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Still Stripped Down – Chris McCaughan Returns with Side Project Sundowner

Last Updated 10/31/2010 1:15:35 PM

By: John B. Moore


Chris McCaughan, the voice and guitar behind longtime Chicago punk rock favs The Lawrence Arms, found an outlet for some of his more mellow songs a few years ago in the acoustic side project Sundowner.

Stripped down was the philosophy, not only with the songs, but the set-up as well. In fact, with little more than a guitar, McCaughan and occasionally his buddy, musician and Asian Man label owner Mike Park, would hit small clubs and coffee shops to play to whomever would show. 

sundowner we chase the wavesAfter a three-year hiatus from the project – time well spent with his day job in The Lawrence Arms – McCaughan is back with another Sundowner record We Chase the Waves. Despite another incredible offering of songs, he still managed to keep the process low key - even eschewing a formal studio this time around in favor of bedroom recordings.
McCaughan spoke recently about the new record, the Cubbies and taking the stage alone.

Innocent Words: Your bio states that this record was not recorded in a studio. Where was it recorded?

Chris McCaughan: Yup. True. Neil Hennessy and I borrowed some microphones and gear from Matt Allison and our friend Justin Yates and did the initial tracking of acoustic guitar and vocals in a spare room at my apartment in Chicago. The rest of it was done at Neil’s apartment, which is just down the street from mine, like about a home run’s distance away. We did bass, extra guitars, vocals, mixing and all that super exciting stuff there. So, the album is totally homemade.  We wanted to make the record without imposed deadlines, in a place that was comfortable and where we could work at our own pace. It was really cool and different from any other record I’ve been a part of. I think we both felt like this set-up would get the most natural performance from me and allow us the time to explore the songs more. 

IW: How is this album different from your first one, both musically and creatively?

McCaughan: Musically, I think it’s a lot less dense. I mean that there’s a lot more air and space. It also has less instrumentation. There are no keys or cello on this record.  It’s much more of a guitar and vocal oriented sound. I still think it’s full but in a different way. It’s a bit simpler in presentation, and I think unlike the first album it tries to capture the songs being played in the room as opposed to constructed in a studio.

We wanted to get the natural feel and honest moment of each one of them. We didn’t use a click track, so I think it’s got its own ebb and flow where as the first album was very metered. I think we consciously tried to let the songs develop along the way this time too. 4152 was much more mapped out and premeditated. I think these new songs had more time to evolve, and I lived with them for a while before we even started the recording process. As far as the songwriting goes, it’s just more cohesive and directed. Each song has its own unique thing, I hope. But all the songs belong together in the collection. There’s just more of a thread in the writing. I felt like I was taking risks as a writer but was still true to my own voice and my strengths. 

IW: Who backed you up on this record?

McCaughan: Neil played bass on the album, and my friend Ryan Suma played the lap steel on “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” I played everything else and sang all the vocals. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Neil did some sweet Brian Wilson-inspired ‘oooh’s’ on a song called “Second Hand” that I never could’ve pulled off. Neil and I produced the record together, and he was totally essential in helping write guitar lines and brainstorm vocal harmonies. More than he backed me up, he was a part of the whole process of making it. 

IW: So it sounds like you and Neil spent a lot of time working on this one. Was that different than the way you worked on the last one?

McCaughan: Absolutely.We made the last one in a few weeks. This record, no shit, took like eight months or something. I had it fully written at the beginning of last summer. We started tracking in late July, and we didn’t have the final mix until April this year. We really tried to take our time. We were living with this record. As cheesy as it sounds, making this was a lot about the journey. We didn’t want to hurry just to get it done. We’d just keep getting excited about it week after week. We’d keep saying, “Oh yeah, it’ll be done by like December,” and then another month would go by. There were times I wished it was just finished, but we made it this way so we could have the time to get it right. So, I don’t know, I think we came pretty close.  We wanted to represent these songs in the best way we could with the resources we had.

sundownerIW: You did some touring after the last record. Was that intimidating at all, not having the full band up there with you?

McCaughan: It took some getting used to at first, but once I acclimated to the way it felt on stage, I really began to love it. It’s totally raw.  People can see and hear you fuck up chords or give some awkward delivery of a line, and it’s cool. It sounds corny, but it makes you really human, for better and worse, you know?

And that’s just part of it, that’s part of the thrill. There’s just no escape. I learned so much about pace and delivery and performance having to be up there by myself. It can be surreal and strange at times, but it’s a unique experience and totally different than where I’ve come from, so at first it was a challenge, and now I just wanna get lost in it. I think it’s made me better at this whole thing. But every time I get up there, it feels new again. When I haven’t played in awhile, it always feels speedy at first, but I slow down into it and find that feeling again. There’s nothing like singing alone on stage to a crowd that’s singing back to you. It’s a one-of-kind feeling. I don’t know if I can describe what that’s really like. It’s incredible. 

IW: You and Mike Park spent months touring together across Europe. Any plans to tour together in the future?

McCaughan: There are no current plans, but I certainly hope we can play together more. I love hanging out with Mike. He’s a great friend and we always have an amazing time. We toured Europe by train in 2008. It was really cool experience and a totally new adventure for me. It gave me some great perspective on being a traveling musician. I’ve known Mike since I before I could get a legal drink in a bar, and I wish I saw him more. So I’d say hopefully it’s just a matter of when. 

IW: When you're working on a song, do you know right away if it's going to be for The Lawrence Arms or Sundowner?

McCaughan: While I was writing songs for the first Sundowner album, I wasn’t as sure during the process, but I think at this point, I have a pretty good grip on what I’m writing for. We Chase the Waves was written more with the acoustic format in mind.  I had more of a specific vision and purpose.  I wrote a song for the Lawrence Arms' Buttsweat and Tears EP called the “Slowest Drink” . . . and I knew immediately what it was destined for.  I imagined all the guitar interludes, and it helped me to assemble it in a way that would be best for that medium. I like to think that the lines are not nearly as blurry as they were on 4152, but of course, it’s still very much my style and people who know The Lawrence Arms would recognize that on this new Sundowner record in some capacity.

IW: You had alluded to this earlier, but what can you tell me about the song "In Baseball's Sad Lexicon"?

McCaughan: I took the words and the title from a 1910 poem by Franklin Pierce Adams about the double play combo of the Chicago Cubs, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers and Frank Chance who were on the 1907 and 1908 World Series teams. The poem is written from the point of view of a New York Giants fan that’s bummed because they’re constantly getting screwed by these guys turning double plays. Eventually the NY Giants beat the Cubs, and, well, we haven’t won since. I grew up five blocks north of Wrigley Field, so I’m a lifelong Cubs fan. Take whatever you want from that. I was actually bumming around on the couch one day playing guitar, reading about Cubs history on Wikipedia (I’m kind of a dork) and came across it. I already knew the poem, but the words were just hovering on the screen, so I started to sing them, and the next thing I knew, I was writing this funny song. That story isn’t very interesting, but I liked the title and it grew on me and, well, now it’s on the record. 

IW: So, what's next for The Lawrence Arms?

McCaughan: I think we need life size statues of us, made of gold, adorning the sidewalk in front of the L&L Tavern in Chicago. You know, something to help preserve the legacy. If that isn’t possible, I guess we’ll have to figure something else out.

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