Sundowner is a lot like Frasier. That probably needs some explaining, huh? Well, remember how at first, Kelsey Grammer’s NBC sitcom felt like a simple Cheers spinoff before finding itself? So also did Chris McCaughan’s solo project, Sundowner, feel like runoff material from his work in the Lawrence Arms. Also like Frasier, McCaughan...uh, is a psychiatrist with a radio show and um, his retired detective father lives with him. OK, we really painted ourselves into a corner with that whole Frasier analogy.
The point is, on his third album under the Sundowner moniker, McCaughan has finally distanced himself from the Lawrence Arms association as a musician. No longer is he doing stripped down versions of Larry Arms songs like “One Hundred Resolutions” and “My Boatless Booze Cruise.” On Neon Fiction, McCaughan has added some new tricks to his repertoire. For starters, most of the songs have a full band sound, a change of pace from his usual guy-with-an-acoustic-guitar-in-a-coffee-shop vibe. And he’s got a new backdrop too, having moved from Chicago, where he is a punk fixture, to Portland, where walking stereotypes run wild.
We caught up with Chris about his new album, which is out today from Fat Wreck Chords, and what’s keeping him so busy in Portland. We’re assuming it’s artisanal ultimate frisbee mason jars or something.
Noisey: You may have noticed that I accidentally called you two hours ago. I forgot that you’re not on Chicago time anymore. You’re on Portland time.
Chris McCaughan: Yes, I am on the ol’ Pacific Time.
When did you move over there?
We moved out here about a year ago.
Why the move?
Well, my girlfriend’s from Oregon originally. She’s a West Coaster and having survived five brutal Chicago winters, she was about ready to be back in a more pleasant climate. And you know, I’m a Chicago-born/raised/lived-all-my-life guy. It was probably time for a change of scenery for me.
Your new album reads like a sad goodbye to your city. Is that right?
It’s certainly one way to look at a lot of the songs. There’s some open letter to the city of Chicago-type stuff, for sure. I still identify so much with that place, I mean, clearly. I wrote a whole record about it. But I still spend a lot of time there, my family’s still there, I’ve been back and forth a ton since I moved out there. The record is more about leaving the city and, I’m gonna get totally cheesy here for a second because that’s my thing, but it’s more about leaving close geography of your life. So while there is a hard geographic move, I wrote a bunch of the record before we decided to move. I don’t want it to be misconstrued that this is a record that I wrote because I was moving.
There are two songs on it—”My Beautiful Ruins” and “We Drift Eternal”—that they read like more than a goodbye to a city but almost as your goodbye to your life as a Lawrence Arm. Am I wrong on that?
Well, I mean, that’s not what I was intending to write about but being a songwriter, you write songs and have certain intentions in mind and you give all that shit away. That’s like, part of the deal— that they’re open for interpretation. I was kind of doing them in blurred lines of you know, maybe it’s a person. But Chicago, to me, is like my oldest friend.
It kind of feels like a goodbye to a chunk of your life.
Well, it is in some ways. I feel like the record’s a lot about letting go of things you’ve held onto for a long time or at least coming to terms with certain things. Because I’m sure you know, there’s another Lawrence Arms record coming and there’s a new chapter of that ahead of us which we’re really excited about. I’m really stoked on the stuff Brendan [Kelly] has written and I had a lot of fun and I’m really excited about the songs I wrote for the record. But yeah, it’s a part of my life I was transitioning out of.
You started the Lawrence Arms at a super young age. It seems almost like a gift and a curse. A gift because you got a jumpstart on your career as a musician but a curse because you’ll forever be associated with it, whether you want to or not. Does it feel like that to you?
I don’t know if I think about it in those terms but people have ideas about what it means to be in the Lawrence Arms and I will always be associated with that. But you make a record like this, and people are like, “Oh, it’s just a solo record. It’s just this fucking guy making a side project.” But this is a record that I did not intend to make but came out of me and I felt compelled to make because I felt like I was trying to make it for a long time in my life. But I can see why people would just see it as a side project record.
Well, what is Sundowner? Because you just described it as a solo project but you open the insert booklet and there are only two pictures. One of you and one of Neil [Hennessy].
