The Lawrence Arms are a group of proud Chicago natives — Brendan Kelly, Chris McCaughan, and Neil Hennessy — with a rich history (whether they admit to it or not) in and of themselves. They’re heading out on tour across North America and Europe over the next couple of months, for the first time in a while, since the three bandmates are now scattered across the U.S., working on solo projects, and raising families. Although, they never lost their punk rock, DIY mentality. Music is who they are, and as you’ll read below, they adore doing what they do and how they do it. I spoke with Kelly, bassist and vocalist of the band, and got a bit more knowledge on how The Lawrence Arms work, how they came to be, and what is in store for the world after they tour the globe.
Here’s a scenario: It’s 1999, the three of you come together to form your own band after your previous individual endeavors. Can you break it down for us? How did The Lawrence Arms truly come about?
Well, so, Chris and I have been friends since we were little kids and we have been in bands together for a really long time. We were in a band called The Broadways before, and we were in roommates in a building called The Lawrence Arms. So when The Broadways broke up, Chris said he didn’t know if he wanted to be in a band anymore and I was just sort of flailing. I had been hanging out with Neil, who was in the band Baxter with Tim McIlrath — who is now in Rise Against — so one day I was on the bus coming back from school and I had wrote this song. And it was the first song that The Lawrence Arms actually ended up playing and, in some extraordinary circumstance, it became the first song on our first record.
At that time though, I was like, “Oh! This is the kind of band I want to be in!” I called Neil from a payphone, since it was that long ago, and I said, “Neil, I hear you play the drums. Call me back, I want to change your life.” Or something stupid like that just to be kind of funny and make sure he called me back, and then I told Chris that I would go practice with Neil and he said he would come along. In that first practice, Chris actually played the bass and I played the guitar, then after we got like four songs we were like, “Oh, this is pretty cool! Why don’t we get someone who actually knows how to play guitar?” Because I really don’t know how to play guitar. We switched spots and then I guess the rest is whatever it is!
The rest is history! Listen to that story! In all honesty, that is a good story, because it wasn’t exactly planned, it kind of just fell really well into place.
Yeah, I mean it was really based a lot on, I think…You know, I don’t want to make anything sound any more important than it is, but this is a band that was really just born out of a slight switch up in how we were approaching the whole exercise of making punk rock, you know? I think it was like when I wrote that song and I was like, “Oh! I do really want to be in this kind of band.” I think that once we got together, Chris felt the same way. Then we started building off of that. Not to discount Neil, he is the most talented one out of the three of us by far, but he has always been like, “Yeah, man! I’m down! I’m down for it, let’s go!” You know, I think that the sound lead us rather than us trying to manipulate something from the top down, so it was a cool ride in that regard.
That’s awesome! You guys are big proponents for the DIY concept, which is something that people like us really love and respect. Can you explain why it is so important, both to you and the music scene as a whole, to do it all yourself and in the most honest way possible?
Well, you know, different things work for different people, and I certainly don’t want to discount people that seize opportunities to magnify things or do things in ways that may seem easy. Everything is hard, I mean, it is all perspective, right? For me, I have always felt like there is something much cooler; for example, coming out of Chicago and being a band and representing Chicago; which is underrepresented by nature like most of the world is, I guess.
Anyway, we would rather do that than be one of those groups that would migrate to LA or New York where all the action is. Then you are just swimming upstream against all these other people doing all the same thing, and then you are just another band. But, we have always been a Chicago band; sort of did it our own way and did it ourselves. If you can overcome the obstacles that are inherent in that kind of thing, suddenly there is more to your story than that, and building something yourself is satisfying. You know, like a carpenter or something like that. And I feel that, for me again, personally, if I am going to put my heart and soul into something, I like to be involved with all the aspects of it. I mean, maybe not so much anymore because I am getting old and lazy.
[Laughs] But there is definitely a real certification with DIY. You know what, like, my friends and I wrote these songs, my friends and I designed these shirts, my friends and I put out this record, my friends and I went out and met every single person who listened to this. There is a real satisfaction in that. It is not for everyone, but it is for me. Other people have other strengths, other opportunities, and other methodologies, but I am pretty happy. I would rather be in The Lawrence Arms than any other band in the world.
It is amazing to be able to love what you do and do it so well. Your new album is We Are The Champions Of The World, and it compiles 29 songs of yours from the last two decades — which is amazing — five of which were previously unreleased and will be brand new for your listeners. Why is now the best time to release all of this?
