Brendan Kelly & The Wandering Birds unveiled their debut full-length a short time ago, entitled I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever. It marks Brendan’s latest musical project and sounds distinctly different from his primary band, The Lawrence Arms. We spoke with Mr. Kelly about the album’s unique style, what inspired some of its lyrics, the manner in which it was recorded and more. Pictured above with Brendan is Nick Martin, who played a variety of instruments on the album.
Bill – Your new album was recorded over a significant period of time and in a number of different places. What factors led to this kind of recording process?
Brendan – Well, essentially it was just necessity and me not really knowing what I wanted to do or how seriously I wanted to take it. I recorded the first song because I really liked the structure of the song and how it sounded in general. So, I really liked this song and my friend wanted to demo it out in Denver. He wanted to do something, because he’s just like a gear nerd and he just sits around and smokes weed and records songs. I went out there and demoed the song with him and was like, “Whoa, this sounds really, really great and really, really different from anything I’ve done before.” The next time I went back to Denver we did another song and another, and eventually I had four songs done with this dude out in Denver. I thought the four songs were really cool and I realized that I’d love to put a record together, but working out in Denver was kind of a technical impossibility, to make something that I had no funding to do. I still didn’t even know how seriously I was going to take it. So, I enlisted a buddy here in Chicago and put some songs together with him. He’s one of those virtuoso types who plays everything, so we put it together and then recorded everything else at Atlas, just for the sake of picking up the pace. By that point it had been almost a year that I’d been working on it and putting it together. Once I decided to go ahead and make a record I tried to do it as fast as possible. That being said, the mixing process still took another five months because we ended up sending it back to those guys in Denver and they’re just slow sometimes.
Bill – The record’s lyrics are very dark and sometimes violent, but more than anything it seems like you’re writing about the different fears that you have. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
Brendan – Well, I mean the record definitely comes from a sort of subconscious place. I obviously don’t have any conscious thoughts about hurting people or destroying things, that’s really not in my nature, but it’s obviously in my brain somewhere because all these songs came out. They kind of do have a violent and dark theme to them. That’s as great an observation as anyone’s made of it. I don’t know. Since the last time I recorded songs I’ve become a parent and I’ve kind of dealt with the wrath of the real world more than I ever had before, so it would definitely be safe to say that there’s a lot more fear in the forefront of my mind than there used to be. I used to feel pretty undefeatable because I had nothing to lose, but now it’s really quite different.
Bill – You’re a big movie fan and have talked in the past about how films have influenced your lyrics. Would you say that’s true for any of the songs on this album?
Brendan – I wanted the record to definitely be very cinematic. The whole idea behind it, I was kind of dealing with more visual themes and pulpy, crime drama stuff. There are a lot of very specific moments on here that are taken from very specific films. Sort of the initial notion of the song “Doin’ Crimes” was inspired by the heist that takes place in Trainspotting, but I wanted it to be broader than that. That song is really about domestic terrorism, and stealing from drug dealers was obviously a part of it, but that was sort of a jumping off point. At the same time, a song like “East St. Louis” was inspired by National Lampoon’s Vacation a little bit, but also sort of inspired by this show called Locked Up Abroad, which is this dramatization of people who try to do international drug smuggling on a small scale and end up in jail in Dubai with a pound of cocaine taped to their vagina and stuff like that. It’s an awesome show, very cinematic in its own right. The movie Cruising with Al Pacino was definitely a huge inspiration for a lot of the songs on this record. The entire gay cruising scene in general, which I think is again very cinematic and interesting, for part of the underbelly of society. As a general rule, I think the underbelly of our culture is what informs a lot of my favorite movies and also informs a good chunk of this album.
Bill – Compared to The Lawrence Arms, how would you describe the sound of Brendan Kelly & The Wandering Birds?
Brendan – The thing that I think is remarkable about this record, and I don’t mean remarkable with any sort of connotation, negative or positive, but just generally is that I don’t think there’s any song on the record that can really sum up what the album sounds like as a whole. There is a sound to it, but I think it needs to be heard all together in order to get what the vibe and the sound is. I don’t think there’s one song that can stand as like a microcosm of the album. In that way, it’s really different from The Lawrence Arms. There’s songs like “What’s a Boy To Do” and “American Vagina” that kind of approach what Lawrence Arms was doing, but I think they still come from a pretty fundamentally different place. Overall, the album is based pretty heavily around electric piano and I sing pretty clean. The arrangements aren’t really punk rock arrangements so much as they’re rock ‘n roll arrangements. It’s a different kind of record. I think it’s a different kind of record just in general, not just from The Lawrence Arms, but from kind of everything. I don’t mean that in terms of me being a visionary or anything, I think it just kind of turned out weird, (laughs).
Bill – What did you like best about collaborating with the various musicians on this release?
Brendan – The biggest part of it that was a thrill was I was totally finding out new things about how these songs could be arranged and manipulated and what the choices were to makes these songs sound the way they do. Chris, Neil and I in The Lawrence Arms work together in an almost psychic way, where it’s like I can kind of see where Chris is going with a song or he can see where I’m going with a song, and really play it to all of our strengths. Neil just has this unbelievable ability to know the exact feel of what we’re playing and make things his own without even having to overtly ask if this is the kind of vibe we want. He just knows. We just work together almost through this I don’t want to say psychic bond, but there is a level of being able to read each other’s thoughts. It kind of just comes from playing together for so long and so many times. With this, we’re talking about people who have totally different skill sets. Nobody comes from a punk rock background at all. One guy that we were playing with, he’s never even listened to any bands that have guitars in them. He didn’t even know who The Doors were. He doesn’t know who The Doors are because all he listens to is like Euro dance pop and stuff. You can imagine that the ideas that guy brings to the table for how songs should sound are totally different than anything I’ve ever dealt with before. That was the coolest thing, because I’d throw out a song and somebody would come up with a riff or a keyboard part and I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I guess you could do it that way.” There was sort of a conscious effort that I made to seek out people like that for this record who would steer the thing away from the punk rock that I’m sort of known for playing.
Bill – “A Man with the Passion of Tennessee Williams” is one of my favorite songs on the record and also one of the most unique from a style perspective. How did you go about writing this song and putting everything together?
Brendan – That’s actually the first song we did and that was the one that was the inspiration for the entire record to get made. I had the song written on guitar, all the way through with all the backing vocals and everything, and I went into a pantry and I played the entire song to a metronome. I played the guitar and I sang in the pantry, and then I put the riff to it. Then, I gave it to this guy who does dance music and he created the part underneath it. My friend Eric, who sings the operatic backing vocals, he in stark contrast, is a huge fan of The Doors. He has this weird classic rock sensibility, so he came in and sang the backing vocals, and the dance music guy put this crazy, swirling thing together. The song was kind of inspired by this TV on the Radio song, and it began as this driving punk rock song, but by the time it was produced all the guitars were taken out. That was such a revelation to me because I’ve always made things better by adding and adding until it sounds huge and awesome. This guy did the exact opposite move and stripped it down to the barest bones and just added a twinkle here and there. It was a totally different way of producing than I’ve ever really considered and that’s sort of how that song came about. Sonically, that was what ended up informing so much of the arrangement on the rest of the record. Even though that one is maybe the most extreme case, it was still very much the template for the whole record. The record wouldn’t have sounded the same if that song hadn’t been the first one we did.
Bill – Tell me about the song “Ramblin’ Revisited”, since it’s clearly a response to the Lawrence Arms song “The Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure.”
Brendan – Right, so “The Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure” was written when The Lawrence Arms were driving through Germany and Neil had gotten some hash oil, which apparently is a way that you get really high. I don’t smoke weed, I like to drink beer, that’s my thing. So Chris and Neil sometimes, fairly regularly, get high and they wanted me to try it and freak out and everything. I haven’t been a pot smoker since I was 18, so I wasn’t going smoke hash oil with them, but then they were like “Well, we got a 20-hour drive and this stuff is really awesome and it won’t make you paranoid.” So, I smoked it and of course it made me freak out and made me hallucinate. I was super uncomfortable for a few hours and I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I pulled this old flyer out of the glove compartment and I just started writing. I was writing like one letter every ten minutes and eventually when I was done it was the lyrics to “The Ramblin’ Boys of Pleasure.” I came home and I wrote the song and the song became this sort of whimsical, big, letting go of all your inhibitions and plans and let the shit roar-type thing. That was sort of connected to what was going on when I wrote the song, (laughs) but not in a very good way. Obviously songs take on a life of their own after people hear it and the meaning can be interpreted differently, but I think that’s kind of what I was going for when I was writing it. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be quite so positive. Anyway, “Ramblin’ Revisited” is sort of the look back ten years later. It’s like, “Wow, so you let go of everything and you prepared for nothing, and you just lived life wild and free. Now here you are, living life wild and free, but I have friends who kind of moved on and they’re living nice, stable lives. What do you have to show for all this rambling you’ve done, except for an old can of beans and a shitty bottle of booze and a sleeping bag in a train yard?” It’s obviously a hobo metaphor, but that’s sort of the point of the song. I’ve rambled long and hard and look where it got me, man. I guess the end is sort of the hopeful point, because these sort of choices that I’ve made and people like me have made, as you get older and older you still want to live like you’re young, but the joy is more few and far between.
Bill – What was the most rewarding part about creating this album?
Brendan – The most rewarding part about creating the record was whenever I’d play it for somebody and they’d go, “Oh wow, that’s really not what I thought it was going to sound like at all.” There’s like a level of vindication that’s been consistent with making this record where people are like, “Oh, I heard that first song and I really didn’t like it, but now I see the whole record and that song makes sense and I even like it now.” It’s one of the first times I’ve ever felt like, for lack of a less pretentious way to say this, that my vision has sort of been realized and realized by other people as well. Not a lot of people really care about this record too much, not that many people have really taken the time to listen to it, so there’s that, but I do feel like a level of satisfaction that I legitimately bucked some people’s expectations with it. Some people were pleasantly surprised by it and some people that don’t like The Lawrence Arms seem to like it. That being said, I read this review of the record, because I started to think that people were getting what I was doing. This review started out with the line, “I never previously thought Brendan Kelly from The Lawrence Arms was much of a ‘good’ singer.” I was like, “Oh, this is awesome. They’re going to come around at the end and talk about how I really sing great on this record,” but they never did, (laughs). That was it and I was like, “Oh, so you don’t think of me as a good singer, that’s cool, thanks.” I was all ready to be like, “See, I’ve arrived” and no, shot in the neck, (laughs).
Bill – How was your CD release show at Beat Kitchen?
Brendan – It was awesome, man. I put together a band because there was no way to get the people that played on the record to play. First of all, I played multiple instruments and my friend Nick played multiple instruments, and everybody else just produced. So, I got a really cool band together. Two of the dudes in the band had never played shows before, so that was a really cool experience. I got Rob Kellenberger from Slapstick on the drums and I knew I’d be locked-in with him, but the other two dudes up front were complete newbie’s to playing live. It was really exciting and it was a lot of tension for me personally, not among the band or anything like that, but I’m not very comfortable being the cornerstone foundation of the solid live show. I much prefer being the flailing wildcard that could potentially ruin everything at any given moment, that’s really where I thrive. In terms of my own role up there, I was a little more nervous, but fortunately the stars aligned and it was a really good show. I think the overall vibe was great there and the crowd was really, really sweet. It was cool.
Bill – Do you have any plans to play more Wandering Birds shows in the near future?
Brendan – I want to, but that band was a like a technical nightmare to put together. Rob lives two hours away, so I can’t realistically be asking him to cruise all over the place. I would love to, I really, really would. It’s sort of the music that I’m most excited about right now, but at the same time, I’m 35 with two kids and there’s only so much like playing first of four for $100 a night that I can really picture myself doing. It’s like at this point the record’s kind of got to sink or swim on its own. If there’s a demand for it I will meet that demand, but I can’t be out there like while people shoot at my boots, dancing to pay attention. It’s not something I can realistically afford to do anymore.
Bill – What are you planning to release next? Should fans expect more solo material, new Lawrence Arms songs or something else?
Brendan – I’ve been working with Chris on some new Lawrence Arms material and we got four songs sort of in the can right now. I hope that’s the next thing that comes out, but by the time this interview is published some things will have changed in The Lawrence Arms that I don’t even really know what they are yet. Definitely I know that there’s some wacky, wacky shit going down in our camp and it’s nothing bad, I mean we’re all buddies, but I don’t exactly even know what it is. I say that right now, but I could be totally wrong about the whole thing. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific than that. Neil got offered a pretty good gig. Chris, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just like, “I got to talk to you about what I’m doing.” Everybody’s got stuff going on, but I haven’t even talked to them yet, so I’m not really at liberty to say anything because I don’t even really know. I do know that something’s going on, and that being said, last time I talked to both those guys we were doing more Lawrence Arms stuff, so yeah.