It’s been quite a 20-year ride for The Lawrence Arms. The Chicago-based band celebrated their 20th-anniversary last year and are still riding high on the brink of releasing their brand new seventh studio record, Skeleton Coast. Due out on July 17th via Epitaph Records, Skeleton Coast is the group’s first new album in six and a half years, a long time coming for fans of the band’s vintage, hard-driving punk rock. Recorded in a relaxed, sunny locale, 30 miles east of El Paso, Texas at Sonic Ranch Studios, the guys worked with longtime producer Matt Allison who has been responsible for producing nearly their entire discography.
Containing the best elements of their sound, Skeleton Coast, also acts as something of a reconfiguration of The Lawrence Arms’ sound that aligns itself well with the strange times we currently live in. Even though it was written and recorded prior to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Skeleton Coast offers an eerie image of an apocalyptic future in which things seem a lot less normal and comfortable than they used to.
In anticipation of the release of Skeleton Coast, we spoke with bassist Brendan Kelly for a new Art of the Meal interview in which he tells us about his favourite foods to cook, his affinity for Taco Bell, his fave hometown grub spots, and, in his opinion, the best food city.
Do you follow a particular diet?
Brendan Kelly: “Nah, I eat pretty much anything. I’d say I try to not eat like a monster but I’m also originally from Missouri and I eat the spray cheese from a can, so obviously that’s not true.”
How does the food you eat on the road compare to what you eat when in the studio or not working?
“On the road, there are a lot of limitations in the day. We try to hit diners/local spots when we can but there ends up being a lot of Taco Bell too. We tend to try to avoid burger based fast food places and waffle house (the Waffle House will ruin your guts and that’s a bad scene when you’re trapped in a van for six more hours and your only respite is a terrible Sinclair station bathroom) but we’re kind of at the mercy of what the road offers.
By the time we’re at the show, it depends on what’s nearby. I don’t think any of us would sneeze at eating a nice dinner at a spot someone recommended us, but lots of times it ends up being like, a random sandwich from our rider or sometimes pizza. You do what you can. When we’re home, I think all of us are fairly fastidious in terms of eating real food, either from a place that we know to be good or something that we prepare ourselves. It’s a real roller coaster drop when we go on the road. ‘Yesterday I was eating a salmon spinach salad I made myself out of whole foods and today I’ve eaten three Taco Bell burritos.’ It’s a wild ride.”
Do you prepare a lot of your own food?
“I have two smallish kids, so I cook a lot. Now that we’re in pandemic lockdown, I cook every day. My morning standard is a little tiny something for breakfast like fruit or cottage cheese, then for lunch, bacon and eggs and then for dinner some kind of protein and a salad. This is a very Groundhog’s Day type reality for me. Last night we went out to eat (we sat outside and we had our masks), and it was the first time in three months, so yeah. I’m grilling chicken or salmon or steaks or burgers or something pretty much every day. I cook every day, every meal at this point.”
Are any of your bandmates cooks? Or foodies?
“I can’t totally speak to how much either of those dudes cook. I know that Neil lives in a spot in LA that’s not entirely, um, it seems like it would be hard to coordinate how to store things in order to be able to cook a lot, but Neil has also always been a ‘I’m going to walk and get a burrito’ type of guy. I don’t know how much Chris actually cooks himself, but he definitely is the one of us who would most likely considered a ‘foodie’ or whatever. That said, he will pound a Shake Shack burger with the best of them. I think he just knows more about food than either of us do. He should probably be doing this interview, huh?”
What are some of your favourite restaurants in your hometown?
“Well, my favourite diner in Chicago was called Jeri’s Grill, and it just shut down due to COVID. I’m super sad about that. Parson’s Chicken and Fish is a spectacular spot. The hot chicken there is a death row meal to me. We’re a hot dog town so I have to shout out the Wiener’s Circle (which uses Vern’s cheese spread on the cheese fries, burgers and cheese dogs and is its own very unique culinary experience), Byron’s and Wrigleysville Dogs. These are the types of places that become your foundational cuisine signifiers if you grow up here. If you ever come to Chicago, there’s a hot dog stand on every corner. If you go into one and it has a pizza puff (an obscure local delicacy), or a mother-in-law (again, a very local thing) you’re in a good spot.”
