The Lawrence Arms have dodged major labels during their career, instead rounding the circuit of independent punk rock labels. They’ve toured and created music on their terms, without hopping into the pop-punk circle jerk of MTV’s TRL days. They don’t have “hits.” Furthermore, Chris McCaughan (guitar/ co-vocals) pans the idea of a hits album, “When I think greatest hits, I think of The Eagles. Not that I would ever want to be caught dead having to sit around listening to The Eagles greatest hits.” With TLA releasing their career retrospective We Are The Champions Of The World on March 30th via Fat Wreck Chords he reflects, “A greatest hits album is a sort of hilarious concept for a lot of bands, but particularly for bands where that metric doesn’t entirely qualify.” Modest words for sure, but TLA present this collection as an evolutionary tale of their nearly 20 years together. Speaking via phone and email across Chicago and Portland, Oregon, we dug into their psyche.
How did you go about creating this collection?
Brendan Kelly (bass / co-vocals): “An Evening of Extraordinary Circumstances” set the template. That was our first song. “Turnstiles” pushed us more into that direction. We explored more of an airy side of our potential. With songs like “On With The Show,” I started to explore the more aggressive stuff to ehhh… pummel … the listener, for lack of a better term? More recent stuff like “Slowest Drink” or “Seventeener,” are a synthesis of that.”
CM: It’s a cool snap shot of history of our band and songs that represent that life span. I think it’s a mix of stuff that people that like Lawrence Arms that are regarded as iconic Lawrence Arms songs … I should be careful using a word like “iconic,” but the essential tracks. And mixing in other things that represent some of the different looks and time periods of this band so you get a retrospective of where we started—where we’ve been.
Are any songs tough to go back to emotionally?
BK: Writing songs is a really therapeutic way to work through those kind of issues and thoughts. I remember “Evening of Extraordinary Circumstances,” [as] a perfect example of something I wrote when I was in a very bleak space, but I don’t necessarily go back to that mindframe when I hear or think about those songs. It’s almost like a victory lap when I play them now. If you get through that shit, you can get through anything. I don’t really try to harbor those dark emotions and stuff like that. A big part of the impetus for my songwriting is to jettison those emotions and turn them into something that’s worth a shit as opposed to soul pulling them.
CM: I don’t mean for this to sound quite so cheesy, but I feel fortunate that I get to play music with my oldest friends. We’ve been in this band for almost 20 years, we’ve gotten to do incredible stuff, go to incredible places and play these songs together. My experience of playing these songs now is more of a celebration of having been in this band so long. You’re a family, and that’s a really cool feeling. When we play these songs I don’t attach myself so much to the origin of how I felt or what I was writing about so specifically. I think what’s interesting about being a songwriter is that you get to make stuff of the moment. That’s the catharsis. I don’t find myself tying my emotions [of] what I was writing about into performing the music. I would also note there are definitely songs I wrote at various low points on the graph of time, and I actually think it’s cool to listen to them [now] and be like, “Oh, it’s interesting that that’s what came out of me at a time that I know was particularly challenging or tough for whatever reasons.”
To play “100 Resolutions” now, it doesn’t have the same feeling that it did then, but there are so many other things to notice. It takes my mind into other places. Time has a funny way of bringing out or making me notice other things.
That makes sense—you change as artists. There’s the line in “Metropole” of “Don’t hold onto the way everything was.” Lawrence Arms aren’t stuck in liberty spikes.
CM: Although it would be pretty good if the Lawrence Arms next record was just all of us with liberty spikes. No, but I know what you’re saying and I agree. The goal is to make stuff regardless of specific borders.
You evolve as a band. What’s the magic sauce, do you still like each other?
Neil Hennessey (drums): We do still like each other! We’re still writing/rehearsing/recording/respecting songs very similar to how we always have. Maybe we’re not recording demos to a Roland digital 8-track and mixing down to cassette tapes anymore, but the general process is the same. Brendan and Chris have a great dialogue on lyrical themes and song structures. Which keys are the best to sing in, etc. After they separately demo some tunes, they send them to me with lyric sheets. I’ll listen and write drum parts in my head until we practice next. In the practice space we figure out all of the intro/outro’s, final keys of songs, finalize bridges, basically iron out all of the transitions.
CM: Yes. I definitely still like those guys. Any relationship, any partnership, any band, or basketball team or whatever you are in goes through ups and downs. Times where things are maybe not as fun, or not as easy, or whatever, that’s just the nature of doing anything. Those guys are like my family, I’ve known them forever. I’m sure I’ve had times where they’ve annoyed the shit out of me, and I can promise you that I’ve annoyed them. But the reality is that we’re like family, and I feel really fortunate that we still have this—to be able to do this. It’s still fun to hang out and play shows. I think the magic component is that you have to do you, and write your own story as much as possible. As soon as you start letting people dictate how you do things or why you do things, then I think that’s when you get into trouble. I think what’s unique of Lawrence Arms is that even if we weren’t doing anything, I would still feel like I was in this band. I kinda feel like I’ll always be in TLA.
