Chris McCaughanFat Wreck Chords
By Dustin Blumhagen on April 4, 2014 at Email
Chris McCaughan is a prolific artist. The Chicago native splits his time between his two main projects, Sundowner and The Lawrence Arms; in addition to occasional forays into other projects. Unlike many artists, McCaughan doesn’t consider either of his main outlets to fall under the side project label, both are equally important to him. He released an album from both bands within a 6 month period and is understandably busy touring to support them. Add to that a move from the east coast all the way out west and it is fair to say that McCaughan is a very busy man. He took a little bit of time out of his busy schedule to speak with thepunksite.com about his latest Sundowner release and a one off show in Edmonton, Canada with local favorites Audio/Rocketry.
Hello Chris, thank you for taking some time to “talk” with thepunksite.com today. You are currently on tour with Lawrence Arms, are you out east today?
The east coast leg of the TLA tour wrapped up a few weeks back. Super fun. Great shows. Awesome to be back and playing new songs. Currently I’m back in the Northwest for a bit, which is nice, as spring here is fully kicking in. We head to Europe at the end of the month(April) for some festivals and a few dates with NOFX. Should be a cool trip.
How do you juggle Sundowner with Lawrence Arms commitments? I know it’s been a while since we’ve heard new stuff from TLA, but it seems like you should still be out promoting Neon Fiction and you’ve already got a new album out, Metropole.
If you would have told me a year ago that these two records would come out within 6 months of each other I would have thought that was crazy. But that’s how it all banged out. I’m proud of both records. There’s an urgency to all this activity that I love. It’s been good to be busy. 2013 was just this really energized year and I feel like ’14 is off to a great start. As all the Lawrence Arms stuff has come together, Metropole, some tour stuff, I just keep trying to plug in Sundowner one off’s and weekends where I can.
Speaking of the two albums, Sundowner released Neon Fiction on Fat Wreck Chords, which is who you have worked with for the past few The Lawrence Arms albums. But Metropole is out on Epitaph. What brought about that relationship? Do you feel like it has helped you to separate the two projects, so that Sundowner is being promoted as your band, instead of your TLA side project?
The Lawrence Arms had this incredible opportunity to work with Epitaph and it’s been nothing short of amazing. I think it’s created a new energy and purpose for our band and that’s a great feeling. This is the third Sundowner album. So I’ve been quietly doing this, performing solo and making records, for… well… going on ten years now. This just kinda feels like me. I try not to worry too much about side project labels, ya know, or overthink things. I try to write good songs and go from there. I think at the heart of it all that’s what matters to me most. Sundowner is an essential part of what I do and hopefully it stays interesting and I can keep it going in a way that works for me. I’m grateful Fat Wreck took a chance with Neon Fiction and, as it always has been in the past, it’s great to be working with them.
You’ve done a little bit of live support for Neon Fiction. What brings you to Canada? Why a one-off show? How do you feel about snow?
I grew up and lived most of my life in Chicago, so you might say I’m from the snow. My buddy Ben Sir promotes shows in Edmonton and he reached out to me about coming up and playing. The response so far has been great. So I’m looking forward to it. The only Sundowner show I’ve done in Canada was at Pouzza Fest in Montreal a few years back. Since I live in the NW I feel like it’s about time I got up to Vancouver.
You are currently living in Portland. How has the transition from your long time home of Chicago been? Do you get back home frequently? When can we expect a Portlandia cameo?
Haha. I haven’t started the new season of Portlandia yet but looking forward to watching it. Portland is a lovely city and it’s been great living here. I do get back to Chicago a lot and it’s always nice to be home.
My good friend Joe Vickers is currently living down in Portland. I see that his band Audio/Rocketry is opening for your show in Edmonton. Did you choose them to open the show or is just a wild coincidence?
I know Joe. He’s a great guy and I’m thrilled they’re playing. It’s not a coincidence, as I met Joe and Ben (the promoter in Edmonton… they’re friends) when I did a few shows with the Flatliners. Joe actually turned me on to the Jason Isbell record, which I’m very grateful for. We’ve been meaning to grab lunch which reminds me I should hit him up.
Neon Fiction has a fuller sound than We Chase the Waves. Was that an intentional move, to focus less on the acoustic sound and flesh things out with a full band? How does this translate into a live setting? Do you still do mostly solo shows or does a full band accompany you now?
Once I decided to make this record, which honestly didn’t really happen until all the songs were written and I took stock, it was very clear to me, and I think important, that a shift needed to be made from the last records. I wanted listeners to feel a kick drum, some kind of heartbeat, and I wanted there to be real low end, real bass and drums, to allow the guitars and the vocals, the melodies, to live in a different way than on previous albums. So there was real intention to create that. Neil Hennessy and I worked to find a way to achieve that through arrangement and production. It was important to me to present this record in new frame, that didn’t just reduce it to being an acoustic collection.
