The Sound of Songwriting: with Travis Morrison of The Dismemberment Plan

“There’s this great quote by Stravinsky: If you can copy, you can do,” Travis Morrison tells me. He’s full of poignant quotes like this related to art and finding inspiration. He takes a brief pause and then adds, “All the people who are art legends talk freely about how they were veracious imitators. Then you eventually have to find what your own personal synthesis on it.”

Morrison believes that one of the best ways to learn the art of songwriting is by studying other people’s songs. Not only by playing covers: but by making knock-off songs of the artists you admire. “Occasionally a songwriter will come along and I’ll really want to learn every single thing they do,” he tells me.

This used to be a great tradition of apprenticeships in the arts. A painter would train in the studio of an artist in order to absorb the techniques used by the master. Morrison elaborates, “People like Picasso, Miles Davis, they always talk about that. Picasso was an amazing copyist, he would do these reproductions of Diego Velázquez that were just mind boggling. And he could do Dutch masters perfectly. His modern paintings had these giant shrieking cubist horses, but he was like, ‘You’ll never be better the Velázquez until you’re as good as Velázquez.”‘

Last month The Dismemberment Plan reunited for a brief run of sold-out tour dates to celebrate the vinyl reissue of their acclaimed release Emergency & I. Back in 1999, a Pitchfork reviewer wrote of Emergency & I, “Nothing else you own sounds like this record, yet everything you own echoes throughout.”

With a blend of erratic grooves that fold into catchy choruses that would make Rivers Cuomo jealous – Emergency & I helped crystallize the Dismemberment Plan’s unique sound. Often cited as an influence for the New Wave revival which followed their career, The Dismemberment Plan helped re-introduce synths and dance-beats to rock, inspiring the likes of bands like Bloc party, Passion Pit and Hot Chip.

Despite Morrison’s self-declared status of being “Retired” (according to his website) he is still studying the craft, and still playing music – most recently with Matt Walsh of The Forms on a project dubbed Time Travel.

Ten years after writing music with The Dismemberment Plan he admits that he is more analytical then ever about studying songwriting. And then in almost the same breathe he affirms his belief that songwriting isn’t something that should be over-intellectualized. Ultimately I get the sense that he never wanted music to feel like work. “You know, songwriting is not the only thing to do in this world. There’s a lot of fun things to do while you don’t have ideas.”

Can you take me through the process of writing songs with the Dismemberment Plan?

Sure. I would make pretty full demos, and then we would not use those.  [laughs]

 I would play them for everyone, they would stare at me and they’d be like, “What do you want us to do,” or they’d be like, “Ok fine, so that’s your demo.”

Sometimes they’d even try to play [the parts] and it would just sound terrible.

 So instead, what happened is we’d just be playing, jamming or whatever, and some jam would come along and remind me of a song that I had written. And so I’d think, “Oh screw it, I’ll just sing my song over this.” And that was almost always how it was. I’d have some [early] vision of how it was supposed to go, but it just wasn’t happening. But it was kind of good, because sometimes a song – at the conceptual level – transcends the actual music itself.

 And, I think most good songs can survive without having an E-minor in the turnaround.

You know you have a great song when you can play it utterly terribly, and it still sounds like a great song: if you can be out of tune, sing the melody wrong, and it’s still a great song? Now that’s a song!

I wonder why demos don’t translate well at a band practice? On a homemade demo, or in your head, the song might sound perfect to you. But then when you play it for your band at rehearsal there is this reaction where – as you said – they stared at you.

Why do you think that is?

Because they didn’t do it. It wasn’t them. You did it.

 Just in terms of writing music: a band is usually a collective creation. So, usually you have to start from somewhere, but you also have to leave the starting place and go to somewhere else. You can’t just stay at the starting place and be like, ‘Nope it was perfect, totally perfect!’ And if you want that Rock & Roll energy then everyone has to feel like they’re pitching into a moment. So I think that’s why. I think that’s why when everyone plays it [exactly like the demo] it sounds kind of flat, and you may say, “this doesn’t sound as good as my demo.” Well that right, it’s not your demo.”

That’s an interesting idea: “They didn’t do it.” Do you think it has something to do with the ego? Or is it just not fun, is it unnatural to be told to play other people’s music exactly as they wrote it?

Sure. I mean, of course you can write music for other people, but I think the key is you have to keep it simple. You can’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s for them. But you show them something, and they start playing it and within two minutes it can flower into something else where you say, “Oh I didn’t think of that.” But to say, “Play this here, then play this like this, etc” doesn’t work for me.

When you’re writing songs do you consciously try to write songs? Or do you find yourself being inspired on the subway and stumbling to jot down ideas?

Generally I find it’s [the latter], especially as I get older.

 I think that when you’re younger there is a certain excitement to just finishing the puzzle, or “finishing the hat,” as Stephen Sondheim says. It’s all very exciting, and people can feel that. It’s inspiring unto itself. “Guys I finished the song” and you play it, and it’s like, “Wow that’s great!” And it’s almost like that is the subject of the song – just that you finished the song. In that moment that is the most exciting thing about it. Eventually, you’ve finished enough hats, and you really can’t communicate any more excitement because it’s just another hat. And so then it becomes a question of how inspiring the subject matter is to you.

 I know for me, for that reason, whenever I consciously try to start with a topic and then I’m filling out a puzzle [hangs on the word puzzle and then continues very slowly] …it doesn’t feel very exciting.

 Craft comes into it at the end. I think the songs that lasted for The Dismemberment Plan, and the ones that are true of this, were kind of an agglomeration of radar messages from another planet [laughs]. We were kind of like, “Whoa, what was that idea?”

Actually, when I listen to The Plan stuff I think a lot of it is pretty schematic in terms of the lyrics: there is kind of an aggressive theme and a little bit of puzzle solving.

And that’s a beautiful thing, but I wish there was more material in our arsenal that made more of an elusive, or more subliminal connections.

I actually think that some of the Plan stuff is really… literal.

“Like ‘You Can Call Me Al’ by Paul Simon, what is this stuff in the chorus? What is ‘You Can Call Me Al?’ But in your gut it just feels so right. Like, you know what he’s saying, but you don’t’ know what he’s saying!

We only had ‘You know what he’s saying…’. [laughs]

 I wish there was more of that stuff in some of our material. I really focused, and I got the song done and it says what I wanted it to say, but I think the best songs are the ones that seem to be blasts of inspiration. So I mean, to go way back to your original questions, I actually try to avoid working, quote ‘working’, on songs. I try to wait until something comes along.

 Neil Young says that whenever he feels he’s working on a song he stops. He says, whenever he gets that feeling of “I’ve got to work on this song – I’ve got to find a lyric.” Nope. He just gets up and stops playing guitar. And I think that’s really great. You got to let it be cool.

Do you have a way that you try to spark ideas? Something that is inspiring?

I think you just have to live life. You have to have a real life and you have to be in tune with the sublimities of it.

[He pauses to think] ”…sometimes I’ll write fake [copy songs]. No one will ever hear them.

Is there a songwriter in particular that you’re thinking of? 

I got really into that last National record [High Violet]. And so I learned the whole album and I kind of wrote a fake National song, based on one of the songs. It’s like… really analytical. And no one will ever hear it. I’ll never play it live or anything like that. The person I want to do it with now is that disco woman Robyn: I think she has a lot of incredible songs. So I study the form, but to a certain extent I don’t want the intellectual pursuit of songwriting to overshadow waiting for stuff to just fall into your head.

Do you remember which National song was it?

[sings to himself] ‘Stuck in New York with the rain coming in…’ What’s that song called? I think it’s ‘Conversation 16’? That’s such a New Order thing to do: the lyrics are not in the song title. 

I also did one on ‘Personal Jesus’. [laughs to himself] So, basically it’s a knockoff song. Because that’s what a lot of those people did back in the day, to learn. That’s what Lou Reed did. And a lot of those Rock & Rollers: Paul Simon, Carol King, they started as staff writers and there would be a hit and their boss would be like, ‘Write me one like that’. They were kind of copying it. It was exactly like it, but different enough so that they didn’t get sued.

And so you write National knockoff songs that no one will hear?

Yeah. And I’d like to think that if I put it out The National wouldn’t sue me.

Oh here’s another good one: Hunter S. Thompson typed ‘The Great Gatsby’, he re-typed the whole thing because he said, “He wanted to know how it felt to write a masterpiece.”

 Some people lose that humility and they start to think it all came from them. They loose the humility that you need all through your life to study.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote some really incredible things. Did he write something that was [identical] to F. Scott Fitzgerald? No. But he certainly he wrote things that had the similar structural elements… but with a lot more snorting ether. [laughs]

Which Dismemberment Plan songs are you the most proud of?

