Tuesday, December 14, 2010

more self important bullshit

Yesterday I was asked the following in the sock drawer:

“Chris was quoted in an interview that you write songs in about "twenty minutes". Is this an exaggeration? Is he just unabashedly lying?”

In an effort to keep a semblance of a theme going, I’m going to expand on yesterday’s topic (see “get out your pencils, class” immediately below for part 1) and explain a little bit more specifically how I actually write songs.

It is in fact true that when I write songs I do it in about twenty minutes, but this isn’t because of any sort of deluded notion of super genius or quick wit, it’s just that it’s really the only way that works for me. To put it another way, it’s not as though I just casually shit out songs in 20 minutes but if I slaved over them for days they’d be that much better. That’s not at all how my brain works.

I, like many people, get lost in long projects. I lose all sense of perspective and forward momentum. I’m a pretty unrepentant revisionist and as such, the only way that I can maintain having any sort of output at all is to just kind of go for it, get it done and then live with the results.

This blog is a perfect example. There are times when I’ll sit down and write this for up to about forty five minutes, but those are days when I’m kind of flailing and don’t have anything to say and I’m grasping at straws. The vast majority of the time, and particularly if an entry is interesting (to me), it comes out in about ten to fifteen minutes. Here’s how it works:

I sit down with a really vague notion (yesterday is a perfect example. I was thinking about how I kind of wanted to write about the appropriate usage for the article “The” in rock lyrics) and just kind of start going. Unless my kid starts bugging me or I have to shit or something, I just sit and type until my thought comes to a logical conclusion. At that point I go back and tweak sentences that seem redundant or are otherwise poorly constructed and then I post it and it’s done. I suppose that I’m fortunate (?) to be able to think in a pretty linear and clear stream of consciousness and that I’m a good enough typist that I can pretty much keep up with it, but yeah. That’s how I write this thing. I get in, go as fast as possible and get out.

The reason I do this, as I stated before, is that if I stop to think, to borrow a mangled phrase from Larry King, my tongue gets in the way and I can’t see what I’m saying. Put another way, the second I start thinking, I’m overthinking and a huge traffic jam builds up in my mind, and I can’t get anywhere. On days when I’m really, desperately trying, just for the sake of having an entry every day, to crank something out despite the fact that I have no ideas, it’s murder trying to get into the groove long enough to put a couple of sentences together effortlessly (because, we’ve talked about that before, right? Sure we have. The main things human beings respond to, in terms of enjoyable consumption is effortlessness. That’s why we love watching Jordan dunk or Omar shred on the guitar, or Ronaldinho do anything with a soccer ball. Sure it’s hard, but it looks SO FUCKING EASY, and that’s something we all inherently admire, even in people’s appearance. That’s why being ‘put together’ requires a certain level of looking like you just threw something on and walked out the door. That’s why the situation looks like kind of a dildo but a scruffy Tommy Lee still moistens panties worldwide at almost fifty. One is all effort and the other exudes the illusion of effortlessness) and thereby create the shitty, snide prose that all you Dogs Of War have come to expect from this place.

And that’s the difference. Here, I feel compelled to write something every day, so there’s bound to be some turds that I have to slave over just to fill space, but it’s not like that with songs.

When I write songs, I start with a pen and a notebook and I sit down with an idea for maybe the first word or the first phrase and then I just kind of go. I write and kind of push through stuff that I think may be totally shitty and just write about as fast as I can til I’ve written about a page or two and then I stop, grab a guitar and try to set what I’ve just written to music. Once I have the music set up, as in, once I’ve played through the song once, and I’m happy with the chords/melodies, I get on my 8 track and record a real crappy guitar/voice version of the song as to not forget the melodies/not start getting into revisions before I’ve let it sink in. Then I go away, and leave it alone. I come back a day later and listen to the song as though I’ve never heard it (because by that time, I’ve forgotten it) and see how it holds up. The very best songs I’ve ever written usually end up being done at this point, no revisions, the exact words that I wrote on the page and the first set of chords that I tried out.

For example: On With The Show on Greatest Story Ever Told was written in about five minutes. The original draft of the lyrics are the exact lyrics as they appear on the album and the first time I tried to come up with some chords I came up with the exact chords that wound up being the arrangement of the song. The first time I ever tried to figure it out, it was more or less already done. It was like a clean shit with no wiping.

So, when I wrote that song, I realized something that changed the way I wrote songs forever. Namely, whenever you hear a songwriter talk about their process, inevitably, they’ll get to some song, usually a fan favorite and they’ll say the same thing “oh, that one just came right out of me in just a few minutes…it was almost like it was already written.”

In fact, almost everyone I know that writes songs will swear that the best songs they’ve ever written are these songs that almost come pre-packaged right out of their mind, so fast they can hardly keep up. I looked back at the songs that I’d written for the Lawrence Arms that were like that up to that point: Quincentuple Your Money, Evening of Extraordinary Circumstance, Minute, A Toast, Porno And Snuff Films, Boatless Booze Cruise, Necrotism, Dancing Machine, (to name a few) and asked myself the following: ‘if all the best songs are the ones that just come right out, what’s the point of slaving over the other ones?’ This was a huge turning point for me as a songwriter.

