The first time Punknews’ Eric Rosso saw The Lawrence Arms was at The Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio sometime around 2003 with one of his still-to-this-day best friends. The band, like for many readers of Punknews, has been a continued thread with some of his best friends. That’s why when the chance to interview Brendan Kelly, Rosso jumped at it and immediately hit his group chat with those same friends to tell them about it.
Interviewing someone is always hard, but when it’s a member of one of your favorite bands, it’s almost impossible not to want to list off all the times you’ve seen them live. It’s the same feeling when a member of your favorite band is hanging out selling merch and you can’t fight the impulse to say, “remember that time I saw you” at X club X years ago? Fortunately for Rosso after getting through that impulse, Kelly was, as always, earnestly honest and appreciative about the continued interest in his band and new album.
A month before the release of The Lawrence Arms’ new album Skeleton Coast and in the midst of the shutdown and following uprisings, rosso and Kelly discussed how all of this impacted the record, his favorite parts of the record, and a little about the state of the world while letting Rosso geek out a little about his own fandom and history with the band. Check it out below.
First off, I know it’s been a crazy time in the world and everyone is going through their own shit individually and collectively between the uprisings around the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic. I want to ask how you and the band are doing personally? I think that for anyone, period, to say they are doing great right now would be pretty vampiric. It’s a pretty fucking gnarly time. The fear of plague is something that’s - let me put it this way. We know so much more about the black death than we do about Louisiana Purchase. One of those happened in this country just a couple hundred years ago. The mind goes so crazy with thinking about that.
I don’t want to use any Trumpisms, but in this particular case, this invisible enemy really doesn’t discriminate. It’s a fairly horrifying thing and you see a lot of people really digging their heads into the ground to be like it’s not happening to me. It creates a really fucked up situation. If you’re not going to quarantine then I can’t. All you can do is hide in your house.
Same thing with all the protests about civil rights going on right now. If you aren’t going to get out there and put boots on the ground - whether that’s financial or doing a job supporting Black business and protestors, the only thing you can do is sit in your house and be terrified.
I know I’m hardly the first person to point out the powder keg of George Floyd’s murder was greatly exacerabated by the fact everyone is locked into the house before that. They really delve tail into an overall sense of helplessness. Chris lives in Portland and Neil lives in L.A. and we’ve been building towards the release date of our record - out July 17th ha, ha - but other than that, we haven’t really spoken all that much. But I haven’t spoken to a lot of people all that much. People are just isolating with the exception of talking about things that really, really matter. There’s a lot of personal humanity getting lost in a situation where personal humanity is the absolute order of business right now.
I talk to my brother or I talk to Chris or I talk to Neil, it’s like what are we going to do about this thing going on? Whether that’s pragmatic like are we going to cancel shows? Are there going to be shows? What are we going to do to support causes that we feel are relevant? But it doesn’t leave a lot of time for, ‘hey, how you holding up buddy?’
I think that’s unfortunate. I will say that those dudes are smart and very self-conscious - meaning like self-aware, not awkward dudes. I know they are prepared to weather any fucking storm. I mean I know they’ve been with me for 20 fucking years. That’s hard to do.
I live in Philadelphia and the first time I was out after the shutdown was to participate in the protests. It was sort of surreal that this was the first venture outside of home. I know, totally. What happens when you show up to the protests? It’s like, ‘hey, good to see you.’ It becomes tactical. I don’t know what it was like to live back in the day when a bunch of knights just rolled through and raped some people, chopping off everyone’s head for fun or whatever. I got to imagine there wasn’t a lot of small talk. This is a product of the times. There are some things that are more important.
Overall, we’re good. Everyone’s holding up really good. Everyone’s healthy. All three of us are really trying to stay inside and do what we can for the movement. That’s kind of all you can do.
Onto the record. Skeleton Coast was written for before the coronavirus shutdown. This release has got to be a particularly unique release for The Lawrence Arms in their career. How did the band approach releasing the album knowing that touring was cancelled for the foreseeable future and were there any considerations you guys had as a band in light of the shutdown? We recorded the record end of January, early February down in El Paso. It was not a thing yet then. There were whisperings of it and people that in retrospect I thought seemed kind of alarmist. Or ‘oh they’re on social media or whatever.’ It didn’t change anything in terms of us doing what we do.
