Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds

On the cover of I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever, Brendan Kelly wears a t-shirt that alludes to a truth that some of his fans might find uncomfortable: He loves Lady Gaga.

I am a legitimate fan of what she does,” he says, his sentences brisk and bated. “I went and saw her show and was pretty blown away. She's doing some shit, man. People write her off as a shitty, second-rate Madonna, but she's cooler than Madonna ever was. And she also writes her shit, produces her shit, she's like a virtuoso pianist. I think she's awesome.”

Of course, those familiar Kelly's course as a musician and blogger might sense more than an ounce of irony in his adoration; he hasn't been above making extreme statements for a laugh in the past. Still, he insists his love for Mother Monster is sincere. “I make no apologies for the fact that I'm a snide wise-ass and this could very easily be another fucking stupid thing that I say,” he explains. “When I first came across Lady Gaga, I wasn't necessarily all that impressed. I thought it was like it was bullshit Euro dance-pop. But, upon repeated listenings, I started paying attention to her song-craft and the way that she toys with simple tropes and makes them very, very weird. And she does it all in this arena of super-hyper-accessibility, and it's like, fuck...”

This may not be such a surprise to those who have heard I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever, his first solo effort released in the spring of 2012 by Red Scare Industries. Kelly, like Gaga, has a penchant for writing memorable, melodic pop songs that seem simultaneously witty and twisted, poetic and perverse. In fact, he frequently refers to the songs he recorded with the Wandering Birds as “weird”—the same word he uses to express what he appreciates about Gaga's songwriting.

Kelly traces these songs to his last round of songwriting with the Lawrence Arms, the Chicago punk-rock band with which he's performed most regularly and which is, perhaps, best known. “The songs were kind of a palette cleanser after I had written my part of [2006's] Oh! Calcutta and [2009's] Buttsweat and Tears,” he explains. ”I was like, 'Okay, I didn't think I have too many more songs like this left in me that are going to be any good right now.' I didn't think I could sing too many more frustrated, me-verses-the-world kind of punk-rock songs, so I just started writing these songs that were weird and different and kind of dark. I started thinking, 'Man, I could put a record together that sounds really, really weird if I just keep writing songs like this.'”

The result resembles the Lawrence Arms very little, but the record is unmistakably Kelly's. Even he admits that, though he endeavored to avoid its pitfalls, punk-rock is part of his musical make-up and will, in some sense, always be present in his songwriting. From his crispy vocal chords to the playful, bouncy beat present on half of its tracks, I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever captures what is essential about Kelly's music. Of the other half's tracks, some swagger treacherously and suspiciously; still others sway like the trees still standing after a tornado. “If you boil the Lawrence Arms off and you're left with me,” he says, “this is the kind of stuff that excites me—like, weird, sleazy rock and roll that seems vaguely dangerous that's about meeting people in weird alleyways to do creepy things. That's exciting to me. I've always had a lot of prurient and dark interests like that.”

The album's darker moments, Kelly recalls, were sparked by the the construction of a single line. “I remember when I came up with that first line on the record—it's like 'What's a pretty little thing like you doing in this dingy old back room'—I was like...ugh! That's awesome. Let's see where this can potentially go,” he says snickering. “It's so cringe-inducing that it's got to get interesting. Whether it's good or bad, that's a totally subjective thing that I can't really control. But I can make it fascinating—whether it's as morbidly fascinating as a complete fucking train wreck or whether it's genuinely fascinating as an interesting exploration of something.”

That first track, “Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me” shuffles with a catchy discomfort. While Kelly's acoustic struts with a syncopated stutter, handclaps maintain a chipper, cheerful beat; in the second verse, these instruments are replaced with a throbbing electric piano and the gentle jitter of sleigh bells. With such innocent foundational instruments, it's easy to miss Kelly's lyrics: “And the last sound that you'll ever know / is my bone-saw grinding / Woah woah woah woah / Woah woah-no / Soon they'll be chippin' at your bones / We'll be chippin' at your bones.” Instrumentally, song concludes with snarling guitars and a precise, driving drum part, but, melodically, “Suffer the Children” never becomes quite as insidious as its lyrics.