I love the song ‘Spider in the Snow’ from Emergency & I.

 ’The City’ is great.

 ‘The Face of the Earth’ from Changes. That’s kind of a collective favorite within the band. The main accomplishment there is Jason; it’d be nothing without the incredible samples he’s got. Just beautiful, beautiful samples that he’s playing in there. Generally as I get older I like the one’s that are less self-pitying, you look back and you’re like, ‘OK come’on you didn’t have anything to complain about.’ So I like the ones that are funny, but also humane.

 I really like ‘Do the Standing Still’. It’s kind of like this parting anthem from very early on. It’s very much about what’s going on in the clubs: I’m this young guy, going to rock clubs, its kind of boring and it’s pissing me off – so I wrote a song about it.

Was “Do The Standing Still” a reaction a particular show? Maybe the strip-mall show in Fargo that you mention in the lyrics?

No the thing is, that show I describe was like the first 110 shows we played. Did it happened in Fargo? Yes we did play a strip mall in Fargo, that did happen. But the thing with six or seven kids at the show? There was six or seven kids at all of our shows for three years. So it wasn’t unique to Fargo.

At a recent live show, during the song “Ice of Boston” you had over 100 people singing and dancing with you on stage. Somewhere along the line your fans stopped doing the standing still?

Yeah that’s a tradition. We heckled them enough and I think they got it.

The Sound of Songwriting: with Caroline Polachek of Chairlift

Caroline Polachek imagines each of her songs as if it was an excerpt from a film. Behind the music there is a fictional world with characters and dialogue that get framed in the shot. We don’t get to hear their entire story and rarely is there literal narration, but it’s as if Polachek is your guide, she taps you on the shoulder and says, “Come here with me, I’d like to show you this.”

An old adage in the film industry goes something like, “Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.” Chairlift’s music is full of these moments of visual expression: the food pyramids and desert of vitamins on “Planet Health,” the frozen strawberries in “Bruises,” and the scene in “Garbage” which consists of, as Polachek describes it, “a heap of garbage under the moonlight. All these things that have passed through people’s lives in a very personal way just sitting there ignored and decaying.”

Polachek’s lyrics aren’t always intended to be understood in the literal sense. She told me that, when it comes to Chairlift, she doesn’t believe in the singer as a narrator. Reflecting on my question of dialogue and narration she explained, “Sometimes [while watching a scene from a film] I can’t understand exactly what is going on in the conversation, but I love that scene.”

Chairlift just returned home from London where they were recording the follow up album to their celebrated debut “Does You Inspire You.” It turns out that a great deal has changed in the band’s approach to songwriting since that first album:

In 2006 Chairlift, a duo consisting of Polachek and Aaron Pfenning, had relocated from Colorado to a Greenpoint where they shared a practice space with fellow Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear. Patrick Wimberly joined in 2007, adding drums for the first time, but for the most part Polachek and Pfenning did the songwriting together.

Pfenning left the band back in October to pursue his role as frontman of Rewards. So the new album will be a writing collaboration between Polachek and Wimberly. And as opposed to the irregular songwriting schedule and geographic wandering, which at times comes across in the occasional unevenness of their debut, the duo spent many days and months writing together in a single location: a spare room in the back of Brooklyn antique shop.

I met with Caroline Polachek at one of her favorite Polish restaurants in Greenpoint – not too far from the band’s original practice space. She shared some ideas for combating lyric-writing fatigue. One such idea: consulting fans on Chairlift’s Facebook page (allegedly the helpful fan has been credited by having his name included in the background of the song).

We also discussed the writing process on the new album and an upcoming Chairlift song (or “scene”), accompanied by two five-years-olds: she describes the song as “A Dali painting tracked with happy Disney chords.”

Do you find that you have some kind of regiment for writing new songs?

I always imagined it would be like that, but it wasn’t like that at all. Patrick and I got this little room in the back of an antique store to write the new album. It already had a piano and a couch, but that’s all. We brought in our own equipment and literally all we had to write this record was a grand piano, a drum kit, a synth and a bass. But regarding regiment – our only regiment we had was that we’d show up at the room everyday at noon.

How many hours did you spend in the room each day?

Until someone had an obligation. And we’d do this for months and months of just going to the room everyday. Some days we’d come up with ideas for a new song, but for the most part we’d just work on songs that we’d been working on previously.

Months and months of playing everyday? I wonder if your fans understand how much time and energy goes into writing an album. Were there any rules?

We did have one rule actually: we couldn’t work on one song for more than three days in a row, because we noticed that if we did it’d start getting worse. If you get to know it too well you lose perspective and you start forgetting what the whole song should do because you’re too busy fixating on what the little details should do – and that’s never a good sign. This leads to what we refer to as ‘demo-itis.’

What is “demo-itis”?

“Demo-itis” is when you’ve listen to the same thing 500 times so that you can’t like it any other way – because you become used to it. At that point you might not even think, ‘Oh it has this cool thing about it.’ You can’t because you’re programmed to think that is how the song should sound.

What comes to mind, is if you were to have a lyric that you weren’t so sure about during the demo-itis phase. Then it gets stuck in your head until you think: I hate that lyric but it’s the only way this song sounds good?

Yeah! Exactly. We actually had a whole song where the chorus is like that. The lyric means nothing at all. Yet no other lyric, no matter how good the pun or the other lyrics we tried [worked], we all missed the old one. So we’re actually going back to the old one.

What is the lyric?

[A long reluctant pause] Well… the line is “In your direction,” but in context it just means nothing to repeat that line over and over again.

You write the lyrics for Chairlift?

Yes, I do almost all the lyric writing

Do you do it before the song exists or after the music?

It’s different for every song. Sometimes a riff will inspire what the song should be about – like the way it sounds.

For this record I’ve been writing what I call lyric sets. Cos it’s not poetry; a set of lyrics is like no other kind of writing. It’s not a list, it’s not a letter, it’s not a diary entry, it’s just a lyric set. It’s just a mental world and you just write what should be spoken in that world. It’s closer to writing a script than anything else.

So, ideally, when you are writing a new song you are hoping to weave the lyrics and the music around the same time? Instead of trying to force lyrics at some later stage in the writing process?

Yeah, that’s lucky. It’s always easier if I have some kind of concept in my head. Like on this record we have a song where I was like “I want to write a song about running someone over with my car.” And from there all the lyrics were obvious, and all the sounds were obvious too. And the song came together in one day because it was such an obvious literal thing.

Whereas we came up with another [song] that had a really good bass groove, chord pattern and melody – all of which we loved [without lyrics]. So at that point it’s kind of like overhearing a muffled conversation and having to piece together a melody to make the whole conversation make sense. But in order for it to feel like a good conversation all the lines have to work with the previous lines, and with the tone and the mood. It’s really like writing a conversation over these sounds.

Your voice is part of this “muffled conversation”?

Yeah that’s how I feel about writing lyrics for music that already exists. If all the music is there, and especially if all the vocal melodies are there, I’m fucked. Like it’s really hard for me to write lyrics [at this point]. If there’s just instrumentals it’s easier, but if there’s a vocal line and I have to think of words for it, it takes forever.

We have one song on the new record – the same song I was just telling you about actually – where I literally wrote six complete sets of lyrics for the song until one stuck. And the ones we went with, it’s a complete nonsense song; it acknowledges the fact that none of the lyrics make any sense. It’s kind of like Dr. Suess or something.

On the topic of lyric writing, I feel like some songwriters attempt to convey a feeling, and other songwriters attempt to tell a story, but with your lyrics, maybe you are somewhere in between the two extremes? For example, I can get a sense of meaning on some Chairlift songs, but it’s easy to get lost when listening to others.

I always see lyrics like being what a person says in a movie. So it’s not the director that’s speaking to you, but you have your shot. And in the shot there’s a character saying this line. If what the character is saying doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t make any sense, it just means that is what the scene is.

And it’s up for the viewer to interpret the scene?

Yes, or just to enjoy it.

I’d like to name a few Chairlift songs and get your response:

Don’t give a Damn
Well that song is sort of a spaghetti western cartoon where the cowboy is walking away to the wind. We don’t actually have Western accents, and we don’t say things like “I’ll saddle up soon and be gone”. We were listening to a lot of Hank Williams and living in Colorado while we were writing that songs. We just wanted to make a short western song, but we didn’t think we needed to be a country band to write a country song. Kind of how Ween made a country album just because they wanted to.

