While Chicago punk rock legend Brendan Kelly is probably best known for his work with The Lawrence Arms (closely followed by the hilariously bleak things he tweets as his “Nihilist Arby’s” internet alter ego), the former Slapstick and Broadways member also stays active by churning out excellent new material with his other band, The Falcon, and his Brendan Kelly And The Wandering Birds solo endeavor.
During a year in which The Lawrence Arms released a retrospective album and enjoyed “some of the best touring” they’d ever had, Kelly also released the first Wandering Birds album since 2012. Before he comes to Cactus Club on Friday, January 11 to play in support of that new record (Keep Walkin’ Pal, out on Red Scare Industries now), Kelly told Milwaukee Record about his approach to writing material for three noticeably different projects, why he’s looking forward to his long-awaited return to Milwaukee, how the new Lawrence Arms record is progressing, and why the latest Wandering Birds album is going to be everybody’s favorite record in 2021.
Milwaukee Record: Another year just ended, and it seems like it was a really big one for you. The Lawrence Arms had a retrospective and The Wandering Birds had a new album. What has the year been like for you?
Brendan Kelly: It’s been a crazy year, man. I’ve been looking forward to putting out this Wandering Birds thing for a long time. I’ve been working on it for a couple years, so to see it come to life—especially kind of surprisingly—out the blue and the end of the year, that was pretty unexpected. It was an unexpected pleasure for me to be able to do that. And The Lawrence Arms retrospective was the totally opposite end of the spectrum. It’s something I never expected to want to do or have happen and I never saw a point of, but I’m really glad we did it because touring on that record was some of the best touring we’ve ever done. We got to hang with the Red City Radio guys and with Sincere Engineer.
From that perspective, it’s all been really good. But it’s also a year when some of my good friends have perished, so I approached aging into this particular year with a little trepidation.
MR: You mentioned you’ve been working on The Wandering Birds album for a while. It seems like this one is very different than the predecessor. It has a way different landing point and there’s a few more electronic elements incorporated. Was the differing approach something that was intentional or was it a byproduct of the years, the new experiences, and new things you wanted to get out?
BK: I think this is the distillation of what that first album promised. The first album wasn’t particularly well-received when it came out. Now, I know people like it a lot. But at the time it came out, it was “this is too weird!” And with this record, people are also like “this is too weird. I don’t like this dog shit!” But I think history will find that when you go back and listen to both of these records, the last record was half-stepping towards what this record is.
The first record still has a toe in the pool of traditional punk rock. Like, “yeah, we’re trying some weird shit here, but you remember this guy’s voice, right?!” And there were still some aggressive chord changes and distorted guitars on a guitar-heavy rock album. This [new] record, sort of fulfills the prophecy of some of the weirder songs on [the debut]. The difference is that it just went all the way there. So I don’t see it as being different stylistically. I just see it as a full commitment. Then again, what the fuck do I know? I’m in the eye of the hurricane. To me, that’s what it sounds like, but who is less qualified to judge my music than me? I’m the only one who it can’t surprise, you know?
MR: I’ve always wondered, with all the other bands that you’re in—The Lawrence Arms, The Falcon, The Wandering Birds—what’s the process of designating material? Like, do you write a song and say “this is a Lawrence Arms song” or “this is a Wandering Birds song”? Or what’s the rationale behind which one goes with what project?
BK: No. That’s not how I do it at all. I sit down to write a record. I sit down and I’m like “it’s time to write a Wandering Birds record.” That’s what I digest and how everything that comes through me filters out. I hate to use the word “paradigm,” but it’s a paradigm of what this Wandering Birds record will sound like. I’m not like a whimsical esoteric wizard, like, plucking songs out of the air and saying “you go in The Lawrence Arms pile.” I have to sit down and focus on making on whole record, which is why I think all the records wind up being sort of thematic. Again, I’m not some sort of crazy genius with some huge endgame with this stuff. I don’t understand how people make records that aren’t thematic, to be honest. If that’s where you are with your life, how is a metaphor not created through the whole thing? It probably has something to do with my sort of limited imagination and visionary skills, but to me, I can’t do it any other way.
MR: So what’s the overriding theme or prevailing concept in this latest Wandering Birds record?
BK: There are two important points to keep in mind here. One is that the record definitely has a sense of humor, but I don’t think it’s a funny record. And then, the record is also about staring down death and coping with it like a fucking coward or child—hiding yourself in sex and drugs and pills and drinks and powders and fucking reckless behavior and sometimes crime in order to stave off the fact that you’re a mortal. But it’s kind of doing it with a laugh, you know? Which, again, is not to say that it’s a funny album, but the narrator of the record is self-aware that they’re doing something pathetic. Obviously, I identify somewhat with this narrator—for the lack of a less pretentious word—but I’m also not that guy. Like, I’ve never held a woman in a pit, then wore her skin around or anything like that.
MR: Oh, good! So what has the response been like been like on the road so far? You’re about halfway through your weekend runs.
BK: The people that come see me acoustic have got to already be in the niche, particularly in the winter time. The response as been really positive. It’s been great to hear people sing these songs. The response not on the road has been extraordinarily negative, but it’s a different kind of record. I knew when I was making it, I was like “man, nobody is going to like this for at least a year, if not two years.” But I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: it’s going to be everybody’s favorite record in 2021.
MR: Onto Milwaukee…you haven’t really been here in a while, at least not as a performer. I’m not implying you have any beef with Milwaukee, but why has it been so long?
BK: I don’t have any beef with Milwaukee. I actually love Milwaukee. I’m really excited that this worked out.
MR: But roughly how long has it been since you were last on a stage in Milwaukee?
BK: Gosh, I don’t know. I want to say it was when Taking Back Sunday played the Eagles Ballroom and we played the lobby for the line, which was embarrassing, to put it mildly.
We used to play Milwaukee so much. We used to be in Milwaukee every other weekend. So much of our formative career as a band was forged in Wisconsin and, specifically, in Milwaukee. We played house shows in Milwaukee that were awesome. We played all sorts of iterations of The Rave and Eagles—every single room there. We played tons of shows in Milwaukee, but it’s just been so long. I remember we had a particularly awesome house show in Milwaukee, but that was probably in, like, 2002. So it’s really been a long time since we’ve had a chance to make memories in Milwaukee. But we drive up there to watch the Cubs sometimes and that’s fun as hell. And I do love your sausages and cheeses.
MR: What can we expect at the [Cactus Club] show? Is it going to be exclusively Wandering Birds or will be a range of everything you’ve done?
BK: On these runs, I’ve usually been doing Wandering Birds stuff because that’s what I’m touring on, right? But I can always be persuaded to pull some other shit out of the bag, particularly in Milwaukee, since it’s been so long. I can probably play some other stuff.
MR: Other than the handful of Wandering Birds shows you have left in this run, what does 2019 hold for you personally and musically?
BK: I just wrote the first new Lawrence Arms song in a couple years. I think it turned out pretty good, which is a little bit frightening because usually with the first song, I’m like “that’s good enough to get me to a place were I can write good songs.” On this one, I’ll have to rewrite the verses, but I have the chorus and the outro, which is the hard stuff. So yeah, what I’m going to focus on this year is writing a new Lawrence Arms record. Other than that, I don’t think there’s anything else planned. We’ll do some shows and we’ll do another War On Christmas, but that’s not for a while. So come hang out in Milwaukee. I’d love to see you there. Come say hi. We’ll high five and it’ll be fun.
Brendan Kelly will play a solo show at Cactus Club on Friday, January 11. Sincere Engineer (solo) and Bobby Flowers will play in support. The 21+ show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance ($15 doors).