Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds

Brendan Kelly can be called many things but, "unproductive," is not one of them. Kelly has been recording music since the age of 10, touring in bands since high school, appeared on dozens of albums and somewhere found time to graduate college. Now, Kelly leads a bit more formatted lifestyle but has managed to stay productive and connected, first through his blog (The Bad Sandwich Chronicles) and more recently with a short film (The Spirit of Transparency) and the release of his solo debut, I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever. Older, darker and perhaps a bit wiser, Kelly makes a notable departure from the style he popularized with The Lawrence Arms and delves into creepier, more diverse territory.

Somewhere between juggling a million tasks (and two children), Kelly sat down to talk with Punknews Editor Rich Verducci about the new album, what it's like to be a dad and why there are so many dudes jacking off on Chat Roulette.

Thanks for joining us the day after St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t know if you’re Irish but I assume most of Chicago celebrates.
You know it’s strange. My name is "Brendan Kelly" so presumably I’m extremely Irish. Except my dad told me just a couple months ago like, "You know we’re not Irish". So, I just found this out. I’m 35 years old and I just found out maybe two months ago.

Did your dad know or was it a revelation to him, as well?
That is totally unclear at this point. Me and my brother, Ryan Kelly, were hanging out with my dad and he goes, "So you guys know we’re not Irish, right?" And we had always just assumed with names like Brendan and Ryan Kelly that we were Irish as shit. I mean, if you look at me I guess it’s pretty obvious [I’m not]. Regardless, I don’t do that shit. I’m not going out and dressing in green and acting a fool. I’m a dad and shit. I don’t have time for St. Patrick’s Day.

So let’s talk about the new album you have coming out. It’s called I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever, it’s out on Red Scare. It’s taken a while and taken a few different twists, so would you like to run everybody through that?
Yeah, it was a weird process. For one thing, I feel the need to have a little disclaimer at the beginning. I don’t want to sit around and bemoan my fate as a father of two but my entire life before used to revolve around trying to make music. When I wasn’t on tour I’d wake up in the morning and sit around all day and just write songs. Or I’d try to general go out and attempt to put myself into situations where I’d be inspired. That was it. That was my job, it was the whole reason I could pay my rent. It was something I could focus my entire being on.

Since I’ve had kids it’s obviously not like that at all. It’s a rare treat that I get to sit down and play the guitar and attempt to bang something out. The whole song writing process for this record took place over a really, really long period of time. Two years ago I finally got together with two of the guys who actually mixed the record and engineered some of it and recorded the first song, which happened to be "The Man With the Passion of Tennessee Williams". That came out really well, to me. I felt like, "I got all these weird songs that are very different and I think can put this record together." I recorded four songs in Denver with Eric Hallberg and Sean Ashtrom and it just took forever, because Eric is a stoner and Sean is a really busy dude. It just took absolutely forever for fucking anything to get done.

So eventually, I just enlisted my really old friend Nick Martin, who was actually the first person I ever recorded music with, way back when I was 10 years old. He was the first person I ever collaborated with creatively, and we banged out the rest of the songs at Atlas. But, yeah, it was a long twisty process for sure.

So how long has this been in the making, around three years or so?
This record might be three years in the making. It’s crazy to think about but I think I wrote the first song maybe three years ago and the last song was fairly recent. It has been a long process.

Especially ,when you consider that against the first two Lawrence Arms albums that were almost done at the same time.
The thing with the first two Lawrence Arms records was I had songs and we kind of started a band based on the fact that I had songs. Once Chris joined the band…I mean, Chris is an awesome song writer and a vastly better singer than I am. So as soon he was in the band, he had all these songs and those records just spilled out, because I already had a record, we started a band and made that record. Then, Chris joined and was like, "Hey, I got some punk rock songs too," so those records came out within six months of each other. But, I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again, to me that’s kind of a regrettable thing. We were very young and excited and we didn’t expect this band to do much of anything. So, the fact that we have 25 songs that should essentially be demos is fine [Laughs] but I think it brings our batting average down pretty far.

