Brendan Kelly on politics, nihilism, and the benefit of intimate shows

Friday 10th, February 2017 / 15:24
By Stepan Soroka

VANCOUVER — February is not the ideal time to tour Western Canada. Freezing temperatures, excessive snowfall and remote mountain passes are enough to deter most musicians from travelling through our part of the world. But Brendan Kelly, frontman of the seminal midwestern punk band The Lawrence Arms, sees this as an advantage, counterintuitive as it may seem. “When I go up there people haven’t had any shows for a while.” He says over the pone from his Chicago home. “I’m not Chuck Ragan or Dallas Green. I’m a fairly obscure musician and it allows me to have a crowd of people that are excited and enthusiastic. I’m very grateful for that.”

Whether you agree or not with Kelly’s claims of obscurity, his body of work is certainly voluminous and includes six full-lengths with The Lawrence Arms, two albums and an EP with supergroup The Falcon (which features Alkaline Trio’s Dan Adriano on bass), a full-length with The Wandering Birds, and more. When asked what he enjoys about performing acoustically, as opposed to the above mentioned projects, Kelly replies that an acoustic performance allows him to have a deeper personal connection with the audience. “I can reengineer and reimagine the songs in a way that is more emotionally resonant,” the singer-songwriter says. He also laments that there is no one else to blame when mistakes are made.

“When you succeed it is unbelievably rewarding. But when you fail, there is nowhere to look but in the mirror,” Kelly says about solo performances. “With a band, you can let the mistakes roll off your back.” Mistakes do happen, and sometimes they are beyond the performer’s control. When asked about his worst performance, Kelly tells me about a Lawrence Arms show where someone dosed his drink and he spent “the entire show face-down on the stage while my bandmates tried to work through the set.” At a solo show, there would not be much to work through.

While we chat, the conversation invariably turns to the subject of US politics. The debacle occurring in Kelly’s home country is simply too loud to ignore. “Let me put it this way.” Kelly begins, when asked if it is possible to have a worse president than the one currently in office. “You know how everyone talks about going back in time to kill Hitler as a baby? Nobody went back in time and killed Hitler. Nobody went back in time and killed Donald Trump. So you gotta figure that the babies these time travellers did kill were much worse.”

Its this kind of grim but undeniably amusing humour that has given Kelly a voice outside of punk rock, even if the people hearing it have no idea about where it is coming from. Kelly curates a Twitter account called Nihilist Arby’s, which he calls “a parody of corporate cluelessness.” With over 260,000 followers, Kelly’s fake Arby’s account far surpasses the fast food chain’s actual online following. Started as a “dumb joke” that he did not expect anyone to pay attention to, Nihilist Arby’s recurring themes include drugs (and running out of them), loneliness, and the general futility of everything. “I may be more like the fictional narrator than I would like to admit.” Kelly adds.

“People in music, journalism, the arts… we take this dumb shit that we do way more seriously than it is,” Kelly says. “It is not important at all. What is important is running water. People not being blown up. The soundtrack to all of that is secondary.” While it is hard to argue with that, it is safe to say that anyone reading this far values the art that Kelly and musicians in general gift to the rest of the world. “It’s been eight or nine years since I’ve played in Vancouver and I’m really looking forward to going back,” says Kelly. “Anyone who has even the most remote interest in what I’ve been up to, please come, because it could be another nine years.”

Brendan Kelly plays The Cobalt on Saturday, February 11th with Ben Sir and Chase Brenneman.

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