Punk legends The Lawrence Arms are back with ‘Metropole’, their first album in eight years. Capturing themes of urban disconnectedness and ageing with blistering punk gems, it’s also their debut with iconic label Epitaph. We caught up with the band’s Brendan Kelly for an expectedly entertaining chat about the new album, social media and juggalo culture.
‘Metropole’ is the first album from you guys in something like eight years. Was the idea of making another album something that was kind of calculated or did it happen fairly organically?
It happened really organically. There was a period of time where we didn’t know if we were going to make another album, not because we had problems or anything, but it just never seemed like the right time. I’ve never used this metaphor before, probably because it’s gross, but I think that we’ve always made records the way that a lot of people take dumps or take a leak. We’ve got to do it when we do, and if we don’t, we don’t even think about it you know? For a long time, we just didn’t think about. I wrote some songs, Chris wrote some songs, we started getting together and it started really turning into something. We were like “This sounds like a Lawrence Arms record”, so we did it. It wasn’t like we spent eight years trying to come up with a sound, or we spent eight years slaving over these twelve songs. We spent eight years not feeling it and then all of a sudden we felt it, and as soon as we felt it we did in pretty much the usual time it takes us to make a record. So it was very organic. It’s probably hard to imagine, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s been that long.
You’ve all obviously kept pretty busy in the interim with your side projects and things like that, but when you were writing the songs for the album and they felt like Lawrence Arms songs, did you notice differences compared to writing the songs for, say, ‘Apathy and Exhaustion’ or ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’?
I think that’s sort of a calling card of our band, actually – every record has been a little bit different. I was thinking about this the other day because I came across a piece that I thought was fairly well written where someone didn’t like the new record, “oh, they’ve changed, they’ve lost it”. At first I was kind of like, that sucks to hear but then I was like, what am I talking about? I hear this every time we put out a record! We do change with every release; not a huge amount – we always sound like The Lawrence Arms, but I mean, ‘Apathy and Exhaustion’ was a pretty mid-tempo, fairly straightforward kind of poppy record with pretty simple choruses and stuff. ‘Greatest Story’ was a little more dark and experimental and weird, and then ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ was a little more balls-to-the-wall, and I think this one’s different again. Every single time we’ve made one of those changes people have been like “Well, nope, I can’t get behind this” but we’ve brought a few new people on every time, and I think that’s just the way it is with our band. Everything’s gonna be a little different, but that’s the thing. I don’t want to be one of those bands that makes the exact same record six times. I’d like to think that when we did, say, ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ for example, when we went into writing that record that that was the absolute best we could do of that style. So why would we come back to that?
I really like that as far as on songs like "Paradise Shitty", down to the album’s title and artwork, there’s this real feeling of being isolated in this big open urban sprawl. Was that a particularly conscious theme?
Very much so. In fact, the original artwork for the back cover was conceptually supposed to be a metropolitan subway map. So it’s very literally supposed to a journey through the city. The idea of isolation within such a packed environment has a lot to do with a lot of the themes on the record, for sure.
Capturing the audio samples of crowds, street performers, stuff like that intertwined with the songs, was that part of it too?
That was part of it. Originally, what we were going to do was capture me and Chris, we were going to walk around and I was going to interview Chris, he was going to interview me and we would just have this thread of conversation throughout the album. As we started to record, what turned out to be the coolest stuff was the ambient sound, you know? You can’t get a lot out of the amount of time between a song. What is that, like a second? You can’t say a lot of words, right? So these ambient noises were so much cooler. Particularly the ones of like, when weird music was playing. I ended up being in Italy for a while where the opportunity to capture street musicians was insane. There were so many weirdos playing accordions, playing grand pianos right on the street. Some guy was ass-out in the middle of the road playing a saxophone. So it started out as one idea, morphed into this other thing that kind of took a life of its own. I think we all ended up feeling that the idea of sounds was sort of like a benchmark. If you think of this album as a journey through a city it’s like you come around a corner, here’s this sound, you come around a corner, here’s this traffic or here’s this half-heard conversation or this weird bagpipe noise coming out of the speaker, that sort of stuff. I think it ended up being more in line with what we were trying to do in the first place.
You guys worked with Matt Allison on the album, who has been producing your records for as long as I can remember. Was that important after taking such a long break, to have Matt produce again?
That’s a good question. I don’t know that there was ever much of a conversation about whether or not that would happen. We got ready to record and Matt was around, he was like “I don’t believe you guys are gonna record” and we were like “Yeah, we’re stoked… when are you free!?” Matt’s a good friend of ours, he’s around all the time, he’s a great engineer and makes great record. He’s obviously instrumental in whatever success we’ve had, you’ve got to attribute a lot of that to Matt Allison. I don’t think there was ever a point where we ever considered not recording with Matt.