Since then, if a song isn’t pretty much done in 20 minutes, I abandon it. Maybe a lyric or something will stick with me and when I try to write something later on, I’ll incorporate the lyric (though this is usually somewhat subconscious), but for the most part, every song that I’ve written since On With the Show (the first song I wrote for TGSET) has been written in 20 minutes or less. That includes all songs off the last three TLA releases and the Falcon record.

Now, there have been a couple of exceptions here and there (especially in my new stuff, where I’m trying a whole different style of songwriting, including writing lyrics on a computer instead of in a notebook [big difference, believe it or not] and not demoing things at all until I can do full instrumentation demos) but for the most part, the only songs you have heard from me in the past 7 years have been written in under half an hour. That means, ultimately, that I have to write a TON of stuff to get to those special ‘clean shits’ because those just don’t come around every five minutes. When I’m writing an album, I usually try to write about three songs a day. Of these, 99% are so terrible that it can be pretty depressing, but when a good one comes out, man. It’s an awesome feeling.

This is just how I do it. Shit’s different for everyone, and like I said yesterday, my shit’s not that good, so take this with a grain of salt.
xoxoxo

20 comments:

solarsonar said...

At the risk of sounding like a total idiot, who's Omar?

FranklinStein said...

"my shit’s not that good"

...don't be ridiculous. seriously.

as for Omar, I think he's referring to Omar Rodriguez Lopez of The Mars Volta/At The Drive In. Maybe...

FranklinStein said...

eh, more likely it's Omar Khorshid

Scott said...

The Greatest Story Ever Told is hands down my favorite TLA album. I listen to that at least once a week.

maggiejoan said...

^ what Scott said. Though Oh Calcutta is a really, alarmingly close second.

"my shit's not that good." WRONG. hello, mcfly, anybody home? :)

Jesus said...

I always sort of thought this was the case for the Falcon, but have this image of you putting on spectacles and sipping a cappucino for stuff like Apathy and Greatest story.

limited nobility said...

any misheard larry arms lyrics that went unchecked for awhile?"whats attached to a LEAF that it made itself"for me.I was thinking like a tree makes leaves or some shit I guess?Always wanted it to be "travelin with bottles,kickin it with cans" but that's a different more obnoxious matter

dustyfloors said...

I've been a huge fan for a WHILE...
I teeter back and forth on my fave TLA song almost daily but lately I've found it impossible to beat Necrotism's lyrics simply for the line "drinking in this shit hole while you all went on outside."

However you do it, I'm just hoping you keep plugging away brother because your shit is gold!!!

FranklinStein said...

going back to "my shit's not that good"...

well, do you believe that Chris's shit is better?

I doubt I'll get an answer, but I figure why the hell not...

Jimmy Collyer said...

I love TGSET but I think that "When I give the signal, RUN!" is the most amazing song ever.

Hooooooouuuussssse said...

Hoooooooow-oooooooos

Owner Operator said...

"It was like a clean shit with no wiping."

you gotta find a way to get this blog out to the masses. someone you know has to work for a big online news place that'll pay to have you drivvel out crap once a week for everyone to laugh at!

Kolen009 said...

What about the time it takes for the band to take the finished tune and arrange it? Is that something everyone brings to the table or that you and Chris do separately and then dictate to the other two what to do?

I'm thinking of a song like Are You There Margaret which has a really tight arrangement.

Kevin said...

At least one of your songs HAS to have been written while on the can. If not, then BIG MISTAKE!

limited nobility said...

Is there a better melodic punk record than greatest story..........I mean really folks!!!!btdubya that was a(in a funky high voice) RHE-TOR-I-CAL QUESTION.........................................................(same funky high voice)There are easily more than TWO DOZEN.( high voice again)-better melodic puuuunk records...(still falsettoey)-but it's definitely a KIIILLERR album that I luuuuv to listen toooo.....

Trusty Chords said...

Speaking of The Greatest Story Ever Told, I'm really lame and I just barely got around to actually buying the album and listening to it in full and reading all the footnotes and shit. But I have a question about it: Wikipedia says it has a "linear storyline." I understand that there's the hobo clowns and they meet some sort of tragic end and, I think, if I'm not being too pretentious in my analysis here, they sort of represent tragical figures which stand as scapegoats for the fucked up parts of our society: as we dump all of our evils on these characters and run from truly facing the darkest parts of ourselves. But, regardless, I don't see how the album follows any sort of actual linear storyline. Is Wikipedia bullshit? Or am I just too retarded to follow the storyline?

Sean said...

Hey, Motley Crue apparently did a pretty sick cover of "On With the Show"....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggg5l_ssY_s




Also, so did this British (Australian?) guy...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoBDnmHSpJY

Jamie said...

trusty chords...I heard it was about THE story. you know...the story of jesus christ. you didn't know that LA is a religious band? the greatest story ever told. dude.

clapyouphilistines said...

Thanks for the reply. This was not only very interesting to read, but a great insight into songwriting. It's rare, because songwriters ironically often have great difficult putting their ability into words that the listener can understand. Especially in the context of 5 minute interviews. But when you're able to sit and process, we get the personality, reflection, and description. It's unique and it's appreciated. Looking forward to the new material.

Taylor Morris said...

I guess that's what Townes Van Zandt meant when he said he wrote "If I Needed You" in his sleep. You seen that documentary they did on him BK? Reeeeeeal good, and a reeeeeal good songwriting touchstone for all this business.