Bands Interviewing Bands: Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio Speaks with Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms

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Today we are hosting something new for us, a band we like interviewing another band we like! Worriers’ Lauren Denitzio spoke with Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms, Falcon, and The Wandering Birds about a wide range of topics in music and life, including all of Brendan’s different projects, growing older and evolving in the music industry, and the struggles as a lifer musician. Check out their conversation below, while you listen to some of their great songs, and then take a look at Worriers upcoming tour dates!

Lauren Denitzio: I realized that we’ve played shows with you for all of The Lawrence Arms, The Falcon and you playing solo, which is cool that we’ve covered all of that. It seems like a rotating cast of friends with you. I know the people in those bands but I don’t know who plays with you on the Wandering Birds records.

Brendan Kelly: The dude that plays with me on the Wandering Birds is my oldest friend Nick. He’s the first guy I ever made music with. When we were like 10, we got the Dead Milkmen “Bucky Fellini” tape and we were like “This shit’s not on the radio! This is awesome!” and we became obsessed. But he’s awesome and a genius. So he got a four track and a guitar and he got a bass and taught himself how to play everything.  And one of the motivations for the Wandering Birds was the fact that I wanted people to hear what a genius he is. He does almost everything on that record. I play the lead guitars and I sing the lead vocals – everything else is Nick. Dan Tinkler, who’s the engineer, is also a Wandering Bird. He plays one guitar solo and he plays the drums on a couple songs, but it should be Nick Martin and the Wandering Birds. He is just a crazy genius. He’s a filmmaker from here [Chicago] and has no aspirations to be in a band or anything like that. But as a person who just admires the shit out of him, I had no choice but to force him to be in a band.

L: That’s awesome, it’s a great use of your platform. If you’re going to get out there and play shows and have people hear it then that’s a good incentive. It sounds like the situation where you just want all your friends to hear him.

B: Exactly. I’m honored to be able to play with him. I have the resources to get into a studio and do stuff. He crushed it on that record. It would be 15% as good as it was without him.

L: So it’s you two and Dan Tinkler?

B: Yeah, actually Derek Grant from Alkaline Trio produced the “Boardin’ USA” track and “The Ballad of Buffalo Bill”. He did the lion’s share of those. Nick and Dan and I came in and did a few more things but that’s one of the tracks where Derek, who is another weird genius that plays everything and is awesome, did all that. It’s funny because I showed him the acoustic demo of “Buffalo Bill” and he was like “What do you want? Like, trap kit and steel guitars?” and I said “I’m thinking Bone Thugs-n-Harmony” and he’s like “Ok! We can do that!.” He sent it back with that arrangement and holy shit, I mean it’s got the yipping dog from Silence of the Lambs sampled into it. It’s awesome.

L: So that’s how it worked, you giving it to him and saying “run with it.”

B: Yeah. In the Lawrence Arms specifically I’m a lot more meticulous with how things turn out, but with the Wandering Birds stuff it’s very much…there’s a song on the record called “Black Cat Boy.” Nick asked me what I wanted it to sound like and the acoustic version is very very sad sounding. I told him “whatever you think I want, I want you to do the exact opposite.” He came back with this crazy Dr. Seuss, weird-ass Spin Doctors thing and I did NOT see that coming. I am self-aware enough to know what my limitations are and I didn’t pick him to do this project because I didn’t think he was a fucking genius. So if this is what you hear, this is better than what I could’ve possibly come up with. It’s maybe not the stuff that the punks in our scene would like the most but it’s the best iteration of the whole thing. I’m an old guy, I’ve made plenty of punk records.

L: I can definitely tell with the Wandering Birds stuff, it’s not meant to just be another iteration of the Lawrence Arms. It’s not meant to be like The Falcon records. It’s your own thing to play around with things.

B: Nick and I started making music when we were 12 and he had a four track and a bass and a guitar. He would lay down a bass line and lay down a guitar part and then I would sing over it. This is the record we’ve been trying to make since we were 12. 30 years of waiting for the opportunity to do this. Nothing was going to stand in the way of that. I wrote all the songs, it’s my band, but it’s also in my best interest to get the fuck out of the way, you know?

