Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms on Tattoos, ‘Metropole’ and Art
“We’ve always been very conscious of the notion that a lot of bands get old and start to really suck when they start to rehash all of the tired old shit that they did,” says The Lawrence Arms frontman Brendan Kelly. “I get the feeling when I listen to some bands — and I don’t want to name any names or anything — but some of these bands that have been around for a while give me the feeling that they have been listening to their own old, old records to inspire themselves to make new records. That’s gross. That’s like eating your own poo for nutrients; it’s only going to get worse. If your greatest inspiration is yourself you’re going to do a shittier version of that. That’s the kind of thing that we’ve always really striven to avoid.”
Chicago punk stalwarts The Lawrence Arms have spent much their career trying to perfect a balancing act — an ever-evolving sound that still stays true to their roots. On their first album in eight years, Metropole, the Lawrence Arms are able to walk that line with ease. Many elements of the album are familiar; the back and forth vocals between guitarist Chris McCaughan and bassist Brendan Kelly, the acerbic wit in the lyrics and the sing-along choruses that have defined the band are all there. From that foundation, the band has created an album that sounds different from anything they have ever done before.
“Metropole is a little bit different from our last record but our last record was a little different from the record before that and that’s always been the way we have rolled,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen a little bit of the fan’s response and some of the funnier things I have heard have been people complaining that it’s not the same as our last shit. Well, man, people have been saying that about our records for the last 16 years. So, in that regard this album carries on that proud tradition.”
Part of the reason it took eight years for Metropole to be created is that the band was reluctant to force out a subpar album to meet a deadline or quota. Instead they waited until they were inspired to make a worthy album.
“We make art in the way that you might take a leak; if we don’t have to we don’t think about it,” Kelly said. “Once it’s in us we realize ‘Oh, fuck, we have a record of stuff here that we need to get out.’ We aren’t the kind of band that is interested in label deadlines or touring cycles.”
Much like how the band’s sound has changed over the years so has the way Kelly approaches getting tattoos. By the time he was 21 Kelly was already pretty heavily inked with a great deal of high-quality work, now at 37 his tastes have changed.
“I’m not really interested in tattoos that look technically great,” Kelly said. “I still appreciate them, obviously, but I have enough ‘proper’ tattoos on my body. Right now the one thing I’m interested in are tattoos that I get with my friends and tattoos that have a fun story. And they have to be kind of fast, I don’t want to sit for more than an hour. I have a lot of really shitty tattoos as a result of that but they are my favorite ones.”
Some of the shitty tattoos that Kelly is sporting these days include a toucan he got in Costa Rica from an artist who had to trace the image directly off of a computer screen and a bicycle his buddy put on him after Kelly drunkenly bought a tattoo machine off of the internet. While Kelly relishes the story behind those tattoos it is the American Steel tattoo he had artist Mark deSalvo ink on him after a brutal night of drinking that provokes the fondest memory.
“I was in San Francisco with my friend Ryan who plays in the amazing band American Steel. We were hanging out together getting super drunk with Mark deSalvo, the artist that did the cover of NOFX’s Heavy Petting Zoo with the guy fingering the sheep. The three of us are having a drunken love-in and I was like ‘Man, I want to get an American Steel tattoo tomorrow.’ Then Ryan said ‘I wanna get a Lawrence Arms tattoo.’ Then Mark was like, ‘I got a tattoo machine, I’ll tattoo you guys.’ The next day we are at the Great American Music Hall and we’re all so hungover and thinking that this was the worst fucking idea. As Mark put on the stencil on the inside of my arm his hand is shaking so bad. To his credit he threw it on and it stuck perfectly. ‘See? No fucking problem,’ Mark said. ‘I need some tequila, get me some tequila.’ His girlfriend came back holding a tray with five shots of tequila on it and he just goes boom, boom, boom. Mark takes them all down, fires up the needle and just goes in. I’m like, ‘Dude, no gloves?’ ‘Nah, man, I hate gloves, they’re gross,’ Mark says. As this is going down our publicist is taking photos for some tattoo magazine and my buddy Matt Skiba (from Alkaline Trio) is saying ‘You can’t publish this shit, this is like getting tattooed in a fucking Siberian jail.’ He was right, but the tattoo stuck and it turned out great. Mark’s hands really did straighten out after the five shots of tequila.”
It is evident through his ink and his lyrics that Kelly has a special connection to his hometown of Chicago. In addition to having the city’s flag and the logo of its unofficial beer of choice (Old Style) tattooed onto the bassist’s skin The Lawrence Arms have seemingly name checked half the taverns and el stops in the Second City in their songs. Despite McCaughan now living in Portland, the place that the trio came of age has become permanently entwined into their psyche as individuals and as a band.
“Being from Chicago is a huge part of my identity,” Kelly said. “The thing that’s weird is that I didn’t realize how interesting being from a place can be until I traveled all over the world and learned that a lot of people don’t care for where they are from. Chicago is a great place and that seeps through in everything we do.”
Metropole has all of the things that a fan of the band would expect in addition to exploring new ground for the band both sonically and lyrically, so it manages to remain fresh without alienating the diehards. It also has the distinction of being the only album to ever name check a Dostoevsky character in a song about tweeting; that alone makes it worth the wait.
“This is our first album in eight years and we’re pretty stoked on it,” Kelly said. “It just took us some time to get some perspective, time to listen to some new stuff, and recognize what would be interesting for the next chapter of The Lawrence Arms.”