A lot of people ask us if we wrote Garbage for environmental reasons, if we are really concerned about the environment and wanted to get the word out there about recycling. At the time when I wrote the song while living in Boulder, Colorado I was probably the biggest hippie I’ve ever been. I was pretty hardcore about recycling, but I was more obsessed about the permanence of objects. That this thing (holding her iPhone) passes through your life in the most vulgar and meaningless way will actually outlive you.

Evident Utensil
Evident Utensil is a joke from start to finish. I started singing those lyrics in the shower, something like “I’ve got every colored bath product. Every colored kitchen utensil” (she sings these words over the song’s melody). It was just this stupid consumerist jingle. And then I came out of the shower and wrote down some of the lyrics. Aaron was hanging out with me and we drew a picture of a Tucan and it had a big speech bubble and some of the lyrics were coming out of its mouth. I remember we spent a whole afternoon at Patrick’s, jumping up and down on his bed and laughing our asses off in his Bushwick apartment.

The beat actually comes straight off this Yamaha keyboard that my mom gave me when I was ten years old. It’s a demo, it’s copyright free and was made to be played over. We always thought it was hilarious, this 90s kind of house beat – none of us were really into house at the time, which is funny because now I am and we’re not really making music like that. But I thought it was so funny to put such stupid lyrics over this big flashy beat.

Can you talk about one of the new songs you’ve been working on?

There is a new song called “Spoon Eyes”. It’s not going to be on the new album, but it’s going to be a B-side. I had an art piece up a while ago at this gallery, and the guy that was helping me install the piece was like, “Oh I heard you’re in a band and you make music. Well my little girls sing too” And actually I have a song on my iPod that they sang yesterday if you want to hear it.” And he plays me this song, and these weird little angelic voices come out and it’s like, “I’m walking down the street with two spoon eyes” (she sings the melody).

So I asked him, “Do you think your girls would want to come over and record this song with us?” And he was like, “Yeah, they’d loose their minds. Absolutely.” So a couple of weeks later he dropped them off at our antique shop and actually it was a little hard to get them to sing, I had to convince them to act like Hanna Montana and that actually worked.

So I wrote a little chorus for them and they sang it, and we tracked it all over very basic happy Disney chords. Then we slowed the whole thing down and changed all the instruments under it, while giving them a little pitch correction on their vocals. And then I sang under it.

We were kind of trying to go for that kind of atmosphere with the song – it got really syrupy and dreamlike.

I wrote that song the first night I brought home my Nord. I started reading the manual and I got a little bit overwhelmed, but then I kept going through it and found a sound I liked. I found myself singing over this one sound and then I stood up and banged my knee! It hurt really bad, so I went over to the fridge to get some ice – and there was a pack of strawberries in there, I guess I was planning on making smoothies or something. So I was sitting there icing my knee with the frozen strawberries, singing over this little melody. At the time I didn’t really think anything of it, but somehow the song came together.

I was watching a Nirvana documentary a few months ago and I heard Kurt’s manager say, “Whenever we wanted Kurt to write a new song we’d just give him a new guitar”. And I totally feel that way – that night I brought home my new synth (she presses her fingers on the table as if she is playing the piano). There it is!

The Sound of Songwriting: With Sam Beam of the Iron & Wine

We tend to speak of our lives in generalities, while in our mind, when we sit alone and reflect on the past, we tend to recall specific details. The details are personal. They invoke substance. They’re in our head like a collage of still frames and at times they all just seem to blend together.

On “Walking Far From Home,” the opening track to Iron & Wine’s latest release Kiss Each Other Clean, the narrator highlights salient images from his life: “A Pair of hearts carved into a stone,” and the words that two lover’s once whispered to each other, “Want me like time, Want me like time.” All vivid details from a life littered with love, and told in a way that exhumes evidence from the author’s past without the use of well-worn phrases like, “I love you, baby.”

“That song is like a painting,” Beam would later tell me during our discussion, commenting on his approach to writing the song. Actually, a great deal of Beam’s music comes from a place inside himself that is closely bound to his experience studying and creating art in those years that preceded Iron & Wine. He’s an observer of the world. Many of Iron & Wine’s most beautiful songs, like “The Trapeze Swinger” and “Resurrection Fern,” refrain from directly communicating feelings, or from opining on how one should live their life. Rather, they are an assortment of images culled from the narrator’s memory.

Whether or not the character in “Walking Far From Home” is Beam himself doesn’t matter so much. His take on the music of Iron & Wine is quite formalistic: he believes that the artistic value is based on the work itself; absent from the historical background and life of the author who created it. Beam alludes to such ideals by explicitly divorcing himself from the content of his characters. “I live a boring life,” he would remark.

If Sam Beam was a painter I’d imagine him as Claude Monet: using thin brush lines, approaching his subject from an unusual visual angle, and using soft colors that simultaneously mask and accentuate the passage of time. Lyrically, his method might be paraphrased: describe in great detail, and with all sincerity, the imagery that surrounds a song’s theme. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke gave similarly inspiring advice a century ago, “Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. For the creative artist there is no poverty – [no detail] is insignificant or unimportant.” I can picture Beam like this, with brushstrokes of grammar, writing alone in his backyard.

Musically, one of Beam greatest songwriting talents is his ability to reduce art to its most necessary elements. Listen to “Cinder and Smoke” to hear an example: it’s a song with only four chords (Bm – Dm9 – F#m – Dm9) and a lyric-less chorus, which consists of Beam languorously oscillating his voice between two notes (D and C#). Meanwhile, we follow the subtle imagery of (what appears to be) a lover looking to regain trust as his relationship falls apart, “Give me your hand,” Beam sings, “The farmhouse is burning down… as if you were listening.”

Iron & Wine’s fourth studio release, Kiss Each Other Clean was released just last week and musically it continues the evolution of Iron & Wine’s career from Sam Beam the solo folk guitarist, to the Sam Beam the leader of a drum and saxophone backed band.

I met with Beam before a private live show at the Mercury Lounge where he was preparing to showcase his new songs for two hundred lucky fans in New York City. In person he stands tall with his bushy beard and a chocolate brown blazer – dressing more like the college professor he once was before leaving the lectern for the stage.

Upon being introduced he gives me a warm two-handed shake. He speaks very deliberately, rarely using words “like” and “um” as filler. The exception to this would be when I asked him about any song that came before his latest album. He claims that he’s forgotten the meaning behind his old songs: “those songs no longer belong to me”, he would say.

Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

But when he talks about the new songs on Kiss Each Other Clean he gets very excited, he sits upright in his chair and his eyes sparkle. So it’s lucky for me that I came prepared to talk about the album a few weeks before it was released, before he relinquished ownership of these new songs to his fans, and before he would inevitably forget why they were once important to him.

Can you take me through the process of writing a new Iron & Wine song?

Well, they’re all a little different. It’s just hard to say, Chris. I will say that I treat songwriting as a job – where I sit down from when I take the kids to school until the time I go to pick them up. Some days you do more sitting and writing, some days you do more recording. As long as you keep working.

I will say that there are a lot of days that you don’t get shit done. [laughs] You know, you’ve got to be easy on your brain, but then when the muses work you got to be there to catch it. So it’s much less about inspiration then it is about rewriting and editing. Just trying to push it as far as you can go with it. Usually there are several versions of each song and lots of thrown away lyrics. It’s hard to say because each song has it’s own set of rules.”

When you started writing songs it was just you and your guitar?

Well it’s still that way. But I have been writing more on the piano lately.

The song “Godless Brother In Love” [from Kiss Each Other Clean] starts with that pretty piano melody. Is that song an example of one you wrote on the piano?

Yeah it is. For me, someone who is more familiar with the guitar, you follow the patterns where the hands know where to go. So the piano is nice because it’s all laid out in a line. It ends up being more melody driven, instead of rhythm driven.

It’s still just me and the guitar at the beginning hashing out a melody and chord structure. Then when you come to record it, then you record it as many ways as you can, to see what clothes you think look best on it.

But you can record a song any number of ways. And some work best to stage, whatever you are perfectly trying to get across in the tune, or sometimes it works best in contrast to what you’re saying.

How do you know what works best? Do you ever sit by yourself and wonder, “Is this song any good?”

[Beam laughs at this question]. “You don’t worry if it’s good! I went to an art school, so you get very accustomed to making it about what you’re doing rather than what you end up with.

It’s more about the process and you get very accustomed to putting yourself out there to people. Of taking what you’re working on and saying, ‘Look at this’. And you get very accustomed to what other people’s praises are worth. I mean, at the end of the day it could be great to somebody, and a piece of dogshit to somebody else. It doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy doing it. That has it’s own merit.

Can a song ever be too simple?

No that doesn’t matter. I definitely have versions of tunes where I think, ‘I can push this further. I could ring a little more juice out of it’. But sometimes the most simple expression is the most true, so that’s great. Or do you mean simple as in cliché?

No, just that your songs seem unforced. On some songs there isn’t a rush to get to the chorus, or to add any more instruments than an acoustic guitar.

[laughs] Yeah some of them don’t have choruses at all! You take them all differently.

There’s that tune, ‘Walking Far From Home’ [on Kiss Each Other Clean], I couldn’t think of a bridge, so then I try to see what is working and you expand on that. ‘Ok I have this descriptive thing going on, so let’s push it further, let’s continue longer than it should be going and see if I can get something out of it’.

It’s like a John Cage piece, if you push it long enough it becomes…something.

Before the release of the first Iron & Wine album you were a professor of film and cinematography at the University of Miami. Has filmmaking influenced your songwriting?

I enjoy communicating in a visual way. That’s why I was drawn to painting, drawing, and filmmaking… and writing the way I do.

I don’t like songs that tell you how to be or to argue a point- I say this, but I can probably think of a million that I do like. [Generally] that’s just not my thing. I like describing things and setting things together. Just like you do in pages: you set two images together, and ask, ‘what do they mean together in juxtaposition?’ Or then there’s a series of images: and so, ‘what does that mean?’ And then I sprinkle it with stories, and a little dramatic through-line to see what happens.

Do you see the singer as a storyteller?

To continue on what I was talking about before, I find that it’s a more collaborative process. Instead of [the idea that] our dialogue will only work if you understand my point.

Like, if I say ‘Look at this’ and then you can say ‘Yeah that’s cool. I like that part about it…’ So we can sort of do it together.

I don’t say, “Do you get it? Do you understand?” No, it’s more collaborative, we do it together. That’s what I like about just visual communication in the arts.

I wonder then, if you could imagine yourself as the director of the visual world you create in each of your songs. Do you then have your own take on the intricacies and details within that world?

Much more so in the past. As I started it was very much about trying to get it perfect – to translate what’s in my head. But you learn that it’s best to set yourself up as best you can to be surprised in a great way. I know that feels weird or sounds silly, but you really try to set yourself up where other people can come in and surprise you or interpret what you’re doing, or you can make mistakes and it sounds ok.

It’s almost like a Robert Altman thing, where he would come in and bring the right people and the right scenario and sometimes shit would just happen. His is a very collaborative process. Obviously with music, jazz is like that too. You set yourself up with a general number of bars and hopefully you can set the stage for something surprising to happen. And so that’s what I’ve been included in more recently, it’s been more fun to include other people.

Have you ever written a song and it occurs to you, “This sounds exactly like somebody else’s song!”?

[laughs] Oh yeah it happens all the time! Of course. Everybody does that and if they don’t they’re lying. There’s only so many chords and there’s a lot of music out there.

Can you think of any examples?

There’s something on the new album that sounds a whole lot like it could be a Smokey Robinson routine tune. But it could be… and once you recognize that, you have to opportunity to say, ‘Ok do I run with it and make it an homage’ or ‘What can I bring to the table to add to what the person said.’ Or you say, ‘Ok I have to change this-and-this and take something away.’

Is there one song you’re most proud of?

[He gives me an overwhelmed look, then followed by indifference]

Nah. The one I haven’t written yet.

Is that something you’re working towards?

No… [long pause] But I hope the one that I haven’t written yet is going to be the best one. You know what I mean? You keep trying to make a better one. It think that’d be a sad day when you say, ‘Well I think my best shit is definitely behind me.’ That would be awful. You’d just find something else to do.

Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk? She addresses that issue very elegantly: this pressure that artists have to always create something more magnificent than their last work. Personally she was haunted for years by this idea that her greatest success as a writer [Eat, Pray, Love] was most likely behind her.

I haven’t seen it, but I know what you mean. I feel blessed to have done the art school thing where you get accustomed to working. And you realize quickly it’s about the work and the only value out of it, is what you get out of it. You know what I mean?

I hope everyone enjoys what I’m doing. So it’s like, I don’t write songs to piss people off, I want them to enjoy it, but at the same time it’s about making it, it’s for me, my process. And so, I feel sorry for people that get famous early on. It sucks for them. [laughs]

I’d like to name a few Iron & Wine songs and get your reaction.

Resurrection fern
Yup. [long pause without an answer]

What do you remember about writing it?

I remember being in Florida and my friend had this tree with the resurrection fern on it. And I had never seen the ferns on the tree until I moved down there. And I just thought that was a wild idea – the religious image, and nature of it. I just thought it was a fun image to run with. You could apply it to any situation, a dramatic situation or whatever.

Do you remember where you where when you wrote Flightless Bird?
In Miami. In my backyard.

Naked as we came
In my backyard.

Do you have any other reaction to that?

Nah, it’s been so long ago that I wrote that one. And I’ve played it so many times that it’s hard to remember.

I noticed that in past interviews, whenever people mentioned old Iron & Wine songs you claim not to remember anything about them.

Well, it changes over the years. You know? If I had written it and just walked away from it would be one thing. But it’s had such a history with me for so many years that it’s kind of lost something. It’s kind of like saying the matra – you say it so many times you forget what the words mean.

What about “Me and Lazarus” from the new record?
I had this tune where I had this image of Lazarus on a motorcycle that didn’t mean anything [laughs] – or at least it didn’t mean enough. But then I had this other sort of Jamaican sounding thing that had a melody I liked.

I had a bunch of friends during the Bush era that were like, ‘Fuck this shit let’s get out of here! I’m leaving! I’m going to Europe or Canada.’ They had it all figured out. And I remember feeling, ‘you know, you’ll always find some problem.’

I didn’t like what the administration was doing at the time either, but the idea of running away? And at the same time there was all these bank bailouts, and so it kind of all got stirred up in the soup of ‘Me and Lazarus’ who got a second chance. The narrator paling around with Lazarus. It doesn’t mean it’s, not a particular thesis on any particular point, it’s just a big… soup.

Godless brother in love
Yeah [he pauses to think]. Well, I liked the idea of… these images of these spoiled rotten kids in a pretty setting.

The clothes of that song are the pretty piano thing. And the idea of someone who is godless. What does that mean? Godless and in love. Do they even understand what that means? It’s a contradiction. And so there are a lot of contradictions in that song. There’s a more specific context in that song that I was writing from that I don’t want to talk about because I feel that it will spoil some of the tune.

I’m really into a lot of jazz players lately. Nina Simone in particular. Just the way she could create this atmosphere through the piano in her songs. There is one, she did that Sandy Denny song ‘Who knows where the Time Goes’. Her rendition of that is incredible. I’d been trying to do something with that feel for a long time. And ‘Godless brother in Love’ is what came out.

Walking Far From Home
I was on tour when that one started – so it was easy to have that far from home feel. All of the songs have so many thrown away lyrics, that you try to get as much down on paper so you don’t forget it. You go back and pick out which ones work, and do more with those.

That song ended up with a million different things that that guy saw on his life journey. Some were more pleasant and some were… not so pleasant.

It’s like life, you know, if you look back on it you loose track of all the images. And some of it’s really surreal, some of it’s beautiful, some of it’s disturbing.

But it all kind of blends together at the end.

The Sound of Songwriting: With Tim Kasher of Cursive and The Good Life

Much like a lyrical Woody Allen, Tim Kasher doesn’t hide behind his neurosis, he celebrates it. Mature enough to recognize his own self-limitations as an adult, and candid enough to share these tales with his audience, Kasher’s style of songwriting comes off as witty, humorous, self-deprecating and humble – often all in one song and sometimes before the second chorus.

Kasher demonstrates this ability in “Art is Hard,” a sarcastic lament for songwriters who must use their own tragedies as tools through which to boost album sales. “Cut it out – your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine,” he demands from the start. Later followed by, “You gotta sink to swim / impersonate greater persons / cause we all know art is hard / when we don’t know who we are. “ By the close of the song you have a pretty clear image of this type of self-loathing rock band to which Kasher is referring. But if you weren’t paying close enough attention you might have missed the “fan” who screams mid-song, “Oh, Cursive is so cool,” begging the question: who is this song really about?

It’s this type of dark irony that Kasher is famous for. And it’s also what leads to the confusion between the historical Tim Kasher, and the Tim Kasher persona with whom he refers to in his songs.

Last October he released his first solo-album, The Game of Monogamy, which lyrical reads like an hour-long theatrical monologue on the unsatisfying woes of marriage. On stage, in support of the new album, Tim shared an antidote with the audience about a fan 10 years his younger that approached him with a pat on the back offering his condolences, “Don’t worry Tim, it gets better.” Kasher brushes it off with a smile acknowledging that he is implicit in the joke. He understands that his fans sometimes misinterpret his style of lyric writing as 100% truths. After all it was Kasher who set himself up by once singing, “There’s no use to keep a secret, everything I hide ends up in lyrics”, in Cursive’s Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand (and later in the album calling himself out by name). I mentioned this to Kasher in our interview, to which he responded at length – a statement he would later summarized as, “I’m not doing documentary music”.

