Monday, March 20, 2006

Interview: Brendan Kelly of the Lawrence Arms/Falcon

The Lawrence Arms are a punk rock paradox. While their music exudes the pop smarts of Jawbreaker and other bands that have defined the Emo genre, their music also possess the gruff harmonies and energy of bands like Leatherface and Naked Raygun. They have a predilection for referencing pop culture as well as classical literature. They belong to a scene that has a long and rich punk rock lineage. Yet, they’ve yet to garner the popular acclaim they so rightly deserve. On the back of the release of their 5th studio album, ‘Oh! Calcutta!’, I conducted this interview with the Lawrence Arms’ bassist and vocalist Brendan Kelly.

The Midwest of America is perhaps punk rock’s best kept secret. Over the years, it’s spawned some of the most critically acclaimed, significant and largely ignored music. The likes of Husker Du, Naked Raygun, Screeching Weasel, Smoking Popes and Dillinger Four have all called the Midwest home.

Where it took the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Green Day, Operation Ivy and Rancid to bring the East Bay to the attention of the masses, the Midwest has yet to spawn a band that has captured the attention of the punk rock going public and crystallize the scene.

The Lawrence Arms exist in this void. Not fitting snuggly amongst any genre that boasts a commercial following -- perhaps because they’re not easily pigeon-holed -- and not belonging to any vibrant scene that boasts a regular patronage. The Lawrence Arms’ Brendan Kelly explains the tyranny of distance.

“The US gives no love to the Midwest. People are so ignorant geographically, that most Americans don’t even know that Chicago is in the Midwest, much less what else is there. It’s too vast of an area for it to be the subject of any hype. That said, I agree. There are lots of great Midwestern bands out there,” he said.

The Lawrence Arms have never been easy to categorize, predominantly because on their past records they have traversed genres from song to song. A rough punk rock number may be followed up with a sickly sweet mid tempo pop punk number. ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ throws this formula out the window and leaves it lying unconscious, curled up in the fetal position in a ditch beside the road.

“We just conceptualized it differently before we started writing,” he said.

“I think that our last record was us at our most polarized, and in a very real way, this record is a response to that. We really don’t want to ever repeat ourselves and we’d kind of mined the ideas of Chris and I doing really different, disparate songs.

“This record is something else. It’s about brotherhood and friendship and steeling yourself against the shit that the world throws at you with your friends and your beers or whatever, and the only way that we could convey that sonically was for us to sing together. We’re best friends, you know? And we are the people that we’re singing about and to. So it made sense to do it all together.”

Their failure to pique the interest of the mainstream punk rock crowd is peculiar in that they aren’t too dissimilar to the Alkaline Trio. Both bands share similar musical parentage and are long time touring buddies. Brendan has even played alongside the Alkaline Trio’s current bass player, Dan Andriano, in Slapstick and the Falcon.

Part of Alkaline Trio’s mass appeal is undoubtedly the morbid themes that are laced throughout their music. The Lawrence Arms however have yet to tap the mines of youth angst, perhaps because they don’t have a shtick per se. But Kelly doesn’t seem bitter or see any point in deriding Alkaline Trio’s success.

“The (Alkaline) Trio and us have one big difference in this regard. Namely, they’re really big and we’re not,” he said.

“That being said, if someone has taken the trouble to seek out our band, they tend to have already figured out that we’re the type of band that we are.”

The Lawrence Arms’ music is brimming with social and political commentary. They also have a deep affection for shitty pop culture. Their refreshing amalgamation of the inspired with the accessible compensates for whatever intellectual pre-preparation may be required to fully grasp their message. It also makes for some of the best song names in the history of punk rock.

“I think that music can be as intellectual or as mindless as it wants to be, as long as it’s good,” he said

“Our message is lost on lots of our own fans. I mean, how many times have you been at an underground show and looked around and thought to yourself “what a bunch of assholes!”.

“There’s nothing that makes you smarter once you buy a cool band’s CD. As much as it pains me to say it, there’s not a lot of people who really give too much of a shit about anything, regardless of if their favorite band is Yellowcard or if it’s Propaghandi.”

This is probably best exemplified by the title of their new long player, ‘Oh! Calcutta!’. Kelly explains the origins of its title.

“There are several reasons that we named the record what we did, but mostly because we liked the exclamatory toughness of the words and the fact that it actually was the name of a nude mostly male broadway musical in the seventies,” he said.

“That’s kind of our thing, you know? It sounds tough, but it’s really the name of some show where a bunch of naked dudes dance around and do the splits and stuff naked on a dusty stage. Good times. It also has to do with Chicago and Mother Theresa, but that’s a whole other story.”

As for the future, Kelly can be found moonlighting in his side project, the Falcon, alongside Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio), Tod Mohney (ex-Rise Against) and Neil Hennessy (Lawrence Arms).

