In Conversation With The Lawrence Arms
If you don’t know much about The Lawrence Arms, now is the perfect time to learn – the trio have just released a career-spanning retrospective called We Are The Champions Of The World. And yes, there is terrific irony in that title, because while the band are one of the most respected punk bands of recent years, Green Day-style success has always eluded them. Formed in Chicago in 1999 by guitarist/vocalist Chris McCaughan, bassist/vocalist Brendan Kelly and drummer Neil Hennessy, The Lawrence Arms write songs that are savage and tender – sometimes all at once. Emotional and erudite, sublime and ridiculous, subtle and in-your-face, they can turn a reference to juggalos into one of the most poignant lines you’ve ever heard, or effortlessly reference Van Gogh.
With six albums to their name, there’s a lot of history (and alcohol) within their songs, and plenty of lyrics to decipher. Over the years, McCaughan – who also records with his side-project Sundowner – has gained a reputation as a man who writes songs that stab straight through the heart, while Kelly – who also fronts punk ‘super’-group The Falcon (with Dave Hause, Alkaline Trio’s Dan Andriano and the Larry Arms’ Hennessy on drums) and his own project, Brendan Kelly & The Wandering Birds – is considered more of the joker. That’s an over-simplification that’s only kind of true, but it helps reveal the intricate complexities that make The Lawrence Arms the band they are, and the way the pair’s songwriting ability complement each other. We caught up with Kelly and McCaughan to talk about being in the band for almost two decades, how they’ve changed in that time and what comes next.
As you’ve just put this retrospective out, which covers the almost 20 year history of The Lawrence Arms, what do you think the legacy of the band is?
Brendan Kelly: There’s an old expression that’s like, ‘You can’t ever make yourself laugh because you already know what the punch line is, so it can’t surprise you.’ And I think I might be the single least qualified human being on Earth to say what The Lawrence Arms’ legacy is, because I’m in it. I can’t see it from an outside perspective, but from where I’m standing, I’m just excited I still have a job being able to make music 20 years after starting the band.
Chris McCaughan: I like to think what’s unique about our band is that we’ve always tried to operate on what was fun and cool to us. We did this on our own terms and didn’t worry too much about whatever external music industry stuff. To me, our legacy is that these guys are my family and we’ve done this for so long together and that’s certainly special for me.
When you announced the record, you put out a statement calling it a greatest hits for a band without any hits. Are you in any way disappointed you weren’t or aren’t bigger as a band?
Chris: Not really. Not to say that that wouldn’t have been cool maybe – I guess being in a big band maybe has cool things about it – but I certainly don’t spend my time wishing things had been different. I don’t think I could have asked for anything more out of the life of this band. Like what if we’d been huge and then we hated each other and weren’t a band anymore? I’d much rather those guys still like me.
Brendan: I obviously love the idea of taking any opportunity that comes along and having every possible experience I could have, so therefore an increased visibility or size of fans maybe would have facilitated some of that, but at the same time I’d rather be in The Lawrence Arms than any other band in the world, so I’m pretty fucking happy with where we are. Just the fact I’m still doing this after 20 years is fucking amazing, so I really don’t think I’m in a position to complain about The Lawrence Arms’ place in the punk rock pantheon or whatever.
How have you changed as people since making A Guided Tour Of Chicago and Ghost Stories? Do you recognise yourselves in those songs?
Brendan: This is probably a better question for Chris. I care a little bit more and I’ve learned a little bit more – both as a person and a writer – but as far as my general attitude, I feel it’s pretty much the same. I actually made a speech like this at Chris’s wedding – Chris has definitely evolved quite a bit. He was my best friend when he was a little kid and he’s my best friend now and the difference is he’s gone from being a little kid to a man. I hoped I would have evolved a little bit more, but it didn’t happen so what are you going to do (laughs)?
Chris: It’s interesting. When you make stuff, you’re the same breathing, heartbeating human that you were at the time, but obviously time changes you in certain ways, and when you look back you sort of consider how you felt then and the experiences you were having that stimulated that writing. You grow up and things change, but from a songwriting perspective you just kind of keep going without worrying too much about the other stuff. All of which is to say when I listen back, I often hear the cool little things that I maybe did in certain songs – a riff I wrote or a line that I now couldn’t write in the same way for whatever reason. Those are the things that really jump out at me. It’s interesting to see how my brain has shifted over time. I rarely feel the same emotions that I felt when I wrote older songs – I don’t tap back into whatever hard thing had maybe instigated writing the song.
Talk a little about the differences between the two of you, both in terms of personalities and songwriting. On a surface level, Brendan is the more brash, aggressive songwriter and Chris is the softer, more gentle songwriter. But Brendan, there’s a real wistfulness to your lyrics. Do you ever worry that people overlook that?
Brendan: You know, I really appreciate the question, I’ve got to be honest! No-one’s ever asked it before. On one hand, I want to say that whatever you get out of the music that’s what you get out of it and I’m just happy to be along for the ride. And on the other hand, I appreciate it when people dig in a little deeper and see I’m not just screaming hilarious dick jokes or whatever.
But that is kind of your reputation – Brendan Kelly is the dick joke guy!
Brendan: Yeah, for sure. And I don’t know if I’d be able to get away with having that as my public persona if I didn’t try to be thoughtful in my art. Because there are plenty of dick joke guys out there that people are like, ‘That guy’s a fucking creep!’ and probably a lot of people think I’m a creep too, but at the end of the day I write what I write and sing the way I sing.
