Let’s face it: 2020 is a very, very shitty year. And yet, there is at least one reason to celebrate. If you are a fan of The Lawrence Arms, that is. On July 17, the trio is releasing ‘Skeleton Coast,’ their first new album in 6 years (not counting the ‘Champions of the World’ comp).
We figured it’s as good an excuse as any to ask singer/bassist Brendan Kelly a bunch of questions about the new album, the end of the world and being a cult band. Among many other things. Spoiler alert: you may find out a few details about the record that may ruin the surprise. Deal with it. (photo credit: Ben Peir)
PRT: It’s been 6 years since you released ‘Metropole’. That album felt like it was a little about coming to terms with getting older. Seeing as we haven’t found the time it takes to sit through all thirteen episodes of ‘Road to the Skeleton Coast’ just yet, we figured we’d just start off by asking if there is a general theme on ‘Skeleton Coast’?
Brendan: Of course there is. At this point I don’t know that we would even know how to make non-thematic records if we had to. Skeleton Coast is about, to be brief, an isolated outpost at the end of the world where all the pain and joy and love and fear you’ve ever felt manifests real real hard, and it’s up to you to find your moments of joy there. And those moments do, in fact exist if you’re willing to look for them. We wrote the record before the pandemic and the political unrest that’s currently gripping the US, but it seems strangely fitting.Thank god we didn’t write a record about girlfriends and part time jobs, eh?
PRT: Speaking of ‘Road to the Skeleton Coast’... doing an interview seems kind of unnecessary seeing as how expansive the podcast turned out. Was that the idea from the beginning or did you surprise yourself there?
Brendan: The podcast is about every record I’ve ever been on, and it was the idea of my partner, Tim. The idea was that it would reignite interest in the shit we’ve done (since it HAS been a second since we’ve done anything) and hopefully ramp up to the release of the new record. Doing the podcast has been really fun and the episodes have skewed WAY longer than I think either of us expected. Plus, we’ve added a Patreon page where we talk about stuff not in the episodes and I interview my friends, like Matt Allison (engineer of all our records, as well as Menzingers, Alkaline Trio and many more), Chris 2 of Anti Flag, Tom May of the Menzingers, Dan Andriano of the Alkaline Trio, Rob Kellenberger from Slapstick and Colossal, and most recently, famed standup comedian Kyle Kinane. It’s become really a fun thing, but one thing we haven’t really talked too much about is the actual Skeleton Coast record. No one knows it yet, so what’s the point, ya know? With the advent of this podcast, I’m a showbiz mogul now, so I have to keep in mind what’s good content and what’s not (puffs fancy cigar).
PRT: Chris said ‘Skeleton Coast’ is a series of short stories about some end of the world scenario. This seems kind of fitting as 2020 sure looks like the end is near. A mere coincidence or a conscious observation?
Brendan: I think that’s a good way to put it. As I said, it’s about an outpost at the end of the world, and different worlds end differently in almost every one of these songs, so in that way, it’s almost like a string theory kinda thing (I think? I am not smart, so maybe this is a bad analogy), but I think every generation since the beginning of time has thought the world was gonna end on them. It’s the height of arrogance. Do you really think that WE are lucky enough that we get to be the end of the world? Doubtful. Look around, our luck sucks. We may have a shitty time, but we’ll have to serve it either way, I think.
PRT: The world we live in today is one filled with pandemics, blatant racism, natural disasters, political extremism and the threat of new world wars. Where do you turn to find hope during such bleak times?
Brendan: There are always good people out there, helping, caring, and dedicated to making things better even at the expense of their own life experiences. That’s encouraging. There are smart young people and radicalized old people and crazy weirdos that wake up and realize they’ve been on the wrong side and work to make amends. There are doctors and nurses that put their lives on the line so assholes can go around breathing on everyone because they’re too pindicked to wear masks. There are wild dogs and there’s love and there’s longing and there’s booze and there’s the pandemic burn of realizing how cool it is to be around the people you love…there are no shortage of reasons to be hopeful. This world is actually beautiful and full of great shit. Love. I probably could have just said love, but here I am, yapping away like it’s 8:35!
PRT: Back to the album… ‘Skeleton Coast’ is without a doubt a Lawrence Arms album, with a very recognizable sound and signature songwriting. What, to you personally, defines the idea of a Larry Arms record?
Brendan: Hmmmm. Hard to say. I think the big thing, and this is gonna sound stupid and obvious, but the big thing is that it’s me and Chris and Neil. We know what the Lawrence Arms are supposed to be as a crew better than any one of us knows what it’s supposed to be on our own. There are things, like thematic structuring, very conscious pacing and sequencing and a variety of different dualities that definitely define our sound, but that’s not much of a good answer. We’re the Lawrence Arms. When we make a record, it’s a Lawrence Arms record. I honestly don’t know a more sincere answer than that.