Recording the record. Getting it done. Turning it into Epitaph. That happened before all this. When all of a sudden Toby Jeg - who does Red Scare and is our tour manager and in general, our guy - was like ‘dude, there’s not going to be shows, you should talk to Epitaph to see what they want to do.’ We hit them up. Brett and everybody over there said ‘we feel like we should push forward.’ We can reboot a campaign whenever touring happens again.
This is also just important to do in terms of some sort of normalcy. I don’t want to sound like making music is important or anything like that. But now for this band that I love to not put out a record that I’ve been waiting for - for 6 years!? Great, this sucks even more. There was never any question.
We talked as a team and whatever they wanted to do was what’s best, but we would like to push forward and put this record out. I’m already so ancy for people to hear it. I can’t imagine waiting another year and then cook up the will to give a shit about it as if it were still new.
As a fan of bands and seeing some of my favorites cancel their release and some go on with it - as a fan of music - I think it’s great. I’ve heard the record and also think it’s great.
You and Chris have always balanced each other out on past records. It’s something you’ve both talked about in interviews in the past. While still allowing your individual traits to shine on Skeleton Coast, it feels more connected than any past Lawrence Arms record in lyrical topic. What was the mindspace you were in during the writing of this record and was it thought out beforehand or a process of the writing? I think a lot of it was a process of the writing. The way for us as a group was when we first put together The Greatest Story Ever Told and all of a sudden we were like, ‘oh, we could tie this together.’ That was a learning that we had and kept in mind. Then we did Oh! Calcutta!. That’s even a more thematic record than Greatest Story even though it doesn’t lean into it as much. Metropole is a hyper-thematic record.
At this point, I will hear Chris’ songs and that will inform what I am writing about and Chris will hear my songs and that will inform what he is writing about it. We have that - what’s that called when two planets circle each other in a solar system? Like a diad? I don’t know.
I don’t mean to leave Neal out of this because he does more song arrangement, studio stuff, and obviously plays the drums. In terms of the songwriting when we are putting it together, it’s pretty much me and Chris. I think listening to each other becomes the most important thing. The cohesion of this record represents the culmination of us fucking listening to each other for a long time and seeing what works on other records and how to lean into it.
We are very different guys in a lot of ways, but we also process things very similarly. The point in our lives where we are at, we both look at it the same way. You know how when you see a buddy you haven’t seen in 10 years? You can just sit down as if they went to the next room to take a piss or whatever. That’s not because you’re such good friends. That’s because you process the world in the same way and are on the same page. What I think is interesting about this record is it sounds like it is about COVID and George Floyd. Even the cover was this desolate wasteland. It’s sort of about finding your way in solitude while missing and losing things.
For us, being students of what we’ve done in the past - what works, what doesn’t - and listening, it definitely created something here that is very cohesive. It’s terribly, terribly unfortunate that the world reflects that. It could have so easily been a record that we wrote that was different. And when the world changes, the record is completely irrelevant.
In that regard, I’m glad we were already struggling with the kind of things that have come to a head in the world to make it sound like it is plague music. It’s what’s up. For better or worse, that’s what we have to offer in the world.
As I was listening to it and seeing the press materials of how it was recorded before all this and how it lines up, it really hits me in this moment. What inspired the decision to get out of Chicago and record the album in Texas? We’ve always recorded with Matt Allison. Matt Allison always had an iteration of Atlas Studios in Chicago. The last record we recorded there was Metropole. For reasons too bizarre to go into, he lost the studio. Let me put it this way. I think he was getting tired of having a work-a-day go-to-a-studio thing. He’s got a child and mixes his records in his basement. With access to digital technology or whatever, I think it became impractical. Then some circumstances occurred and the studio was gone.
