Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms: "If you're not writing enough, your stuff is garbage."
The Lawrence Arms
The Lawrence Arms (due Saturday, February 22, at The Summit Music Hall) started in 1999 when former members of the Broadways, Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan, decided to do a more melodic punk band focused on often startlingly detailed and personal but emotionally vibrant music that didn't wax into the melodramatic mode of turn of the century emo.
See also: The best shows in Denver this weekend
The band's earliest releases came out on respected indie label Asian Man Records, but it was 2002's Apathy and Exhaustion that propelled the group into a higher echelon of the public consciousness. Famously kicked off the Warped Tour in 2004 for making remarks critical of the festival from stage, the Lawrence Arms continued to make poignant, melodic punk records informed by a sharp sense of humor. We recently spoke with Kelly about the importance of even informal discipline for art, his conflict with fans of Dashboard Confessional and why Chris Hannah of Propagandhi is his barometer for whether or not his blog writing is coming from the right place.
Westword: On your blog, badsandwichchronicles.net, you were talking about being in bands and how you should write everyday and not worry about making bad stuff. What brought you to that realization?
Brendan Kelly: In the course of writing every day, you're going to have a lot of bad output just because that's the way human achievement goes. Ted Williams is still looked to as being one of the greatest baseball players of all time because he has the best batting average of all time that hovered right around five hundred.
That means that the number one specimen of doing the national past time in America over the last hundred and fifty years could only do it almost half the time, and that was seen as almost inhuman. If you're not writing enough, your stuff is garbage. It means you're not taking chances, you're not writing hard. Because in order to do something that's really successful and out there, there has to be the risk that it is terrible. That's what I was getting at.
The main thrust of it was not so much like, "Hey, you're going to write a bunch of shitty songs." It's more like you have to have discipline, you have to know when your stuff is shitty and you have to trust that by doing that shitty stuff you're learning lessons that will eventually produce something that's pretty good.
Definitely. It seems as though a lot of people are under the impression that you should only create when you're inspired. But the reality is that learning that discipline makes it easier to do solid work regularly whether you're inspired or not, and that when you are inspired, it is easier for you to execute that inspired work.
It's a lot like not being satisfied in your long term romantic relationship based on what happens in a Ryan Gosling movie. That shit doesn't work like that. You know what? Actually your girlfriend does things like takes dumps and wants to sit around and read magazines. And your boyfriend kind of just wants to sit there on the computer and not pay attention to which color of couch would be better in this room sometimes. You have those moments. It's not all just flowers and, "I don't care about my job, let's go to Vegas." It ain't like that.
In what ways do you remember bombing that made you a better musician and performer?
Oh, man, so many. Even if you just look at the history of the bands I've been in, each band was so bad for such different reasons -- leading all the way up to this band I'm in now. The first band I was in we were so young and we didn't have older brothers to teach us about punk rock or being cool.
So we naturally gravitated toward a kind of punk rock sound. But we also incorporated elements of things like funk because it was the late '80s and that kind of stuff was really popular and we didn't it know it was like, "No, keep that shit out of here." Then it was like, "Let's cut out the funk, that's pretty cool." Then I was in a fuckin' ska band, which was fine at the time.
After that I went into this overtly political band that was just super idealistic and morally righteous, just a moral crusading, anarchist band. Which was also very unsatisfying. I tried all these various ways of self-expression and I and the people that ended up being The Lawrence Arms came together to make a band that I think is a little bit more into expressing a vibe and a philosophy that's not totally stupid. Which is nice. But as The Lawrence Arms we played a lot of really, really bad shows until we got to the ones that aren't so bad. I think at this point I feel like we're a pretty well-oiled machine. But it took us fifteen years to get here.
In that same blog entry, you wrote something very sharp about how you shouldn't write pandering to your audience. And that is because what makes what you do interesting in the first place is writing from your uniqueness of perspective. Because it is always going to be relatable to other people; it's more inherently honest, and it's better for art than trying to guess what other people specifically want.
Exactly. I think the real key to that is if you try to pander to the audience, you're trying to write from somebody else's perspective. You're trying to imagine what their feelings would be. It's like, "Oh and the crowd's going to love it if we do one of those little hiccup stops right here. And then it's all about how she's so beautiful but she makes me sad." Or whatever.
That stuff plays really well. But in reality that's such a generic, Mad Lib version of making music. The thing that's cool about being able to express yourself creative is that I can tell you specifically how I was sitting in my one room, basement apartment and I was depressed because my girlfriend had just ditched me for a guy that rides a motorcycle and I opened my refrigerator and the only thing in there was a forty.
Then I went to turn on the lights and the light bulb was dead and there was no replacement bulb. So I'm just sitting in the dark, drinking that forty just crying when all I wanted to do was eat a meal that would make me feel better. While that's a unique experience to me, though probably a few who have gone through something similar, you can relate to the really dark, depressing place that that is and that's where the fun happens.