What are your thoughts, Chris?
Chris: I’ve been told for so long that my songs are sad nostalgic songs, but I think when you’re in a band for a really, really long time you go through different phases, particularly when you have two songwriters who have a lot in common, but who also see things differently in some ways. The goal becomes that common ground while also keeping what makes it unique, which is certain contrasts. The good fortune of being in a band with two people writing songs for, like, 20 years is that there’s always that friction, and that tends to create energy – and that’s a core function of this band, that spark and friction between us. That’s what keep things interesting and keeps you motivated. And I think in the same way that our writing styles have some overlap and similarities and then much more clear contrasts, that’s probably who we are as people to some extent also.
Whose idea was the title for this record?
Chris: I think it might have been mine. I think me and Brendan were texting trying to come up with a title and I sent that to him because I thought it was hilarious and he said, ‘Yeah, we should definitely do that!’
Which goes against the idea of you as the more melancholy, serious person.
Chris: I like to think I have some sense of humour and lightness in this world, but what are you going to do? I guess if I wrote more songs that were humorous or not as morbid… I don’t know. I play off Brendan well. He comes up with ideas and I like to pile on. Despite seemingly being the guy writing more melancholy songs, I try to take this all pretty lightly. The reality is this is fun and writing songs is something that is cool, and I feel lucky to be a part of in my life. So I try not to take this all too seriously.
You guys have covered each other’s songs with your various side-projects. What’s your favourite song by each other?
Brendan: That’s so hard. The things that jump out in my mind immediately are Turnstiles and Brick Wall Views. I really love both of those songs quite a bit. But then there’s Beautiful Things, The Slowest Drink [At The Saddest Bar On The Snowiest Day In The Greatest City]. That guy is just fucking dynamite. I’m a fan of him as much as people are a fan of our band.
Chris: It’s so hard. Brendan and I have written songs alongside each other for all of my life, basically, as a songwriter. One of my favourites to play and sing with him is Are You There, Margaret? It’s Me, God from Oh! Calcutta – there’s something about that song. Maybe it’s the way he included me on the vocal back-and-forth. But there are so many, it’s really hard to pick one. I love Paradise Shitty and Seventeener from the last record. They’re really incredible songs. I’m a huge fan of Brendan’s songs and his writing has always pushed me to try to be a better writer.
Speaking of songs off Metropole, that album came out after a long break for you guys and it seemed like a record that was very aware of you being older. What was your thinking about that notion?
Brendan: I think it’s very interesting that that’s what everybody’s take on the record was, because that wasn’t the intention behind it. And I hate getting caught up in what it was because then it robs the songs of the magic they have for people, but to me that record is about being alone. We’ve all moved to different cities. I’m the only one still in Chicago. I’ve watched all my friends basically move away and what’s left when you’re alone? It’s just yourself and the signs of decay that are on you are sort of symptomatic of the fact that you’re by yourself. The isolation – a lot of people take it as the isolation of ageing, but it’s really the visibility that isolation gives to the fact that you’re getting older. If I go out to a bar and all my friends are there, I’m out having fun drinking with my friends. If I go to a bar now, I’m the older guy in the corner of the bar because my friends don’t live here anymore.
Your albums are always cohesive thematically. Do you just happen to find yourselves in similar places emotionally when you write records?
Chris: Brendan and I grew up together and experienced a lot of similar things in terms of being an adolescent and growing up and getting interested in music and all the records we found together and really loved. So for a long time we were drawing on a lot of shared experiences. So even though we weren’t explicitly talking about the things we were writing, we were drawing from the same well. And then Oh! Calcutta! was a much more specific, targetted idea. We wanted to write a record that reflected certain themes and we talked about that explicitly before we wrote the record, even though we had different takes on that material.
Brendan: We play off each other quite a bit. Chris will send me a song and that will inspire me to write a song and vice versa. And when I sit down to write a record, I sit down to write a record – I don’t just write all the time. I sit down to write a new Lawrence Arms record and every song is for that record. And Chris will write a song and that’ll shape the direction that I’m attempting to navigate and I think the same thing happens for him when I write a song. So it’s more like a slow process of sketching things out.
Beyond this release and the tour you’re doing for it, what does the future hold for The Lawrence Arms?
Brendan: I’m not going to do anything until this Wandering Birds record is over, but we’re going to make more music. We’re a band that exists and that’s what bands that exist do. So there’ll be more. It’s just nothing is planned out yet. But I want to make more Lawrence Arms songs. I love that band!
Chris: I don’t have anything specifically in the works. The goal is always to get to the next thing. I still feel like I have songs to write and contribute and as long as I feel compelled in that way that stuff will come eventually. I’m not pushing hard on the completion of anything. But playing shows breathes new life into things, so I’m sure I’ll get back to it at some point in a way that’s a little more directed.
That’s a lovely note to end on. Any grand declarations or final statements?
Chris: Just that The Lawrence Arms is probably the greatest band ever and this is probably the greatest collection of songs by the greatest band ever. Other than that, that’s about it!
Words: Mischa Pearlman
We Are The Champions Of The World: The Best Of The Lawrence Arms is out now on Fat Wreck. Check it out below. The band are on tour now. Dates and details right here.