Bad Copy

Brendan Kelly

Brendan Kelly Talks Literature, America’s Surveillance State, and Original Recipe Sparks

"I just feel like I’m generally coasting on feeling like shit and it’s fine."

At the end of March, The Lawrence Arms‘ released a Greatest Hits album, entitled We are the Champions of the World, on Fat Wreck Chords. I sat down with Brendan Kelly to talk about the new record at our normal go-to interview spot – The Gman Tavern in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. As drag queens and fans took over the back room to watch and celebrate RuPaul’s Drag Race, we headed downstairs and posted up in the liquor cage to chat about the new(?) album, literature, broadening prospectives outside of the white cis male guidelines, and what we would do for a sip of some original recipe Sparks.

Like every interview I’ve conducted with Brendan, we covered so much ground here that it renders itself a two part read. You can read Part 1 of the interview where we discuss his personal creative writing processes, songs that the band no longer plays, and what’s next for TLA here.

Kendra Sheetz

The album is a retrospective of sorts. As such, what do you think is the most prominent thing you’ve learned as both a member of a team and also as a singular person throughout these years in The Lawrence Arms?

Brendan Kelly

Every team, whether its your family or your significant other or your work partner or whatever, has ups and downs and sometimes those downs can be very brutal. It’s always important to keep the big picture in mind.

Nowadays, the people that come to our shows are coming to see us whether there’s five people there or one thousand. We’ve been able to cocoon ourselves in the allusion that people like our band. But back in the day, that was SO not the case. People hated us. We would go on these tours with like crazy pop-punk bands or like super dramatic emo bands and it would just be like “what are we doing?”

That kind of thing will weigh heavy on you. And you’re in it with your team. You get snippy with each other, which is bound to happen when you’re life’s work is being openly mocked to your face and things you could give two shits about are being celebrated right in front of you as something vastly superior, it’s easy to turn on each other.

But at the end of the day, we’ve always been dedicated to doing our thing and persevering and now, I think we’re in the coolest place we could be as a band. That’s the life lesson I learned. Things come and go but if you stick to doing what you have to do and don’t let the bad times rip your actual relationships apart, at the end of it you might not be fucking rich, but at least you will be able to look back on it proudly. And you will have a legacy that the people who stick around for it will love.

Kendra Sheetz

And is there anything different as a singular person being in this band and working on one-on-one relationships?

Brendan Kelly

Uhhh… I try not to learn anything as a singular person. *laughs* Patience, being cool, and also, just being nice to people. It’s very easy to forget. When people are assholes, it’s very tempting to be like, “You know what? Go fuck yourself. How about that?” But then again, it took a lot of courage for this guy to come up here and even though he’s being a dick to me, he in his own stupid way, he thinks that I’m going to have a good reaction to that.

Kendra Sheetz

Don’t you think that some of that comes from the internet persona that you’ve taken on?

Brendan Kelly

Right… but, like, that’s really fucking stupid.


Nobody likes a stranger coming up to them and being a complete dick. But that’s probably the best thing I’ve learned, you’ve gotta be fucking nice to people. It pays a off a lot more than being a dick.

Kendra Sheetz

Daryl from The Bollweevils posts his ‘Punk Rock Doc follow-ups’ on his Facebook after each show he plays, diagnosing the injuries that he’s sustained the night before. Have you noticed any similar wear and tear now that you’re getting a bit older and still pushing yourself?

Brendan Kelly

Probably about like nine years ago I hit my face with my bass and my eye split open onstage at Metro. But otherwise, no. I haven’t really suffered. I mean a mic stand will hit you and chip your tooth or pop your lip open. Sometimes my fingers bleed. 

Do I feel too old to get up there? Yes. But it’s just like the general wear and tear of being old. I’m like uhhh these creaky bones. I just feel like I’m generally coasting on feeling like shit and it’s fine. *laughs*

Kendra Sheetz

The fairly recent changes in society have brought white cis male music under attack, opening the door for many who have been previously held back. Many music lovers are now actively speaking out about white guys whining onstage, but The Lawrence Arms seems to have dodged this majority of those bullets. Why do you think that is?

Brendan Kelly

I hate this question because I feel like this is totally opening a door. All I can say is that I feel like we’ve always been pretty outspoken champions of things like that.

Kendra Sheetz

Champions, huh?

Brendan Kelly

*laughs* Yeah! You’re goddamn right!

I would hope that people who think about The Lawrence Arms thinks about us as a band that tries to be the kind of people who would take care of you and help in any way we can regardless. I’ve been pretty outspoken online and I hope I’m saying the right things. I prefer bills with lots of different kinds of human beings on them and I prefer bands with lots of different kinds of human beings in them. I think it’s important and it’s cooler.

There’s this book called Wizard of the Crow written by this dude when he was in prison in Zaire. I remember reading it and thinking that it is so unlike so many books I’ve read before. And it’s a fabulous, fabulous book. That’s when I realized it was because I am used to Western white dudes’ writing. 