Do you have a favourite “food city” when on tour?
“We don’t usually hit New Orleans on tour, but I love me some NOLA cuisine. LA has great food. So does New York City. We don’t go to Austin very often, but when we do, I love some Texas barbecue. We recently went to Rochester for the first time in a while and ate ‘white hots’ which are some kind of white sausages. That was cool. They also tried to sell us on ‘garbage plates’ but uh…no. Toronto has great street dogs too. I don’t have very complex tastes. To get slightly international, Tokyo has some of the best food I’ve ever had and every single place in Australia is amazing. They even have great Mexican food!”
What are some of the food items on your rider?
“Our rider is fairly simple. We have vegetables, cheese, peanut butter and jelly, bread, pita and hummus. I think also tortilla chips and salsa. That’s it. As far as I can remember. It’s been forever.”
If a fan were generous and to give you a food or drink-related gift, what should they get you?
“A great pizza. There’s nothing I love more than parsing the differences between regional pizzas. I seriously love it. But also, selfishly I love any sort of blueberry crumble situation. I’m not big on sweets but a cold, fruit-based crumble or whatever, that’s my shit.”
Were any of your songs ever conceived at a bar or restaurant?
“I don’t think so, but we’ve been a band for so long and we have so many records. I don’t think we have any songs about food, if that’s the question.”
When was the last time you barbecued?
“I only grill. I’m not dumb enough to get into the morass of opinions about what’s grilling and what’s barbecuing. I don’t know how to barbecue. I did just cook two three pound tomahawk steaks on my grill. That was fairly interesting, They ended up being just ok.”
What is your go-to meal when headed to a barbecue?
“If I’m at a proper barbecue I’m going to defer to what the chef is most stoked on. I’m not terribly picky when it comes to good barbecue. That said, I’m a city slicker, so I tend to default on the obvious choices like burnt ends and ribs, but if the chef is like ‘I’m known for my chicken,’ I’m going to have the chicken. If you’re talking about just a cookout where it’s like chicken and burgers and dogs, that’s a full on audible. How do the burgers look? If they look like chubby hockey pucks, I’m going hot dog. Most cookout food is subpar, so I tend to steer towards the least fuck-uppable thing, which is a hot dog. Ideally, not quite burnt, with yellow mustard and raw chopped onion.”
Did you have to overcome being a picky eater and, if so, when/how was it?
“I guess I don’t know. I know all kids are weird eaters, but my mom is pretty Italian so I was eating stuffed peppers and tongue and shit when I was pretty small. We’re also from a deep Missouri hillbilly stock so I was also eating chicken gizzards and shit since I was a little kid. I don’t think I ever qualified as a proper ‘picky eater’ but I did have to live through being made fun of for having a tongue sandwich in my brown bag at school lunch. If anything, social conditioning made me more picky than I was before.”
What is the “strangest” food you’ve ever tried and how are you with “less standard” foods?
“My friend Lenny retired from the European NBA (or whatever it’s called) and had his party in Chicago at a place called Frontier, which specializes in whole animal service. They have an alligator stuffed with chickens on their menu! I didn’t have that, but his wife ordered a whole pig for the party. At the end of the party, the server asked who was going to eat the eyes. Lenny had one and I had the other. It was weird. I expected it to be like a grape and burst and so forth, but it was like…napalm or something. It just stuck to the back of my teeth. It wasn’t my favourite at all.