Could you tell me about the first song you wrote?

I can’t remember the title of it, but I do remember that it was ‘A minor – D minor – E minor.’ I’m going to guess it was called “You Don’t Care if I Die.” It was something along the lines of, “If I shot myself, if I hung myself, you won’t care…” because well, “You don’t care if I die.” That was the first song, it was really bleak and there was no such thing as nuance or subtlety whatsoever. I was probably fifteen at the time.

Did you know you wanted to be a songwriting at that age?

I had been learning how to play guitar at the time – learning Simon & Garfunkel songs primarily. And playing with Matt Maginn [bassist of Cursive], we’ve always played together. At the time we were playing mostly covers. I was just a kid, but I really had a hunch from an early age that I wanted to write my own songs and not just play covers.

What lessons have you learned about songwriting since writing “You Don’t Care If I Die”?

I might suggest that I’m still writing that same song [laughs] it’s just that I’ve learned subtleties and a few more chords [still laughing]. Even though I still use ‘A minor – D minor’ pretty predominately.

Do you ever find yourself stuck in the same progression of chords?

You know I don’t talk about songwriting much with other songwriters. I imagine any songwriter gets stuck with his go-to chords. I have chords that are my comfort chords, but I do keep myself away from them. It kind of goes by album: I’ll set parameters of what I can and cannot do on any given album. For example, “you cannot use bar-chords”, or “you cannot use these traditional full chords that are your comfort chords.”

I wonder if these “go-to chords” limit your growth as a songwriter? If they complicate the process for developing new ideas that don’t sound like songs you’ve already written?

Wow, yeah I’m a big believer that I should start talking to more songwriters to see what others think. And I suppose that what you’re doing.

There are only so many chords you can play – the chords are always going to be the same. Here and there you can stumble upon a new chord structure or composition idea that might really inspire you and then you can work from there.

Ok I can use a really simple example: so you’re playing a simple progression of C-F-G and on most days of the month it sounds like C-F-G, or maybe it sounds like something else you’ve already played, or it sounds like Neil Young or… whatever, it just sounds derivative. But then on that day you’re ready to write the song – whatever that means – then C-F-G can sound very different. It sounds like the first time you’ve ever played that chord progression and it sounds very exciting. And you have all of these ideas and it seems like new chords.

When you were writing with Cursive, what was the process like for presenting new songs to the other members of the band?

We decided a long time ago, like in the 90s, even before Cursive, that we can speed up the process if I come in with a finished composition. That’s not saying that I’m just the one that writes the songs, but I write the composition: the chords and the vocal melody. I come with a completed song and then we start throwing around all these ideas about how the drums should be, what kind of bass part, what kind of guitars.

To give proper credit to the bands: the kind of junky song that comes out of my house is often a hell of a lot different from what it becomes. It’s a fairly plain idea where I see potential. I’ve definitely had to push songs, like, “Wait, no, you’re just not seeing it how I’m seeing it in my mind. I think this can work.”

Can you think of one song in particular that took more convincing than others?

There’s a song in the middle of The Ugly Organ, it’s called “Butcher the Song.” It ended up being one of the more important songs on the record as far as it being this adhesive for the first half and the second half of the record. It’s an important storytelling song for the album. But the music was really weird, and it was really hard to convince them of what it would become, to the point where I started convincing myself, “Ok maybe this song isn’t working.” It wasn’t until I took a last crack at the lyrics that it all kind of made sense and everyone was like, “Oh, ok this all makes sense now.”

What songs are you most proud of having written?

On this last record, the song “Strays” is where I feel like I’m actually hitting some kind of pure nerve that I was trying to find. On Happy Hollow it was “From the Hips.”

There are a few of those songs on each record – and that’s what keeps me going. The other songs aren’t filler; it’s just that not every song is that one special song that made the album for me. I wonder if John Lennon looked at one of his albums and would say, “All eleven of these songs are gems?”

How was songwriting different on the solo album you just released [The Game of Monogamy] – where you don’t have the support of a band to bounce your ideas off of?

It’s just a different process, one that I don’t mind. I would bring musicians like Erin Tate [drummer for Minus the Bear], Matt Maginn [bassist for Cursive] and Patrick Newbery. We’d flesh songs out until they were like, “That sounds great,” but even when they were unsure at times they would be like, “Well Tim, it’s your album.” And I kind of like that because I felt like, “Yeah, don’t worry about it. I like it and I think it sounds cool.”

The new album is so much more literal than your work in the past. I wonder if that was deliberate, or if you even recognize this?

I take that as a big compliment, and not that I’m achieving something as some great lyricist, but just that I’m in the constant process of trying to become a better writer.

People recognize this album as being so literal – and it’s actually not. There’s fiction on it and I think that I’m getting better at fiction writing, to the point where people don’t know the difference anymore. Not that I’m trying to confuse people, but it’s tough because it’s not like it’s supposed to be autobiographical. It’s not like I’m lying.

You can’t break down fiction and say it’s lies and truths. I’m trying to write these pieces of writing that are based off of all these experiences, and I’m trying to craft them into a better song than life actually is. That makes it fiction to me. Of course there are very literal nods to my own experiences, but it weaves in and out of with these fictional characters – I don’t see it as me, but as these people that resemble me.

So I’m assuming a song like Sierra is fictional?

Yes. That’s a good example of a song way back from 2002 that still to this day people have the impression that I have a daughter. It’s not a total piece of fiction, but it’s about if I were to [have had a daughter].

I write something like Sierra because it sounds like it could have stemmed from the possible different choices in my life. I would never write something that wasn’t in my autobiographical nature. And so I’m writing about experiences from my life. It’s almost like historical fiction.

On some songs you cross the line between the biographical and the fictional to the point where it comes off as intentionally vague. A song like Sink to the Beat or Art is Hard comes to mind. It’s this Woody Allen moment where the listener wonders: is this about Tim? Or is he talking about someone else?

I think that’s for the listener – or viewer – to decide – you have to make those decisions for yourself. I’ll watch a Woody Allen film and think: this is clearly coming out of his own life. I don’t hold him to it, but you can recognize that he’s working through certain things. He’s in a safe place because he’s doing stuff that’s totally out there.

The songs that you just mentioned, Sink to the Beat and Art is Hard, that stuff is pretty out there. It’s stuff where it’s fully self referential, but it’s also so ironic and fairly tongue-in-cheek by playing with the concept of what rock and roll is about.

They are song about songwriting, aren’t they? You have a lot of those.

I do that because I have a lot of interest in self-reflexive writing and that fourth wall concept. It’s harder to have that [forth wall] in music, but that’s that idea anyway

The term rock star is just so defamatory and I used to get really pissed off if friends would say that word – it’s just obnoxious. But some people really embrace it, and I think it’s fairly obvious that lyrically I’ve tried to be the antithesis of it by deconstructing it as much as possible in this way. And that’s why I write a lot about the songwriting process.

The Sound of Songwriting: With Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols

“Songwriting? That’s something that I don’t really know how to do.” Courtney Taylor felt that I ought to know this before we even began our interview to discuss that very subject. As we sat upstairs in Webster Hall on a chilly November day in New York City, the Dandy Warhol’s lead singer and songwriter wanted to make this one point clear: “I don’t write songs, they just happen to me.”

In 1995 America, when the popularity of grunge was in a swift decline and a new wave of punk-ska was heating up around the country, Taylor was writing music inspired by bands like the Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine. In one of the Dandy Warhol’s earliest music videos for the song “Ride”, Taylor is fashioned like a young Mick Jager, fresh faced with neatly trimmed bangs, while Zia McCabe shakes a maraca and the entire band spins around in a tiny kaleidoscopic room—a very subdued and stereotypical “British” looking music video. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise that at the time the Dandy Warhols—who actually hail from Portland, Oregon—were playing to full clubs in Europe while remaining virtually unknown back at home.

The Dandy Warhols have a full and all-inclusive sound; it feels like the four band members are always present and aware of maintaining a song’s equilibrium. There is rarely a moment where any one member tries to rise above the others—which is interesting, considering Taylor alone is credited with writing all of the Dandy Warhol’s music.

Taylor’s lyrics are typically cryptic and terse, which could lead a listener into thinking he’s a bit remiss. But it’s in the final product, with the entire band supporting him, that the lyrics are translated back into his original emotions. Often, it’s more about conveying a subconscious feeling than a literal meaning.

