Interview: Chris McCaughan of Sundowner / The Lawrence Arms

A couple of months back, I remember getting an email from the good folk at Fat Wreck Chords stating that Chris McCaughan of The Lawrence Arms would be delivering another installment of his solo material, also known as Sundowner.

I was beyond stoked to learn of this as I was a big fan of McCaughan’s last Sundowner release and maybe dig The Lawrence Arms a whole lot.  Hopefully there are a few of you out there who can agree with me on both statements.

Anyways, Neon Fiction is just an amazing release and I can not stop listening to it.  I have not had time to do a proper review of the album on there here website, but I was asked if I wanted to chat with McCaughan about it.  Of course I said yes to that.

Chris and I were able to catch up on the good ol’ Internets and he was kind enough to talk about his new release.  Check it out:


BHP: So the last time we chatted about 3 years ago,  LeBron had kicked Cleveland in the nuts and you just released We Chase The Waves. I guess what I am trying to ask is, what the heck have you been up to?

CM: I remember. Nice to chat again. Not sure I can condense the last three years of my life into a brief synopsis of what have I been up to? So, let’s just say I’ve been livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.

I heard you no longer live in Chicago these days.  Is that true?  What prompted the big move to the West Coast?

True. I was born and raised in Chicago. So I take that place with me where ever I go. And, anyone who knows me knows how much I identify with and love that city. But I was ready for something in my life to change and felt like a new surround would be good for me. Also, my girlfriend is from the West Coast and, after having lived in Chicago for several years, she was ready to be closer to home and out of the harsh winter. So that was part of it. But, having toured and traveled extensively in my life I wanted to know what it was like to actually live in a new place. It’s an entirely different experience. I still spend a lot of time in Chicago though, so I feel a bit like a habitant of multiple places.

You just dropped an all-new release on Fat Wreck Chords titled Neon Fiction. Care to tell me about it?

Neon Fiction is the culmination of songs I was writing somewhere in the span of Fall ‘11 into the Spring of ‘12. It’s hard to remember the exact time frame. I didn’t write this with specific intentions or deadlines or ideas about how it would all come together. It may sound ridiculous, but I really was just writing the songs I write. I’ve gotten questions over the years like how do you know when it’s a Sundowner song or a TLA song? And the truth is I just don’t think about it in that way. Or, perhaps, a bit more accurately, I just know innately. This is, simply, me and these are the songs I write. Some people ask if this is more than a side-project now and, again, I don’t think in those terms. This is part of what I do and my goals are to try to write great songs and make cool records. That’s the part I can control and that’s what Neon Fiction is to me.

I guess, in some ways, I feel like I’ve had this record in me for long time, but it took certain conditions in my life to write it. Part of that was letting go. There was definitely a time when I felt like no one would ever hear any of this and that didn’t bother me at all. I was completely at peace with that.

But, when I was finally ready, I fronted the production so we wouldn’t have to make hard decisions on the front end. We could focus on the songs and the work. We tracked it at Atlas Studio in Chicago. As usual, I teamed up with Neil Hennessy on the record. The goal was to try to make an awesome album, with cool sounds. We consciously tried to shift the perspective from the previous Sundowner albums. I felt like that was essential. We wanted layers and different kind of landscapes for the songs, and for each song. I wanted to challenge myself but work within my range. I wasn’t trying to reinvent anything.

I feel very fortunate to be working with Fat Wreck. And it meant a lot to me that everyone over there liked the songs and the album. I’m so grateful for so many people in my life who have made this possible and who have continued to be supportive over so many years. So, it’s been an amazing experience and I’m so stoked it’s out.

Does the title of the album have any hidden meaning behind it? Sounds like a typical Vegas adventure to me.

For me it just captures the nature and vibe of the collection. That was the primary goal of the title. Admittedly, I struggled naming the record. I asked my friend Ben Pier, who is a photographer living in NYC, to shoot a bunch of stuff for the album. Once we chose the cover photo it started to all make more sense to me. It’s a city record. The songs are heavily influenced by my sensory perception and how I specifically interact with environments. So lights and sounds are heavy contributors to the overall landscape, the lyrics and sonic qualities. And, honestly, I just like the way it sounds. That’s a hugely important factor to me in a title. Also, Neon Fiction has some origins for me. It’s a bit of a tip of the hat to Chicago writer, Nelson Algren, who wrote a book called Neon Wilderness. And it’s a bit of a play on Non Fiction, as the record is full of half-truths.

SundownerSo when did you start writing Neon Fiction? We you looking to write another Sundowner album, or did you just find yourself with a bunch of songs that needed a home?

