The Lawrence Arms discuss every track on their great new album ‘Skeleton Coast’
Brendan Kelly, Chris McCaughan, and Neil Hennessy are true punk lifers. They've all been involved in one great project or another for over 20 years (Slapstick, The Broadways, The Falcon, Sundowner, Treasure Fleet, Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds, etc), and when they come together as The Lawrence Arms, magic always seems to happen. Their gravelly yet melodic, shambolic yet precise approach to punk resulted in at least a few classic punk albums of the early/mid 2000s, and after an eight-year gap between albums, they proved they very much still had it on 2014's Metropole, one of the finest and most underrated punk comebacks of the 2010s. They took another lengthy break after that (and stayed busy with other projects), but now they're finally back again with a new album -- their first in six years -- and The Lawrence Arms have done it again. Skeleton Coast is a graceful late-career album that stands tall next to their classics.
Punk is often seen as a young person's game, but The Lawrence Arms have really figured out how to progress and mature their sound without losing the charm that fans fell in love with 15-20 years ago. Skeleton Coast has everything you want from a Lawrence Arms album -- Brendan Kelly and Chris McCaughan's trademark dual vocals, big anthemic hooks, adrenaline-rush tempos, and just the right amount of tenderness bubbling up beneath the rougher surface.
The album is out now, and we recently spoke over email to Brendan and Chris, who gave us a track-by-track breakdown of the full LP. They had a ton of (very entertaining) stuff to say, including detailed stories about the writing and recording processes, meanings behind some of the songs, anecdotes involving Brett Gurewitz and Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano, a story of how John Candy's son would've appeared in the video for "PTA" if not for COVID-19, and how they took influence from Crimpshrine, Bad Religion, Beastie Boys, Immortal Technique, Solange, Naked Raygun, OutKast, Looking Glass, Operation Ivy, Dead Milkmen, Nikolai Gogol, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, and more on this LP.
Skeleton Coast is out now via Epitaph. Listen to the record and read on for Brendan and Chris' track-by-track discussion...
1. "Quiet Storm"
BK: This song is a clear album starter. Chris said he wanted to do a like, Crimpshrine kinda thing with this one, just a fast burner with a real simple and clear point of view. A punk song. He pulled that off in the writing and then Neil bringing in that fill on every chorus is just like the icing on the cake, making it a true tribute to that very influential and under-appreciated band, while still sounding like a classic blazing McCaughan TLA track.
CM: I wrote this song pretty fast - for me, like a few hours one night. I recorded it on my phone and texted it to BK. The chorus originally mirrored the intro - he shot me some feedback and was like “what if you did this?” and I tweaked the chorus slightly. The small change really “tied the room together” so to speak and I think made the song infinitely better. I guess it’s about how making art or whatever is mainly about action for me these days. And about how you need to find some way to drop the pull of the past and the weight of the future and acknowledge the beauty and struggle of the present. Don’t snooze on BK’s Bad Religion-inspired ahhhhh’s in the back half of the second verse.
BK: Of all the things the pandemic robbed us of, probably the worst is that I had Chris Candy (John Candy’s son, who plays in an amazing band called Chotto Ghetto, btw) on board to re-enact some of the great scenes in his father’s iconic film Planes, Trains and Automobiles with our beloved photographer friend, Hiro Tanaka (trust me, this is good casting) in the Steve Martin role for the video for this track. Welp, that didn’t happen and Felicity Jayn Heath put together a beautiful video in its own right (definitely better than whatever half-assed shit I was imagining), but I can’t help but wonder at the magic that may have been. Funny aside, if Chris and Hiro wouldn’t do it, my backup idea was to do the same thing but with me and Chris as the two main characters, but I’d be Steve Martin and Chris would be John Candy, just to make everyone think we were sniffing glue or something when we cast it.
CM: The last line of this song really drops a piano on me. It has a kind of classic BK stomp to it. Pretty sure it was the first one he sent me when we started writing. I will always think of the “You’re going the wrong way” scene between John Candy and Steve Martin in Planes, Trains & Automobiles in the instrumental break– followed by Del Griffith (Candy’s character) standing on an L platform in Chicago with nowhere and no one to go to, heartbreaking stuff.
3. "Belly Of The Whale"
BK: In a way this is a biblical reference, yes. But in a more real way, it’s about finding your place of peace in a hostile world. In the MOST real way, this is a song that I wrote after Chris and I had discussed his suggestion for the album title Skeleton Coast and once we kinda settled on that, it was really inspiring to me. The inception of the notion of the skeleton coast into this sheaf of songs, as well as the idea to title the album Skeleton Coast, both Chris’s, but we both work back and forth and, I THINK, respond to each other’s thoughts and words and vibes until we wind up with a record of cohesive tunes that are coming from the same team soul. This was my “YO! I’m all in on this concept” offering. Also, Chris’s solo in the interlude has this vaguely twisted but otherwise classic vintage vibe that gives me the creeps in the absolutely best possible way, and his whimsical “aaaaahs” under the bridge before the last chorus…Quite possibly my favorite vocal performance on this whole album.