Part of me loves that Neon Fiction may never be recreated in the way that it’s assembled on the album. For me, it speaks to something so fleeting about all of this. We captured this collection of songs in the studio, over that summer we made the record, and there’s this fossilized thing about it that makes me really happy.
I’ve only played solo in support of the record. And that means that the songs have to be retranslated for that setting and aesthetic. I’ve done shows where I switch from acoustic to electric guitar. Some of the older songs off 4152 really thrive in the acoustic form. But I love playing the electric solo as well. It creates a different, distinct vibe, more stylized, more dramatic. My feeling has always been that if the songs are strong enough to live on the record in a unique way, then they’ll hold up when repurposed for the live solo performance setting.
You played with a reunited The Broadways last year in Chicago. Are there any plans to play together in the future? I assume that juggling The Lawrence Arms and Sundowner is already a heavy load. Do you have any other projects on the go right now? Or planned in the future?
The Broadways show at Riot Fest was fun. Playing those songs elicits a strange feeling of time travel in me. That band existed half a life ago. What’s really great is that I mainly got to kick back and play guitar while those other guys shouldered the bulk of the vocal duties. Haha. I’m afraid there are no further schemes planned. Right now we have more TLA stuff coming up and I’m trying to squeeze in Sundowner dates here and there. Aside from that, I’m focusing on writing again, gonna see where it takes me.
Do you have favorite songs that you enjoy playing more than others? Do you have any songs that you’ve recorded as Sundowner that you never play live? If so, why?
There are a few songs that I just never really play live for whatever reason. Like Jewel of the Midwest off of We Chase the Waves. Just never find a way to fit that one in. Now that there’s three records and I always throw a few TLA songs in, there’s a lot of songs to choose from and it gets harder and harder to write a setlist. I always play In The Flicker and Midsummer Classic. I suppose those songs are both deeply important to me. Cemetery West, Life in the Embers, Grey on Grey. Love playing all of those. What Beadie Said, Audio Geography. I like trying to represent my whole history when I perform live. I did shows in the Midwest in the fall and I played, like, upwards of 25 songs a night. My setlist was just a rough map of maybe 15 or so songs and I’d just drop stuff in on the fly. To me, that’s what makes performing solo so much fun, there’s an element of ‘what’s next’ that I really love. I want to discover, edit and revise the set as I go. It’s like I’m living this thing in the moment.
Neon Fiction has a melancholy tone to it, both musically and lyrically. Does it feel like a time capsule of the feelings/ thoughts from when you were back in Chicago and planning on moving west? Now that the album has been out for a little while and you’ve settled (I assume) in Portland, do you feel differently? Is there a nostalgic feeling hanging over these songs?
What’s strange is that I wrote Neon Fiction before we decided to move out West. At least, over 90% of it. So while it may feel in some ways like a “leaving” record it wasn’t conceived in that manner. There was certainly an anticipation for something resembling a greater change in my life showing up in the writing. (Although I think there’s been threads of that throughout my work as a songwriter). I was moving towards a few possible outcomes at the time. I think there’s always been a kind of nostalgia hanging over my songs, but I like to think there’s also always been grains, themes, of finding someway into the unknown, to kind of confront uncertainty. For me, moving forced me into a perspective shift that I found to be really powerful and maybe even long overdue.
I can see Neon Fiction as a bit of time capsule, but a lot of the song collections I’ve put together in my life have felt that way. I remember exactly where I was, both literally and in a more figurative sense, when I wrote Midsummer Classic, or most songs I’ve written for that matter. For me that’s part of the experience. Trapping, containing some instance and distilling it into a song, some lasting manifestation of that moment. For all the thoughts/feelings that I had that shaped Neon Fiction, I believe there’s some universal experience at the core of it that people can relate to. At least, that’s the idea and what I hope for. Do I feel differently now? Yes, in many ways I do. Part of writing the record was finding a way to let go of a lot of the things that compelled me to write it in the first place. There has to be a way forward, always. There has to be momentum to what’s next. But there’s a pulse and experience to those songs that I carry with me. And I think that’s nice.
You mention in Life in the Embers the books that [you] love. What do you like to read?
I went to school for Fiction Writing, where I got turned on to lots of great authors. I’ve always consumed a lot of fiction. I love 19th and 20th century Russian and European literature. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favorite novels. A professor of mine back in college gave me my first copy and I’ve gone through many since. Currently loving Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Aleksander Hemon. One of the great perks of living in Portland is being able to cruise through Powell’s and explore.
Is there anything you would like to add? Sometimes email interviews are a little limited in scope. It’s hard to go off on an interesting tangent like in a regular conversation…
Oh man, I’m sure there’s all sorts of stuff we could get into… But let’s leave it at this: It’s been a very cool year and I’m excited for whatever it is that lies ahead.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for thepunksite.com Chris! We appreciate.