Songwriting is Taylor’s profession. It’s his passion, but it’s also a burden. When he confessed just how taxing it could be, I wanted to stop him and interject, “Why do you do it to yourself? Is there ever going to be a point in your life where you’ve just written enough songs?” I was brimming with curiosity—but I needed to let him come to his own conclusions and work it out for himself.

Can you tell me about how you would approach the band with a new song?

God, I don’t know. I guess it’s usually when we’re standing around at practice. If I’m by myself, I start to play, and if I have the beginning of a song I just play the chords and sing it to see if it’s actually a thing that would work live. ‘Cause I write songs… [pause]. It’s weird for me to even say I write songs—let me just preface by saying that, because I don’t feel like I write them. I wait for them to happen to me.

So when the beginning of a song happens to me, I’ll fiddle around with it at home for a bit. And generally it happens by just murmuring to myself. I don’t sing aloud, I do it all falsetto in my head while quietly lying in bed. But ultimately, I need to check it out on a microphone and see if it translates to standing there and actually doing it. And so this is how we swap ideas. I’ll be like, ‘Pete, that is an amazing riff!’ Millions [of riffs] have gone away, but if someone is like, ‘that’s fucking amazing,’ well then, it’s great.

So is it a numbers game? You put out 10 ideas and hope that one sticks?

When it comes to guitar riffs or keyboard riffs? Then, yes. But if there’s a word for ‘the opposite of prolific’ in the dictionary, then there’s a picture of me under it. I think every song I’ve ever written in my entire life has gone on one of the Dandy’s records. I mean, I’m dredging stuff up from 15 years ago, constantly, just to fill in these records and make them seem complete. Twelve songs every three years is about my average. It’s kind of pathetic, and it’s probably given me ulcers and high blood pressure, because it’s scary when you do that for a living and it’s not coming. They’re not coming! Then six months go by! Nine months go by! And a year goes by… and nothing. Nothing.

I don’t know where the hell they come from, and I don’t know why. All I can figure is that if I continuously put myself in fucked up situations where I feel like I’m out of my depth, or in a vulnerable situation where I’m out of my depth then… Look, if you put yourself in a vulnerable situation someone will hurt you; somebody will fuck you. And you can usually get a good song out of that. Something that makes you angry enough for long enough will give you the stick-to-it-ness to finish a song. Starting songs is easy; finishing songs is hard.

And then you transpose these vulnerable situations into music?

I don’t transpose it or even think about it—it just happens. The cathartic instrument is a guitar: An acoustic or an unplugged hallowed body. I’m just lying down and stewing about something and then the right hand’s strumming and the left hand is moving around playing random chords until accidentally three chords—or two chords back and forth—something like that happens on the guitar and unlocks the flood gates. C to Am to C to G. And then it’s like, ‘Oh whoa!’ That tempo and that rhythm is exactly what I’m feeling inside. It creates an equilibrium inside the cell wall between what’s going on inside of you and what’s going on outside of you, and then it’s like osmosis.

The lyrics come after?


Do you consciously try to follow an idea, or do you subconsciously just follow the feeling?

It’s one block of words around a feeling, and then you have to figure out how to tell the story in order to add perspective to what is going on inside yourself.

Is there a time limit with a song? A pressure to say, ‘Okay, it’s been two months and I’ve got to get this song finished right now.’

It seems like 15 years is the longest I’ve ever let one go.

Which song?

’Wasp in the Lotus’ [from 2008’s Earth To The Dandy Warhols]. 15 years.

On the latest album [The Capitol Years: 1995-2007] the song “This is the Tide” was the first song written by Brent [De Boer, drums] and Zia [keyboards]. How was this different for the Dandy’s?

Instead of me spending 15-hour days in the studio for two weeks and then everyone else coming in for an hour and a half and laying down some neat shit, they got to spend two weeks in the studio, and I came in and spent an hour and a half. It’s fucking perfect. I haven’t written a song in a year and a half—coming up on two years. And I’m not worried now because we’ll be fine. Fathead [Brent] is getting really good. He’s amazing. [long pause] Can you imagine what a relief that is?

Well, why haven’t they written songs before?

Right! Yeah exactly.

Had you approached them about this?

Well, that’s how this happened. I showed up and I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is amazing, where did it come from?’ and Fathead was like, ‘Well, it goes back about four years ago. One day I was playing this riff and you were like ‘That’s an awesome riff. Let’s make a song out of that.’ So better late then never. I think things are going to get a lot better, a lot more productive for us now. [breathes a deep sigh of relief]. God, it’s so cool. I can’t believe it.

Is there a moment of vulnerability when you approach the band with a new song? Do you worry they won’t like it?

It’s only happened a couple of times, and I just dropped it. Never to be heard of again.

Would you consider yourself a lyricist?

No. I didn’t grow up writing poetry. What I write is far more in the realm of prose than it is poetry. Poetry being decorative language and prose being holding a mirror to reality. I write prose [speaking lyrics], “You got a great car, yeah what’s wrong with it today?” [from 2000’s “Bohemian Like You”]; “Boy’s better beware” [from 1997’s “Boys Beware”].

It’s social commentary. Emotions. Or a scathing criticism of myself. I’m not trying to connect with people; I just want to get this shit off my chest and get it out there so that I feel better. And the best way to do that is to just let yourself go and admit what a small, icky piece of shit you are. And then you take some huge sonically powerful guitars to protect yourself from the opinions of others. It’s like, ‘You can’t have these opinions of me! I can have these opinions of me! And here is the cage that keeps you out!’ The cage is the music.

Is it the band, or is it the music?

It doesn’t matter who is in the band—it’s the music. When you’re making a recording it can be this band, extra musicians coming in, nobody but one other person. Music is music. You just have a goal of emotional clarity that you’re trying to achieve.

And when you achieve it, do you have a sense of pride afterward?

Pride is a small part of what you have. The cathartic experience is like the ultimate two-week-long orgasm. It’s like redemption, and it’s forgiveness. You name it and it’s just like… fuck! [exhales slowly] I’m ok; I’m ok; I’m going to be ok for a minute.

Is there one song where you can look back and think, “I can die now that I wrote that one”?

The last two songs I wrote… because it occurred to me several years ago that all my songs are just attempts at “the song.” And then I wrote two songs a year ago, and they were so quintessential. One is “the me song”, and one is “the her song,” and I was like, “Wow that really sums me up.” But I don’t know what to do with them; I tried recording both of them with the band and they never quite achieved it. So I’m going to demo them and do a recording where I play all the instruments and see if that works.

Once I achieve that—‘the her song’ and ‘the me song’—I don’t feel like there’s a lot more that I need to write about. I’m a person who is pretty happy in life, and they say a happy man does not write his memoirs.

So if you stop writing then is this the closing chapter of the Dandy Warhols?

We could have eight more years if Zia and Fathead keep coming up with songs.

Watch: Dandy Warholds, “Bohemian Like You”

My Thesis is Finished! – University of Amsterdam New Media

The final version of my MA Thesis is ready!

Copy What Can’t Be Sold (and Sell What Can’t Be Copied):
What Musicians Have Learned From Blogging

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[backup download]

The “crisis in the music industry” (declining profits blamed on piracy) has been presented in the media as a crisis for musicians. This thesis challenges such assumptions by differentiating between various components of the industry and by illustrating how some musicians are benefiting from, and sometimes even promoting, piracy and other types of free online content.

Studies of the music industry suffer from a marked inability to comprehend the underlying logic of the Internet when analyzing digital music distribution.  Digital music lives within the framework of the Internet, therefore it is subject to the logics of that context. By analyzing this context and looking closely at the influence that the Internet and blogging culture are having on music distribution, this thesis updates outdated concepts and presents recommendations for musicians living in a ‘post-Napster’ era.

Through a wide range of academic texts, empirical reports, interviews and case studies, I equate the current role of the musician to that of the blogger, ultimately arriving at the conclusion: successful musicians must copy what can’t easily be sold, and sell what can’t easily be copied.

Intro – Explains it all
Section 1 – P2P & Music industry background/history
Section 2 – Free music, and the benefits of piracy
Section 3 – Musicians that blog, and selling what can’t be copied
Conclusion – Sums it up

New Media Interview: The Silversun Pickups

This interview was published on The University of Amsterdam’s New Media blog in 2009. It is part of a collection of interviews on how the Internet is affecting the business of being a full-time musician.