L: When you’re collaborating with someone like that, where you trust their ear and their creative vision too, you want to hear that.

B: It’s so psychic with Nick. It’s the same thing when I do the Lawrence Arms stuff with Chris. We KNOW what each other wants. But with Nick it’s weirder because Chris and I have lived in a tin box that rolls down the highway every day for 20 years. Of course we have some synergy. And Neil as well, I leave Neil out of all these conversations and that’s shitty because he’s so crucial to the organization. But with Nick we just go back to what we fell in love with about music and it’s just instantly endemically translated into something that I could never expect. But yes, that’s the shit I was thinking, I now realize.

L: I have a similar relationship with my bandmates in that they know how I want it to sound but also come up with things that I never could have thought of, or never could’ve written myself.

B: And that’s the most important thing, right? Few and far between are the Josh Caterers from the Smoking Popes who emerge fully formed. The “I’m beautiful, I’m the best guitar player you’ve ever seen and also I have the best voice you’ve ever heard, these are the best songs you’ve ever heard.” If you’re in a band with Josh Caterer, well you’re his brother, but step aside and let this master do his work. I am no master of anything. I don’t want to lump you into that category but the collaborative process is so astounding and it never ceases to be amazing. Any time I bring a song to any of these people…when we did the fuckin’ Falcon record and all of a sudden Dave Hause comes in with these guitar parts like you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me this is so above and beyond what I was thinking was going to happen. That’s the magic of doing this job.

L: Even if whatever you wrote you were perfectly happy with and you were psyched on a song. Then Dave comes in and adds to it, that’s an amazing privilege to work with people like that. You would’ve been fine with it but it just becomes even more fun.

B: I don’t take it for granted. I’m not good at any of this shit at all but I get to make music with people who are great at it. Awesome.

L: I have a very similar approach in that my guitar skills are limited but I can work with people who are better at it and direct things in a certain way and that’s just fun.

B: Totally.

L: Do you play all sorts of songs during your solo sets or is it just Wandering Birds?

B: On this particular run I’m only doing Wandering Birds songs. I’m not strict about it, if everybody wants to hear “Unicorn Odyssey” by the Falcon for whatever reason, if everyone’s screaming at me, ok fine I’ll do that. I have other avenues through which to pursue those other bands so my objective with this is to hype the Wandering Birds. This is my chance to do it. I’m trying to hip people to that catalog. This band is kinda my retirement plan. There’s a very real part of me that’s like “I can’t be doing this athletic screaming like I do in the Falcon or The Lawrence Arms when I’m 60!” I still want to play music.

L: So you’re planning for that day?

B: Which is no disrespect to that stuff, and I will but it just might look a little dorky. Without naming and names I’ve seen a lot of bands get past their expiration date and keep churning out the same nonsense because that’s what their known for. There’s a point for me where I was like “Dude, if this is going to be your life thing, and 27 years you’ve been on the road doing this. You’d better figure out how to do it in such a way where it can be not embarrassing.”

L: Well, that you can grow with it. That it actually reflects you, rather than the person who wrote your first record.

B: Exactly. With no disrespect to either of these bands, because they’re both awesome bands, but when I started doing this I was in a band called Slapstick and we were a ska-punk band and the only other bands that were doing what we were doing were The Suicide Machines and Less Than Jake. Both of those bands still kill it, but for me personally I can’t imagine still playing those songs I wrote in high school, now.

L: But it also seems like something you’re not as connected to. If you were still psyched on those songs, that would be one thing.

B: I still stand behind those songs. I see Less Than Jake play and it’s like “yo, these motherfuckers still got it.” It’s still so fun and so great but it’s just not for me. I didn’t want to be in Slapstick forever.

L: You’ve found ways to play that make sense for you because that’s what you want to be doing.