Well, Neil is an essential component to making all this work, for sure. But I’ve been riding the fence on this since the beginning. I couldn’t have made these records with Neil. He’s produced these records, he’s played on these records. He is very much a part of the project to me. But you know, I’ve traditionally always played solo and right now, that’s how I’m gonna roll with this. You know what, man, it’s hard to put together a band and make all this work.
But when you’ve played shows as Sundowner, they’ve pretty much all been just you, right?
Yes, generally. We did some shows in Chicago here and there where Neil played as well as Eli from Smoking Popes. But yes, you can count those on one hand.
And you’ve got a few shows coming up but you’ve never done a national Sundowner tour.
The closest thing was that crazy mess of Lawrence Arms/American Steel/Falcon/Sundowner bus tour, that is the thing of legend, back in 2007. That’s the closest thing I’ve done to a full U.S. tour. Around that time, I went to Europe with Mike Park and rode trains and that was like a real tour. It was almost a month through England and Europe. And I did ten days with Chuck Ragan back in like, 2008, after the first record. And then for the last record, I didn’t really do anything. I was just kind of catching up on life at that time. So this time, there will be groups of shows. I’m doing shows in the midwest in September. We’re working on some East Coast stuff. For me, right now, I’m not a grind-it-out kind of guy at the moment. I’m not gonna go out for six weeks.
To be honest, it doesn’t really work in my program. I like going out and doing little blocks of shows and then working on other things, like my life. I like to tour but being in the Lawrence Arms, I’ve already done that pretty hard in my life. There were like eight years there where the Lawrence Arms were just foot-to-gas.
What keeps you busy in your day-to-day life?
Well, right now, having moved to a new city, I’m just trying to connect and look for different kinds of work here. Believe it or not, as someone in a punk band, I’ve done some bartending.
When you hung out at the G-Man or wherever in Chicago, you were probably part of the city, but now that you’re in Portland bartending, are people like, “Hey, are you the Lawrence Arms guy?”
I’ve encountered a little bit of that here and there. What I get more than any of that is, “Dude, you look like Daniel Craig.”
Is it because every press shot I’ve seen of you, you’re rocking a deep v-neck or a Henley shirt? You’ve got sweet collarbones.
[Laughs] Yeah, must be the collarbones. I’ve got James Bond-kind of collarbones.
What are you doing, chest flyes? Cardio? What’s your secret, bro?
Yeah, it’s the full Navy SEAL workout. [Laughs]
Let’s end on a game. We’ll play this Family Feud-style. I Googled your name. Top five answers on the board. What were the top five Google autocomplete results for “Chris McCaughan?”
Do I have to guess, is that the game here? [Laughs] Oh, dude, this is a fucking hard game!
Top five answers on the board, Chris.
Oh God. Um, OK. “Chris McCaughan, greatest songwriter of all time?”
Show me “greatest songwriter of all time”... And a giant red X comes up.
No? Alright. Um, “Chris McCaughan, Chicago, Illinois?”
Nope. But number five is “Portland” though.
Interesting. It must be the mid-size city syndrome.
Still four answers left, Chris. Whattya got?
OK, so I’m assuming “Chris McCaughan, The Lawrence Arms?”
No, believe it or not, that is like, 9 or so down.
Wow, interesting. OK, “Chris McCaughan…” Is there like, another Chris McCaughan? A famous actor?
Yeah, maybe “Chris McCaughan Daniel Craig.”
OK, so... “Chris McCaughan, sad songs?”
That is a strike three.
I’m gonna go through the list. After “Portland” is “interview,” which I’m assuming means people are proactively searching for this interview.
And then we have “Chris McCaughan blog.”
Oh, yeah. Nice, I guess that makes sense.
Then “Chris McCaughan Twitter.”
Oh, so this is just really like, whatever social media outlets I have?
Right, “Chris McCaughan Friendster” should come up.
OK, number one answer... “Chris McCaughan girlfriend.”
“Chris McCaughan girlfriend,” huh?
That is kinda creepy. My girlfriend, you’d probably have trouble finding anything on her on the Internet.
I guess the ladies want to see what they’re up against.
[Laughs] Oh wow. Nice work.
Have you ever ended an interview by guessing what your Google autocomplete suggestions were?
No, but now I feel like my answers were pretty bad.
Dan Ozzi is a big fan of the Lawrence Arms and Family Feud and hopes Google suggests this interview when you search for either. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi