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.