As I was preparing for my interview with the Silversun Pickups I received a Tweet acknowledging that they had just rolled into town. Later that day I chatted with the Brian, Nikki, Chris and Joe of the Silversun Pickups before their show at the Melkweg in Amsterdam to discuss what it takes to be a successful musician in the new media climate.Silversun Pickups Amsterdam

You guys use Twitter quite frequently, can you tell me about your experience as a band using Twitter:
Chris: It is nice to have the photo option, it’s the best, the fact that you can just take a picture and put it out there. It’s so immediate.

Brian: It’s also, at one point we had a journal on our website and it became daunting, we were all daunted by it cause we thought we had to write these masterful paragraphs. But the Twitter thing, it’s like cliff notes. It makes it really easy.

Chris: Cos the twitter thing we can just put one line.

Brian: “hey we’re in Amsterdam.”

What was your motivation for using Twitter?
Chris: I checked it out to see what it was about and if anyone I knew was on it. And then I noticed our booker was on it, so then I kind of followed him and I was like “oh your on this?”. I didn’t touch it for 3 months, then one of our label guys found me on Twitter and was like, “lets have a meeting about this, you should do this more often for the band”, and I was like OK I’ll give it a try. And so we eventually got onto it.

Do you also maintain a Facebook accounts?
Nikki: Chris and I do

Chris: It’s definitely not a personal thing anymore. It’s like we understand people are going to come in and they know who you are through your band and so they add you as a friend. And then all of a sudden they accept you as a friend.

What was really nice about it was, on my birthday about a month ago all these people were saying happy birthday to me. I made sure to say “Thank You” to everyone and people were surprised like, “OMG my friends don’t even write on my wall.”

That was going to be my next question, it seems like it must be difficult to stay in touch with fans this way?
Brian: It does get a little overwhelming. Also, privacy is important too.

Joe: The band is an entity to itself. You have to work hard to keep it separate from your personal life.

Brian: Nikki and I were just talking about this. You’ll be waiting for a movie in line, and you really just want to see this movie and the guy in front of you in line will turn around and be like, “Hey man”. It’s cool at first, but then after an hour it’s like, ”…well, so you going to see this? Cool man cool. Expensive huh?” Yeah…… and it’s like “……awkward”

Do you feel that you are forced to be friends with people that your not friends with?
Brian: NO….we always try to meet people as much as possible. You just kind of notice it getting more intense, which is fair enough. But it gets hard.

Nikki: You meet so many people every day, it’s hard to remember.

Brian: I’ve started to just feign recognition. In LA. Someone just looks at me in a coffee shop and I’ll be like, “HEY!” and they’ll look back all confused thinking, “What??” It’s hard I almost feel like there is a little friend quota in your brain.

Yeah actually there is, it’s 150 friends.
Brian: Really? Yeah that makes sense though. In context, like at a radio station or in the same kind of room where we first met it is easier. I’ll see “Ed” and I’ll be like, ok, “radio station Ed.”

How much money do bands make these days? Or to rephrase that, what does it take to be a successful band?
Brian: We really thought we were successful before we had records out, like when the band started to feed itself. When we actually didn’t have to put any of our personal money into it – we were like, “This is it!”.

Joe: If you can go on tour and come back and not have to look at your empty bank account then it is good.

Brian: I think it’s a world of blue-collar rock stars now, which is totally fine, really. If you can get by and play music.

Nikki: We feel successful that we don’t have to get another job.

Joe: Yeah, the fact that we can do this for a living is pretty much as awesome as we could have hoped it would be.

Brian: At this point we’re living larger than we’ve ever have before, we have three or four cars each, and our own blimp…and so we’re broke.

Nikki: (laughs) Yes the blimps are expensive to upkeep.

Brian: As long as you can travel around and play and make records. Than that is pretty much fantastic

So you guys don’t have jobs anymore?
Brian: No…
Nikki: …we would be fired

So you aren’t all going back to work at Disneyland?
Brian: Hehe, yeah that was a funny one.

Joe: But yeah, I think the blue collar thing. It is possible to make a living and do this without that sort of extravagance of rock bands in the past. You don’t have to be The Who to make a living and travel. You can do it economically and smartly – we can all make a living and pay our rent back home.

Brian: I mean, there are still going to be the Kayne Wests and Lady Gagas, but the middle ground is much bigger. It’s amazing. People are really hip on what bands need. For example, now a days if people hear your song in a commercial they don’t get up in arms and say you’re a sell-out . They say “Great now they’ll be able to play my town.”

Joe: Yeah the way bands support themselves now…People are pretty knowledgeable about how bands get paid, it is more transparent.

I think people are willing to accept that there is a lot of free music out there and there needs to be a way for artists to make some money. For example, I know “Lazy Eye” was included in Guitar hero?
Brian:  Yeah that was really just for fun. It was pretty awesome, a lot of  kids like that game.

So that’s the coolest way to sell out I guess?
Joe: Well and that’s just another venue to get your music out. Because not only are people hearing your song, but they can play it if they want. Which is even cooler. They can play “Lazy Eye!”

Brian: Yeah and it’s hard! I’m not very good at it.

But you play guitar!
Brian: That’s why I’m bad at it.

Joe: Turning 6 strings into 4 buttons, it actually is kind of complicated.

Brian: We’re trying to work our way into scoring the next Legend of Zelda

Are CD sales important anymore?
Brian: CD sales are important, we still get some money from that.
But most of our money comes from shows, merchandise and licensing. But that’s something you got to be careful about. We get pretty strange stuff. And we turn down a lot of things, like TV shows. We’re just like, “Wow that kills me inside.” But then hopefully you get to the point when you don’t have to do that anymore.

Has the vinyl deluxe package been successful?
Brian:  Yeah, actually it has. Vinyl is going up now. Actually there are two new shops in Silverlake, LA…one of our friends has one of them and he was on the news, it was like, “The one shop now making money in this economy…Oragami.” I have no tears for CDs, I’m like fine, just vinyl and digital downloads for vinyl.

It seems like some people want it cheap and quick, but other people want to treat the album like a piece of art. That’s what is interesting about the limited edition set, it’s not just something overproduced on the rack – you can really appreciate it.

New Media Interview: Pains of Being Pure at Heart

This interview was published on The University of Amsterdam’s New Media blog in 2009. It is part of a collection of interviews on how the Internet is affecting the business of being a full-time musician.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart were at the Paradiso on Monday night. I met up with lead singer and guitar player Kip Berman before the show to chat about the tour and renting his apartment in New York City out to crazy POBPAH fans.

kip berman - Pains of Being Pure at HeartI had read an article where you said you were cool with people downloading your music: what has stopped you guys from releasing your music for free on the site?
It’s downloadable anywhere else, you can’t physically put it on the site because we have record labels that still actually need to sell stuff. Recently I was looking at something and noticed a torrent for Pains of Being Pure at Heart with 5 million hits.

Honestly, people can find it if they want to find it, so I’m not going to try to stop anyone. But I think that people are conscious of the fact that you have to do something for the band in return. We find that people come to our shows and we’d rather play for people than not play for people. And people are usually honest, they’re like, “Hey, I downloaded your shit. That was cool, I’ll buy the vinyl now or a t-shirt”. So you kind of have to roll with it, and we’re just psyched that people are listening to it.

When you guys are working on new songs how do you come together and share ideas?

I think that democracy is overrated in terms of songwriting. If everyone writes 25% of a song then it sounds like a bit, well you know.

There are certain types of music where complete and total collaborative ideas might be worth while, but for us I kind of write the structure and lyrics and the ideas for the song. It’s up to the band to play out those ideas and bring them to life, and offer themselves once the blueprint has kind of been drawn. The songs wouldn’t be good if they stopped with me because everyone contributes there ideas to them.

Kurt is a fantastic drummer and I can’t even program more than one drum beat. So, just from him the song has such a better feel, because I can only do so much. Like on my keyboard drum set! Our first EP sounds like that, it doesn’t have real drums they are all electronic drums.

What do you use to record with when you are playing around at home?
I use Logic. My favorite thing is a snare setting called ‘Big Ballad Snare’ and I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT! It is hard to get a good snare sound. I’m not sure if it maybe sounds like The Jesus and Mary Chain, but it is just so synthetic and huge.

Did you play it for Kurt and were you like, “Hey can you do this?”
Yeah, it’s funny because a lot of the drum sounds aren’t how you play drums, it is just how it is mixed in the record process: reverb, mics, or how it’s tuned. You can record with a really shitty drum set and still make it sound cool by tweaking it a little bit, which is cool because we don’t have fancy stuff.

Like when kids from Indonesia write and they’re like, “What kind of snare sounds do you use on your album?” And Kurt’s like, “Just tell them it’s a shitty snare. They should just turn the EQ a little bit!”

How has the Internet helped you guys?