PRT: Still, there are a bunch of little details that sets it apart from previous efforts. Like the uncharacteristic harmonies in the background on ‘Belly of the Whale’, that sweet guitar solo on ‘Demon’ and some other fun additions… Which one is your favorite, and why?
Brendan: Wow, you really picked some of my very favorite things. Those are two of my favorite parts on the whole record. I also like the bad religion style “aaaaaaaah” in quiet storm and the two different references to Brandy (you’re a fine girl) by Looking Glass in How to Rot and Don’t Look At Me.
PRT: Were those things you already had in your head while writing or were they studio-ideas and experiments?
Brendan: We did a lot of experimenting in the studio for sure, but we also had a LOT of ideas in mind. I don’t think any of us came into this expecting any of these parts to end up quite as cool as they did, but there was a real magic to working in the middle of the desert at Sonic Ranch that made shit get weird real quick.
PRT: You chose to record in El Paso, instead of Chicago. Why relocate?
Brendan: The studio we always used to record at here, Atlas, no longer exists. Chris and Neil live on the west coast, so it didn’t make any sense to just come here and try to figure something out. It made more sense to find a cool studio somewhere and just go down with our longtime producer Matt Allison and dig in and just crank on something in a very focused way.
PRT: What were some of the challenges and advantages of spending 2 weeks in a studio, far away from any distractions or familiar surroundings?
Brendan: The whole experience was cool and bizarre and I can’t sum it up easily but there were no challenges. It was an incredible experience to live and breathe making a record with your crew and have nothing but that on the table at any given time. It was great in terms of focus and great in terms of us being on the same page. I suppose if some shit had gone sideways and someone had been like “yo, I’m fucking FURIOUS!” That would have been very challenging to deal with out there on the edge of the world, but fortunately, that never happened.
PRT: For a while now, the three of you have all been living in different states. Don’t you ever miss the process of writing songs together?
Brendan: Nah. We never wrote songs together. It’s always been a pretty individualized process. Even when Chris and I lived in the same apartment and Neil was sleeping over on the couch, we would exchange recordings the exact same way we did for Skeleton Coast.
PRT: Do you miss those days of being young, care-free and on the road all the time?
Brendan: I dunno. I mean, it’s weird to suddenly be old and have things to worry about, but it’s not bad. I do love the idea of being young, but I’d never want to have to go back if I didn’t know what I know now. I made a lot of mistakes as a kid and I’m sure I’d make em all again even knowing what I know now, so what’s the REAL difference between then and now? I’m uglier now? Okay. That’s fine. I can deal with that. I do miss being on the road a lot, but that’s more COVID than age.
PRT: Sometimes it feels like that, since you guys stopped touring and recording almost incessantly, you have become more popular than ever. What’s your view on that?
Brendan: Hey, if doing less work for more benefit is what works for us, who am I to say that’s a bad thing? But for real, we’ve been fortunate that the world kinda came around to what we’ve been doing for so long and we were just here with a big catalog and we were still doing it and keeping our heads down and working as hard as we ever had before. I think it has more to do with the fact that we just got lucky in terms of us doing what we do and the world deciding they wanted what we do at a certain point. That point happened to be when we were slowing down and I dunno. It’s not lost on us that we’re very lucky to be in this position, where we’re still (I THINK?) a relevant band (as relevant as a punk band can be in 2020, at least) when so many bands our age kinda become total legacy acts. AND, we are that too! I’m not too good to admit that there are people who come to our shows to see the old shit, but some of our most popular songs are on Metropole, and we’re really thankful for that and for all our new fans and all our longtime fans as well...and I have kind of a good feeling about this Skeleton Coast thing too, so maybe, hopefully we can drink from the fountain for a little longer still.
PRT: Do you think you’ve become a “cult” band? And if so, do you consider that title a compliment?
Brendan: Our fans are so wildly dedicated I’d say it would be an insult to say anything other than “of course we’re a cult band” and “of course it’s a compliment!” We have the best fans in the world, and hey, if some song on Skeleton Coast somehow propels us into fame in a time where no one likes rock and roll anymore and we’re all in our 40s besides, and we have to reject our status as a cult band, we’ll deal with it then, but for now, happy to be a cult band for sure.
PRT: If you were forced – at gunpoint – to come up with a kind of re-styling for The Lawrence Arms, what kind of band would it become?
Brendan: Hip hop. Beastie Boys-esque. No doubt about it at all.