Not to focus on the Lawrence Arms, but since you mentioned it, does it ever bum you out when someone comes up and says one of the songs off A Guided Tour [of Chicago] or Ghost Stories and goes, "That’s my favorite song"?
No not really, because first of all that never fucking happens. [Laughs] It’s not a big problem that I need to face. But one of my all time favorite records is Fifteen Buzz because at the time and place it just hit me. That record is poorly recorded, poorly performed, hastily thought out. It’s just this sloganeering, out of tune mess and I love it and it’s very important to me. I understand that the way people like music doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what that music is. If I’m fortunate enough to provide that kind of experience to anyone, that’s so fucking awesome. That’s why we do it, man. [Laughs] I got into this because music made me feel so good and it’s such an awesome chance. I mean, this is such a public relations answer, I apologize but it’s really true.

So, with the new album, there’s a very dark tone that sort of emanates through it, even on the songs that may not sound dark in the tone or melody. Was there a planned out thought process through it all, or is that just what was appealing to you at the time?
For better or for worse, this record is super conceptual. I think it’s the only way I really know how to work anymore. But…[Laughs] It’s dark man. Like, when the brain gets squeezed and put into a box. I mean, I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I grew up, I never suffered as a child. I wasn’t poor. I got to go to cool schools. When I got out of school, I made money playing in a band. I’ve never had any sort of reasponsibilities or dealt with "the real world" at all.

Now, suddenly, I’m in a totally different position, where I’m constantly concerned about money. I’m concerned about the safety of my neighborhood and all this kind of stuff. This whole thing is very multifaceted and I’m going to try to not be long winded about this but I don’t think that’s possible. On one hand my brain or persona or soul, whatever you want to call it, has been put under constraints for the first time in my life. When you constrain something the way that it lashes out can be pretty dark and these are some weird, twisted fever dreams in response to the fact that I can’t be a spoiled baby anymore and do whatever the fuck I want. On the other hand, once I had kids, the whole idea of singing songs about hanging with your homies and drinking beer…First of all, it’s tired as shit. Everybody sings those fucking songs. Second of all, it doesn’t have anything to do with my life. I was sort of struggling as a father of two with, what do I do? I mean I still like to cut it up here and there but what do I have to say that anyone would give a fuck about? I recalled this old interview I read with Billie Joe Armstrong where he said he knew he was writing good lyrics if the content made him nervous. Some of the themes I explored with this album, which are these sort of dark, twisted pulpy themes and these really twisted pervy characters…as a dad, nothing makes me more nervous than creepy predators.

So, I wrote the record from that perspective but I don’t want to completely divorce the content of the record from my own mind. Obviously, I don’t go hunting dudes who cruise the parks for anonymous, gay sex. I don’t kill those people, it’s just not something I do. [Laughs] At the same time, that kind of dark work is really fascinating to me. There’s a reference in "Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me" that’s really just about this Al Pacino movie called Cruising.

The movie that came out in the late 70s [Note: it was actually 1980, which can be considered the 70s]?
Yeah. It’s a fucked up movie. And that’s the whole thing. I don’t know if you remember the scene but in the movie Al Pacino is an undercover cop trying to solve this murder mystery that’s going on in the gay cruising scene. At one point he’s standing around and he’s got a yellow handkerchief hanging out of his pocket and some guy comes up to him and says something to the effect of, "you like water sports?" and Pacino’s like, "I just like to watch," and the guy says, "Then get the fucking handkerchief out of your pocket!"

