Isabella Ambrosio catches up with Brendan Kelly of Lawrence Arms to discuss their latest album, Skeleton Coast.
Never did I imagine that my first interview with an artist would be over the phone, with someone that I have been aware of since I was 12 years old. My older brother, Tim, had always nudged the Lawrence Arms my way, but I had never paid much attention until I got older and my respect for some of the influential and experienced Chicago punk bands began to blossom. My father made a habit of playing their records throughout the house during quarantine, where I found myself sitting down with him and listening, saving each album to my own playlists. By the time my interest had peaked, my brother had begun working on a podcast with the bassist from the Lawrence Arms, as they had a new album on the horizon. So, welcome to the Skeleton Coast.
Skeleton Coast was released six years after Lawrence Arms’ previous album, Metropole, on July 17th, 2020. The album was written in January, pre-COVID on a small pecan orchard outside El Paso, Texas. The album touches on themes of narrative isolation, unintentionally resonating strongly with their fanbase when the album was eventually released in the middle of the pandemic.
Brendan Kelly, the bassist and one of two singers for the Lawrence Arms, called from his back porch where he sat with his dog, who would occasionally howl during the interview, and breezily struck up a conversation. Beginning with a broad question, I ask how he knows when it’s time for a new record. His answer was long and seamless, “The truth is, we don’t really adhere to any sort of schedule… When we decide to do a new record, it’s when we get to a place, Chris [McCaughan, singer and guitarist for the Lawrence Arms] and I as songwriters, are like, ‘I think we’ve got perspective now’ and it’s something that’s kind of just intuitive, it’s not something we rush. We’re not one of those bands that tries to stay on an album cycle or anything like that.” He then elaborates on his and McCaughan’s writing style: “The day that we wrote the first song on this record - Chris and I send demos back and forth, even when we lived in the same apartment we did it - and it’s the day that I was recording my song and I’m like ‘Yes, I’m gonna send Chris the first demo’ and while I’m recording it, he sent me a demo for the first song, we didn’t even talk about it at all. So, it’s like, Chris and I operate, we’ve been best friends for 33 years… So, there’s a little more of a psychic connection going on than probably either of us are comfortable with. It’s sort of like a ‘bat-signal’ goes up every couple of years and we’re like, ‘Okay, it’s time’”. Their writing style is reflected heavily within a beautiful juxtaposition showcased by both writers coming to the table with different perspectives and different deliveries, emphasised by McCaughan’s smooth vocals and poetic writing style, with Kelly’s raspy vocals and gritty lyrics. But within the very different perspectives and deliveries, they form a story following characters that discusses loneliness and isolation.
Kelly begins discussing the content of the record by bringing up the narrative in the first half of the record, something that their fans know them for – thematic albums. “I think that there’s a narrative that goes through the entire record and the first half of it is very much setting the table. Where are we, what’s going on, it’s like this universe we are inhabiting now. It’s funny because people have asked me; ‘You have so many thematic records, what’s the theme of this record? What’s the story?’ And I’m trying to, like, get to it because it’s hard for me to see also, but reading interviews with [Tim] Crisp and we’ve both sort of homed in on it finally, as we talk more and more about it. So, it’s kind of like this fucking scene is sort of outpost [at] the edge of the world, like the end of the world, whether you want to talk […] spatially and like sort of the scavengers that live there at the end of the world.” The intensity of the theme of loneliness throughout the album is apparent through the symbolism of isolated animals such as wild dogs, coyotes, and foxes; “They are all things that just howl into nothing. For the hope of somebody hearing them. There’s one of those samples on there that’s called a ‘Vixen cry’ and it’s when a fox belts out, I guess… The ‘Vixen Cry’ specifically is sort of like a lovelorn kind of cry… They do it, and their responses are monogamous. And only their fellow fox will respond to it. And that’s sort of what the second half of the record is about. We set the table that this is fucking outposts, end of the world, and the moments when you have to try and find your happiness, you have to find the little moments of joy, the things that make you wanna fuckin’, keep on keepin’ on, no matter how hard that might be.”
Skeleton Coast discusses the theme of the end of the world, expressing and telling stories through characters. As the songs switch between Kelly and McCaughan’s vocals and lyrics, they weave together a tale that is relevant to this day and age. Kelly’s vocals strike as classic punk, with the guitars contrasting slightly with their melodic nature, creating an incredibly interesting listening experience. Skeleton Coast is a cohesive, beautiful punk album that will not disappoint the Lawrence Arms fans, while also bringing some new elements throughout.