Chris McCaughan doesn’t have anything against Hot Topic. He won’t knock Fall Out Boy. From far away, the frontman of The Lawrence Arms doesn’t seem like your typical punk rocker, but he’s punk where it counts. He discovered punk in an actual record store, believes in the DIY ethic, and has paid his dues playing in dank, damp, and dirty venues. The A.V. Club caught up with McCaughan before his show at Riot Fest this Friday to talk about why he really likes Bad Religion, really doesn’t like the Vans Warped Tour, and what it’s like to play to a crowd of five people.
The A.V. Club: So how did you get into punk music? What bands were most influential?
Chris McCaughan: I kind of got into music in middle school, although at the time I didn’t know it as punk music so much as just rock music. I’m not ashamed to say that I really loved some of the hair metal bands of the ’80s. You have to remember that I graduated high school in 1995, so that puts me in middle school before 1990. So Poison, Whitesnake, Guns N’ Roses, early Metallica.
I kind of got into punk music because me and [bassist] Brendan [Kelly] used to go to Reckless [Records] and buy cassette tapes. [Laughs.] And we started stumbling upon stuff that we later realized were punk records. So that was initially how I got into punk music.
I started playing guitar when I was in eighth grade, and that led to trying to write songs and trying to figure out how to play in bands. That led to meeting people, and getting into the local punk rock scene, and going to shows. So that was how I really got into the culture of it, then ultimately we started bands and wanted to play out.
AVC: You and Brendan were in a band before The Lawrence Arms, right?
CM: Yeah, we were in a band called The Broadways together. Actually, Brendan and I have known each other since fifth grade, so we discovered a lot of that stuff together.
AVC: What are some of the big punk bands you were into?
CM: Bad Religion definitely. No Control was really one of the first punk records I heard that changed my whole perspective on music. Lyrically, sonically, everything about it was really crazy and totally new to me when I first heard that record. They’re an awesome band, and they’re one of the bands that got me into punk rock for sure.
But yeah, I love Bad Religion, Jawbreaker, NOFX. We’ve been lucky enough to play shows with NOFX. I’m sure I could run off a huge list of bands I loved as a kid, like Naked Raygun, who’s a really big influence. We used to go see them at the Riviera Theatre when we were 15. Again, they were so new and crazy to me; it just seemed like we had tapped into some bizarre little sect of people that totally took us in a new direction. We still love to go see Naked Raygun. There are so many great bands. A lot of them are playing Riot Fest, actually.
AVC: Do you remember where your first show was?
CM: It was in Whitewater, Wisconsin—there’s a college there. We played the first record we ever put out, A Guided Tour of Chicago, front to back because that was all the songs we had. It was on a campus, but I can’t remember what college it was. I don’t really remember the show so much. There weren’t a lot of people there. But I do remember that outside there were all of these benches you could move, and we were having these hilarious hurdling contests. There may have been some drinking involved.
AVC: So, what’s your best tour memory?
CM: In 2005, we toured Australia with Anti-Flag, who’s also playing Riot Fest, and going to Australia—the shows were really great and fun, but just getting to travel to Australia was such an insane thrill. We never thought we’d really be able to do something like that. We went all the way to Perth, Australia, which is, from my understanding, one of the most isolated cities in the world. It’s in Western Australia on sort of the Southwest coast of the continent, and kind of felt like a bizarre world San Diego.
AVC: On the other end of the spectrum, what’s your worst tour memory?
CM: There are so many hilarious shows we’ve played over the years; I couldn’t even begin to run down the list. One time we played in literally a bait shop outside of Rockford, Illinois, and I think there were maybe 20 kids there. There are so many shows like that. One time we played at this place called the Last Place On Earth in Memphis, Tennessee. This was before we really toured, but there was nobody there, and the promoter comes up to us at one point and is like, “You know guys, there’s nobody here; maybe we should just not do the show,” and we’re like, “Oh, you know, all right man, whatever.” And we go outside, and there are five kids waiting outside, and the guy had never unlocked the doors. So we were like, there are five kids who came from who knows where, so we played a show for five people.
There’s one time we played a show on Long Island somewhere, and this is in more of our touring days, and for some reason the bathrooms broke, and there was literally six inches of feces and water on the floor of this club. That’s a funny one.
AVC: What’s your take on Fall Out Boy? I’m curious, since that band is also from Chicago.
CM: I think anything I could say that was bad about them would probably come from a place of jealousy of not being some mega-huge band that gets to do whatever they want. I say good for them; I don’t really know those guys, but it seems like they’ve done well for themselves. I mean, I’m not sitting around my house jamming to Fall Out Boy records, but I certainly say good for them.
AVC: I don’t know if all of you feel this way or if it’s just Brendan [Kelly], but I’ve read interviews with him where he really speaks out against the Warped Tour. What makes Riot Fest and the Warped Tour different?
CM: That’s a bit of a loaded question, but I think Riot Fest—for one, we played some of the first Riot Fests, and they’ve always been really cool to us and they’ve always done a pretty good job of making sure everybody’s taken care of in a certain way, whether it be bands or audience members. I think they try to run a pretty tight ship. The Warped Tour is really something entirely different. Our experience with Warped Tour was…less than pleasurable.
AVC: They basically kicked you off, didn’t they?
CM: Yeah, I guess certain folklore suggests that we were kicked off, or at least asked not to come back. Warped Tour is just not our scene. It’s just not where we belong, and that became very apparent to us very quickly when we experienced what Warped Tour is like. There are just a lot of things about it we didn’t gel with, and whatever that says about us doesn’t really matter. I think it’s safe to say that we will never play the Warped Tour, and the Warped Tour would never want us.
AVC: I went four years ago, and Bad Religion played, and I feel like they’re in the same vein. So why do you think it worked for them?
CM: Let’s just say it this way: From what we experienced on the Warped Tour, and from where we felt we were at as a band, we felt like that was something we didn’t want to be a part of. I just don’t think what we do at all, even just being in a punk band, has anything to do with what the Warped Tour does. I don’t know how to say it in a way that really makes it clear, but if you look at the subculture of punk rock music, I think the Warped Tour is in a different subgenre, is in a different sect of a bigger subculture.
But that’s part of what I think is really awesome and what I love about our band. We kind of exist in our own little bubble. We’ve always tried to do things in a way that was really good for us, and it wasn’t always the best business decision, but we’ve always stayed pretty true to who we are, and I like to think that’s one of our best assets as a band.