Interview: Brendan Kelly
We were long overdue for a talk with BK. Whether you admire the rock and roll tunes he’s been churning out ever since he was a little Midwestern punk, or you were drawn to his personality via his blog, JBTV, or The Daily Show, the guy’s a delightful smart-ass in any medium. In 2012, he branched out once again with I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever, the debut album by his newest effort, Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds. It was high time we caught up with him to find out what brought him to this point and where he might be headed next.
Everybody knows you best as a punk rocker, but in the Wandering Birds, you’re playing more laid-back stuff. Yet you don’t fall prey to the simplistic punk-singer-and-his-acoustic-guitar model that a lot of people have done already, some better than others. How important was it to you to stay away from that and make something with a little more instrumentation, more variety?
Well the first thing is, I think a lot of people do that acoustic, singer-songwriter stuff really well, but I’m not one of those people, and I really didn’t feel I needed to throw my hat in the ring. At a certain point, I was like, “I’m gonna take this and make it as weird and different as I possibly can,” and so that involved lots of different kinds of instrumentation, and working with musicians that have never been in the punk rock world before. I knew that the rock & roll aspect of my work would be there no matter what, so I tried to get different types of weird & goofy dudes together to make something that was just…weird. I think it was a pretty good go, you know?
You have two distinct styles as a singer: that sort of “hi-gain” voice that you’re known for in most of your work, and then you use a more “natural” sounding one on this record. I was wondering how you first developed your signature raspy singing voice?
Alright, so back in the day, I was singing for this band, they were called Gladhand. We did a recording, and my voice was just so…I had always tried to sing like Joe from Dead Milkmen, the guy that sings “Punk Rock Girl?” I heard this recording, and I sounded like such shit, and I was like “Oh my God, my voice is terrible, it’s so nasal, if I’m gonna be singing in a band, I gotta sing a little bit cooler.” And so the Goo Goo Dolls used to be kind of a cool punk rock band, believe it or not, back in the day, and the other dude used to sing…
Yeah, his voice is so awesome, and I was like “You know what? I’m gonna try to sing like that dude.” And I sang one song like that, and all the guys in my band were like, “Whoa, that sounds a lot better.” And I was like “Alright, I guess that’s my voice now!” That was just me trying to impersonate the bass player from the Goo Goo Dolls. That was back when I was like fifteen, and what you hear now, I don’t know if that’s just how my voice sounds now or what, but it’s super natural for me. It started as an impersonation, and now, I don’t think I could not sing that way, if I was singing loud.
I’ve heard you sing with that voice when you were playing acoustic. Why did you decide to make a change on the Wandering Birds record?
I don’t even know? It’s been a while since I’ve done a record, I did Oh! Calcutta! a while back, and then after that we did Buttsweat and Tears, and already on that record I was trying to sing with a little more of a dynamic, like the last song on there, I sing the first half clean, and the last part’s all blown out. And then on “Demons,” I kind of go back and forth, so I was trying to experiment with dynamics. So then, by the time I made this record I was like “Fuck it man, there’s no rules, and however things sound best, that’s how I’m gonna do it,” and I wanted to kind of expand the idea of what I could do with my voice. I’m not like, that awesome of a singer to begin with, so…any bullshit I could pull out to make it a little more exciting.
You explore a lot of dark subject matter on the record, and like the majority of artists that do that, it’s with the understanding that you don’t actually engage in that sort of stuff. How do you try to make those stories visceral? What do you do to prevent it from ringing hollow, since you can’t actually put yourself in the position of these depraved characters?
I think you said it best, a lot of art explores really dark places, and Dostoevsky doesn’t go around killing little old ladies to see if he can get away with it. And when I started doing this record, there were two things that were sort of happening at the same time. I was trying to write new songs, and I hadn’t written songs in so long, and they were coming out, and the lyrics were just weird. And I decided, if I was gonna do something, it had to be interesting and different. That Oh! Calcutta! record, we made that and I was really happy with how it turned out, and it was sort of scary to try to make another record after that. It was like, “Oh God, I can’t go back to singing about drinking beer with my friends,” I think I already did that as well as I could possibly ever do it.
So I was thinking about this interview I read with Billie Joe Armstrong around ‘99, and he said something to the effect of: “The way I know if my lyrics are good is if I’m nervous to sing them in front of people.” Like, if the content kind of freaks you out, that’s when you know you’re getting somewhere. So these songs were coming out kind of weird, and I was like, “Let’s push them to be even more…dark.” And I am nervous, and that’s why the song about cutting up little kids and stuff, that kind of came out of that entire notion.