For Sundowner’s new album, Neon Fiction, Lawrence Arms singer/guitarist Chris McCaughan opted to take his side project in more of a full band direction. Longtime collaborator and fellow member of The Lawrence Arms, Neil Hennessy, is once again onboard and this time his bass and percussion duties play a more prominent role. The outcome is a layered record with creative lyrics that focus on storytelling. McCaughan’s words are augmented by the detailed arrangements, resulting in what is undoubtedly the most complete Sundowner album to date. We spoke with McCaughan before the recent Sundowner show at Beat Kitchen. We discussed how the new record was written, its style and what recording was like. We also talked about the meaning of some of the songs, touring and more. Also, be sure to check out the lyric video for “Life in the Embers” after the interview.
Bill – When did you begin writing songs for Neon Fiction and at what point did you realize that the album was starting to take shape?
Chris – I think I started writing during the fall and winter of 2011. I kind of wrote into the spring of 2012 as well. Neil and I tracked the record on and off through the summer of 2012. It’s kind of weird because when I started writing the songs I wasn’t really thinking about making another Sundowner record. I wasn’t really thinking about any sort of end. I’d just been writing and it had been a while since I’d been really actively writing songs and found myself just kind of working on stuff without much direction. I guess there was a point where songs were starting to pile up, like the stuff that I was actually saving and keeping and finishing. At some point I was like, “Man, I think I actually want to make this.” Because there was definitely a point where I was like, “Oh, these are just songs that I have and maybe this isn’t going to happen, maybe these aren’t going to actually get made into a record.” So, there was just a moment where I really felt strongly about the material and felt that it was worth doing all the logistics to figure out how to make it. That was probably somewhere in the spring of 2012. Then I started talking to Neil about how we were going to do it. We’ve kind of done Sundowner records in different ways. The first time we were in the studio for a just week and we made it. The second time, Neil and I basically took months in home studio setups to make the record. I was pretty sure that I wanted to make it in a studio this time. Then we just started talking about how this was going to be different. I felt like the songs needed to be fully realized in a different kind of way.
Bill – Did you know from the onset that you wanted the record to have increased bass and drum contributions from Neil Hennessy?
Chris – I felt like I wanted the record to take a leap. Part of that was I knew I wanted electric guitars, so that was maybe where I started. I didn’t want it to just be an acoustic record that would feel similar to the first two records. If we were going to have electric guitars, we need a bass because we need low end. As I’m talking to Neil about it, we were like, “Man, I think this needs drums. Maybe not totally traditional kind of drums, but it needs percussion that’s not just like tambourine. Something that’s more powerful.” I think Neil did a really great job of kind of synthesizing our conversations about that and being like, “Okay, well I could do this and really focus heavy on the kick drum and the cymbals and the toms. It doesn’t all have to be sort of like rock, kick, snare stuff. It could be a little more expressive in a different way.” Some of the songs are very impressionistic I think, as far as Neil’s playing. The goal was to make the songs as good as possible. I didn’t really think about doing solo shows, because I felt like the songs would translate either way. I wasn’t so worried about that. I just wanted to make the record sound awesome. That felt like the best way to do it.
Bill – What was it like recording the album at Atlas Studios with Justin Yates?
Chris – It was great. It was me, Justin and Neil in Atlas, just hanging out. Justin engineered, which was awesome because it let me and Neil just kind of focus on playing and figuring out songs. In the past, Neil had engineered a lot of stuff and he’s really like multi-tasking a lot. Justin is terrific to work with. I love Justin. He was great in that he comes from a different perspective and it’s always nice to have different ears in the studio. Neil and I have obviously worked together for so long. We certainly have different perspectives on things, but we’ve been making records together for a long time. It was nice to have Justin in there, kind of throwing stuff out, like “Oh, this is what I’m hearing.” I thought it was a really cool dynamic. It was just the three of us.
Bill – What are you most excited about in regards to Fat Wreck Chords releasing Neon Fiction?