The thing is…that’s a great question. It wasn’t really our idea. It was really Fat Mike’s idea. Mike and The Lawrence Arms have always had a cool relationship and we have always been friends. I love Fat Wreck Chords. We love Fat Wreck Chords. Fat Wreck Chords loves us, I think I can say that safely. So, he hit me up and was like, “Let’s do a greatest hits record. I know you guys aren’t ready to crack out a whole other album, but with the way that people are consuming music these days, why not put all your great songs on one album so that people on Spotify can find something that is representative of your band, instead of them clicking on the wrong thing.”
And I thought that made a lot of sense, but I also feel like it is kind of important to not just repackage the same old stuff and get it out there. We had these old demos and B-side recordings laying around, so it just seemed like time to get it out there if we were to put the effort into making a cool package that is even worth promoting, you know? It is only fair to give people something that they have never experienced before.
Right, absolutely. And what do you want people to take away from We Are The Champions Of The World as a whole?
Man, I don’t know. I hate to be prescriptive about that kind of thing. The way music affects people is so different, like if you want to put that out and have people party and lose their minds, then that is awesome. If people want to put it out and be sad or be motivated or be lazy, then that is also cool. I just like putting stuff out for people to hear it and people to enjoy it, really. I don’t have a profound message about it. I am not trying to leave anybody thinking about anything, man, I am just trying to make music and hang out with people who like listening to it.
Hey, that is awesome! So, I know I was listening to a little bit of Oh, Calcutta! a couple of weeks ago, which is arguably your most well-known and groundbreaking album to date. Its pop culture references are strewn all over, the pace is evidently faster than your previous record The Greatest Story Ever Told, and — from a listener’s perspective — the overall style and composure seems more mature. Do you see that era and the album as a highlight or turning point for the band? What is your take on that album?
Definitely. Like any Lawrence Arms record, there has always been a real evolution from the last one. Before that, every time we had put out a record we had sort of had a full-body blood transfusion of fans. [Laughs] It was like everyone who liked the last one would say, “Oh, I’m not into this,” about the new one, and then we would gather a whole new bunch of fans from that new record.
When we put out Oh, Calcutta! that was when things changed and it made people kind of examine our back catalog with a different lens, I think. It really put us on the map in terms of being a band that, I guess, had a perspective. There are a zillion bands out there. It is really easy to be like one of “those” bands; all those emo bands or punk bands or whatever the hell it is. To suddenly be a band that has a perspective and is like “The Lawrence Arms” as opposed to just one of “those” bands is something that Oh, Calcutta! kind of facilitated for us a bit.
I really do think of that record as an artistic highlight. I really enjoyed making it, it was the most fun that I had ever had in the studio with any project, and I am really stoked and I think that it is crazy that it is 12 years old now. It still seems new and exciting for me, you know, that is the idea I guess; hopefully after a decade it still sounds cool, so I am glad that this one does.
It is an amazing thing to release something and still have it be so relevant, so powerful, and still resonate with people. Now it has been almost two decades of being in the business, six studio albums, five EPs, and a “best-of” album on its way. What do you think has gotten you that far?
I think that is just what happens when A) you believe in the stuff that you are doing and B) you have got good people around to do it with. Those two things are not an easy recipe to cultivate consciously, but when you are lucky enough to fall into it, it is pretty easy to maintain. I think that is the thing — we have never been like a particularly trendy or cool band in the moment, and so we have never had the pressure of having to follow up or riding some kind of wave. We just slowly build and build when it has been right for us and we put out records when we have had something to say, and when we haven’t, we haven’t. The luxury of being able to pace things that way I think has contributed more than anything to our longevity, I would say.
Absolutely! I have one last question to kind of sum up the whole interview. What can we expect after this upcoming tour and album release? Is there any newly recorded music on the horizon?
Well, I have a solo project called Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, so I have been working on that record for the last like year, so that will be the next thing that will be coming out of our kind of camp. But, this is all very exciting and I think that there is some more Lawrence Arms material in the future, but we haven’t really started working on it now. Again, we have been kind of all over the place just trying to get this tour and album together. So once we see how this tour goes, we might dust ourselves off and make something new happen. Again, with no expectations and the ability to do something that you really believe in with people that you really like, of course you’re going do more stuff. We’re just going to have to see how quickly that actually goes down. I don’t know about that just yet, but all in due time.
We Are The Champions Of The World is available now. Catch The Lawrence Arms performing at Crossroads in Garwood, NJ April 5, Chameleon Club in Lancaster, Penn. April 6, Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia April 8, and Gramercy Theatre in New York April 9.