B: It’s all that I know. It’s a bad reference now but when George Carlin died, Louis CK did the eulogy and talked about sitting in his car after doing stand-up at a Chinese restaurant – he had to get up and do stand-up for people who were just trying to eat food – and he’s just like “what am I going to do? I’m 40. It’s too late for me to do anything else.” And he evolved. Obviously I don’t in any way want to put myself in the same category as him but for me it was a valuable lesson. If you have dedicated yourself to something for this long, you have to figure out how to evolve and be good because it IS too late. What am I going to do? Learn to code?

L: I mean I feel like I have employable skills, I can pay my rent however I need to, but I have to be involved in music. That’s going to grow and change.

B: My mom was very insistent that I go to college even when this band I was in in high school was playing to 1,000 people a night. My mom told me I had to have something to fall back on, I had to go to college. So I did go to college, I graduated in four years, I went to a good school, but music is the thing that I’ve been able to fall back on. Recently my wife was laid off and there were massive layoffs coming at my company and I thought that I was going to be laid off, so I booked a bunch of shows. This is what I have so we can keep our house. It’s interesting that the thing that I was doing as a pipe dream is the thing that has become my fallback career.

L: I guess that’s the best-case scenario in a way. You’ve worked hard at something you love and it has become something that you can depend on. I’m agreeing with you. I don’t think of being in a band as a job as a bad thing but it’s nice when you can think of it as the best job in the world.

B: It is nice when you can think of it as the best job in the world but truth be told, there’s a lot of times when being in a band is not the best job in the world. It can be so fucking grueling and it’s really hard ever explain to anyone who hasn’t had to do it but it’s just a task to be in a band.

L: Well it’s when people think it’s a vacation.

B: I don’t want to throw my wife under the bus here but I’m about to anyway. She’s an avid snowboarder, she’s excellent at it and it’s something that I find so impressive and that I love about her. She had to buy new snowboarding pants, new snowboarding get-up and I’m like “yup, that’s why we work, you should definitely buy those things.” And she said it was no different than when I bought that guitar. I’m like, no no no, this guitar pays for itself in an hour and a half, get out of here with that stuff. What you do on vacation I back fully. I love you and I want you to have as much fun as you can. But don’t conflate your vacation with my job just because my job is cool.

L: You can’t deny the fact that the guitar is paying for itself.

B: Mmm!! (frustrated) TRUE! I don’t know how you’re going to transcribe that sound.

L: Imparting the fact that it’s fun a lot of the time, but that you’re not just on a fun road trip, that it’s actually work.

B: The thing that I always say is yo, I started a business when I was 16. I registered that with the government. I lived in a van for 20 years. I ate cheese sandwiches and slept on floors. And now that it’s cool, I’m just having fun? Fuck off! (laughs)

L: Seriously!

B: Nobody goes up to a CEO and says “you’re just partying all the time.” I’m just lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are good at this, who like me for some reason, so I’ve been able to have a cool job. But it’s understandable because most people hate their jobs. The fact that I like my job makes it seem like a vacation. You sit in a van with Neil farting for hours and see how it is. I love hanging out with the fans but it’s just combat pay. It’s not always cool. 99% of the people who come to my shows are cool as fuck, but that 1% will fuck with you mercilessly.

L: You’re going to get punished every once in a while.

B: I’m sure you get it worse than I do. But you’ve got a myriad of people coming at you. I’m sure there’s a huge activist populous coming at you, creepy dudes coming at you, and then you get the same things that I do just being a person who writes songs that they like.

L: Yeah, there are many levels. But literally whoever it is, it’s emotionally exhausting at a certain point. You have to be ON because you do genuinely want to talk to people.

B: Exactly, that’s why we do it. I say this a lot but I was a kid that saw a rock ‘n’ roll band one time and it inspired me so much that I dedicated my life to it. So when people think it sounds stupid to say “your band means the world to me”, I get it. I dedicated my life to this because I was you. But even more, you know? I was even more of a nerd. I didn’t even have the balls to go up to someone and say “this sounds stupid, but…”, I just went and played my guitar in the garage. It’s humbling but at the same time, of course I understand you. We’re the same people. That’s what I want to do and that’s why I want to talk to people. I’ve walked around shows with you and you’re very gracious with your fans and I try to be the same. Obviously everybody has bad days or whatever but it’s critical to me to not diminish anyone’s enthusiasm.