You’re particularly active on social media, in particular Twitter. I was reading on your blog that people had been complaining about the fact that there were references to Twitter on the album, that it dates it and things like that. What are your thoughts on that? Do you feel like Twitter has become an integral enough part of culture at this stage?
Here’s the thing. You can definitely make a terrible lyric about Twitter – there’s no two ways about it. But, my point is more that you can’t be dismissive of something simply because of the subject matter. There could be a beautiful poem about a guy taking a dump. There could also be a terrible poem about a guy taking a dump, but to just dismiss it like “Oh, this is a poem about a guy taking a dump? I can’t even give it the due diligence of seeing if it’s an incredible work of art or not”. That, to me, is ridiculous. That’s like someone saying “Oh I just don’t like rap music”. Really? You’ve heard all the rap music and you don’t like any of it? There’s like, millions of songs out there, I bet there’s one that you think is fucking awesome. That was sort of the problem that I had it.
The way that I’m referencing Twitter in these songs is as a totally disposable waste of time. Something that you should see as maybe a distractive tendency, to put off your life. It’s the same reason people sit around watching porn and jacking off all day, or drink whiskey, or go and bet on horses all day, whatever. Twitter is just another life distraction addiction, and that’s the point. The broader point is, don’t tell me that Twitter is not allowed to be in songs. The Ramones didn’t sing about Twitter, but the Ramones sang about sniffing glue, and that was high technology as the time!
I was watching the video for Seventeener, and it features the three of you doing a brief stint as juggalos – you’ve been somewhat vocal about juggalos in the past. ICP toured Australia recently and I was lucky enough to cover one of the shows and it was super eye-opening; what are your thoughts on juggalo culture?
Every single subcultural group that identifies through music paints themselves as outcasts. Whether you’re goth, whether you’re metal, whether you’re punk, whatever you are, you’re like “Oh, people just don’t understand us”, right? But the truth is, people fucking understand you. Goth, you’ve got your Marilyn Mansons and Trent Reznors – that shit is prom music. Hip-hop is the lifeblood of modern world culture – and it’s the same with punk. Who are the punk rock icons of today? Billie Joe Armstrong and Tom DeLonge? Those dudes are both so handsome, and they’re billionaires!
But, along come the juggalos and – lo and behold – they really are a bunch of fucking losers, you know? They’re either like, super fat or real skinny, and they spray soda on each other for fun, and people actually don’t understand.
Totally. Identifying with punk or metal there’s this idea you’re on the outside of culture, but then you look at juggalos and it’s like, they’re legitimately on the outer, outer, outer side of culture.
Really outside of culture, it’s no joke for them. Their songs are mind-numbingly stupid, and they sell, like, 5XL hockey jerseys that sell well. It’s like a circus – no pun intended – but it’s just fucking fascinating because it’s the real thing. It’s what everybody aspires to be but nobody actually wants to be.
You guys toured last year as part of Soundwave. Do you have any plans to head back, maybe do a headlining tour or something?
God, I would love to. It’s just a matter of logistics, as you probably know. It’s not as easy as jumping in the van and doing a few shows for us to get to Australia. There’s nothing on the books right now, but that’s not to say something won’t come up, like, tomorrow. We all love going to Australia. It’s a beautiful country, and those are the kind of opportunities that make this whole thing super special.
This album took eight years – do you feel like it’ll probably be another eight years before we hear another Lawrence Arms album?
Not really. I kind of feel like there’ll be another record soon. I mean, we haven’t written any songs for it yet, but we’re getting back into the groove. When we were making that’s something that Chris and I talked about – “You know, this record’s going to be cool. I bet the next record’s going to be really fucking cool.”
Just to wrap up, obviously ageing is one of the stronger themes on ‘Metropole’. Can you see yourself doing Lawrence Arms for a lot longer? Is there gonna be a "Seventeener (17, 37, 57)" twenty years from now?
(laughs) I don’t know man. It doesn’t seem hard to me. I guess it’s only as hard as the songs you make for yourself. I used to be in a band called Slapstick, we were a ska-punk band, we started when I was 16. If we were still a band now, and I was still trying to write songs to match the intensity of the songs I was writing when I was 16 I think I could say with assurance, no, I’m not going to be doing this when I’m 57. But the sort of beautiful thing about The Lawrence Arms is that we continue to change and evolve, and we evolve with who we are. I’d feel comfortable playing songs on this album that we just released 20 years from now, and I think the next record we release will have even more of a shelf life in terms of our lifetime. I always want to make music that we won’t look fucking stupid playing. I don’t want our songs to be a combover, you know? I want our songs to be songs that are appropriate for us to play, and that are cool for us to play, and as long as we can keep writing songs and look at ourselves, I don’t see any reason why it can’t go on forever.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Brendan.
Thanks so much. Later.
‘Metropole’ is out now through Epitaph.