“We don’t spend a lot of time on the Falcon. It’s been designed the way it is to accommodate all our schedules.”

“The full length is really odd. It’s probably not what anyone expects. There are currently no plans to tour, but that could change at any time.”

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Record Review: NOFX - Never Trust A Hippy

You know what to expect from this review before you even read it. NOFX are certified punk rock legends. One of the most influential and popular punk rock bands of the last 20 years, NOFX’s sound is defined and renowned, and on Never Trust A Hippy – a preview of their forthcoming long player – they make no attempts to err from the established formula.

The EP is predominantly slick pop punk numbers. On Golden Boys, Everything In Moderation (Especially With Moderation) and I’m Going To Hell From This One, the guitars are as buzzsaw as ever, the guitar solos are just as ubiquitous and Fat Mike is still stickin’ it to the man with all the leftist slogans he can muster. They even throw in an obligatory dub number – Marxist Brothers.

Even the themes seam familiar. While NOFX were always political and controversial, sacred cows seem to be nonexistent on ‘Never Trust A Hippy’. On the lone acoustic number, You’re Wrong, Fat Mike gets up on his soap box and proselytizes like a particularly dogmatic and arrogant prick. Even by his standards. But I get the feeling antagonism is their goal here.

Three thumbs up.

Make up your own mind:

Seeing Double At The Triple Rock

Record Review: Buzzcocks - Flat-Pack Philosophy

The Buzzcocks will forever live in the shadow of their salad days. Their fans will always compare their work to the power pop/pop punk perfection they achieved on Singles Going Steady. And why shouldn’t they? They defined a genre and influenced innumerable bands. But Flat Pack Philosophy boasts enough hooks to stand on its own.

The Buzzcocks excel above other punk rock fixtures vying to remain relevant amongst a genre that has long since moved on. Predominantly because the Buzzcocks too have moved on. Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle are no longer grappling with their adolescent chemical imbalances and bubbling hormones. Rather their lyrical palette is coloured by the quickly modernising Britain they live in. ‘Credit’ opens with a sample that is supposed to parody the absurdity of modern self-serve check outs.

The mix on Flat Pack Philosophy is vast and foreboding. It’s sonically similar to their 2003 self-titled record. The vocals are shrill and sharp. On tracks like ‘Flat Pack Philosophy’ and ‘Wish I Never Loved You’, Shelley croons and slurs the melody menacingly like you wouldn’t expect if you were nurtured on a diet of the ‘cocks’ punk rock standards. The guitars reverberate and punch with a mongrel not seen on their output circa ‘77. On ‘God What Have I Done’ and ‘Sound of a Gun’ the guitars resonate and punch in a tone and melody that is vaguely no wave-ish fashion.

While the Buzzcocks have moved on the realm of bubblegum and forlorn youth, they retain the wit that made them great and direct it elsewhere. While Flat Pack Philosophy doesn’t boast hits like ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ or ‘Orgasm’ addict, it is accessible for those willing to give it a listen or three

Four thumbs up.

Record Review: Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta

The Lawrence Arm never did have a definitive sound. Their music always traversed between gritty Midwestern punk -- inspired by the likes of Fifteen, Pegboy and Leatherface -- and slick, melodic pop punk -- informed by bands like Jawbreaker, Jets To Brazil and the Alkaline Trio. That was until Oh! Calcutta!.

Where their former LPs were disparate, Oh! Calcutta! boasts a cohesive sound across the entire record. No longer do Chris McCaughan and Brendan Kelly rotate on vocals on each song. Rather the record is littered with tag-team vocals and irresistibly infectious gang melodies. On Are You There Margaret? It’s Me God McCaughan and Kelly simultaneously bellow “Aeroplane, aeroplane / Don’t leave without me / Cause I’m out here all by myself / and I got no place to sleep” and in the process craft one of catchiest punk rock songs of the last 10 years.

Oh! Calcutta! also exhibits an aggression that has only existed sporadically on past Arms records. The bass is far more prominent in the mix and Brendan Kelly takes the vocals reins for the majority of the record. His scratchy, unpolished vocals give the record a hostile and antagonistic element, something that complements the biting sarcasm and incisive vitriol contained in their lyrics.

This is probably something that is largely overlooked in the Lawrence Arm’s music. Their predilection for ‘boorish’ music belies their wit and literary inclinations. Naysayers would probably pay no heed to the Arms because their brand of pop punk and emo is deemed a musical faux pas. But witticisms like "I say fuck the man / no matter who that man may be" abound on the record.

‘Oh! Calcutta!’ is one of the most distinctive and catchiest records of the last decade. It represents a band finally fulfilling its potential of constructing a flawlessly catchy punk rock record.

Five thumbs up.

Make Up Your Own Mind:
The Devil's Takin' Names
Beyond The Embarassing Style