We didn’t have time off to tour, and the reality of having to work full-time in New York to stay alive is… Well, so the Internet has helped us get out our music without having to establish ourselves everywhere. At the time we couldn’t say, “Let’s just take off two months and play shows”. I know it sounds romantic, but it is really difficult and you still have to work to make it happen.

The Internet is just a sort of introductory thing, but you still have to connect with people and make a lasting impression. I think the old-fashioned ethics of hard work, touring and paying your dues are just as relevant today as they were in the past, if not more so. It’s almost like a political campaign, you can’t just run a campaign based on a few good op-ed pieces, everyone has to go out and shake hands.

How many shows did Pains of Being Pure at Heart play before getting signed to Slumberland?

Quite a lot, but they were all in New York. The signing to Slumberland thing was a vague notion of whenever we had a record they’d put it out. It wasn’t like, “ALRIGHT, we’re going to get signed guys!”. Actually, we never even signed anything.

Do you still have jobs back in New York?
Peggy and Alex do, but I lost my job back in November. But we have to do something to pay our rent. It’s not like our eight day whirlwind tour of the southeast playing to six people a night in 2007 was going to cover our rent in New York City.

So do you have apartments waiting for you in New York?
We all do actually. Peggy was able to sublet her place, which was smart. I should have done that, but that would have required me cleaning out my bedroom and it’s pretty messy.

Maybe you’d get some crazy Pains of Being Pure at Heart fan that would take it and be like, “Oh Kip sleeps right here!! This is Kip’s toilet!!”

[laughs] …yeah, “And Kip passes out in his clothes right here…EVERY NIGHT”. I’d be funny when they get into all the unreleased demos on my computer and tell me, “so I guess your next new single is going to be called ‘shit-faced’?” And I’ll be like, “No! that was a working title!” And they’re like, “Too bad we’re releasing it on the Internet anyway!”.

That’s another thing, we’re more concerned about unreleased things being put online, and people coming to weird conclusions on what things are going to sound like based on my inability to program a drum machine correctly. In that case they’d be like, “It seems like they are working on a concept album where every song has the same drum beat”. Again, the one I love is the “Big Ballad Snare” in Logic. If you get a chance just go in there and hit the lowest C# you can.

We’re going to steal that sound and pretty soon you’ll hear of a band coming out of Amsterdam that they say sounds just like Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
Yeah it’s cool. Actually, it would be really cool if bands got accused of ripping us off for once, that’d be ironic.

We could probably work that out for you.
Haha, yeah people would be like (mockingly), “Man…this sound is totally derivative of Pains of Being Pure at Heart.”

Anatomical Analytics

Anatomical Analytics is a project I developed while at University of Amsterdam. It got the attention of UC Santa Barbara and was awarded 3rd Prize in their BlueSky Innovation Competition.

Here is the full announcement and some highlights from my project. You should know that it’s just a skeleton for a creative mockup and that we didn’t actually build the platform.

Description of the idea:

Ubiquitous computing is a model of human-computer interaction in which
small, inexpensive chips are embedded into everyday objects {1}. In contrast to
popular futuristic visions of cyberspace where we immerse our bodies inside
a virtual reality system, ubiquitous computing extends technology beyond
the borders of our screen and works like reverse virtual reality.

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags are commonly used in ubiquitous computing applications. RFID tags are already all around us: they are woven into our passports where they store bits of data about our identity, they
connect products on the shelf to a database which instantly aggregates an
inventory status, and they are used in certain libraries to map a book’s exact
location within the library. My idea for a technology in the year 2020 is to
embed RFID chips inside our body in order to monitor health. Connecting
these chips across a global network will allow us to manage health trends
and lead to new developments in what I will refer to as Anatomical Analytics.

The first step in this technology would be attaching microscopic RFID tags
near a few vital organs. Perhaps this is best achieved by placing small RFID
chips at locations closest to the organ and just beneath the skin; or the RFID
could be administered as an annual pill that over time would organically
disintegrate inside the body and be re-administered each year. The chips
don’t store data, they communicate data. Each tag is a listener that
transmits the current condition of the respective body organ to which it

The data is then collected by a server and illustrated graphically
by an online software application. The software interface would resemble
something like Google Analytics, but for your body. A few examples of how
this type analysis would be extremely helpful in the prevention and the
detection of illness include:

  • The analytics would display signs of high blood pressure putting a
    strain on the kidney and therefore warn of kidney damage.
  • If you are consuming inordinate amounts alcohol the analytics could
    map out a projection to see if you are in jeopardy of developing liver
  • In the case of someone suddenly falling unconscious, before the
    patient arrives at the hospital the doctors could receive a Twitteresque
    status alert and preparing for “A man in his late 50’s suffering
    from heart failure.”

On a macro-sociological level the data is aggregated by Anatomical Analytics
Trends in order to predict local, national and global health trends. Once the
RFID chips are in place it would be fairly easy to monitor an individual’s
location by using RFID readers that could be installed in schools, the
workplace and stores. Combining locative data we could potentially link an
outbreak of E.Coli to a particular fast-food chain; visually segment the
population based on nutritional intake data; or detect and track influenza
activity in The United States.

Of course there are many ethical issues surrounding anatomical analytics,
but I don’t think it is too difficult to imagine developments into this type of
technology over the next 10 or 20 years. Consider other examples of placing
technology in our body:

  • It has been over 50 years ago that the first pacemaker was implanted
    into a human.
  • Recently it has become popular to place RFID technology under the
    skin of pets.
  • Filmmaker Rob Spence has begun plans to install a camera into his
    eye socket. {2}

Furthermore, issues of privacy and Orwellian surveillance would be of
concern to many. Yet again any intrusion of privacy made by Anatomical Analytics is not all that far off from many present-day scenarios. A notable
example of a surveillance tool commonly used in our cars is the electronic
toll RFID tags that, in addition to charging our credit card, transmit locative
data each time we use a toll. The other – perhaps less obvious but more
pervasive – example of a locative surveillance tool is the Internet.

Lawrence Lessig has shown through his research of “code as law” the
Internet is actually one of the most controlling mediums that has ever
existed. And despite the fact that we never know who or when someone
might be looking at the data we leave on the Internet, we sacrifice privacy
for efficiency in our lives.

Kevin Kelly in speaking about the future of ubiquitous computing has
remarked, “Ten years ago the notion that all doors in a building should
contain a computer chip seemed ludicrous, but now there is hardly a hotel
door in the U.S. without a blinking, beeping chip in its lock. These
microscopic chips will be so cheap we’ll throw them away” {3}. My theory is
that in the future, the idea of monitoring human vital organs with RFID chips
won’t seem so ludicrous. The definition of ubiquitous computing will
eventually have to be expanded beyond ‘a network that connects everything
as it will truly be ‘a network that connects everything inside everyone’.


  • {1} Wikipedia, “Ubiquitous Computing” (accessed January 27, 2009).
  • {2} (accessed January 25, 2009).
  • {3} Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy (San Diego: Viking, 1998), pg. 10.

Imaginative Realization, Embodiment, or Illustration of the Idea:

Below I’ve included two screenshots that represent hypothetical illustrations
of Anatomical Analytics (higher resolution versions of these images have
also been submitted). The following is a description of the Anatomical
Analytics and Anatomical Analytics Trends:

I. The Anatomical Analytics interface is a personal report detailing up-to date
information about an individual’s body condition. Anatomical Analytics
offers a wide-range of services that help prevent illness and diagnose


II. The Anatomical Analytics Trends interface is an aggregator of the data
collected from the personal edition of Anatomical Analytics shown above.
The interface below details potential influenza outbreaks in the United States.

Anatomical Analytics

Alexander Galloway’s Protocol: An Argument Summary

alexander galloway protocolIn Protocol Alexander Galloway argues that the Internet is not the “free-for-all of information” that many people perceive it to be, rather it is a controlled network.

As Eugene Thacker outlines in the book’s forward, “Information does flow, but in a highly regulated manner.” By examining the network not as a metaphor, or as a theory, but as a technical diagram by which digital data is managed, Galloway illustrates how control can exist after decentralization.

“This book is about a diagram, a technology, and a management style”, explains Galloway.

The diagram is the distributed network, the technology is the digital computer and the management style is the protocol. These three come together to define the “computerized information management” system that is the Internet.

Galloway reminds us that “Protocol is a solution to the problem of hierarchy.” It is how a seemingly “out of control” technology can “function so flawlessly”. It is that “massive control apparatus that guides distributed networks, creates cultural objects, and engenders life forms”. In other words, as Galloway emphasizes, Protocol is how control exists after decentralization.

Continue reading “Alexander Galloway’s Protocol: An Argument Summary”