CM: I love the way this song turned out, different than I had imagined based on the original demo. More epic. When I was working on guitar ideas for this song I found a cool illustration of Jonah in the whale and used it as part of a, forgive me, mood board? The vocal cadence and clip to the song have that uniquely BK stylized delivery. I get a triumph in the face of adversity feeling when I hear this one. I tried to lean into the anthemic quality when we built out the guitars to capture a “Born in the USA” vibe but filtered through our strange world, so maybe it’s almost anti-anthem.
4. "Dead Man’s Coat"
BK: This song is very sad. It’s also got a lot going on. My bassline is very uh...I don’t know how to say this… it’s a very prominent bassline that almost is the melody at times, particularly in the instrumental parts. Meanwhile, the guitar throughout this burner of a track is suuuuuper ambient, understated and at times downright perplexing. That’s because Chris very consciously didn’t want this sounding like it just came off Oh! Calcutta!. His point of differentiation in this song, which could have been one of those muscly tracks on that record with a tiny bit of tweaking, was to play more thoughtful guitar. I actually wanted to call this song “thoughtful guitar” but "Dead Man’s Coat" had a better ring.
CM: On one hand, this song is a kind of espionage tale about the final, failed mission of an undercover agent. Beneath the loose narrative surface, it’s about various types or reckoning with your own universe. Hard to spin this out of the somber message that even though things can change, and we have hope for what’s next, the future is always a step ahead and we’re forced to exist on these terms. There’s a short story called “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol, considered by many to rank alongside the great short stories ever written. The song title and image of the coat, I suppose, are a slight tip of the hat.
5. "Pigeons and Spies"
BK: This song is odd. In a very very real way this song is a tribute to Adam Yauch and my fascination with hip hop at large, and specifically the Beastie Boys and VERY specifically MCA’s desire to mash disparate things together. In that vein, there’s a tip of the hat in here to Immortal Technique’s track "The Point Of No Return" which talks about literally everything that’s ever happened from mesozoic comets to the knights templar to supermax prisons and he even kinda tries to tie it all together. I just wanted that hip hop vibe of singing about dinosaurs, singing about weird locker room drama for young unsure people like I once was, singing about drone bombers, whatever, and then bring it all together with the idea that at the end of the day we are all just people who are, without fail, either telling you how tired we are, or consciously NOT telling you how tired we are. And I DO try to sing just like MCA in the bridge, which is done in a classic TLA-ripping-off-the-Beastie-Boys cadence. RIP and much love. This song is weird and I truly didn’t think anyone would like it. Jesus. I’m writing too much.
CM: I wanted this song to have subtle muffled guitar lines in the verses that created a sort of stakeout vibe, which was actually super inspired by “Don’t You Wait” by Solange. When we got to the bridge during my vocal tracking I stumbled embarrassingly through the vocal switch offs. Eventually, the advice from the control room was “you just gotta pretend like you’re in the Beastie Boys and channel your inner MCA” and I was able to make it happen. Hopefully cool.
6. "Last, Last Words"
BK: When I heard the demo of this, I was struck by the words and how they’re like Lewis Carroll style wildly poetic. Chris has always been a wordsmith, so that’s not totally a shocker. I didn’t quite know how I thought it could come together, though...I was sitting with Neil one night right before we left for the studio and I said “I just don’t know how that song’s gonna sound” and he said, “it’s got like the modern version of the bounce of '100 Resolutions'” and suddenly I saw the whole thing in my head and felt like an idiot for not having seen it myself. I literally said “OH! Say no more. You’re right!”
This was one of the most fun ones to lay down in the studio and I just can’t say enough about how cool the guitar arrangements and vocal performance turned out on this.
CM: "I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out."
7. "(the) Demon"
BK: Um...Guitar solo. That’s all. This song is about celebrating your worst impulses and YES, the lyrics are really dark, but this song is ALL about that blazing guitar solo. Funny story, when I first played this for [longtime TLA producer] Matt Allison he said “dude, I don’t know if it needs to say ‘I am the demon’ THAT many times” and I said “oh, no. It has to. That is the point. This song is about how when you recognize yourself as the demon for real, you can’t get away. It has to be too long. It has to get weird. Or else there’s no point to the song.” He relented to my vision and the song appears as is. But with that whipass solo. Who even knew 2020 was CAPABLE of a solo like this? Another funny thing: I have a recording of Chris laying down this solo, and it’s like he’s kinda ALMOST like looking at something else. Clearly, it’s an inspired performance that couldn’t be half-assed and I know what it’s like to stare off into space when you’re trying to just feel something, art wise. But let’s say it was half-assed… this motherfucker is that good that he half-assed THAT guitar solo???? Jesus fucking Christ. I’m in the right band.