I didn’t sit down to write a record. But I wouldn’t say I just found myself with a bunch of songs either. I was writing with no real goal in mind. Just writing to write. I wasn’t thinking about how or where or why. I wasn’t focused on some kind of end game. I guess somewhere in the process, when the songs began to accumulate, it occurred to me that I felt strongly about the material. At that point things felt more magnetic. I was being pulled to some kind of end and then I felt compelled to figure all the other things out so that I could make it. I’ve thought about this in a lot of different ways. In terms of the song writing I would say it this way: It’s like I was a kid out in a field in the evening with a mason jar and a lid trying to catch fireflies. Got one. Here’s another. And at some point I’d caught so many I was excited enough to go show someone.

I swore that you stated before that you were not really going to go the solo acoustic music route in the past, but here you are. Has the popularity of punk rockers following this trend changed your mind?

I’m pretty sure I never said that. Certainly not in that way. I’ve been playing as a solo acoustic artist since 2005 or 2006, when I first began writing acoustic stuff and the first Sundowner record started to come together. So, no, the popularity of the genre has nothing to do with my choices or decisions as an artist. I’m just trying to write and live a life that’s authentic and genuine to me. That’s it, man.

Can we expect you to be onboard the next Revival Tour then?

I have a great amount of respect for Chuck Ragan. He’s just an amazing guy. I first met Chuck years ago when TLA toured with Hot Water Music and I’ve had the good fortune of performing on Revival tour and doing shows with him here and there over the years. It’s always an incredible collection of talented and passionate artists he puts together for Revival and I always feel honored when he reaches out to me in any way.

I thought “Concrete Shoes” was exceptional. What made your feet so heavy that you had to write a song about it?

We live in a sticky world, man. And, I guess, at times my feet felt pretty heavy against the pavement. Just trying to get off the ground.

Was there a certain track you favored over the rest on Neon Fiction?

I’m proud of the record as a collection of songs. They belong together and I think they make each other better. And that was the goal. If I absolutely had to pick one maybe it would be Poet of Trash? Maybe My Beautiful Ruins? Grey on Grey? I don’t know, man. I have an array of feelings and connections to them all.

Overall, was there a theme surrounding all of the songs on this album?

There are a lot of themes and sub-themes. But generally speaking, it’s a record about self-acceptance and self-actualization. It’s about letting go of the things that you can’t control and being honest with who you are, embracing your nature.

Seems like I am not the only one who is digging Neon Fiction. How are you taking the feedback so far from everyone who pre-ordered the release?

It feels great to have such a positive response to the songs. And, of course, I’m happy it seems to have had some impact on listeners already. But I try not to worry too much about all of that or read into it too much. I just continue to be thankful that I’m in a position to share the work, keep believing in the craft and the process.

Who all helped you this round on Neon Fiction? How much did Neil Hennessy pitch in again?

Neil played bass and drums. I did all the guitars and vocals. That’s it. Neil is an incredibly talented musician and has been an essential part of making the Sundowner records. This record was no different. His contribution to Neon Fiction was enormous. He helped catalyze and actualize so much of what was in my head. I feel lucky to have a partnership with him that has created conditions to work in this way. Justin Yates, who works with Matt Allison at Atlas studio where we made the record, engineered and helped produce which allowed Neil and myself to really focus in on performance. Neil is a true craftsman, one of the best dudes, and we’ve had a, sort of, musical kinship for a long time. He has a sharp and sophisticated ear and what he brings to the studio, or to any project, is invaluable.

I know you hardly toured with the last Sundowner release, but that is all changing this time. How does it feel to be hitting the road without your full-time band? Any plans on expanding that tour?

Over the years I’ve played solo quite a bit, so I don’t anticipate it’ll feel too strange. This fall I’ll be doing some small runs of shows here and there and we’ll see what happens. Not getting too far ahead right now. I try to do this in the way that works best for me and not get too concerned by others expectations.

Just curious, but were you asked to cover a Tony Sly song for his upcoming tribute release? I didn’t see you on the track listing and was curious if that was due to your own choice.

Tony Sly was a great guy and an amazing songwriter. TLA and No Use toured together a bunch and I was fortunate enough to get to know him and spend some time around him. He’s deeply missed. If it’d worked out that I could’ve contributed a song that would have been awesome and an honor. But it didn’t. Don’t read too much into it.

Rumor has it that the Lawrence Arms have new material recorded. When can we expect that to drop?

There’s a new TLA record. It exists. We’re excited. That’s about all I can tell you.

So, what’s next for Sundowner?

It’s September. Neon Fiction is out. Shows ahead. I’m stoked and thankful. Just trying to live in the present moment and do the best version of me I can.

Pick up the new Sundowner on Fat Wreck Chords.

Sundowner is playing Now That’s Class in Cleveland on Sept 26th. with Meridian and The House Of Wills.  Tickets are only $10.  Do not miss out on this show!!!

Sundowner @ Now That's Class

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