The Lawrence Arms' new record The Greatest Story Ever Told was one of the most unique and refreshing records released this year. Vocalist/Bassist, Bren took a few moments to speak to me about Life, the Universe and Everything.
How do you feel about the reception to the new record?
So far so good I think. I don't really know. We played our CD release show and kids were really responsive to the new songs. Overall, I've seen good reviews and terrible reviews.
Did you see mine?
It was good!
Thanks… I was going to mention the book [The Master and Margerita] more, but I didn't see it as clearly as Toby did.
I told Toby all about it. Did you read the book?
It's sort of more ethereal. I see that book being divided into two distinct sections. The Jerusalem chapters are the struggle of one man, Pontius Pilate against his own better judgement. That's the perspective Chris took writing his songs, whereas the chapters that are set in Moscow are sort of general struggle between the mentality of human beings as animals; beasts that are slaves to impulse and that's that the perspective I came from. But also, there is the Master writing his masterpiece and having the last line planned out. And in chapter 13, "The Hero Appears", he has the last line of the book, and we used the last line of the record.
Having said that, does it make more sense?
I definitely saw the two parallels; the surreal and the real. But there was also plenty of other stuff. I was half expecting it to be a literal translation.
It's definitely more allegorical.
There's much more freedom to write that way.
Not everyone wants a record that is a book. You can listen to this record, and never see the book.
Of course, you can bring out the classic rock and 80s metal fans if you mimic the book exactly.
Operation Mindcrime was one of my favourite records growing up. This is our tip of the hat to that as well as a million other things.
You've been doing music for such a long; does it still feel fresh?
This time it does, for sure. It's a completely different process from anything we've done before. Putting this record together was special, in my opinion, because all the pieces came together so well. It was totally new and exciting for me. A new record has always been a collection of songs, but this time, even right down to the packaging, we changed lyrics and riffs to make things more cohesive.
So regardless of whether it was a success or a failure, it was worth doing.
How did the concept of the record affect the song writing process?
I write the songs that I sing, and Chris writes the songs that he sings, to an extent. But he'll come in, or I'll come in with chords and lyrics and melodies and we'll do drastic things to each others songs. Like taking out verses, or rewriting guitar parts. We bring in the skeletons of our own songs, but a lot of stuff happens in between when we bring it in and when it ends up on the record. At that point, It's definitely a collaborative process between the three of us. So it's like if you were going to build a cyborg or robot (I really know this interview is going to have me come across as a thick-glasses wearing science fiction nerd) someone brings in the titanium skeleton and other people bring in the artificial organs and flesh.
The reason I ask is because it could be difficult to keep the themes constant when you have a lot of cooks. More so than your older stuff, I notice that there is more singing on each other's songs. There were always backing vocals, but switching leads is more prevalent.
I don't know how to really describe it, but in some ways Chris and I have always been into doing that. If you listen to the old bands that Chris and I were in, which would be Slapstick and Tricky Dick, two old and poorly recorded bands. Those records had everybody singing all the time, everyone was constantly singing. It was like we were all fighting for lead vocal duties. In the Broadways it was the same thing, but when we did the Lawrence Arms - I don't want to say it was reactionary - we came at it from a completely different perspective. We got away from singing on each others songs without even noticing it.
When we were putting this together, I think we wanted a more chaotic feel; two vocalists going back and forth creates more tension and makes things a little more dynamic.
I think music right now is really stupid and while I don't want to be the ten millionth person to say that we're trying to make it better but that's we were aiming for.
That's one of the things you have a reputation for…
Well, we have a reputation for saying other bands suck, not for saying that we're great.
I get emails from kids who say that they saw us on the Fat web site so they decided to check us out and that we were the worst band they'd ever seen. "I can't believe you're signed to the label!"
I can take it, I've been doing this for a long time, so I've taken it from a lot of people. If people can't take it from me then they are wimps and need to get out of the business.
So, with so many former label mates making the leap to the majors, what would you guys do in that situation?
It's really easy to sit around and say "I'd never go to Dreamworks" because I've never talked to a major. The closest I've been to a label like Dreamworks is talking to Todd from Rise Against. To me it seems that we're doing really well on Fat, but take a band like AFI. (I don't think that they're a bad band, but I like my rock with a little less makeup than that.) They were doing very well on Nitro, and they were huge, and were probably making a ton of money. When you get to be that big on an indie, kids are going to talk shit about you because you're a big band. Now they're on a major and they have more money and more fun, and they're working with great producers and great video directors but they're not doing much that is different [musically].
We're not the kind of band anyone would want to sign to a major label. We don't have choruses, or the song is a minute and ten seconds long, or they're five minutes long and they have no repeating parts at all. I would never say never, but I would really be surprised if I ever had to make the choice.
I've spent a lot of time being a tiny punk rock musician, I've been in a small band and done this, I'd like to see what it would be like to be in a big band.
Of course that comes out a little wrong, because I don't have objectives like that for this band. But if it happened and it sucked, I would be fine with that. To not change or evolve is to die, in my mind.