CM: When I first heard this song as an acoustic demo on my phone, I admittedly texted Brendan and was like “bruh you okay?!” Kinda dark! I’d been messing around with some guitar stuff for the second half of this track and had a rough vision of how it might turn out. I’m probably rewriting history but Matt punched me in for the end guitar solo thing and I played it and let the final notes ring out - as one does. When we cut, the collective vibe in the room was… ohhhh yeah that’s the one. Oh, and I played the solo on an ES-330 if that’s the kind of thing you’re into knowing.
BK: Kinda a big ass song on this record. This bassline is PROBABLY the most intense bassline I’ve ever come at a Lawrence Arms song with. Also, the way I had written it didn’t sit well with Matt and Neil and they kinda made me rewrite it in the studio (as they told me what to write and I stubbornly listened to them kind of but insisted on not just doing exactly what they said, because I may be old, but I’m still a baby), but the final results are that whatever that guy’s name is who plays bass for the ALKALINE TRIO is called me up to tell me that my bassline on this song is ‘Next Level,’ which was a cool compliment I don’t get very often. The salient point about this song is that it rocks and Chris took a lot of chances here, lyrically and vocally, and they all paid off but sure, random A3 guy, make it about me and my admittedly whipass basslines for some reason.
CM: I feel like I need to set the record straight. The first line of this song is “I drove the highways of a skeleton coast.” That line launched the idea for this end of the world outpost: the “Skeleton Coast” that the record is framed in. BUT it was my wife who said to me one night that it would be a cool record title. So, it was her initial spark of an idea - and that was the real jumping off point. Most of my songs on this record are kind of short-story-esque, this one of a mystery writer in exile. Yes, there is an Edgar Allen Poe reference. Yes, I built a falsetto vocal into the chorus.
9. "How To Rot"
BK: This song is fucking weird. The first lines are so inside baseball that I think I’m the only person who would ever understand them, but in short, this song is about how we, as leftists, always kill that which we love by loving it too hard, a la Of Mice and Men or something.
Naked Raygun influenced the pre chorus thing that leads into this thing that sounds like maybe the most triumphant chorus I’ve ever written that doesn’t repeat and then turns into a weird pitch shifted tribute to OutKast and then devolves into a line from "Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass before going back into the Naked Raygun part before paraphrasing a tweet by @dril to end it all. Despite all that ridiculous stupidity, this one is the one that gets stuck in my head the most. I also honestly don't totally understand how I wrote it, how we put it together or how it turned out as well as it did. If any of you ever want to institutionalize me against my will, this song is probably all the evidence you need.
CM: Brendan’s voice on this track has this strained tension that gives it a crazy urgency, which I dig a ton. I tried to do a "Dr. Feelgood" guitar swell in the beginning, which was pretty hilarious in the studio. The hook that does not repeat in this song may be my favorite BK melody on the record. I wanted the chorus guitars to be single note lines and just super minimal and uh I guess “punk.” If this song wasn’t so schizophrenic and run through a super weird lens - it may have echoed a kind of O!C! era of the band. Also, flange.
10. "Under Paris"
BK: This one just burns. I love that it sounds like dark streets and gas lamps and running dogs. Funny thing, at first, in the studio, we had an acoustic strumming over this whole song and it didn’t sound quite right. We talked about it and decided to try it without the acoustic and it just bloomed. Our tour manager, Toby Jeg is fond of the phrase “addition by subtraction” and usually he means like, a guy who refuses to wear a helmet and therefore dies on his ATV, but in this case, we took out this beautiful acoustic performance and ended up with the song that I think encapsulates the city part of the sound we’re going for on this… lone animals screaming into nothing in order to just find something to love.
CM: I always feel hesitant to try to say exactly what a song is about. I’m an unreliable narrator at best, the songs are at times a bit abstract or whatever, and I don’t want to push my own intentions on anyone. Songs are cool because a listener can lend their own unique world and create their own kind of meaning from them. It’s okay with me if that feels pretentious. All that said: this is an abstract short story loosely about climate change and love in a post climate disaster world.
