INTERVIEW: The Lawrence Arms

“You have to find those pieces of joy where you can, whether it’s love or that little sandwich from Burger King you like.”

INTERVIEW: The Lawrence Arms

By Tom Walsh

Aug 11, 2020 17:46

“What’s new?”, Brendan Kelly responds incredulously. “Nothing,” he wearily continues. “There’s nothing going on, man. There’s probably been no time in history where that has been a more accurate statement.”

Amid the seemingly endless tedium, The Lawrence Arms have released a new record. It’s their seventh in an over 20-year career, and the first one they’ve recorded away from their native Chicago. Titled ‘Skeleton Coast’, its name is inspired by a stretch of shoreline hugging Namibia – known to the local people as “The Land God Made in Anger”, while sailors simply dubbed it “The Gates of Hell”.

This desolate expanse is frequently blanketed in thick fog, whilst treacherous currents and rough seas drag marine life and vessels to their fate. What’s left in the ocean’s wake are decaying carcasses of beast and machine, unable to escape the relentless energy of the surf, and its notoriety felt apt for a nihilistic punk band from Chicago.

“It [‘Skeleton Coast’] seemed like a really rich metaphor for how the world is,” Kelly pauses before, in a rueful tone, adds, “a lot of dead things”.

The Lawrence Arms’ own interpretation of the lashing waves of the Atlantic can be found in the dusty, wide-open desert of West Texas where they chose to record. A landscape where the scavenger is king, and the only noise that pierces the vacuum is the howl of the coyote, and while it may seem like an inspired decision to not only set a record on these blood-orange horizons, but also to record it in the remote city of El Paso, Kelly admits it was more dumb luck.

“I would love to say that we set out to make a record about desolate zones and scavengers, packing it with references to foxes, wolves, coyotes, and whales, and record it in the middle of fucking nowhere, but none of it was planned, it just happened,” he wryly admits.

There was no grand plan, no great vision – just three friends attempting to blow each other’s minds with new material. A “shitty Days Inn” with a glistening swimming pool lying by the I-10 highway appealed, and Kelly, guitarist Chris McCaughan, and drummer Neil Hennessey converged from each corner of the US to the dust bowl of Texas.

A record six years in the making often betrays a long, drawn-out process. One in which inspiration was carefully drawn from the world around the artists. “I don’t totally believe in inspiration,” Kelly laughs. “I think it’s more like you just have to do it. I think it’s the fallacy of anybody that purports to be an artist saying they need inspiration to strike. You’re not an artist, an artist just goes out and creates something.”

Swapping the often-suffocating metropolis of their hometown of Chicago for sparse expanses of desert, the record brings with it that sense of isolation. Like many of us, Kelly has been confined to his home in Chicago, spending days waking up to a cacophony of bad news and feeling like he’s watching the world fall apart before his eyes.

“It’s very isolating being alone in a city. The world is still fucked, Donald Trump is still our president. This is the end of the world, and I’m just sitting here waiting it out. I ask myself, ‘Where can I find a little bit of joy, where are the moments I can squeeze some joy out of this?’” he explains.

While Kelly may be perceived to have a nihilistic take on life, he is – deep down – an optimistic soul, which is why The Lawrence Arms occupy such a defined place in the pantheon of punk rock. They have a patient fanbase – fans who are willing to give them a six-year long absence – as they know that they will return with a worthy addition to the back catalogue Kelly is fiercely proud of.

Much like the scavengers prowling the plains of El Paso, Kelly believes that this current moment in time is about being able “find the little pieces of joy”, wherever they may be. “The record is about acknowledging that you’re fucked, and asking yourself what you’re going to do about it. The default setting is malaise or wilful ignorance, and you can exist in that state but you notice when you’re truly happy.

“The little things and always the biggest things. You find pieces of joy – whether that’s love or a sandwich from Burger King. The world’s burning, so what else are you going to do? I’m going down to get this little fucking sandwich, and eat this piece of garbage because it makes me happy.”

It’s maybe a simplistic way of looking at life but, as Kelly argues, being consumed by hate isn’t going to accomplish anything. “Hate just isn’t a powerful tool,” he tells me. “Anger is a powerful tool but hate isn’t productive. You have nothing to lose, do your thing to make it better for you and other people.”

This kind of worldview makes ‘Skeleton Coast’ an oddly comforting record. It’s one that makes us dare to believe things could be better, or we just make the best of a situation none of us can really change. A message delivered by a band such as the Lawrence Arms, ensuring that Kelly lives out his mission of not being one of those “old bands that people remember for being cool way back when”.

“I’m just relieved we wrote a record that is still relevant in this time”, he laughs, before pausing and adding with an air of resignation, “I don’t know man, we’ve just gotta keep powering through”.


‘Skeleton Coast’ is out now on Epitaph Records.