You have said that from 1993 forward that you were in bands that might be worth someone's time but that before that not so much. What made Slapstick one of the former sort of bands for you?
Slapstick was a band that we started when we were all in high school. It's hard to even imagine now, but we were a unique band. At that time, there was no such thing as third wave ska, and when we started doing it, regardless of what you think of the final output -- as someone that wrote most of those lyrics when I was like sixteen years old, I'm sure you can imagine what I think of it, it's maybe a little bit embarrassing -- somehow we ended up being these mad scientists who were in the right place at the right time to sort of help usher something in. That was a really cool experience and that band was pretty successful and paved the way for all of us to do all of the things we've done since.
If it wasn't for Slapstick and specifically Rob Kellenberger, the drummer, and Matt Stamps, the guitar player, who were sort of the creative visionaries behind that band, I can say with utmost assurance that there would be no The Lawrence Arms and no Alkaline Trio right now because of the connections we were able to make from being in Slapstick that Dan [Andriano] was able to get Mike Park to take a chance on putting out the Alkaline Trio record.
And it was because of those guys that I learned how to write songs. I bet Dan would say the same thing. Again it was a ska band pioneered by sixteen year olds and it was a huge learning experience and for the time it was doing something that just wasn't being done so it filled a nice vacuum that we were able to exploit.
And that band remains kind of a special band for a lot of people to this day.
While a lot of it is kind of embarrassing, I think the general message was pretty nice and clear. Just, "Hey, do your thing and fuck what your mom tells you that you have to do. You do you." And that kind of stuff. When you're sixteen it seems pretty profound. When you grow up and you look back, you think, "Yeah, I remember when I was sixteen and I thought that shit was pretty important."
Fat Mike is a bit of a character. How did he approach you about putting out a Lawrence Arms record on Fat Wreck Chords?
It was crazy because I was in a record store working, and I'd already been on Asian Man for a long time putting out Lawrence Arms records. We'd put out a couple. A guy named Toby that worked in his office called and said, "Hey, I work at Fat Wreck Chords, and I think Fat Mike wants to call you. Would that be cool?" And I was like, "I think that would be the coolest thing that happened to me today, if that happened." I grew up listening to NOFX, and I did at the time, and continue to, think that Mike is extremely cool and talented and in a really rad band.
So I was in the record store working and I got a call on my cell phone. This was in 1999. Because we toured so much I had a cell phone. Even there my boss, an old hippie, was like "Oh, look at big Wall Street over here on his cell phone!" I said, "Someone's calling me from California." I answered and a voice said, "Hello Brendan, this is Fat Mike. Yeah, so do you want to do a record?" "Yes, that would be awesome." "Oh yeah, so, cool, I think we'll give you this much money, and it's going to be really cool. What are you doing?" "Oh, I'm about to quit my job right now." "Okay, cool, well go quit your job. We'll talk later. Okay, bye."
I walked back into the record store, and said, "I quite. Bye. See you later." Then I went down to the shoe store down the street where all the hot girls worked and I walked in and said, "I quit my job!" And the just looked at me like, "What?" Because I never talked to them, I just looked at them when I walked by. Then I went to a bar, and had a beer.
Your impression of his voice is incredible, uncanny, by the way.
Thanks. Well we've been hanging out together for a long time. He's quite a character and a great person to be able to call a friend. Everything I know about being a wise-ass, drunk bass player was learned from somebody.
Reading your writing, it seems you're refreshingly self-aware and cognizant and accepting differences between people and being respectful. Is that something that came with age? Did you have a core of that early on in life?
I don't know that I've ever tried to analyze it. Like everybody on this earth there's really two sides of me. When I was young I was a real nerd. Then I started skateboarding and became more popular so I've always sort of tried to take things on from other people's perspectives. But I also know that I'm incredibly myopic and can be so willfully ignorant of other people's opinions or feelings.
I'm really bad at being like, "Oh, was your day?" I can intellectualize how this human being is stuck in this situation and maybe they are doing horrible things but what's the real human reason behind it. I think in that regard I have a lot of intellectual sympathy but I don't have a lot of day-to-day tact. Which is unfortunate and it bums people out. It's something I try to work on but it comes up enough that I'm not going to pretend that it's dead on when people say that. That's me, self-aware-ly, intellectualizing me just being a rude dick.
What's an example of you having talked shit about another band and how it came back to bite you?
Well, I used to talk so much shit about so many bands. Some of the bands I used to talk shit about was all during the sort of the twin towers of overwrought, emotional bangs and sadness emo and Ken dolls playing pop punk. Those sort of arose at the same time, two gigantic leviathans coming out of the sea to just make me so bummed out.
Those were the only bands that anybody wanted to watch. The Lawrence Arms has been fairly consistent in that we are a rock and roll band that has simple chords, maybe a guitar solo here and there, and songs about drinking and being kind of bummed out. That's our catalog.