When we were like ‘where are we going to record, there’s no Atlas?’ It didn’t make sense to do it in Chicago. We didn’t have a studio in mind and those guys don’t live here.
I feel like this is remembered a little differently, but the way I remember it is I said something like, “We could either go to L.A. where Epitaph is and Neal lives and we could find a great studio that Epitaph could help us with and we could do it there that they have a pro-price with or we could go to some place like El Paso where we could lock ourselves in and live there,” - with no concept of there even being studios in El Paso.
A few days later, Neal is talking to one of the women who work at Epitaph and she asks where are you going to record the record? He said it’s either going to be L.A. or El Paso which is classic Hennessy. I can almost guarantee you that if Neil is reading this he’s saying ‘that’s not what happened at all!’ That’s just my memory of it.
From there, we researched and I found Sonic Ranch online. It’s so cool. The fact that El Paso came before Sonic Ranch is crazy - the coolest thing in the fucking universe. That was behind the decision and we flew Matt down as well. At this point, we’re all old dogs and what are we going to do? Have some new guy that’s like ‘maybe try it like this?’ No, we don’t try it like that.
Skeleton Coast is referenced in one of Chris’ songs, “Ghost Writer.” I’m curious about where in the writing process did the album get named? I know references to coyotes and wolves abound as well and I’m wondering if it was a bit of a marriage to the Texas scenes you were seeing and the etymology and history of the actual Skeleton Coast? That’s a really good question and you’re right in both senses. It’s a lot like the way the record came together. Once we decided the record would be called Skeleton Coast - Chris suggested it - it was early on and was something he had been reading about. I believe he was reading about climate change and the toll it’s taken on the earth and Skeleton Coast.
I just knew it from the goofy ass history, almost the novelization history. There was no science that I researched on Skeleton Coast. The third song on the record called “Belly of A Whale” is completely about living on the Skeleton Coast. The album was pretty much titled by the time I wrote that song so it was fairly early on.
We do have all those animals. The coyotes, the foxes, the wolves, and the whales. These are things that keep appearing. We were like, ‘fuck, we should lean into that.’ It’s obviously happening anyway. What are we going to do? Ignore it and act like it’s not all there?
Especially being out in Texas and a very desolate, desert landscape while hearing the wild dogs at night. The idea for the cover and for putting in the sounds - it was informed not only by the record, but the place where we were when we had to make all those decisions. It was in the middle of the fucking crazy desert.
That makes sense listening to it and I think those themes further reveal themselves as you dig in to the record. What is your personal favorite lyric off this record and why? This is not the actual answer you’re looking for, but I want to tell you a joke. What’s a pirate's favorite letter?
Umm…I? You think it’d be I, but it’d be the C. Everyone says R.
Hahaha. Ah, ok. There’s a song on there called “How To Rot” that’s like “You’d think it’d be R / But it would be the C.” Immediately following that, there’s a line from the song “Brandy” by Looking Glass. And then there’s another lyric from the song “Brandy” by Looking Glass in the song “Don’t Look At Me.”
As a way to get out searching through the compendium of lyrics in my head right now, I will say “Brandy” by Looking Glass is amazing and how could I not pick those? And then how could I not pick the kid's joke thrown in there? But I think a lot about the performance of Chris in the first song “Quiet Storm” where he says “I crackle on a radio wave / Remote status on a western state” I believe is the lyric. I don’t know if it’s lyrical or the way it’s performed, but that part I’m always like, ‘that’s a real, real good part.’
He’s got a lot of weird ass imagery on this record and we probably both do.
Definitely. When I put on the record and it opens with “Quiet Storm” where Chris sings, “There is no past / There is no future / And now I’m free to live at last” and listening to this with everything that was going on made it connect in an entirely different way. The reason I ask that question is one of the things I’ve been thinking about in the midst of reviewing albums during the COVID-19 shutdown is how certain lyrics and intentions hit differently during this time than maybe their original purpose was intended for. Is there a song on this record that was written for one purpose, but upon reflection after everything that’s transpired hits you in a different way? I mean the whole record does that. That’s the whole thing I find remarkable about this record and how the world turned is what we happened to be writing about before that. When I hear a song like “Quiet Storm” or “Belly of The Whale,” these songs are desolate. “Belly of The Whale” is about thriving in desolation. “Quiet Storm” is about thriving in desolation too, but maybe in a more cerebral kind of way.
