• Q&A

Kids, Taxes and Murder: A Conversation with Brendan Kelly

written by: on April 10, 2012

For years, Brendan Kelly has been synonymous with the Chicago punk scene. He’s gone from fronting one influential act to another (Slapstick, The Broadways, The Lawrence Arms) but now, he’s bringing a different part of himself to the forefront: the dark, violent side. After starting a new project under the moniker Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, Kelly released his first “solo” album, I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever. Kelly took some time to discuss the ideas that informed the album’s subject matter, the real motivations behind Iron and Wine’s music and just how fun a pig fuck can be.

Pop ‘stache: You’ve talked recently about how the Lawrence Arms got audited. How was it going through that? You start a band to just have fun, and then real life happens.

Brendan Kelly: Well, yeah, I mean the thing is that when we started the band we put together our accounting practices as a bunch of 19-year-old kids who, you know, aren’t making any money. Over the evolution, because our band grew so gradually, it wasn’t like all of a sudden we were Rise Against where one second we’re playing the Fireside, the next second we’re playing the Aragon. Not that I’m doubting the authenticity of their rise to power or whatever – because I’ve known those guys forever and it was very organic – but they had a big bump. One second the girl in your high school class that listened to Matchbox 20 didn’t know who Rise Against was, then the next week she did. And that shit obviously never happened to us. So there was never a point where it was like, “Oh, we should probably update our accounting procedures.” So, essentially, the whole process is very scary because you just hear horror stories about what it’s like to go through. Even now I feel like, am I even allow to talk about it?

Our payroll was just not up to snuff. But the fact that we even evolved into something that needed to have a payroll was never something that I anticipated as a 19-year-old kid who started this unbelievable plan to get free beer. It sucked. It’s over. It was like two years of being very scared, and then at the end of the day – this is so not punk rock to say – we’re law abiding citizens, we pay our taxes, I try to do everything by the book. So when it all came down it was just like, “Oh, you just owe us a little bit of money.” And it was like, “Oh, I can deal with this.”

 P ‘s: The Lawrence Arms slowed down for a stretch, and I know it was partially because you were becoming a father of two, but did this play a role as well?

 Kelly: Oh, absolutely, but the thing is there was a point where we were gonna kinda slow down. A lot of things changed, Chris [McCaughn]’s girlfriend moved to Chicago, I had a kid, and those are big things. We’d just come off a humongous touring cycle, like, a 10 year humongous touring cycle. Then we got audited and all of a sudden it was like,

“Oh my god, what are we even allowed to do? What have we been fucking up? What have we been doing that we didn’t even know was illegal?”

It was just a panic situation. This was a situation where they came after us and there was no question of fighting, it was just like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Can you just go back to leaving us alone?”

P ‘s: I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever took years to make, but when was the decision made that you were going to make a solo record and not just another Lawrence Arms record?

 Kelly: Well, so I started to write new songs. I always, always am writing something or making something, whether or not it is for any particular purpose, or if it is just to satiate my nervous jimmy legs. So, I started putting these songs together and they didn’t really sound like Lawrence Arms songs to me, but they were just something I was doing sort of compulsively to keep my brain active, almost like doing pushups in the morning. Once I got a war chest of songs together I happened to be out in Denver with my friend Eric [Halborg]. Eric plays in a band called the Swayback, they’re like a weird, goopy rock ‘n’ roll band. He was like, “Hey, I know this dude who is this computer whiz, and he makes dance music for Euro club tracks, and if you ever wanted to demo something he’d be stoked to do it.” So I was just out there and one night I was like, “Yeah, let’s demo this song I have.” That was the “A Man With the Passion of Tennessee Williams” song that I had. When that song, and it turned out the way it did – which is the version that appears on the record – I was like, “Wow, that really doesn’t sound like the Lawrence Arms at all.” I played it for a few people and they were like, “Whoa, that’s really different.” So I was like, OK, I can put together a record like this. I recorded that – literally – in the pantry of Eric’s mother-in-law’s kitchen, looking at the Rice-A-Roni and shit. They just laid down the beat, and I played everything and sang it, then those dudes mixed it down and made it all swirly and crazy and stuff like that. It was like, wow, I could do a whole record like this. So I did that song, I did “Dance of the Doomed” next time I was back, and “Latenightsupersoniceslasticbags” and “Ramblin’ Revisited,” I did those all the next time I came back and it took over a year to get all the mixes back.

P ‘s: I know you’re doing the record release show at Beat Kitchen, will you have a full backing band for that?