L: I’m psyched to play the bay area soon, but you probably have more history there than I do.

B: Yeah, that’s where Fat Records is from and Asian Man Records is from there. Every project I’ve ever been in, that’s been our home away from home. But the weird thing is in recent times I went to San Francisco on the last Lawrence Arms tour and we were at Fat and we were going to get some burritos for lunch and they were like “I wouldn’t do that. You can’t leave anything in your car.” And we were like, you can’t park on Mission at noon and go to El Cancun? At noon? For lunch with stuff in your car? And they were like “nope, you can’t.”

L: Oh, absolutely not.

B: And that’s the breakdown of civilized society. As we were having this conversation this woman walked down the street who looked like she walked out of an old cartoon where she had been blown out of a smoke stack. When there’s such disparity of wealth, when you have billionaires that go from their armored compound into their armored car and drive to their other armored compound, and then there’s people who look like they’ve been blown out of a smoke stack on the other end, it’s so easy for people to dehumanize one another. This isn’t even a human being, this is just this filthy thing that wants to steal from me. This isn’t even a human being, this is just this person that lives in an armored castle. Of course the crime is rampant. Chris, from the Lawrence Arms, played a Sundowner show at the Bottom of the Hill and his rental car got broken into because he left a t-shirt in it and someone wanted to see if there was anything under it.

L: That’s awful.

B: It’s the best city but it has become kinda not the best city.

L: Do you feel like playing cities like that, that we’ve been playing forever, do you feel like you’re hooking up with a specific scene again?

B: The whole scene isn’t like that anymore. It used to be that we would have to go through thank-you lists to find out about other bands and all that stuff. We’d buy zines and have to drive out to the suburbs or into the city, in order to figure out how to make that scene congeal. It’s not really like that anymore and I don’t feel a connection to anything, I’m just trying to do my thing and hope people are cool with it. I feel like the internet, for as much as it has democratized the making of music and the playing of music and the distribution of music, it has also killed the part of it where “these are the dedicated people who really give a shit about this.” Ultimately that leads to a broader audience and that’s 100% better, but it doesn’t make me feel like I’m back where it started. It’s not the same thing at all.

L: Just because everything has shifted?

B: San Fransisco is still one of my favorite places to play but at the same time it doesn’t feel like when I went there back in the day and people were there because they gave a shit and took the time to find out about it. It’s more that here’s a bunch of people that I’m here to impress.

L: Well it’s definitely less of the “what we do is secret” vibe unfortunately.

B: Not to be a luddite or discredit the value of the internet to the independent scene but I remember when it was smoke signals and secret codes and that stuff was a bit more special to me. For better or worse. I’m an old man and people will read this and say that I’m stupid for it but my formative years were based on an underground that for whatever reason doesn’t exist anymore.

L: Well I feel like that underground exists in a different way but maybe it’s just not something that has that emotional connection for you.

B: I’m wrong, because an underground does still exist and those shows are still going on and those networks are still completely underground and weird and cool. I walked by a weird storefront the other day and there were a bunch of punks hanging out outside and I thought they must do shows there, that’s obvious. But I didn’t know about it.

L: I didn’t know about the Ivy Room until American Steel played there the other night, because that’s how out of the loop I am, and now I’m stoked about it.  It’s gonna be great.

B: I love when people who give a shit come out to the shows. So please come out to the shows. San Francisco is a second home to me, my two biggest mentors are from there, and I have always loved the shit out of the city, so lets party.

Upcoming Brendan Kelly solo shows:

2/22 – Albany, CA @ Ivy Room
2/23 – San Francisco, CA @ Thee Parkside
2/28 – Edmonton, AB @ The Buckingham
3/1 – Calgary, AB @ Broken City

Worriers are about to head out on tour with Awakebutstillinbed and Pity Party! Check out the dates below:

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