BK: Well yeah. That’s huge. I still love and respect the shit out of those two guys. And I would hope that they’d say the same thing about me. I’m sure at least in public at least they would. That’s a very crucial thing. All our friendships have evolved, we’ve gone through a lot of different phases. A lot of twists and turns over the years. We’ve been friends longer than we’ve been a band, and we’ve been a band for fuckin’ ever. The other thing is; those guys are good man. And they keep getting better and better, so that pushes me to wanna get better and better. I hope I do that for them as well. It’s like when Chris brings in a song, I think “Ffffuck, I have to write songs this good now.” And that’s important for me. It’s not a competitive thing. You bring your “A” game, to inspire other people to bring their “A” game, so you don’t look like a dipshit in the process. That’s a key component. We are real students of songcraft—what works and what doesn’t work. We take that kinda shit very seriously. We are all cognizant of the fact that it’s real easy to become a bad band. You gotta put in the diligence, to make sure that what you’re creating is worth hearing and it’s not just playing to an echochamper, or worse just playing to yourself and nobody listening.
You wanna be treading new territory.
BK: When you’re young there’s no expectation. That can be freeing and can also very stifling. When you get older … there’s only so many songs in me, man. You know what I mean? There’s not like a fucking magic fountain that I keep going to that produces these songs. It’s all finite. When I was 25, I’d written, generously, like 100 songs. That’s like a total of maybe an hour’s worth of my experiences rehashed in various ways. And as I get older I mind more and more of what my psyche holds and what my relationship with humanity involves. It gets to a point where this territory is beyond well-tread. It’s like re-tread. To me, I very much like to perspectivize how I’m feeling and where I’m at now where it differs from where I was before. That’s the mental part of the sonic evolution.
Drums can drive a punk sound—how have you thought about composing your section with each album? Any big changes from 1999 to now?
NH: During the early years of The Lawrence Arms, I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I just played what I felt and tried to hit as hard as possible. Listening back now, I can hear all the syncopations I missed. Once we started recording at Atlas (Matt Allison) I started to care more about how I was lining up with Chris and Brendan’s instruments. In part because the studio sounded better and I could actually hear what was going on. Then we signed to Fat Wreck Chords (’01). Listening to all the bands on Fat at that time, it was apparent that the drummers were pretty damn good. So I became a little more thoughtful and tried to tighten up my sound. Another big change came after I joined the Smoking Popes (’08). The Popes have three brothers playing guitars and bass, so their timing and sense of musicianship is very particular. It was a great learning experience for me. The first Lawrence Arms recording after I joined the Popes was Buttsweat and Tears (’09). I like that recording a lot. It’s tight and loud. Metropole was similar to BS&T, but becomes a little more subdued at points.
What does the hourglass logo represent?
NH: The realization that time goes by quickly, and the best way to spend that time is to be with good friends and loved ones. To find the things in this world that make us feel like we’re getting the most out of life before it ends. It will end sooner rather than later.
Do you see the band creating new material in 10 years, 20 years?
BK: As long as we’re all alive, and have something to say. I wouldn’t feel bad about making music in thirty years from now and calling it the Lawrence Arms, and it would be just as important to me then. The idea of ending the band is much more of a personnel issue. As long as we all fuckin’ like and respect each other, there’s no reason to ever put a cap on something like that.
Looking back on tours, any awkward memories?
CM: Um, I mean … Brendan and I slept together in a bed in an Italian truckstop, that was probably the size of like a small futon. [We were] like, “Oh yeah, this is the double room.” So yeah, we’ve had some close quarters over time. But let’s be honest, man, I’m close to perfect, those guys are essentially flawless (laughs). We are ultimately the perfect band—that’s why we put out this perfect record and we’re gonna do some perfect tours alongside it.
Catch The Lawrence Arms on tour w/ Red City Radio and Sincere Engineer:
4/04 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
4/05 – Garwood, NJ @ Crossroads
4/06 – Lancaster, PA @ Chameleon Club
4/07 – Baltimore, MD @ Soundstage
4/08 – Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts
4/09 – New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
4/10 – Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
4/11 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
4/12 – Chicago, IL @ Metro
4/27 – Seattle, WA @ El Corazon
4/28 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
4/30 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill
5/01 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill
5/03 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
5/04 – San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
5/05 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
5/06 – Denver, CO @ Oriental Theater