 Kelly: I actually just did my first rehearsal with the guitar player today. It’s Nick [Martin], who’s in the band playing everything I’m not playing on the record. I’m gonna have Derek Grant from the [Alkaline] Trio on drums, and then my friend Ryan on guitar. Nick and Ryan have both never played live music in front of people who knew what they were playing before. They’ve both been in bands, they’ve both played shows, but neither one of them come from a punk rock world, or even an indie rock world, they both come from just a regular old rock ‘n’ roll world. They both grew up listening to things like Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix and shit like that – the dudes that know every Beatles album and the running order on them. I should know that too, because that’s just part of rock ‘n’ roll lore and it’s important, but I’ll tell you the order of all the Bad Religion albums instead because that’s what kinda blew my hair back as a kid. Those dudes were taking the classical approach to rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, they’ve never had some niche of weirdos that wanted to see their bands. [Laughs] It’s gonna be an interesting scene. Derek’s traveling right now and he gets back right before the show, so I have to trust that he knows the stuff, and I’m up there with two guys who never played shows with people who knew the stuff before. It’s gonna be interesting. Whether it’s gonna be good or bad, I can’t say.

P ‘s: And you’re playing bass?

 Kelly: No, I’ll play guitar. We’ll probably all switch off because I think we’re gonna try to get a keyboard set up there too.  So I think we might do some switching off because Derek and Ryan both play a little bit of keyboards. Nick plays all the keyboards on the record, but he broke his hand and never got it set so he can’t play the keyboards.

P ‘s: Wow. Alright.

 Kelly: Yeah, the whole thing is a real pig fuck. [Laughs] But it’s what I got to work with, and they’re all virtuoso musicians, so really I’m in great hands, but that’s kind of how I like to roll. I like it to be interesting and a little dangerous. That’s why I kind of got into this whole thing in the first place.

P ‘s: It’s interesting that you say you have an interest in these dangerous kind of situations, because while that’s certainly what the new record deals with lyrically, from a musical perspective you could definitely alienate and upset a lot of your core fan base. Did that risk inform those choices?

 That’s just the shit that was coming out of me. There’s a way I could go about censoring it or playing it up, and at a certain point I decided to play it up. It’s not completely different than the subject matter that I touched on in the Falcon, for example.

There’s that one song on the Falcon record about being stuffed into a barrel where people stick their dicks through the holes in the barrel and you have to suck all their dicks, and that’s pretty dark. [Laughs]

I think there’s like a level of consent in that song that is absent from this record. This record is definitely – from my perspective – whether it plays like it or not, the darkest, dirtiest thing I’ve ever done. There are sort-of two factors at work here. One is that this was just what was coming out of me, and that was the stuff that excited me, and that was the stuff that made me nervous and interested and excited about making music. Because I was like, “Whoa, can I write a song like this?” Because if you ask yourself a question like that it’s like, “Well you fuckin’ better!” Now you’ve got a chance to do something that’s worth hearing. If you hear the song you’ve just written and you go, “Put that in the vault,” who cares? I got a band for you called Guns ‘N’ Roses and they do rock ‘n’ roll better than you do, I guarantee it. So your cool song that just works, it’s not the point. I’m obviously not playing to a mass audience; I’m not trying to sell records. This record is an art project you know. I mean, I keep using that term and I hate people that refer to records as “art” and “projects” because music is so much more visceral and dick swinging than that. There’s a level of machismo and almost jock, sports attitude to making music that everyone who makes music pretends isn’t there but is totally there. The dude from Iron and Wine writes a song and somewhere in the back of his head he’s thinking, “Fuck you assholes! You thought you knew some fuckin’ good music? Fuck you! I can’t wait to see someone eat their fuckin’ own dick to this song.”

P ‘s: Even though it’s pretty acoustic music he’s like, “I’m owning you!”

Kelly: Right! [Laughs] There is an athletic mentality to music when you get to a certain level. But anyway, my point is, those ended up being the songs that spoke to me in terms of, “This is worth doing because it’s out of my comfort zone and it’s weird.” It became apparent that this was treading this really dark path, and it also sort-of coincided with – and I keep bringing these guys up even though I’m not a fan – I don’t listen to Odd Future, I don’t give a shit about Odd Future. I don’t have anything against them, I don’t know them, I know who they are, that’s it. There was that whole thing where Tegan from Tegan and Sara came out and said, “This motherfucker is singing about raping chicks and are we seriously supposed to pretend like that’s OK?” And my thought was like, “At what fuckin’ point on this Earth did we get to a place where somebody’s art has to mean what they personally believe in?” Do you think that the guy that wrote the screenplay for the movie “The Accused” is into gang raping chicks on pinball machines? Do you think the guy that wrote “The Silence of the Lambs” really likes to rip off peoples’ faces and wear them around? Why can’t you write a record from the criminal perspective and not be considered to be a criminal sympathizer yourself?