I woke up like really hungover on this floor in Germany and that movie was on and I saw that scene and I was like, "Wow, this is so fascinating." That’s pretty much the whole thing, "On an old dirty mattress with stains and yellow scarves, I start out watching but I get so hard," it’s just this bloodlust temptation to get involved with this seedy dark side. That’s sort of what it is. As I become more and more domesticated against my will, for lack of a better term, the things that have become fascinating to me are just so much darker, just keep myself centered and keep from becoming Rick Santorum. [Laughs]

I don’t think I’ve ever worried about you becoming like Rick Santorum.
[Laughs] I hope not. That’d be a weird thing for you to worry about, regardless. But, my point is just that I used to find titillation from just getting wasted and throwing a beer bottle off a roof or whatever. Now, weird creepy scenes in Cruising are a little more fascinating to me because…I don’t fucking know. I feel like I’m talking myself into a goddamn corner. [Laughs] To summarize, a lot of dark twisted shit happens when you sit around the house watching "Dora the Explorer" all day. The mind goes to some weird places.

As you mentioned being a parent, is there anything on this album that you worry your kids one day finding and you have to explain it to them?
No and that’s sort of exactly what I’m saying, if something made me nervous, I knew it was worth doing. Those are the exact reasons they would make me nervous but I feel like I can’t live that way and I can’t be a creative person, worrying about constraints like that.

It’s sort of like the movie Private Parts, where Howard Stern has that revelation the day he talks about finding his wife’s miscarriage in the toilet, on the air. That’s something where you’re going to go home and your wife is going to ask, "Seriously, that’s what you’re talking about on the radio?" It’s fucked up but it’s that realization that when you do something that does make you nervous and is scary that it’s worth doing. I’ve done many things on this earth that I’m never going to have to sit down and explain to my kids. If I’m going to have to sit down and explain, "Uh, son, I’ve never hung a handkerchief out of my pocket and attempted to have anonymous sex with dudes in the park." If that’s the worst of my problems, I’m doing fine.

I wanted to ask about "Ramblin Revisited" it is clearly connected to "Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure". And in keeping with the tone of the album is a bit dark, how did that come about?
The thing about that song, is very specifically a response to "Rambling Boys of Pleasure". I don’t do any drugs, except alcohol, but I don’t get high. We were in Europe, on this really long drive and for some reason I smoked a hit of weed, which again I really don’t do. The reason I don’t do it is because I clam up and get really self conscious and weird. So I took this hit and clammed up and got really self conscious and weird. I just took a pad and a piece of paper and I just started writing what I was thinking and that’s how the song "Rambling Boys of Pleasure" came about. It was just me freaking the fuck out, while being under the influence of something I’m not used to being under the influence of.

That song came to represent to me, that sort of unabashed freedom that I mentioned earlier. I have no regulations, I have no one to answer to and I play guitar for a job. Just totally fucking awesome and I might be ruining the rest of my future but for now we’re…[Laughs] we’re the rambling boys of pleasure. It’s all about the bottom line and the bottom line is having fun.

Here I am like 10 years later and I’m like, "Whew…Yeah, that might not have been such a good idea." [Laughs] But, I’m stuck doing it because I don’t know how to do anything else. More to the point, who the fuck is going to want me to do something else? You look me up on Wikipedia and it says I’m known for my, "drunken demeanor" and that’s not the most employable internet presence. That song is sort of from the perspective of old hobos living in a train yard like, "We don’t know what else to do but this is all we’ve ever known. This is kind of what we’re still doing, because we chose this path when we were young and we didn’t think of anything else."

That’s what I do, I just keep rambling on, I don’t even want pleasure anymore. Do I ever feel like that? Of course I do, but at the same time it’s not depressing. It’s just one facet of getting older. I have an awesome family and good friends, it’s nice to wake up and know where I am. It’s nice to do a little more clean living. It’s not always dark, but that is something I contend with for sure.

I know you don’t do a lot of touring with The Lawrence Arms and there’s various reasons for that, are you hoping to tour for this album?
I’m putting together a band right now for a show that we have coming up and yeah, I’d love to take this on the road. Short answer, yeah, I’d love to do it. It’s just that the bottom line is such an issue to me at this point. I can tour with The Lawrence Arms, which is a band that people like and they’ll pay to see and that’s a three piece. There’s a certain justification for leaving my family and going to do that. I stay home with my kids during the day, so when I leave [to tour] it costs money. So to go out with a band that no one gives a shit about and will need to be at least four, if not five people becomes a little more problematic.

