Interview: Chris McCaughan of Sundowner and The Lawrence Arms
Chris McCaughan is something of a staple in the Chicago music scene – in fact, he something of a staple in the entire punk-rock scene. Before The Lawrence Arms, McCaughan played in Tricky Dick and The Broadways. Now, as Sundowner, he’s released an album called Neon Fiction. Here’s what he had to say about Chicago, The Lawrence Arms, and getting kicked off the Warped Tour.
So where am I catching you now?
I’m at home right now. I actually live in Portland, Oregon, these days. I’ve been out here for about a year, man.
Oh yeah? What about Chicago?
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m a total Chicago guy. I lived my whole life in Chicago but I’m living out here right now.
I got to listen to your new record Neon Fiction yesterday for the first time. Tell me about it.
Well, basically, I made a couple of records as Sundowner before this one which were both a little more acoustic-style records. With this one, I was writing songs but I wasn’t really writing to make a record. Then, all of a sudden, a collection of songs started to come together. At some point, I was like, “Alright man, this to me looks like a record. We’ve gotta make this thing.” So I enlisted Neil, who plays drums in The Lawrence Arms, and we started banging out a plan to make this record. From there, it just started to come together. I wasn’t really intending to write a record. It just kind of happened, which is really cool. In that way, it feels like it was born out of being really stoked on the songs as opposed to just making a record because I could.
My understanding is that the songs were completed about a year ago, but it’s taken until now to release the album. Why the delay?
Well, part of it was that we recorded it over the course of a summer. It wasn’t like we were in the studio banging it out over the course of a couple weeks. The time frame was really elongated more than maybe is ideal, so it took a while to mix and get everything sorted out. We were going to get it out a little earlier but things started to happen as far as who was interested in putting it out. Suddenly, I was presented with the opportunity to be put on Fat Wreck [Chords] and I obviously was very stoked about that. It worked out really nicely, man. So that’s kind of why it took so long.
If you look at the songs on the records – songs like “Cemetery West,” “My Beautiful Ruins,” “Grey on Grey,” “Poet of Trash” – I would say those are pretty gloomy titles, don’t you think?
Here’s the thing – I hear a lot about how my songs are all really sad and stuff and… whatever. I’m not sure that I feel that way about it. The last record I made, which was on Asian Man, called We Chase the Waves, definitely had a darker edge. But all the stuff that I write kind of has an edge. The titles maybe sound a little gloomy but I feel like there are sparks of good things to come in the tunes.
One song that stood out to me was “Poet of Trash.” What is that title a reference to?
That song title is kind of a tongue-and-cheek reference to my own lyrical capacities, if you know what I’m saying. It was kind of making fun of my lyric writing.
Is that what the song is about?
No, the song’s kind of about going to school for creative writing and about… well, a lot of the record is about living in Chicago and living in a city in general. I’m kind of a narrative writer but [my songs are] all a little vague and full of half-truths, so when people ask me like, “Oh, what’s ‘this’ song about?” it’s like, “I don’t know man, it’s about a lot of things.”
In the past, you’ve said that your two prior records – Four One Five Two (Red Scare, 2007) and We Chase the Waves (Asia Man, 2010) – needed to be on different labels. Obviously this one follows that pattern. Why have different labels been necessary?
Well, the first record was on Red Scare and Toby [Jeg, founder of Red Scare Industries] was really crucial in helping me organize myself to make that first record. So I was really happy to do it on Red Scare and it worked out really well. The reason I put the second record on Asian Man was that I have such a longstanding history with Mike [Park, founder of Asian Man Records]. He helped me figure out that record. Speaking of someone who has done a lot for The Lawrence Arms and for me and my life, it was just awesome working with him and being able to do a record with him after so many years. This record was really about…well, I would have been happy with this record coming out on any of those labels, to be honest. But when Fat heard it, I was just stoked that they were into doing it. It isn’t a typical Fat Wreck Chords release, but the fact that they were on board with it said something to me about where they’re at as a label. We have a long history with them too. All these labels are just a part of the family I’ve been in for so long, you know? It doesn’t feel like it’s jumping onto something totally different. To me, it just makes sense that these are the labels I’m putting out records on.