The other point is that if I wanted to sign to a major, I would have written a very different record.
You never know.
I guess Modest Mouse in on a major.
It's happening so often; the Blood Brothers are on a major.
Any band that signs and has been around awhile and made a bunch of fans is understandable; they were big, and they wanted to take the next step. Take a band like Vendetta Red. Who are they kidding? You come out of nowhere and you sign to a major. You look like SR-71. You don't look like a real band, and no one is going to believe in you at all.
You want to hear a problem in punk rock? It's too many people taking stands against things. Like someone saying "This one is about how we don't like racism!" Nobody at a fucking punk rock show likes racism! I haven't seen a skinhead at a show since I was sixteen. I'm twenty-seven now.
Or "This song is about police brutality! We're not down with that!"
You're not down with police beating up innocent people? Well props to you!
When I was on campus at the beginning of the Iraq war, there were all these people with card tables and brochures that said things like "Protesting the War in Iraq and Racism!" I was trying to figure out the purpose of attaching a rider to their protest. Is it to make us feel guilty if we walk by and don't pick up a pamphlet. They can look at us and say "What? You like racism!?"
On an unrelated note, how is everything with Fat?
Fat is awesome. They've never done anything but be incredibly supportive. They're one of the greatest independent labels out there. Another important thing to clarify is that Fat is a an independent label started by a guy in a band who wanted to put out records from his friend's bands. It got to be successful and now kids say it's a major label.
I never understood that.
It's an independent label! It's run by a guy in a band. It's like Dischord. If NOFX told less dick jokes and sold less t-shirts kids would see it like Dischord. Fat has a dudes-with-big-shorts kind of fan base so kids react differently to that.
How's the music scene in Chicago? It's seems to be one of the strongest now.
We have the Disturbed, Cheap Trick… who else? Zwan? They're done. They're a pretty good band. Cheap Trick is good too. We still have the Disturbed.
In all seriousness, Chicago is awesome. We have Rise Against blowing up. We have The Ghost, the Honor System. There are so many great bands, and so many other bands where I don't even know who they are; that we've never played with. They're all big and on Epitaph and Fueled by Ramen. That's the whole other side of Chicago I know nothing about. So many great bands, awesome places to play, and great kids.
I still think of The Trio as being from Chicago even if Matt moved away.
That would be a great tour. You guys and the Trio.
We've done some things with them in the past, and when this record came out we really wanted to do a tour with them but they had to do the Vagrant Across America tour.
How did the T-shirt contest go?
Great! This is how we're going to do things from now on; as work little as possible. We're going to have the kids design the t-shirts; they're the ones who wear them, I don't wear Lawrence Arms t-shirts, I can't. Get some of them to drive the van, and I all I have to do is stagger around the stage and play some songs.
We should have a contest where the kids write the songs. We could put it up on Punknews.org and the kids could sit around and talk shit about each other. What do you think about that?
Is that all we do?
That's what the internet is, kids talking shit. It breeds such animosity. I usually avoid the message boards because the back and forth gets to me, you know? I want to get on there and say things like "you don't know what the fuck you're talking about!"
And not when they're writing about me, I can take criticism about myself or my band a lot better than I can take people shooting off their mouths about someone like Fat Mike. It drives me crazy! And it's not like I'm going to go write something, but it's such a weird new medium. It's a new world.
The less you know and the more loudly you don't know it, the more your opinions are taken as fact.
It seems to work for right-wing radio.
That's the problem. That's why the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Because loud assholes who don't know shit about anything feel they're the most qualified to shoot their mouths off about everything. While if you have a shred of decency or intelligence, you're smart enough to know that not everyone wants to hear your views about every dumb fucking thing. You end up published in a small university journal while some dumb shit on the radio or the internet is spewing bullshit all day.
that's why the world… aw… I don't know, leave it at that.
Can we expect any writing from you?
I don't know. I'm not very informed.
I mean like creative writing.
I love to do it. I've been slowing, like since I was sixteen, compiling a book of poems. It exists in various places around my house on napkins. Someday I want to put that all together. I'm very excited about it.
Chris is actually writing a book right now. Maybe two. He's the one who does a lot of writing. I'm a little too spastic to write these days. That's why my songs are getting so much shorter. I'm trying to make it one verse and one chorus.
It's all about efficiency?
Well, not really, but it's just a matter of moments before I'm doing something else. A big reason I like to drink so much is because you get to sit there and do something that makes you want to do it more.
I always pictured you guys as the drunk philosophers. Is that how the band got going?
That's how it started, but now I'm pretty much the only one who drinks anymore. Neil drinks a little, and Chris drinks a tiny bit, but lately they only seem to like the uhm… grass.
That stuff is (semi) legal here in Canada.
You know what is stupid?
People in America make fun of Canada.
We have married gay people smoking pot up here.
The rest of the world likes you guys, you have low crime, strong environmental laws, legal weed. That's pretty fucking stupid! Learn how to run your country!
Now that's irony. Post-September 11th irony.
Thanks for the interview Bren