Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms: "If you're not writing enough, your stuff is garbage."
Ben Pier 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.
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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.