This week, The Lawrence Arms release their new album, Skeleton Coast. We're running interviews with all three of the boys. Today, we're running the first in the series. Punknews' Gen Handley spoke with Chris McCaughan. Check it out below.
The Lawrence Arms Journey to the Skeleton Coast
For The Lawrence Arms, the joys of making a record are just as much about the journey as it is the destination.
“It’s very much about creating something that is genuine and fun and fulfilling to make–and figuring it all out as we go,” says co-vocalist and guitarist Chris McCaughan.
“But I also hope the destination or the record is cool too,” he adds with a laugh.
Since the beginning of 2019, the Chicago band, also known as The Larry Arms to fans, has been on a long journey to the Skeleton Coast, the title of their anticipated seventh album coming out on July 17th via Epitaph Records. McCaughan, who now lives in Portland Oregon, describes the new record as a cohesive collection of short stories and post-apocalyptic “abstract narratives” that take place in a fictional world called the Skeleton Coast where a range of characters reside including an exiled mystery writer on "Ghost Writer” and various animals like mournful whales on "Planes Trains and Automobiles” and howling hungry wolves on "Dead Man's Coat.”
The genesis of this world didn’t occur beforehand, gradually taking place as they wrote the record, coming together in the most organic way possible with the songs being written whenever inspiration naturally struck him and his raspier co-vocalist Brendan Kelly who also plays bass.
“We’re not a band on some cadence where we do things on a regular schedule,” he explains. “We won’t put out a record if we didn’t feel excited about the songs and if it wasn’t compelling in some way. We have never made a record because we felt like we should or it was due. A Lawrence Arms record has to come from somewhere sincere and genuine and not forced.”
If he has to describe the album’s central theme or concept, it’s about the outsider-inhabited, remote world of Skeleton Coast, an idea that was appropriately conceived at the isolated Sonic Ranch Studios, located about 30 miles east of El Paso, Texas. Historically, this is the first record they have made away from the familiar urban turf of their home city. For Skeleton Coast, the band wanted to try recording in a new environment, exploring how that different element would impact the music.
“It was so awesome. We’ve always made our records in Chicago at Atlas (Studios) with Matt Allison and while that’s always been great, it was nice to have such a removed experience in Texas,” he says. “It felt like a weird album camp, staying in the 100-year-old house surrounded by pecan trees. That aesthetic experience for me was really fun…recording in a beautiful place that put you in a different mindset. We still had Matt with us so it was still like making a Lawrence Arms record, but it was run through this totally weird filter in this new place.”
Like all Lawrence Arms albums, McCaughan says that the process starts when either himself or Kelly having an idea, which the other feeds off of and soon an unstoppable ball starts rolling. In the case of Skeleton Coast, Chris wrote the first song (“Coyote Crown”– which happens to be the album’s final song) and texted it to Brendan who, coincidentally, was also writing his first contribution–“Planes Trains and Automobiles.”
“Once it starts, I just keep following the threads,” he says.
Looking at their back story, it’s almost as if The Lawrence Arms were destined to play awesome, quality music together. McCaughan first met Kelly in fourth grade at Francis W. Parker in Chicago where they quickly became friends. He says that because they have known each other for so long, there is a connection between the two, an intuition that has formed over the years, resulting in a dynamic that makes Lawrence Arms albums truly special.
“Doing something with someone for more than 20 years gets you to sort of a nexus that we exist in together,” he speculates. “Because Brendan I have known each other forever and we’ve been doing this a long time, I never have to plan what we’re going to write about. Eventually, we just collide in some shared space with really different perspectives.”
McCaughan thinks about it a bit more.
“There is an innate understanding between us two about certain things,” he explains. “We can just write towards something and we don’t have to talk about it…and we’re one voice. But, there’s also an inherent friction and tension that works and makes our band interesting. We’re not two songwriters doing a similar thing and we don’t sound the same. If we were, I don’t think we’d be quite as compelling. We arrive at the same destination but via very different paths.”
While this rare, intense bond is obviously important to the band’s music, Chris says that drummer Neil Hennessey is a pivotal piece to the band as well, completing a trio who has consistently released solid, inspired albums for more than two decades.
“I’ve already known Neil for 20 years,” he says. “What he brings to the band is that he glues us all together and that is hugely, hugely important. What I love about this band is that three of us equally play a very important part in the Lawrence Arms.”
2020 marks the band’s 21st anniversary as a band. McCaughan, who also sometimes releases music as the excellent Sundowner, says he credits their longevity to their guiding philosophy of always looking and listening inwards when making decisions.
“More than anything, and I’m only speaking for myself, the reason why we’re still a band and are still having fun doing this is because we decided we would fully do things on our own terms,” he says. “We decided we would write our own story and not worry about any expectation about how we should do this. I think that’s allowed us to be a band 20 years later and make a new record which we’re stoked on.”