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The accidental tour
By Lisa Balde | Beep Staff

Singer Chris McCaughan and cellist Jenny Choi perform as Sundowner on McCaughan's debut solo album, "Four One Five Two."


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Published: 5/2/2008 12:25 AM

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Collaborations and side projects are nothing new for Chicago's The Lawrence Arms, whose nine-year history includes singer Brenden Kelly's side trio The Falcon and partnerships with former Chinkees singer Mike Park, NOFX and Rise Against.

The band's latest extracurricular news comes from guitarist Chris McCaughan, who formed a solo project three years ago under the name Sundowner and released his acoustic debut, "Four One Five Two," with Red Scare Records last March. McCaughan spent most of last year unexpectedly traipsing the U.S. and Europe to play more than 100 Sundowner shows alongside Lawrence Arms drummer Neil Hennessey, and during The Lawrence Arms' extended sabbatical, he says he hopes to spend much of this year writing a second album.

Before returning to The House Cafe in DeKalb today, McCaughan talked about his transition into acoustic writing and what's next for a project that wasn't supposed to tour at all.

Q. Tell me a little bit about how you emerged from The Lawrence Arms and into Sundowner.

A. Well, basically I've been playing with The Lawrence Arms for whatever it is, nine years now, and I guess the last four years, we found ourselves with a lot of songs that weren't necessarily fitting into what we were doing in our most recent records. I'd gone out a couple times and played solo, and it just kind of started. … I felt like stripped-down was the way to go, so it was more out of having material, but also just a project to clear my head and get out to play more. The songs were just like "This would be really great for a record," and my friend Toby (from Red Scare Records) and Brenden (Kelly) from The Lawrence Arms, they're like, "We'd love to put it out." And it started to snowball.

Q. At what point did you say to yourself, "I really need to take some of these extra songs and make a project out of it?"

A. I was sitting on so many songs, and you know, after a long time, songs kind of fade and die. The more I have some sort of end in sight, the more I could sort of give myself a deadline. I wanted the songs to still be basically fresh for me. Some of them have been around for a while.

Q. So the deadline got you to make the record.

A. It was a self-imposed deadline. You know, you start writing a record and then once you're close, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Lawrence Arms (helped) record it, I had some other friends come in and play on it, so it was fun. It was a super family affair. Just to get everyone involved.

Q. Who is your backing band in this project right now? You've had several people play with you in the past.

A. I wanted to do a little bit of touring. I was in England and Europe for three and a half weeks, and I was just playing solo every night. I've gotten used to playing solo in a lot of ways. And in a lot of ways, Sundowner is a solo project; I don't have a touring band, and I don't really tour in a traditional way, because generally it's just me. I took a train everywhere; I didn't hire a vehicle or anything. So it's cool because it helps me tour in a different way. Having toured for seven years in a van, it's kind of refreshing. My friend Jenny Choi played cello and keyboards, and usually the (shows) around Chicago are the ones that she can do, because she works a lot. And then Eli Caterer from the Smoking Popes was playing guitar at a lot of shows also.

Q. When you first started playing in front of audiences solo, did it take you awhile to transform?

A. Yeah, definitively. Playing in front of other people, it's awkward in a different way. Obviously (The Lawrence Arms) were playing loud rock music. When you're playing out there solo, everything's pretty obvious overall. We played over 100 shows last year, and you know, I think I've gotten a little better at it. A lot of it is just getting out there and getting comfortable being onstage by yourself. I've played a lot of smaller shows, especially most recently in England -- just small, intimate shows, so we were all just hanging out.

Q. So it's like globe-trotting meets touring.

A. Yeah, you know I'm a musician, but I'm also kind of a traveler. That's what I've spent the last (decade) of my life doing, traveling.

Q. Take me back to when you decided to go ahead and play solo and to start touring. What did you expect to get out of it? To make a record? To tour?

A. Make a record. That was the main goal. Playing shows was really an (afterthought). I mean I used to play solo shows, but it wasn't like, "I'm going to make this record and then go on tour." It was more like, "I'm going to make this record and then kind of go from there." So we put out the record in March 2007 and I decided to do a show in Chicago, kind of like a record release, and that show was really fun. And then I did a couple more and started getting offers here and there. And when we did the Lawrence Arms tour this fall with Sundowner opening, that was really cool. It gave me a chance to play the songs all over the country. But my goal was to make a record.

Q. Now that you've done that and played many shows, what's next for this project?

A. Well, you know, writing more songs is probably the general direction I'm going in here. I'd like to write more records for sure, and I think it'll probably happen this year. I hope. I've started to write some more songs and when I get a chance, I'll put out another record. Hopefully, it'll be a little bit different from the first one and have some other people play on it.

Q. So this definitely isn't a one-off project?

A. I don't think so. The Lawrence Arms aren't particularly active right now, so it's a good opportunity for me just to see where this goes for a little bit. It's cool, and I get to travel doing this.

Q. How has your writing style changed from the Lawrence Arms rock songs to an acoustic sound?

A. It's weird, because it's been a long time since we wrote a Lawrence Arms record. I haven't written a Lawrence Arms song in a long time, which is weird. This is probably the longest I've ever gone without writing a Lawrence Arms song. You know, I don't know that anything much has changed really. I still feel like I'm just writing a song that I should be writing, in the same style I've always written in.

Q. How different is it to be working solo as opposed to a collaborative environment? Obviously, it's got to be a little bit different.

A. Yeah, in The Lawrence Arms, me and Brendan have always written songs separately. I mean those guys made my songs better. For this project, for the most part, I'm making all these decisions and depending on how I make the next record, it could be different or more similar.

Q. How has the response been, especially overseas?

A. The response has been great. I rely really, really heavily on Lawrence Arms fans coming out to see me. That's definitely part of it. And The Lawrence Arms haven't been there in a long time, so there were a lot of Lawrence Arms fans who came out. Otherwise, the response has been great; people sing along.

Q. I know you've been asked this a lot, but at shows do you ever feel the need to -- and I know you recorded a couple covers -- play requests for other Lawrence Arms songs?

A. I know there are people out there who do projects and think it's lame to want to hear songs from that other band, but I'm not one of those people. In England especially, it's my first time touring solo over there. Who knows when I'll get back? A lot of those kids haven't seen The Lawrence Arms play in a long time, and so for the most part, I played a lot of Lawrence Arms songs in England and Europe. … The reason that I've been successful doing this solo thing is because of The Lawrence Arms.

Q. So how was it playing with them and as Sundowner last fall?

A. It was crazy. I would never put myself through anything like this ever again. … It was totally ludicrous and totally a circus, a one-of-a-kind tour.

Q. For The House show coming up, will it just be you playing?

A. Yes, it's just going to be me. Part of that is because the Smoking Popes are playing that night somewhere else. I'll be playing solo (today), but then very likely, they'll be at least one show this summer around here in Chicago, and we'll do a full-band show. I really like playing with all of them; it's fun.

Q. And what'll the lineup be?

A. Neil (Hennessey) playing bass, Jenny playing cello and Eli playing guitar and me, so it's a four-piece. Still no drums.

Upcoming show:

Today: The House Cafe, DeKalb, 7 p.m.; $10 at the door


History: Lawrence Arms guitarist Chris McCaughan's side project

Sound: Duvall meets pub tunes