Did you know that until recently in human history, there was no word for the color blue? Besides the sky, there is really nothing that is naturally blue. If you look at the Iliad, it talks about the deep wine purple of the sea. It doesn’t say the word blue. And that’s still the case in certain places in the world.

So this anthropologist pieced this together and went to see if it’s in fact true. He found places where there is no word for blue or the words for blue and green are the same. He showed these people a circle full of boxes where one was blue and all the rest were green and he asked them to pick out the blue box and they couldn’t. But then, this same demographic of people had like twenty different words for green. And they could put in a slightly different gradient of green in there and they could all pick it out. I did the same test and I couldn’t differentiate the different greens; they all looked the same.

I guess my point is that if you don’t have a word for something, if you don’t have a definition of it, you cant even know that it exists. I think that’s the whole thing with white male creative culture sort of like shanghaied the notion of what can be good and what can be bad.

I guess to put a pen in it, I think we try to be thoughtful about that stuff, obviously. I am not trying to figure it all out today. But I sure am glad that people are speaking up and that they’re being heard.

Kendra Sheetz

The last time I interviewed you, it was the night of the 2016 election. I asked you the following questions and I would like to ask it again: If you could dispense one piece of advice to not only the readers of this interview, people in this sect of the music scene, but the nation as a whole, what would that be?

Brendan Kelly

Throw away your Alexa. I’m not even joking. Throw it away. Those things are microphones in your house. Figure out what you need and use it but be aware. But the notion of voluntarily surveilling yourself for corporate interests without a second thought for the sake of ease and comfort is – I mean – it’s like the fucking metaphor for Rome, man.

I read this book called The Private Life of Chairman Mao recently and it’s written by his personal physician. And it is a fucking five star read. It’s a fucking terrifying story of being on the inside of a fucking weird dictatorship/idealog demagoguery that went completely mad and that we don’t know much about in the West just because we’re, I dunno, myopic I guess.

Are you familiar with the Great leap Forward? The Great Leap Forward was (and I’m playing fast and loose with this description here) essentially Mao’s plan to industrialize China in five or ten years. He gave a few initiatives. One was about collective farming and one was about forging metal in these backyard forges. The end result was that there were too many crops and no one could pick the crops because all the big strong people were busy working these backyard forges. They were ordered to take all the metal and melt it down and it became this shitty pig iron and you couldn’t do anything with it. But there was nobody to pick the crops.

As a result, 50 million people starved to death. It’s the greatest mass starvation in history and it was all because people were like, “Yep, this is what we’re supposed to do.” By the time you realize it, by the time you walk down the streets of Beijing and nobody is out because the people that are alive are too weak to go down the stairs, it’s WAY too late. And that was a surveillance state.

To me, it was very parallel to the way that we’re doing this now in terms of voluntarily giving up our information. After that, there was the cultural revolution where you were actively encouraged to fucking tell on your neighbors and they would be sent off to reeducation camps.

Humanity doesn’t change and people seek control and people are eager to give up control. This journalist that I really admire named Luke O’Neil, he does some writing for like Esquire among other things, tweeted something like “Mark my words, when the dust settles, the people that invented Facebook will be regarded historically the same way as the people who invented the atomic bomb.” And I read that was like that’s fucking dark! Probably true!

Obviously, I have a big online presence and I do all that kinds of stuff.

Kendra Sheetz

Do you think you could ever go without?

Brendan Kelly

Yeah I don’t think that it would be…. I mean, I can quit anytime I want. *laughs*

Sort of a a big part of my job revolves around being active on that stuff. I’d have to make some real fundamental changes to do that. And I think that at some point, that will happen. But I’m just not ready to do it right now.

Kendra Sheetz

Alright. Last one and it’s a heavy hitter. If you were offered one full palate of original brand Sparks in exchange for one item holding great significance to you, would you go through with the trade and if so, what would that one item be?

Brendan Kelly

*long pause* That… is a good question. Here’s the thing – I think that I would LOVE a can of original Sparks. I’m not really like drinking so much these days. But I would have a Sparks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m like done drinking. I’ll have a cocktail every now and again but I’m trying to be a little more of an adult human being. But… that being said. My friends would go fucking ape shit for this palate of Sparks and it would make everybody so happy that I would feel like I had to do it for the good of the team.

What would I give away that I love? I don’t love that many things…

Nah… I probably wouldn’t do it. I mean, the stuff that I really love, there’s so few things. Would I give away this fucking Bears vest I’m wearing right now for a palate of Sparks? No. And that’s just my Bears vest. I wouldn’t even give away this hat for a palate of Sparks. I think I value long term established relationships with things and people more than I value Sparks. God, I’ve gotten old. *laughs*

Kendra Sheetz

Well, I’ll make sure to invite you over when I sell my mom off for a palate of Sparks. We’ll party.

Brendan Kelly

*laughs* As long as you do it, we’re good. Everyone wins.

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