There’s a lot of songs like that on the record. The song called “Don’t Look At Me” at the end of the record is about going to hell to prove your love to somebody. “Coyote Crown” is a song that sounds like it could be written by somebody in Lord of the Flies. It’s wild how much it resonates like that.
It was our intentionality, but nobody could have seen this. You know!? I’m not trying to sit here and say we had some sort of clairvoyance or that we knew something that’s so timeliness that even now it’s totally appropriate. But holy fuck, I’m proud of the record we wrote considering the times. We just lucked into writing a record that again isn’t completely irrelevant.
I mean, what if we had written a record about going to restaurants and fucking people’s moms? We don’t need that right now.
I did a review for Punknews of a live show one of the last times The Lawrence Arms came through Philly. It was on the tour for the We Are The Champions release. One of things that struck me - and I mentioned it in the review - was how on that tour specifically, it felt like the songs from Metropole were as celebrated as some of the more renowned classics from your discography. You see this as well with Metropole songs now as some of the band’s top songs on your Spotify page. If you look back in five years, where do you hope Skeleton Coast fits in the band’s legacy? The thing is I can never know. We take so long and did so much when we were young. While nobody gave a shit then, with the history that has kind of turned or whatever, there is an aspect of our band that will always be a legacy band. We can’t escape that completely. These are the songs I heard in high school and resonate with that alot more or whatever.
With Metropole, I think I can speak for three people on Earth who were surprised at how well the reception was. It was surprising. I think a lot of people didn’t think this band had it in them. And they are some of our most beloved songs. “Beautiful Things,” “Seventeener,” “You Are Here,” and “YMCA” are some of the most popular songs we’ve ever had. It’s not lost on any of us that we’re very fortunate.
With this record, I don’t want it to be the record people point to and go that’s when they started to suck. I don’t think at this point I could really ask for much more. We’ve had such a long career and put out so many records. I’m aware that there are some people out there who will hear it and this will be there Oh! Calcutta! But there will be a lot of people out there who already have their Oh! Calcutta!. I’m not stupid enough to believe that we are going to change their minds.
I debate that in my group text with my best friends. They live in Chicago and I live in Philadelphia. I fly out there almost every Christmas for The War On X-Mas Shows. It’s the ongoing conversation we have as friends while never agreeing. Right. Listen. Is there anything more fart sniffing and lame then to read some old legacy band guy be like, ‘I think this holds up with all of our best stuff.’ Who knows. I’m the last person alive to know if that’s true. I feel like this record is more in the vibe of Oh! Calcutta! and Greatest Story than Metropole. I feel like if it came out right then, no one would’ve batted it an eye. It would’ve been like, ‘yep, this is this band.’
I don’t know. I just hope it’s got a respected place in our catalogue. That’s all. I can’t ask anyone for this to be their favorite. That has more to do with what’s on the tape when you are losing your virginity.
Totally. When I first listened it struck me like a mix of The Greatest Story Ever Told and Metropole. Final question and it’s a weird question to ask - and I ask it at the end of every interview - but what’s next for The Lawrence Arms and any plans moving forward? How are you even dealing with that as a band? We are going to take it as it comes. We’ve always been very much since the whole thing started that we aren’t going to do anything unless it’s socially responsible. That’s the bottom line. If this becomes a way of life that’s no longer tenable - I don’t think that’s going to become the case, but if it does - that’s it. That’s the case.
We’re not going to do a tour of red states just so we can play shows. I mean that with no disrespect to anybody with any political affiliation or state, but we’re not going to do anything that puts people at risk based on what our own personal beliefs are. The cool thing about this band that we all feel very lucky about is that we busted our dicks for many, many years to literally zero fucking response. Once we slowed way the fuck down, people fucking noticed. We’re ready to wait it out if we have to.