So when all this was happening, and we're playing this music, which seemed so fucking out of date, out of place, from outer space. So we would play these shows with these fuckin' bands. We played this festival in Vermont one time, and the three headlining bands on the festival were us, somehow, Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge. And every other band on bill was just these overwrought emo bands with the tattoos on the bands and the yelling and the crying, you know?
We get on stage in front of all these people, and I say something to the effect of, "Hey, before we start, I'm looking for my buddy out there. He's wearing any army surplus hat, long black bangs, tight black t-shirt and blue jeans. Have you seen him?" Every single guy in the crowd was wearing the same thing. People were just looking at me like, "Fuck this guy." We did a long tour with Yellow Card and the Starting Line and every day we kind of talked shit about them a little bit on stage.
Nothing terribly cruel but those guys didn't really like us. First of all, I have nothing personally against any of those dudes. Second of all, it wouldn't matter if I did because what the fuck is Yellow Card going to do? Take us on a fucking tour so we can play our music in front of their fans? Then their fans can be like, "Who are these fuckin' old men?" We already did that. It sucked. That was the tour we were on.
The one act that I talked shit about where there was a big blowback where I was getting hate mail and shit was Dashboard Confessional. All I said was that he was a pussy. You know what? Bring on the hate mail because you can't un-pussy him. This was when he was on the cover of Rolling Stone and shit and very popular and kind of up in everybody's face and part of the collective consciousness.
The notion that he is relevant enough to say something about that now? I wouldn't go out of my way to say something like that now -- I guess I just did -- is kind of mean because he's not doing anything. That was a situation where my mouth got me into a little bit of trouble.
You have a new record that came out in January called Metropole. What inspired you to use those soundbites that you recorded in Italy?
Some of that was recorded in Italy and the album is kind of thematically this lonely journey through a city. It's supposed to be a more anonymous city, not a place you'd call home. There's a lot of thematic threads that weave through the record. One of them is a fundamental disconnect from your surroundings. You're not walking by your favorite diner and you're not going to the bar where people know your name. You're walking down the city street and everything is closed and the people that pass by your are strangers. Stuff like that.
The original idea we had was that Chris [McCaughan] and I were going to record ourselves walking around different cities and interview each other and just talk and have that almost like a Richard Linklater film. It turned out that it takes a long time to convey very much when you're just using dialogue. The amount of time that you have between a song? All of a sudden we were looking at having to put 25 minutes between each song. There's no flow to that.
The recordings that we did that ended up being compelling were the ambient noises in between that told more of a story than us talking which, when we actually started putting it together, seemed not only wrong but heavy-handed. It was like, "Oh, here's some guys talking about the futility of life." Or whatever. But the sonic elements when we weren't talking seemed to convey the same thing but in a much more weird and dark way.
After we got that, I happened to be in northern Italy, where my family is from, I'm an Italian citizen, and I was hanging out and in that region there happens to be a lot of street performers. I would record them, not with the idea of those recordings going on the record, but when I got back from the trip we had these ambient songs from Chris and I walking around as well and we compiled them and put them together. That created the atmosphere that pervades the record, which I think turned out really cool and exactly the vibe we were going for even though it was conceptualized different than it was manifested.
Have you felt that the blog has become less interesting, or perhaps more informed by a self-awareness to you, now that you know a lot of people are reading it? Seems likely, not seeing as you wrote that bit about a dog penis being on a man and a human penis being on a dog.
Are you saying that you have to dance like no one's watching?
Yeah, do you feel like you're censoring yourself or holding back in some way or feel like you need to perform rather than express whatever comes to mind?
When it comes to everything I do in public, I have never admitted this to anyone before and it's kind of embarrassing, but I'm going to tell you, when it comes to Twitter or my blog or doing an interview like this, the one filter I have is if Chris Hannah from Propagandhi were to read this, would he think I'm a total fucking asshole? Because he's just somebody who's very funny, very frank and outspoken.
A lot of his beliefs are way more hard line than anything I subscribe to, but I find his general public persona to be pretty right on. Propagandhi is my favorite band. I make no secret of that. I think the way he conducts himself, does the liner notes, represents the band, represents himself and his politics are super right on.
When I write something, I don't think there's anything terribly offensive about an intellectual exercise in figuring out if it's grosser to suck a human penis that's attached to a dog or a dog penis that's attached to a human but there's certain points where I think if this is something with hard line sort of beliefs would think could be construed as sexist, or jingoistic or offense to people who are animal rights activists.
Even though PC grandstanding is very irritating to me, the heart of all that stuff is in the right place as well. I think you should just be nice and respectful to everyone. I try to think of things along those lines especially because somebody like Chris, who has a real sense of humor, is a nice barometer for my brain like, "This is in the right ballpark." That idea, maybe you should sit on a few days and see if you still think it's funny.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.