11. "Goblin Foxhunt"
BK: The way I describe this one is “It’s supposed to sound like one of the last songs on Energy by Op Ivy.” I know it does not. I’m not talented enough to do that. But I wanted that love and innocence and weird chordage and general “fuck it, let’s stop and start and that’ll be fine” kinda vibe to shine through. This song has, to me, my favorite vocal bit that I do on this album in “we can neveeeer go baaaaack.” It sums up a lot of things and it’s done with...well, the intent was for it to be like an “We’re reaching at the stars, and we’ve come too far to not burn up upon re-entry, therefore, there’s no going back” kinda vibe, and then either turning your life into something else...blowing up your whole existence, or just living with what you love and where you are, and the realization that nothing is ever perfect. That’s how I wanted that part to sound.
The very end was not initially designed to sound like our heroes, the Dead Milkmen, but as Chris added more and more whimsy, BOOM! Suddenly, we’re all driving a Camaro back from the Bahamas. Chris really channelled whatever that sound was coming out of the hole in the wood for this one, y’all.
CM: This song hits me as a sort of homage or throwback to a lot of the punk songs we grew up on in the mid nineties. And in the most complimentary way, I felt like I already knew the song when I first heard it. My original intentions with the guitars for the instrumental outro were that they’d be super dissonant and droning – but working through in the moment this other nature took over. It’s almost a kind of Dead Milkmen, maybe even late nineties midwest “emo” vibe, and I think was inspired a bit by both. It just opened up into something more major and light and airy. I love the contrast from the front to the back half of the song, it follows this cool trajectory of change.
12. "Lose Control"
BK: This one sounds like it’s written by Mister Burns a little, right? I think this was the first song Chris sent to me where I was like “WHOA!” It’s got a very deep soul, this one. It’s a rare case (and I didn’t write this, so I’m guessing a bit, but I DO know the guy who wrote it pretty well) where it’s written from the perspective of someone you’re kinda supposed to hate and then see that he realizes what you’re just realizing about yourself and your own life and how the metaphor is for all of us and everything. Pretty smart, McCool.
CM: There was a moment in the studio where this song seemed like it might sound like a more “rockin’” Gin Blossoms song. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s kind of bouncy and poppy, but it just wasn’t coming together the way I’d hoped or imagined. Somewhere in the process it clicked back in the right direction. The song is from the perspective of a villain in a vague conversation with a blackhole, beginning to reckon with his life and fate. That point of view wasn’t super premeditated when I wrote this – it just spilled out, so I followed the thread.
13. "Don’t Look At Me"
BK: This is just a sweet love song about going through hell to get what you want and somehow having that not always be enough. No matter how prepared you are. The last line of this song is the second shout out to "Brandy" by Looking Glass on this record. It’s a sad quote of resignation. This song is about literally traversing hell, and to that end, this is the acoustic demo I played to Brett Gurewitz that, upon hearing it, he said “Yeah. We’ll put out this record. Do we need to do a new contract or uh...is that why you’re here?” and I said “Yes. We had a one record deal.” Which, dude. I wouldn’t have flown from Chicago if we had a record deal in place. This was the most stressful day of my recent life (pre-plague and civil war, of course). But, all’s well that ends the way that day did.
And yo, if there’s a better metaphor for going up to Epitaph (literally a word associated with a totem to the dead) as a weird old man band to play acoustic demos for literally your favorite songwriter ever... this song is unintentionally but still basically ABOUT that day. I have to shout out Jen Razavi [of The Bombpops] for driving me there in my panic mode when she surely had better things to do. She’s much nicer than Charon, the ferrier of Greek myth, I bet. TYVM.
CM: Neil’s drum patterns and work on the record are insane and awesome, but this track just feels like such a perfect snapshot of his supernatural ability to choose moments and make everything come together. I wanted the intro to basically be like a weird homage to Knight Rider or the kind of part you could just loop and do some night driving to. With the guitars I tried to really pick my moments, pretty much a goal throughout the record. "Brandy," the song by Looking Glass which BK references a few times on the LP, has a long history with The Lawrence Arms. It was on regular rotation in the van in our early days of touring, and found a nice home on this track.
14. "Coyote Crown"
BK: Sometimes, at the end of all things, you’re sitting there with a coyote skull on your head and a fire flickering across your face and you’re watching everything crumble as you, personally settle into the reality of nothing ever being the same again. At this point I bet you all do this every day. I know I do. Chris wrote a song about it. I picture him with the skull on his head. And I wait, like a patient boy, like a wild dog, for the solo at the end of this song in order to know I’m truly free.
CM: This is the first song I wrote for Skeleton Coast and it became clear in the studio it would be the last song on the record. I suppose there are some existential questions at play here. Who am I now? Do I have free will? I wanted it to feel like an end of times myth and maybe capture a Where The Wild Things Are fable quality. Although, I’d be lying if I said I knew any of that when I actually wrote the song. It toys with the idea of youth and adulthood and that overlap or ongoing transition, I guess. It’s an end of everything song, for sure– but for me the last line also hints at some possibility of a new world.