whatever you want to say, still was relevant. Again, we are like an older legacy band, for better or for worse. We could have written a song, an album, that was about girlfriends and whatever. And then immediately it would come out and people would be like, “Nope, this is totally fucking terrible.” This has nothing to do with the existence.

I feel very fortunate if what we were talking about is something that could maintain a relevance now, even as horrible as now is, and I can’t stress that enough. I guess the soul of living in quarantine and fucking societal strife and weird, caged violence and all of that, those are some of the standards that we bear as a band. And again, I’m not glad that those are fucking relevant, but I am glad that we can have some relevance in these times. Yeah, it is a little bit weird clairvoyance.

I know a lot of bands are sitting on new material now because they can’t tour on it. Did you guys ever have discussions about postponing because of lack of touring? Or was the record just feels so suited to the times that you’re like, “We have to release this shit in July.”

It was really neither of those things specifically, but we did discuss the fact that obviously the world is changing and what are we going to do, and fucking we were just like, “Well, what doe Epitaph think?” Because it’s obviously they’re the ones putting out the record, and so we talked to a booking agent who was essentially like, “Look, I’ve got your dates on hold for after your record comes out. They’re not going to happen.” It was just like, “It’s not happening.” So I was like, “Okay.” And we had a little discussion, then we decided to call Epitaph and be like, “Yo. I don’t know what you guys want to do. We’re not going to be able to tour on this. It’s just not going to happen. Our agent, she told us it’s not happening. And if you want to sit on the record.” And they’re like, “No, people need music right now. Let’s do it. If you guys are down, we’re down.” What am I going to do? Tell Brett Gurewitz he doesn’t know anything about releasing punk records?

Yeah. Exactly.

It’s like, “Okay, we’re fucking doing it.”

The band has put out two singles –  “PTA” and “Last, Last Words.” And those feel very prescient now to what’s going on. Some other tracks on Skeleton Coast that really stick out to me were “Pigeons and Spies” and “Coyote Crown.” The lyrical content on “Pigeons and Spies” gave me the first holy shit moment on the record.

Oh, awesome!

I read through the lyrics and I’m just like, “Wow, this is so fucking crazy.” My mouth was agape. I was just like, “This totally, perfectly sums up these people with opposing thoughts and just how sometimes it can be very similar how you feel about each other, and also completely different at the same time. It’s just a perfectly paced punk song with those lyrics, which is what many have come to love about just The Lawrence Arms over the last 20 years basically. And of course the last track – “Coyote Crown” – that Chris takes the lead on. Man, that’s eerie. That shit is eerie. Listening through those lyrics. This is exactly what it would be like if the world is burning down in front of us. It’s just wild. What tracks on the record stand out to you?

You named two that I really like quite a bit. “Pigeons and Spies: one is a little bit… A friend of mine actually said to me, “Pigeons are spies. They’re just sitting up there watching us. And I was like, “All right, I’m out of this conversation, I have a song to write.”

And that one, in a very weird way, it’s like the tribute to Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys. The Beastie Boys are one of my main influences and I try to really wear that on the sleeve of the songs I make in terms of the way that we go back and forth between each other and double this and then don’t double this, double these two lines, or whatever. And in that song, it really comes together. And then, in the bridge part, I’m literally trying to sound like him. If you listen to it later, because when I say, “Cover my mouth, and cover my eyes,” I’m doing the Adam Yauch. Right? And the whole idea of this taking every single possible thing from everywhere, that’s sort of like a hip hop trope. You know what I mean? Sing about a pigeon, then sing about a fucking bad situation in a locker room, and sing about the death of the dinosaurs, all in the same song, and somehow try to tie it together. It’s sort of like a bit of an exercise that I was trying to do in order to do that. And then, something like “Coyote Crown,” which is almost the opposite, which is like I am just sitting here in front of a fire wearing a coyote skull on my head and the world’s over. And then you’re like that really does sweep the gamut of what’s offered on this record. Right?

Yep.

Yeah, those are good choices. There’s a lot of songs I like on here. I really like that “How to Rot” song, because I think it’s about-

Oh. Yeah, I was going to say, that song, I love that song. It still has that jokey nature, but it’s still very serious at the same time.

Yeah. It gets into some very dark… The middle part where it where gets into that Outkast kind of thing, that was what the intent was, for it to sound like Outkast. We used ’60s Flange pedals on that, and put my base through a weird amp to do that. I freaked out. And it’s like, “We think it’d be odd, but it feels right.”

And then that whole thing. I’ll tell you the joke. Okay. What’s a pirate’s favorite letter?

Arrrr.

You think it’d be arrr, but it be the sea. That’s the line in the song.

Right, right.

The next one is, “And Brandy, you’re a fine girl. What a good wife you would be.” Which is from the song “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass. And then, later on in the record, in the song, what’s it called, “Don’t Look at Me.” And it says, the last line in that, it’s like, “How’s my life, my love, and my lady of the sea?” It’s the same song. Those lines go together, right? I always have fun with that kind of shit. I could sit and parse every single one of Chris’s songs. They’re all fucking brilliant. But as far as what I brought to the record that I think is fun, I like that.

What I’ve always appreciated about The Lawrence Arms is that the three of you have never really forced anything musically. You take your time between album releases, you make sure you have something to say. And even though you’ve mentioned you guys are a legacy act, you’ve never felt like a nostalgic act or coasting out past ideas. Skeleton Coast is really a fucking great record and I feel like it just adds to your legacy as one of the most influential punk bands that I’ve heard in my lifetime. And so, my last question is, how tiring is it just being the best goddamn band in the world?

That’s the best question I’ve ever been asked. I fucking can’t believe it’s taken this long to get asked this, to be honest. No, I think you fucking hit into a lot of things that do make up what it is that we do and what we try to do, which is take our time, make sure we have something to say, make sure when we have something to say, we haven’t said it quite that way before. But at the same time, know our limitations and our strengths, and play into that shit. I think this sounds like a Lawrence Arms record. I don’t think it sounds like a fucking weird departure. But at the same time, it’s not any other Lawrence Arms record. Me and Chris and Neil all have, to use the phrase again, really high bullshit detectors and we’ve seen a lot of bands that are great bands click into a formula and then coast on that formula and watch it get stale.

For us, first of all, we didn’t really have a formula. That was good because we weren’t that good. It’s like every time that we do a record, it’s a learning process of like, “Okay, what did I do on the last record? What did we do on the last record? What did you do on the last Sundowner record?” And works and what doesn’t work? And how can we maximize the things that work and cut out the things that don’t? And it is our objective to be abandoned. Current is a very fucking weird term when it comes to describing an artist because the implication is that you’re living in the now, man. In 2004, or whatever, it would be like that band that did… Or like MGMT or whatever. And it’s like, “Well, that’s very current.” And it’s like, “Well, that implies that soon it will be dated.” Do you know what I mean?

Just right there in the fundamentals of what it means to be of a moment means you’re not going to be anything that sounds real any time after. So I think that we’ve always tried to keep our head down and stick to a basic philosophy, which is we have to just write good songs, and we just have to write the songs that we know how to write and make them as good as possible, and be informed by the universe around us, but not let that dictate anything. You know?

So, to I guess answer your question, I guess it’s exhausting, but that just means that nobody else has tried very hard.

Exactly.

It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the ’80s would be like, [imitating Schwarzenegger’s voice]“That’s my workout routine. It’s exhausting.” There’s a million other people working out. It’s not doing the same thing for them. So I guess it’s got to be exhausting if it’s fucking worth a shit.

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