Words & Photo By Scott Murry
When speaking with Brendan Kelly of Brendan Kelly And The Wandering Birds, he is quick to downplay any laurels of success. “You mentioned bands putting out [some] amazing thing and then coasting on it for 30 years,” he begins. “I was fortunate enough to not do anything that was that good, so hey! I’m still learning and evolving this whole thing.”
Kelly is a modest man with creative juices constantly flowing through his bones. On the heels of a retrospective release and vast tour with another of his many bands, The Lawrence Arms, his second full-length with The Wandering Birds, Keep Walkin’ Pal, hit the streets in October 2018 via Red Scare Industries. Taking a left turn out of the punk rock parking lot, the sound of Keep Walkin’ Pal is exhibit A of a writer undeterred by preconceptions. “It’s all the path of maturity, for lack of a better term, that I’m on,” he explains. “I absolutely take the lessons I learn from a Lawrence Arms record [and] apply it to a [The] Falcon record or Wandering Birds record. The Wandering Birds is always a learning process.”
When spinning the new tracks—on which Kelly worked closely with lifelong friend Nick Martin—the listener is slapped, charmed, and soothed by the odd collection of lyrics and instrumentation. Referring to their second single, when Martin asked Kelly what he was thinking for the vibe of the song, he replied, “Whatever you’re thinking I’m thinking, do the exact opposite.” According to Kelly, he “was really trying to [get] experimental with the notion of cramming a bunch of disparate shit into a bag.”
Kelly’s signature gravelly voice opens Keep Walkin’ Pal alongside the slowly-strummed acoustic riffs of the title track, a confessional song that blooms into Americana-themed tones with shakers, slow bass, and anthemic drum beats. It’s vaguely similar to the band’s first release, 2012’s I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever, until hitting the second track, “Shitty Margarita,” a song conceived while road-tripping to Michigan with Martin. “‘I can’t wait to get out of these woods and into a small town where I can get a shitty Margarita,’” Kelly recalls saying, followed by the epiphany, “‘Holy shit! That’s a song!’ I wrote all the words right there in the shotgun seat, before we even got our shitty margaritas. So, it was born out of a moment.” The track introduces keyboards, shredding tambourines, and sunny backup vocals to the classically wry Kelly lyrics. It’s a fun, odd ditty.
Kelly attributes some of the album’s wildest musical turns to Martin. “He’s like one of these virtuosos who plays everything,” he says. “He was always this wacky genius. He had this FourTrack when we were 11 years old. We’d go over to his house, he’d play the bass and guitar, I would sing, and he’s always had this knack for music and melody. Chris [McCaughan] from the The Lawrence Arms, he, Nick, and I played music all through middle school and high school—just, like, never for anybody, just ourselves.”
While recording with Martin wasn’t entirely new territory, the duo took a new approach compared to Kelly’s previous projects. “I would lay my vocals down and do guitars, then he would come back with this track [where he] just kept adding these pops of candy,” Kelly says. “In a weird way, it was a lot like being Ariana Grande or some shit, where I would write the song, and then, I wait around, and it would come back ready to sing.”
Before they hit the studio, Kelly’s writing process resembled an artist with a sketchbook. “For this record, I filled an entire moleskin, both sides, in tiny handwriting in order to get 24 minutes,” he says. “I’d write all these things, and if they didn’t come together right away, I’d be like, ‘Fuck this, I’m done. I’ll write something else.’ I try not to overthink it too much. That shit is so complex in its simplicity.”
The musical concepts uniquely blend ’90s hip hop and small yipping dog loops, then interject deep booms of club bass. “The point of view is hedonistic, nihilistic, and that sort of informed the sound,” Kelly says.
Keep Walkin’ Pal creates a celebratory kind of debauchery—but that does not mean you should offer Kelly margaritas at every show or come adorned in Jimmy Buffet-esque Parrothead gear. Just let the man have his funny song and leave the margs at the bar.