Sometimes life goes according to a plan, but it’s more often just a series of happy accidents. Such is the case with Sundowner, the solo side project of The Lawrence Arms guitarist, songwriter, and co-frontman Chris McCaughan.
His musical journey started twenty years ago, writing basic chords and lyrics in his Chicago bedroom, inspired by the wealth of local punk bands and the community of other passionate and creative teens he met at their shows. He continued writing and playing in assorted groups throughout high school and college, when one of those endeavors—*The Lawrence Arms*—picked up steam and ensured that music was no longer just a creative outlet for him: it was becoming a bona fide career.
Writing and recording three records with TLA between 2000 and 2006, he honed his craft and began to notice a gradual evolution in his style, taking chances with a more authentic, roots-based approach. Bolstered by friends who heard the homemade four-track demos of this material and also noted the shifting musical perspective, Chris decided that what had initially been potential b-sides for the band should live separately, under their own name. Sundowner was born.
“I never set out to do solo acoustic music, though it’s become very popular in the punk rock pool we’ve all been swimming in,” says McCaughan. “I think it makes a lot of sense, though: it’s another way to get more material out and it’s easier to get shows on your own, without a band.”
Not that this isn’t in some ways a “band” record. While previous Sundowner efforts took a rather bare bones approach, they weren’t truly solo, since TLA bandmate Neil Hennessy contributed bass and engineering skills on both. This time around, the two expanded on their previous work, creating lusher arrangements and a more traditional ensemble sound to frame Chris’s vocals. As he says, “Each record has a different orientation, but still sounds like my style. You can connect the dots stylistically from the other Sundowner records and The Lawrence Arms to what we did on Neon Fiction.”
Neon Fiction itself was a happy accident. With The Lawrence Arms on a break, and not having done much touring on the last Sundowner record, McCaughan found himself writing aimlessly, with no goals, no deadlines, and no label chomping at the bit for new material. That freedom allowed him to spend more time than he was usually afforded with his lyrics and melodies—and with Chicago itself—rooting the entire album both creatively and geographically in his lifelong home turf.
He amassed a collection of songs that spoke loosely to that juncture of his life, what he refers to as creative non-fiction: “I’m a storyteller songwriter, but the narratives are a little vague and foggy, as opposed to fleshed out narratives with plot pushing through. A lot of it is self-assessment, my interpretation of environment. That’s generally what I’ve come to realize is either my strength or the way the magnets are pulling me.”
He entered the studio on his own dime to record the songs last summer, and was unsure whether it should be a self-release, or whether he should run the gauntlet of shopping it around to labels where he thought it would mesh. That’s when some friends from Fat Wreck Chords caught his solo set at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill club and asked if they could hear the final studio mixes. A few weeks later, while the Arms were in Australia for the Soundwave festival, he got an email from the label saying that they loved what they heard, and that Fat would be glad to give it a home. “I thought it was cool to put out a record on Fat that was totally different; cool not just for me, but for Fat. I think it’s rad that they’re willing to take a chance on a record that doesn’t fit that mold.” Yet another happy accident. Do you sense a trend here?
With a release date of September 3, 2013 (roughly one year after its completion), McCaughan feels that it’s perfect timing for the mood reflected in this batch of songs, which are sunny but also somber, summery but also autumnal: “Growing up in Chicago, I have acute sense of seasons. Contrasting seasons inform how I feel about arts, books, music, and informs the way I write. It took a long time to put it out, but I think it’s coming out at the time that it should and the vibe reflects that.”
As the sun goes down on summer, the sun comes up on Sundowner. Look for him this fall at your favorite clubs and PBR-fueled music festivals.