Chris – Well, it’s just really cool. I had the record done before I’d made any decisions on labels. The record was mixed and everything. I would have been more than happy to have Toby and Red Scare or Mike Park and Asian Man put it out. Those are the home labels. Fat Wreck Chords is the same for us, but I didn’t really think they’d be into the record necessarily. It just so happened that I was in San Francisco playing and I invited some of them out. Bart over at Fat was like, “Have you made any decisions on the record?” I said that I hadn’t and I didn’t really think much of it. Then Erin from Fat reached out and Mike called me. He was like, “Everyone at the office really likes this record. We’d really love to put it out.” It’s flattering to me. It’s awesome and I just felt like it was a great opportunity. Having worked with them for so long, obviously part of it was a no-brainer. I love working with Vanessa at Fat. We have a long relationship working together. It’s just been really cool. It’s obviously a little bit bigger of a label and it’s brought me some opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Especially people writing about it, honestly. It’s been amazing. We’ll kind of see what other things come together because of it, but they’re great to work with. It feels like it was worth the wait. We waited a long time to put this out and I think it was worth the wait.
Bill – The record’s opening track, “Cemetery West,” is about the Chicago neighborhood where you grew up. What made you want to write this song?
Chris – I think a lot of people have kind of initially interpreted it as something that I was trying to get away from or leave. To me, it’s an homage to the neighborhood I grew up in. There are a lot of different things going on in the song that are about different things entirely. A lot of my songs are like that, where it’s kind of about this, but it’s also talking about something totally different. I grew up west of the Graceland Cemetery and a lot of my records have had references to my origins. I think this follows suit a little bit. I don’t know, man. The whole record is so full of half-truths. There’s stuff that’s really autobiographical and stuff that’s just completely fiction.
Bill – “Life in the Embers” deals with themes like maturing and letting go. What inspired its lyrics and what do they mean to you?
Chris – Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s about. You know, you get older and I think you have to find ways; I had to find ways of letting go of a lot of the things that I’d been holding on to for so long. So, I guess I just tried to illustrate that process a little bit. Now I’m 36 years old and I feel like there are certain things I’ve held on to for too long. A lot of the record is about letting go and part of writing the record was also about letting go. I had pushed a lot of stuff away, but I just decided to write about it and write these songs without any expressed purpose or goal. It’s cool because I feel like it’s a really universal theme. While there’s things in that song that are specific to me, I think that’s a song that people really relate to because in all of our lives we’re trying to find a way ahead, day by day, and to be mindful of our past, but also to be creating a future. It’s not entirely about just burning everything I guess, (laughs).
Bill – The album ends with “Wildfires,” which is appropriate because it has a very reflective tone and kind of revisits some of the record’s main ideas. When you wrote the song, did you intend for it to be the album’s last track?
Chris – No, it’s weird, I actually had it way earlier in the original sequence. I think I sent the record to Brendan, (Lawrence Arms singer/bassist Brendan Kelly) and it got scrambled when I sent it, the order of the songs did. I hadn’t decided on the sequence yet, I was trying to figure it out, and “Wildfires” just happened to be the last song when it got scrambled. He was like, “Man, that’s such a great last song.” I started thinking about it and was like, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense that it would be a good last song.” So, it’s sort of a nice accident. I think that song goes back to themes of letting go and moving on and transition stuff in your life. A lot of people have said to me over the years that my songs are so sad and gloomy, but I feel like even though that song’s about certain dreams dying, it’s also about new things ahead. It’s got a real springtime vibe I think. It was really important to have that song at the end because it’s about things getting better and looking ahead to things that are hopeful. I think there’s a lot of that in the record. I don’t think it’s a sad record. I actually think it’s more uplifting and hopeful. So that honestly came together really nicely for me.
Bill – I also think the song is about coming to terms with a lot of things and moving forward, not dwelling on stuff…
Chris – Yeah, it’s an acceptance song and it’s about actually making choices in your life to have things be better. You have to work to be happy. So, for me a lot of the record is like self-actualization, self-acceptance, you have to make a conscious effort to live in a way that feels authentic to you. That’s what a lot of the record is about and I think that song is about being okay with yourself and what’s ahead.