I’m definitely going to make it happen. We will play some shows. I don’t know how much extensive touring we’re going to do. The truth is, if people like this stuff, we’ll make it happen. If nobody cares, I’m going to go out to bust my ass and attempt to win people over. I’ll give people what they want, I guess.

So, it’s not like when you’re 18 or 19 and go out and you hope to win over two or three people a night, that’s not the goal here.
No. I said this to my wife when I started to make this record and it started becoming earnest, like, "Alright, I’m going to have to book some studio time and do some shit to make this record." I explained that this [record] is like an art project to me. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this before. It’s very conceptual and whether or not the end result sounds like it, this was a very meticulous record to put together. From the content to the instrumentation…I don’t know how to put it a different way. This is just art project, I guess. So that’s the most important thing, just that the record exists. I will do absolutely as much as people want me to do, if there’s a demand for it.

You’ve mentioned previously that this record isn’t what you think people will expect and have made a point of noting that it’s certainly not the more Chuck Ragan, folk punk style that people are used to from former punk front men. Are you more nervous or excited to see how people react to the unusual sound?
First of all, if people don’t like it, they don’t like it. I mean, what the fuck am I gonna do? [Laughs] But, I’m stoked to put out a solo record that is not, "Me sitting on my porch with some whiskey and my dog," hillbilly revival shit that has nothing to do with my reality. And I want to very overtly state that is not a dig at Chuck. I think Chuck is a brilliant dude. He’s one of the most talented singers and songwriters I’ve ever seen perform. The motherfucker grew up in the Deep South and he is every bit the guy that he comes across as in those albums… But, I am not.

I mean, I’m not Chuck Ragan, at all. I’m not going to pretend to be. There’s a little part of me that gets a little thrill that people probably expect this to be one of those tepid, Chuck Ragan trajectory retreads and that’s really not what this is at all. This is a record about growing up in a city and slumming through the alleyways to find pretty questionable drugs. [Laughs] That’s more the kind of things I grew up seeing.

Out of what you write, how much of it do you think gets stored away, or scrapped?
Uhm…99%. I write just a huge amount. Since I’ve started trying to put together something for a new Lawrence Arms record I’ve written around 35 pages in the last 12 days and of those I have maybe one song that I think is good.

Do you just throw away the rest or do you hold on to it and hope to come back to it?
It all exists. I have like journals and journals of it stacked up. So much of it is embarrassing, because it’s so hard to push through your own bullshit to get to the point where you’re raw and honest and can sing something people want to hear. The biggest problem is your own soul and your own emotions and feelings. I say this all the time and I hock this book like I wrote it but Death in Vience by Thomas Mann is a treatise on what you need to do to write something that’s worth a shit. Basically, you need to be completely fucking detached.

I would like to answer this part of the question with an anecdote. Back in the day, my good friend, and rock n’ roll personality, Matt Skiba (Alkaline Trio) played drums in a band called The Traitors. They were trying out a new vocalist and this one dude came in and they told him, "We’re going to play this song and you sing," and the song was really fast. The Traitors were this really awesome, snotty punk rock band. They start playing this song and it just ends on a dime [imitates song stopping] and the guy is just like, "You broke my heart you fucking bitch," into the silence of the practice space room. That’s just a little too heart on your sleeve. That is the exact, overly sentimental, overly schmaltzy shit that just doesn’t fly when you’re trying to put together a piece of music. That’s the hardest thing for me to get past.

Sounds like you‘re incredibly hard on yourself.
Well, I like to have exacting standards but who’s to say? A lot of people would say the music I write is very happy. I couldn’t really disagree. I can only adhere to my own standards and they’re very specific and weird but to other people that shit could be totally lazy. Really when it comes to writing, once you can have a sense of humor of what you’re doing and look at it from an objective prospective and see that it may be pathetic and not just self righteous, that’s when you’re kinda getting somewhere. At least, that’s when I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Not like it’s some kind of fucking masterpiece but when we were putting together Buttsweat and Tears….[Laughs] it seems wrong to use the word, "masterpiece" and the phrase "Buttsweat and Tears" in the same sentence. But, I was having a ton of trouble writing the songs for that record but when I wrote the first lines for the song "Demons," which is, "I got too drunk at your wedding and my voice got loud," it was just, to me, so refreshingly out there. I felt like, "There, that’s the cadence you need." You got to get rid of all the schmaltzy sentimentality and get to the heart of it. That’s what’s interesting.

