When we last left Army Navy in 2008, they had released an attention-grabbing, hook-laden bright-n-shiny debut, were racking up placements in high-profile films and seemed to be on a trajectory aimed decidedly upward. But plenty can happen in three years, as it turns out: in the wake of their debut’s modest success, Army chief Justin Kennedy found himself swept up in a whirlwind relationship, the kind that kills at the same time as it thrills. As friends left him and the circumstances surrounding the affair became increasingly dire — to put it plainly: one of them wasn’t exactly unattached — Kennedy started losing track of himself, operating only from feeling to feeling. That the whole thing should end in catastrophe wasn’t especially surprising; what is surprising is the fact that such incredible heartbreak could power the clear-eyed, crystalline songs on The Last Place. Strewn with an equal measure of regret and panic (never more so than in the line, “There she goes/ Goddammit, he knows”), The Last Place finds Kennedy moving from infatuation to desperation to — at long last — acceptance and peace.
eMusic’s J. Edward Keyes talked to Army Navy frontman Justin Kennedy about kissing Elton John, Shrek’s deep pockets, and the downsides of dating a married celebrity.
On how The Last Place wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Shrek:
So we spent a lot of time touring the first record. We did everything we could — we played lots of great shows with the Lemonheads and the Dodos — just building that first record. Toward the end of that cycle, around 2009, I felt like it was at the point where we could start looking toward the new record, and songs started coming really fast. But as we started writing, we ended up in a place where we needed an influx of cash [or the record wasn't going to get made]. And out of the sky came this awesome placement in the trailer for Shrek Forever After. The people who were putting the movie together somehow had heard our cover [of Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From"]. We got the call about the placement and I called Adam and said, “Okay, we can make the record.” After that, we were gung-ho. We spent the next six months in the rehearsal room, working on parts and getting the record together.
On the harrowing affair that inspired the bulk of The Last Place:
You know, I really didn’t want it to be the theme of the record. I was actually working against it at first. “Ode to Janice Melt” was one of the first songs I finished, and there’s lots of hints and inside jokes in that song [about the affair] written to someone who may or may not ever even hear it. I knew that song was going to be on the record, and it wasn’t my idea to sort of get into [what happened], but it was just one of those situations where a lot went on and there was a lot to think about, and I think I was still dealing with a lot of the emotions. I kept finding more things to write about, and more ways to write about them, and it felt good. It was cathartic for me to write about them. Some of them are love songs, and some of them are hate songs, and once I got to the point where I was okay with it, it got more interesting for me to write about it and to think about it and to pick it apart.
In the end, I was really happy about it, even though it’s so scary to write about something so personal. In the past, I used symbolism to mask a lot of things. On this one, a lot of it is really direct, which is nerve-wracking. It’s almost a little too much information — but at the same time, that’s where you get down to the real shit. When I was singing the songs on the record, it was definitely the most intense singing I’d ever done, because I was relating these events that really happened. I could visualize it happening as I was singing, and I think that comes through.
On being at the center of an emotional tornado:
It probably only lasted half a year, but it was really crazy. I mean, I lost friends over it. It was such an intense thing that happened; I couldn’t not go back to it and try to look at it. Because at the time it’s happening, it’s so nuts you can’t even deal with it. You lose track of yourself to a certain degree; you’re almost of two minds. And so the timing of this record was perfect, because I was finally ready to deal with it at that point.
Writing a record like this, you hope people have felt the same things, but at the same time I was like, “God, is anyone going to be able to relate to this?” So I talked to the band, and said, “I don’t know if I should write a record about this — should I, or shouldn’t I?” And they were like, “Dude, definitely. We know how much this affected you, and it’s gonna make these songs that much more honest and real.” And after they heard how “Janice Melt” turned out, I think they knew there was more to go through and look through. They were fully supportive of me just going for it.
On The Last Place as a start-to-finish narrative:
There’s definitely an arc. The early part of the album is about the early part of the relationship, but when you get to the end [of the album], I’m finally able to see myself moving past her — I sing about, “Replacing my muse.” I was writing to get her out of my system, and to find other people who filled that place. “Wonderland to Waterloo,” that’s where I get to the point where I’m like, “She’s gone. This is where I’m at, and this is how I’m gonna move forward.”
On getting kissed by Elton John:
I wanted to make music but I needed a job; a freelance job where I could make records and take time off. So through friends I got a job working as a wardrobe stylist. It’s a really strange gig — you’re working with every big celebrity out there. I’ve worked with Morrissey a couple of times, which was amazing. He was awesome. I’d heard he was a dick, but when I got there and I heard his sense of humor, how dry it was, I wondered, “You know, I wonder if everyone is just misreading his jokes.” I mean, he’s a little crazy, but in the best possible way.
I ended up working with Elton John for a day. And, again, I was expecting him to be a total asshole, like a total princess, but he was super funny and kept cracking all these dirty jokes. They’d set up a grand piano at the place where they were shooting the pictures, and he’d sit down and just start playing old, like, rock ‘n’ roll and old soul songs. It was one of those shoots where, watching it, you’re like “This is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” To top it all off, he gave me a kiss right on the mouth when he left!
On what he learned from his days in Pinwheel with Ben Gibbard:
We were a band for like four years. I guess I kind of learned how to write songs in that band. Ben wrote songs and I wrote songs, and having two songwriters in a band, there’s a little friendly competition going on. We were always trying to be writing to outdo each other. When it ended, I took a break for a while. It’s like going through a bad breakup — you have to take time off. Ben had started Death Cab while Pinwheel was going on, so he was set up at that point to continue and I wasn’t ready to.
Ben and I still keep in touch. We haven’t talked in a while — he’s a pretty busy guy obviously, but we’re still pretty close friends. [Guitarist] Chris [Walla] used to be my roommate for a long time, and [bassist] Nick [Harmer] was in other bands around town as well, so I’ve definitely known those dudes for a long time.
On what song he’d like his old flame to hear, if he could:
I guess I’d like her to hear “Janice Melt,” because there’s humor in it, and it’s speaking to her in a roundabout way. I mean, if she saw the title alone, she would know the song is speaking to her. And there’s inside jokes in it. You have to make light of the situation and move on. It’s one of those things where we both knew it was a good and bad thing while it was going on, and that’s what I was trying to talk about in the song. There are certain lines in a lot of the songs that I think speak directly to her. And if she never hears it, totally fine — I didn’t make the record for her, I made it for me.
On whether or not he’s worried people will use the lyrics to deduce the identity of his paramour:
[Long Pause] Uh, I wasn’t, until right now.