So, where is this dark—deranged, really—lyrical content coming from? Kelly says, in some sense, it comes from having kids. Being a full-time father of two, he struggles to squeeze in time to write music. When he does write, he challenges himself to write content that truly fascinates him. “My life has become a lot more tame, so I'm concerned about losing my juju, just being shitty old dad,” he says, laughing a little at himself. “So, one of the main objectives in writing this record was keeping myself nervous and on edge and pushing my own boundaries of what was tasteful and acceptable to do.”

Kelly claims that having children hasn't really inspired his songwriting. “There's nothing less rock 'n' roll than being a dad,” he says. But he does concede that the particularly repulsive aspects of parenting has played some role. “I will say that 'Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me' was totally inspired by my kids because they were watching Dora or some shit, and the music is so fucking bad—so repetitive and catchy that it gets stuck in your head all day, all week. And I was like, 'I'm going to write a song like this, but it's going to be the most depraved fucking song ever.' So in that way, yeah, I never would have written that song if it hadn't been for my kids.”

Covered in Flies”, a song comprised of grimy smudges of guitars and patinated organ chords, was inspired by a similar mindset. “That song was about going back to an old storage unit full of dead hookers, looking in there and being like, 'Well, you know what, we should really start doing this again. This was really great,'” he says. “I never would have pushed myself to get to a place that depraved if it hadn't been for my kids and feeling like I was in danger of kind of becoming a pussy.

I don't want to make it sound I obsessed over keeping my cool,” he continues, “but, when I sit down to write a song, I want to make sure I'm always pushing myself. These kids made it hard for me to push myself in sort of a dark way, but I was like, 'We'll that's exactly the direction I need to push.'”

But not every song on I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever is deprived. On “The Thud and the Echo”, the record's intriguing conclusion, Kelly's sparse, dense acoustic chords seem to adorn his lyrics, dangle from his lines like strands of crumpled tinsel on a Christmas tree. Something seems different about these lyrics, though—they're somber, bothered, and, though still fascinated with death, reflective. “But this time I wanna tell myself this time I'm gonna change,” Kelly softly sings as he strums, “and then I turn around this time and do every goddamn thing the same / and as the sun goes setting on this one of my last days / I'll just piss it away / and laugh about my fate / and dance on my own grave.”

That song has got the most emotional resonance to me,” Kelly admits. “It's about a friend of mine who's not really a friend, almost kind of my enemy, who killed himself, and about my own struggle to deal with how I feel about that. Because we were in this lifetime of competition and he was winning. He was a doctor that traveled to Africa who gave heart transplants for free and I was getting drunk in Baltimore with a bunch of gross dudes.” He then pauses, snickers sadly, and clears his throat before continuing. “He killed himself and the circumstances were pretty horrific. It was a real stock-taking point in my life, and I feel like I owe my wife and my kids so much that I'm not able to do, and that song is sort of the culminating of all this genuine emotion.

A lot of songs on this record exist in at least somewhat of a fantastical place,” he continues, his speech no longer brisk and bated, but slow, almost stumbling, “but that one's really from the soul. I know that its not the most interesting song, and I wouldn't have even put it on the record, except I think it's the most important song on the record.”

Maybe, here, Kelly connects once again to Lady Gaga, this time in her ability to move from the absurd to the serious and sentimental—and to make it fit perfectly of the spectacle that makes up the rest of the record.

And, maybe, even more so than anything the Lawrence Arms ever released—or the Falcon, or the Broadways and Slapstick, the other bands for which he wrote music—Kelly's work with the Wandering Birds is a sincere expression of his own essence. I'd Rather Die Than Live Forever, like its writer, is sweaty and slimy and subtly punk. It's creepy and discomforting and endlessly interested in exploring the disturbing. Stripped down, it's simple, but complex in some surprising places. At times, it's difficult to tell what's serious and what's satire, what's ironic and what's just wrong. By the end, though, it reveals itself as honest and sentimental and impressively poetic.

But, mostly, it's weird. 

Kelly recorded these songs on April Fool’s Day from his home in Chicago through a new landline phone he purchased just for the Switchboard Sessions. He just put his two children down for a nap and tried to sing quiet enough not to wake them up.

“Your Mother" appears on Brendan Kelly and the Wandering Birds' 2012 record titled I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever. “Hair" is a Lady Gaga cover; the song originally appeared on the 2011 album Born This Way.

Visit the band's Facebook page for more music, and Kelly's blog for hilarious commentary on life in general.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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