In addition to the new album, one of the things you’ve become known for is your blog, Bad Sandwich Chronicles. I was curious how that came about and how you feel about its growth? I mean, Punknews has even covered it for certain news stories.
The blog started because I have a sort of an obsessive compulsive tendency to create things. Which is why I write so much stuff just trying to put together a record. I just need to constantly be pumping this shit out. Once my first kid was born, I didn’t have the time to just sit around and write music. Especially because the only time I have to play the guitar is when they’re sleeping and I can’t really play the guitar because they’re fucking sleeping. So I started writing and I thought some people would read it and it may be cool. I say a lot of stupid, knee jerky reaction things on there and I thought that might create a bit of a stir. I’m pretty much just super happy that people like it. It’s a fun exercise and it forces me to think when I don’t want to think. And I know I give the internet a lot of shit but having a public forum to discuss important matters, like, "How come all those guys are beating off on Chat Roulette," is really invaluable. [Laughs]

I just don’t know what they’re going for. Do you think when the two dicks meet…Like this guy is just jacking off and it’s just dick and this guy is jacking off and it’s just dick, when they see each other do they just jack off or do they pass through? Are they just like, "Yes, you! You know what I’m feeling!" I hope that’s what happens. Then I’d understand completely, "oh yeah Chat Roulette, that’s where dudes go to jack off at each other."

That has got to be the only purpose behind it. But, in terms of the blog, does it bother you when it gets reported as news? Not to be to inverted but like when Punknews reports on it and we take a paragraph out and that’s what it gets boiled down to?
One of the only things that bothers me, is when a site, like Punknews, repurposes my blog to state a very specific agenda. So, I’ll use a very specific example. I wrote something about how I think journalists are inherently lazy. It comes down to SOPA and PIPA and all that and my opinion was, "Oh, now all these journalists are crying because we’re asking them to self-regulate. Fuck you man, music became free a long time ago and you didn’t hear people crying and moaning about it then." Suddenly, I get repurposed on Punknews as the counterpoint to Joe fucking Escalante, who’s a lawyer and a bull fighter for that matter. I never said I was pro-SOPA or pro-PIPA. I said journalists were lazy dickheads and it bummed me out. Everybody is cool, until it comes and shits on your lawn, and then it’s fucking outrage. Just to be lumped in with anti-piracy campaigners like Lars Ulrich and all that is just a fucking bummer.

I understand what the deal was, it’s because I took Punknews to task for what I saw as a very lazy stance of being anti-SOPA or PIPA. It’s like you fuck with someone, they’re gonna fuck you back and sometimes it’s dirty tactics. That’s the one thing that has pissed me off the most about the blog because I feel like it’s very disingenuous.

One of the other things you’re known for is doing bios for bands on Red Scare and Fat [Wreck Chords]. Currently, I have yet to see a press bio for Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, so I’m going to give you the last bit here to sell readers on this album.
You know what’s funny, I just had to rewrite the bio for the Lawrence Arms for Fat and I told them that I wasn’t sure I could do it, because it’d be really weird. They were just like, "Well, we have no one else, so you gotta do it." [Laughs] So I had to rewrite that bio, which was totally weird and this is even weirder, because it’s just me.

I feel like this is a weird art project. It took me like three years to figure out and I put together this weird cast of characters from all over the country to help record it. We got all the right people for the job, we got to work with a bunch of virtuoso musicians. It was mixed by a weird stoner rock dude and a guy who makes Euro dance music. It’s definitely the most bizarre departure from anything I’ve ever done. [Laughs] I’m not sure if that’s a real selling point.