Bill – What aspects of Neon Fiction are you most proud of?
Chris – I’m really proud of how the songs make each other better. I’m really proud of the cohesion of the record. I think part of that was I wasn’t over-thinking or pushing too hard to make that happen, things were just coming together nicely. I think there are threads that really make it cohesive. More and more, not just with records, but with everything, I’m so interested in making something that’s thoughtful and that’s quality and has some lasting effect. Music has changed so much in last decade, but I still think there are places for cohesive records where the songs all are meant to belong together. So, I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of the guitars. I had so much fun writing guitar melodies and doing all the electric guitars. I get so much joy out of sitting there in the studio and writing that stuff. As frustrating as it can be, certainly, it was really fun and I felt like that was one of the big leaps the record took. Now there’s this whole new component to these songs that I’m writing. I guess the other thing is I’m really proud of the aesthetic of the record. Ben Pier was the photographer who shot everything. When we shot everything, I didn’t even know what the record was called yet or anything. I was struggling with it and when he came in and we hung out all weekend and shot stuff, everything started to come together. I was talking to him about the record, I gave it to him and we were hanging out. I looked at a bunch of his photos and he sent me the cover and I was like, “Dude, this is the vibe.” That catalyzed me in so many ways and it totally brought me together on everything. I just think the threads of the record, the way the art really complements the narratives and stuff, I just think everything came together aesthetically in a really lovely way. A lot of it was based on all these other people who contributed to it. If it wasn’t for Neil and Justin and Ben, and David Holtz who did the layout, they all contributed so much to how this came together. So, it felt collaborative in that way. Maybe that’s the thing I’m most proud of. It was a really collaborative effort of all these people who are really talented. They just kind of helped me put it together in some way that was cool.
Bill – What kind of touring plans does Sundowner have for the rest of the year?
Chris – I’m basically just doing little groups of shows, which works nicely for me. I was in San Francisco and then I came here for Riot Fest and all that stuff. I’m doing like five shows in the Midwest now and then I’m going to Gainesville for The Fest, and I’ll do Lawrence Arms and Sundowner there. I’m also doing a handful of dates up in the northeast, like Philly, New York, Baltimore and Boston. That will take me up to Thanksgiving, so I’m still sort of mapping it out from there. It really works for me as a solo artist to not have to do weeks at a time. It’s not that I’ve got some great job or anything that’s keeping me from touring full-time; it just works better for me this way. It works in terms of life management stuff. It’s also really nice because I can fly out to the East Coast for a week and do a few shows and then come back. There’s some Lawrence Arms news in the pipeline, so we’ll see what’s going on with that, but my goal right now is to be able to keep doing these little groups of shows regionally. And then of course just be open to opportunities and see what happens. I’m not saying “never” on anything, like “I’ll never do this” or “I’ll never do that,” but right now I feel like this model works for me.
Bill – When you think about the future of Sundowner, what sorts of things come to mind?
Chris – I know this sounds ridiculous, but I just think this is kind of me, man. This is who I am and it feels natural and it’s not to say that I’m some super-genuine dude, but it just feels authentic to the way I write. I’m just not really thinking about it in terms of how it should be; I’m just going to let it come as it does. Maybe the next record isn’t going to be like this at all, maybe there’s not going to be a next record. I have no idea. I hope that I have a chance to make another one in some way, but I think there will be another shift because it’s just always been that way with this. I want to make something worth making. So, hopefully I find myself with a collection of songs that I’m excited to share again. I’ve been really fortunate to be in this position, where I get to share what I’m working on. More than anything, I feel like I can do this for a long time in this way. That’s a nice feeling. My expectations aren’t super-high about how this should be. I’m just trying to do it the best way I can with the given situation. I guess we’ll see from there. So far everyone’s been so positive about the record and the response has been great. People want to write about it and talk about it, so that’s amazing.