This past weekend’s heavily anticipated performance was not the first go ‘round at Riot Fest for Chicago punk-scene staples the Lawrence Arms. The trio have played Riot Fest before but never in the position they are in 2010. The 10-year veterans with five albums to their credit, including the classic 2006 effort Oh! Calcutta!, are known for being outspoken, crazy and in some cases, drunk at their shows. Since their formation in 1999, the Lawrence Arms have passionately stood up for their political views and been very vocal about their opposition of the Obama administration (they were exceedingly anti-Bush as well) and pop singers like Miley Cyrus. They are true punks raging against the established status quo, and even letting these controversial views out got them famously kicked off of the Van’s Warped Tour in 2004.

Going back a bit, that was a really odd statement Chris McCaughan made about the band: “a small band that can’t play a large venues.”

I’m unsure contextually where it came from or who even said it, but [I] will run with it. [There’s] not a lot of badassed that goes into a show. We are more into the intimacy of the show. [A good] example is a band like Rise Against. They are a rock and roll machine that can translate that through a satellite feed. L.A. needs to be sweaty and shirtless up against the crowd that is sweaty and shirtless as well. That’s what people like about them. Business enterprise, that is, how people go out of business. If they try to get to big, it starts to collapse in on itself. 1500 kids in Chicago and it’s our niche. My favorite place to play is the Metro; great club, know every single person there. It’s like playing at home. I’ve played [the] Congress a couple times, big, cavernous, crap-sounding room, but it’s a beautiful venue. For something like this (Riot Fest), you can’t do [it] at the Metro alone. There is a place for it if you are going to have a 1000-seat venue. This is a stage that is intimidating; we are not typically at our best in a place like the Congress.

That’s one of the things I like about you guys and a bunch of the other bands playing Riot Fest this year is that it looks like you’re are having fun, smiling.

At the end of the day, we are playing music for a bunch of people and it’s fun. Go drive a truck and tend bar for a while and then tell me how fun playing music is.

Given your attitude toward the music industry, how do you deal with the egos of some of the bands?

We used to be little shits, talk[ing] shit. These days, who cares? It’s funny to see people take themselves too seriously. I’m definitely not going to waste my time getting bent out of shape because of some dildo’s haircut. I have better things to do. No room on my agenda for that.

Regarding your single, “Anti-Warped Tour,” when I first heard it I didn’t quite get it. I did some research and you had some pretty harsh things to say about the Warped Tour.

We had a bad experience on the Warped Tour, and the Warped Tour had a bad experience with us. We were two people that couldn’t get along, and so we went our separate ways. At the time, [2004] the Warped Tour was unquestionably the coolest thing to be a part of and [then] coming to work, and all of a sudden looking at it a little more critically.

That song is… a lot of people think that the reason I hate the Warped Tour is because we got kicked off of it, and that has nothing to do with it. In being on the Warped Tour, I developed this critical eye. This thing that is being touted as the ultimate manifestation of punk rock actually has an Army recruiting tent at it. I thought  we got into this so we would not have to go out to the stadium bandshell and pay $25 for a ticket. I thought that was what punk rock was!

So much evil in the world is perpetrated in the name of religion and so much stifling of free expression and destruction of happiness is done under the banner of God. They have sort recapitulated good as evil and evil as good, and I feel that’s like really kind of a grandiose statement because we’re just talking about the Warped Tour, but it’s the same thing. It took this ideal of punk rock — which is pretty simple –and said, “You know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna do the opposite of that! And we’re gonna call it punk rock and people are so fucking stupid, they’re not going to know the difference! And [chuckle] it worked! It serves a purpose, like religion helps your fucking grandpa deal with the fact that he’s about to die. Everything serves a purpose. I’m not saying its 100% evil. It’s not fucking Dachau. 

It’s got its place, and I understand it gets people involved, and you know at this point I don’t even know how much it has to with a specific sub-genre of aggressive youth music that we call punk rock any more. [Laughs] Now there’s all this weird, neo-krunk hipster kinda weirdness and all the emo bands. When the Warped Tour was a Bad Religion, NOFX, Bouncing Souls and Anti Flag,I can be like, this tour fucking sucks, but at least the bands are awesome! And now, it’s I can’t even say, like who am I to really say that Broken Side for example totally sucks, because I think they suck but I’m also an old man, I’m literally a dad and it just sounds like noise to me and that just the ramblings of an old man. It’s not my place to be like, “That shit sucks.” It’s for the kids. Yeah, I don’t get it. It pisses older people off, so isn’t that really the whole point anyway?

Who are you listening to these days?

Right now I listen to the Tallest Man on Earth, plus a bunch of Red Scare bands. I’m really into this band 10-4 Eleanor from Ft. Collins, and we just played a show out there with them. Really cool new band. Hip-hop and country music. Love punk rock.

Who are you hoping to see this year at Riot Fest?

I went to see Propaghandi, they are my favorite. The set wasn’t that great, but man… they changed my life. I remember I ditched school to buy their album How to Clean Everything and I listened to it from beginning to end and was like, “Oh wow, I’ve been doing this all wrong!” I’m looking forward to Bad Religion. When I got No Control by them I listened to it and just stopped… I mean, there are no words!

What should we be expecting from your set tonight?

Nothing, traditional… we’re known for cracking jokes and being wasted. I mean, that is less and less true. Rock and roll to me is a dangerous thing, and it’s supposed to be dangerous. Modest Mouse at one point tried to play the Metro and was too drunk to play. I mean, on one hand, that sucks for the fans and the people that paid to get in, but on the other hand that’s just rock and roll. There is this dangerous X factor in rock and roll. Intentional versus genetic. Every once in a while I get totally wasted and fall into the drums.

What’s in store for you after Riot Fest?

Going to the east coast for a couple shows. We’re taking it slow at this point. We can only get to be so popular, and I think we’ve reached that plateau.

–Dennis McLennand, Photos by Dennis McLennand