Generally, I’m not like an adventure eater or anything. I get as squeamish as anyone else about even like, white asparagus, for example. But I’m also not really afraid of very much. Once in Germany, they served us whole rabbits, and our tour manager, who is a very very scary German man started to tear up and said (strong German accent) ‘I don’t eat fucking bunnies, man.’ I did not eat a bunny. I also have avoided turtle soup and horse meat crudité. But I’ve eaten a pig eye and drank liquor with a dead snake coiled in the bottle, so I don’t now. I think I’d say I’m interested in whatever you got, but I reserve the right to not have to eat a giant roach or something just because I showed interest.”
Which toppings go on your ideal pizza?
“Ah, man. I think a perfect pizza can be just cheese, but when I’m ordering a pizza it’s pepperoni, sausage and some kind of hot pepper situation. It can be banana peppers or jalapenos or, in Chicago, giardiniera. But pizza is good. Since I’m from Chicago, I feel compelled to mention that the pizza that Chicagoans actually eat on the day to day tip is called ‘tavern style’ and it’s a cracker thin crust, cut in squares, with toppings all the way to the edge. I do like a quality Chicago style stuffed pizza, but that’s not our usual thing. We eat that when you come to town to stay and say ‘I wan to try that weird ass thing you think is pizza.”
When did you first get interested in cooking?
“I was raised to always be able to cook on like, a line cook at a very basic diner level. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t scramble an egg or make a grilled cheese or something. I don’t know that I have a passion for cooking beyond the usual arrogant male ‘I’m going to subvert the idea that there’s nothing to eat in this fridge and whip all this shit together and make something mind blowing.’ I like to cook, but I wouldn’t say I have a passion for it or anything, and I don’t have any go-to recipes that would make you say ‘wait, you made this?’ That said, I can, in fact, make one of the best vegan burritos you’ll ever have. When I was vegan I got pretty into experimentation in the kitchen, I guess, but I don’t want to pump my tires here. I’m just a hobbyist.”
Do you have a favourite chef?
“As far as celebrity chef types go, I’d say I really actually think Gordon Ramsay is a great mentor. His advice is good and he’s really nurturing. I don’t totally know where he got his reputation as an asshole, since to me, he seems like a really great instructor. I also like Guy Fieri because, yo… Shane Torres kind of served all of us on why hating on Guy was completely lame. But my favourite chef is Anthony Dirienzo who now works at the headquarters of a fancy steakhouse chain as (I think) the main menu content creator, and who also used to be a roadie for the Lawrence Arms. He’s a much better chef than he was a roadie.”
What sort of cooking set-up do you have at home?
“I have a simple range and oven, and a gas grill with a flattop attachment. I also have a microwave. Typical dad shit. I couldn’t possibly use any more than that. Oh! I have an air fryer. That thing is shockingly awesome.”
Have you ever owned a George Foreman Grill?
“Oh yes. The worst item I’ve ever cleaned, not just in terms of cooking. Literally the worst item I’ve ever cleaned. You can cook everything you cook on a Foreman in a waffle iron or on a flattop with a regular clothes iron. There’s a life hack for you.”
What is your favourite fast food chain restaurant?
“I love a good fast food spot. The nicer burger spots like Shake Shack and In n Out are great, but I’m not always in the mood for that. I actually think McDonald’s offers something that no place else does. If you want a McDonald’s burger, you’re not going to scratch that itch with any other burger anywhere. But, I’d say that if we’re talking generally, it’s gotta be Taco Bell. I’m always ok with Taco Bell. If we’re going to go with the truth truth, there was a chain called Naugles that I loved for myriad reasons when I was a kid, and recently, three of them have reopened in California. I don’t know if that counts, but in my lifetime, I think it’s safe to say that Naugles is not only my favourite chain but my favorite restaurant, period.”
How do you usually get your groceries? In-store? Online delivery?
“Oh, I go to the store. I’ve had groceries delivered and that’s cool. It’s really really nice how easy it is, but I need to be standing in the aisles and be like ‘oh shit, I’ll stuff some poblanos with cheese tonight!’ that’s the only way I ever get any new ideas. Otherwise, I’d be eating nothing but the same salad for the rest of my life.”