Two of my favorite records, two of the most important records in my dialect of my understanding music are N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Guns ‘n’ Roses Appetite for Destruction. They were both fuckin’ terrifying at the time. Maybe those dudes were really like that, but I don’t think they were. It seems so beside the point to even assume anything about their lives based on their music. As I was coming to the point where I was writing these songs and was like, “Whoa, this sounds really dangerous. This is maybe something interesting to be doing.” This whole debate was going on with Odd Future and I was like, “Fuck this. I’m pushing this to the next level. I’m doing this record as dirty as I want to.” Which isn’t to say that I set out to offend, but every idea I had about pulling a punch, I was not gonna pull the punch.

P ‘s: I think it’s interesting, because in a sense it could be seen as a rock version of what Odd Future was doing. Yet at the same time, these are some of the catchiest songs you’ve ever written. “Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me” is one of the most palatable songs you’ve ever written musically.

 Kelly: With “Suffer the Children” I can very specifically tell you, I’ve got two kids and I’m at home with them all the time. You could call it lazy, bad parenting for sure, but because I’ve got stuff I gotta do, I’ve got to be doing my work, for a little bit of time every day they watch TV. They watch Nick, Jr., and on Nick Jr. there’s a lot of music and the music is so fucking obnoxious and so catchy, and these songs and these shows that are geared toward children are these repetitive, super catchy songs that are just fundamentally designed to get stuck in your heard, and they are so offensively bad. So when I wrote that song, I was like, “I’m gonna write a kids song, in the vein of these songs, but I’m gonna give it the exact opposite subject matter, and I’m gonna make it as offensive to them as these songs are to me.” So for every song they have that’s like, “Backpack, backpack,” another kid’s getting cut up and put into my backpack.

P ‘s: Did you get worried when you released the teaser EP and the reaction was less than positive?

 Kelly: No, because I think history will show that the EP fits in really nicely with the record. And there are two more songs. There’s a panflute version of “East St. Louis” and another song called “The Malthusian Clown,” which was on the record, but I cut it at the last minute. The deluxe edition or whatever – not that I’m planning on putting out a deluxe edition – but if anybody gives a shit about this two years from now, three years from now, it’s gonna make a lot more sense. But without the context of the record it looks really scattered, and I totally understand that. With the record I had the advantage of being able to start it out slow, pick it up, get it to a frenzy, slow it down and pick it back up. I got to sequence it the right way. Toby [Jeg, Red Scare Industries] actually called me and was like, “I guess that EP was a real misstep, huh?” And no, I don’t think so. It’s gonna be fine. It’s part of the whole thing.

P ‘s: You’ve done some acting recently, and you wrote about going to L.A. to shop some scripts. How is it trying to get into that industry after having spent so much time doing music?

 Kelly: In a way it’s really refreshing because it’s not just all the same assholes re-purposed. In music I saw all the same people run through the grist mill as higher-ups, and dudes in bands come back as A&R guys, and all the same bullshit. Where here it’s all 26-year-old hot dicks with fuckin’ executive corner offices and shit. It’s something I don’t know anything about and I don’t have any expectations. It’s really refreshing, I guess. In music, for better or for worse, I feel like I know everything that’s going on, even though I don’t. Even though I’ve had such limited success in music I feel like I know people and I know what’s happening.

Doing stuff with the filmmaking world I’m so refreshingly naïve. I’m not jaded in it. It’s an industry that jades you really, really fast, and I know that, but it’s nice to get into something and be new at it. Maybe I’ll do something and be a hot shot that does something awesome, or maybe I’ll be one of these zillion losers that just does it for a few years then goes on to do something else. The whole world is open to me. In music, for better or for worse, my check is written. If this record doesn’t change people’s minds about who I am I don’t know what the fuck else I’m gonna do. Make a rap album? I don’t think this record is gonna change anybody’s mind about who I am, but maybe it’ll be, “You’re into a little different shit than I thought you were.” I’m under no illusions about that. It’s nice to be in an industry where my output hasn’t been analyzed before.

 P ‘s: Finishing up, are there any plans for more Wandering Birds shows aside from the record release show?

Kelly: We’re gonna see how that goes and then proceed from there. This whole thing, I think I used the term pig fuck before?

P ‘s: That you did.

 Kelly: It could be a real pig fuck, and I love a good pig fuck, but I’m not gonna take that pig fuck out on the road. [Laughs]