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 Keller Williams

“I’m a music lover first, musician second, and songwriter third”, Keller Williams admits. He pauses for a moment continues, “Yeah, that statement says it pretty clean and clear, I’m in it for the love of music, and for love of performing the music I love, and songwriting that’s next.”

With each bar of music Williams has written, you can feel his sincerity and gratitude for having the opportunity to live his dream as a professional musician. “Starting out, the object was to play music and make a living no matter what, and once I started to do that I started to really appreciate that”, he tells me. Later explaining that his inclination to play solo shows serendipitously came from the fact that earlier in his career it was more cost effective “rather than splitting $150 four ways”. Now almost twenty years later, Wiliams has led a prolific: including 16 albums, a variety of side-projects, and the musical curiosity to navigate unfamiliar genres (distant from his bluegrass roots) such as like techno and children’s music.

In regard to songwriting he tells me, “I’m lucky for the ability to come up with these songs that some people like, but at the same time it’s more about performing.” Indeed, Williams is probably best known for his live shows. At a Keller Williams show he almost always performs solo, playing half a dozen instruments one after another and looping these sounds, all of which consummate in a wonderfully orchestrated live rendition of the original album recording.

A common thread throughout all of Williams’ music is his desire to write songs that not only entertain his audience, but can simultaneously amuse himself: a song like “Bob Rules” hilariously imagines what it might feel like to be a contestant on The Price Is Right. And then there’s “Doobie in My Pocket” – a song about boarding a plane with the realization that you may have left marijuana in your suitcase (along with the paranoid assumption that the TSA are onto you!). “You’ve got to pay attention, or you’ll miss the punch line”, Williams warns his audience prior to performing “Doobie in My Pocket” live for the first time.

At a crowded mid-town diner in New York City, Williams and I spent a long lunch discussing his inspiration for writing songs, as well as the stories behind some of his fan’s favorite song such as “Kidney in a Cooler” and the enigmatic “Multisylabic”.

When I inquired about the meaning of some of the words in “Multisylabic”, Williams veers from his train of thought and begins recounting the lyrics to me from across the table, “Multisyllabic, Sans-linguistic pro-fantastic, Slyly systematic…”. Before diving into the story, Williams pauses to sip his coffee and starts chuckling, “Remember what I said in the beginning about songwriting? So… I’m probably a lyricist fourth.”

What is your process for writing a song?

A lot of my songwriting stems from the chorus. I start with a chorus and then once I have the chorus the verses fall into place. And then if I get lucky, a bridge falls into place.

Do you write at certain times?

Before I had kids, I’d spent three or four weeks on tour and come back with 2 weeks off. And the first week I’d just get used to being off the road and decompressing, and then the second week is when the boredom kicks in, it’s like a kid. You get used to the routine of being on the road.

So that second week, that’s when the bulk of my creative juices start flowing. But after I started to have kids there was less and less boredom time. All the time was being focused on them, and then when they would go to sleep I’d have my creative time. Or sometimes I’d get up at 5:30 and 6 in the morning.

Where does inspiration come from?

Sometimes songwriting stems from conversation with really interesting intelligent people that I have in my life, and I might stop and say, “Hey can I have that? Can I use that?” hopefully they say yes – sometimes they say OK but you’ve got to cut me in on it. So maybe I’ll give “executive producer” credit.

Is there a song you’re thinking of in particular?

My friend Cam, he was on the management team, and we gave our selves the writing assignment of trying to come up with super intricate words, that are really smart intelligent words, that are not in my personal vocabulary, but yet trying to create a song with it, and not necessarily have it mean something. What we came up with a song called “Multisyllabic” [Dream].

Do you find yourself gravitating toward a writing formula?

We’ll it’s almost impossible to write something that hasn’t been written before, although we all strive for that, we strive to write something that lasts longer than we do. And that’s kind of my ultimate goal too.

I can’t really deny the formula I came with as far, chorus, verse, chorus, jam section bridge, verse, chorus. It’s hard to stray away from something like that.

What I have noticed is that the older I get, I give myself more writing assignments, which push me creatively.

What do you mean by “writing assignments”?

I give myself writing assignments, for example: ‘write a bluegrass science fiction song.’ I’ve never tried to do that before, it’s not something that totally hasn’t been done before, but it’s something I’ve never done before.

Can you give examples of songs where you may have strayed from writing such positive songs?

Once I tried to step aside from all this good that is happening to me try to focus on something that is a different emotion – so I wrote about an ear infection. And that was real-time writing – during the ear infection. It’s a real physical kind of pain. That song was written in the 4th hour after taking my painkillers [when all the pain comes back].

I’ve never gone political, but I came up with this one song kind to poke fun at Rush Limbaugh – I guess there was a time when he was on the news saying “I Hope You Fail” talking directly at Obama, so I took his words and spun them around, and wrote a song with his words about him, with the focus being on free speech, and how Rush is the alpha male of free speech and able to say almost anything he wants and the country thrives on that and gets off on it.

And so whether you agree with him or not, it’s here to stay because he’s totally allowed to do that. And this song was kind of the same thing, taking his mentality, not necessarily his right wing political views, but just free speech in general and using my right of free speech to make fun of Rush Limbaugh. So that’s kind of my songwriting,

I wonder about “Odd”. I wonder if it has to do with this new writing regiment you talked about, because I feel like the songs at this period in your life are become more serious, and less comedic.

Which in a way, is odd.

Exactly, is that why you named the album “Odd”?

Yeah if you listen to my music I go from these happy go lyrics that I usually have, and then you hear this and it’s definitely odd, that’s kind of where the concept came from. We tossed around words like “Wack”. Like, ‘This whole record is “Wack!”

“Odd” works much better than “Wack”

Yeah I agree. Also I think the album artwork kind of scares people, it’s a very Meatloaf 80’s metal type of imagery. Which is what I was going for: the Fabio, black light Spencer’s Gifts thing. I was going for funny – the only way I can have abs and big monster pecks is to draw them in.

Much of your live show is solo with instruments looping, so when you’re writing songs I wonder if you’re playing with loops at the beginning of the writing process?

No, writing is just on a guitar, or in a notebook. The looping is pretty much spontaneous, and on stage.

The albums are definitely studio, we’re actually in the studio playing the instruments, playing to a click track. After the guitar track, put in a bass line, play it all the way through, there’s no looping when we do it live, I like to use humans.

Who is the first person you share a new song with?

My wife, Emily.

She’s your producer?

I definitely value her opinion, and there’s some stuff that I know that she won’t like and I might not show her those, because I know that I like it, and so whenever I write something new, whether it’s ready or not, I’m going to play it at the next show. I’m so excited to have new material that I definitely don’t wait around until it’s perfected. And she definitely has a problem with that. She wants me to work on stuff – sometimes I won’t have the words fully memorized. But my way of thinking is that it’s my song, it’s my way of thinking is that it’s my song… it’s the first time I’m playing it, I can make up words as I go along too. [laughs]

But I value her opinion. I usually run everything by her, and she gives me writing assignments too. I have a fun times twisting those writing assignments around and having fun with that.

And she knows when there hasn’t been a song written for a while!

She takes some of the stuff that I say too, she’ll point out little sayings that I say and stop me. She might say, “Oh that would make a great kids song”

When I posted on Facebook that I’d be interviewing you about songwriting today, I received an overwhelming number of replies from your fans. So, I’d like to ask you about a two songs in particular that kept coming up.

My fans are the best. Sure.

“PORTAPOTTY”. Did you ever fall in love with the girl in the Porta-potty line?

I think in general there’s been a lot of Porta-potty sightings, I did Grateful Dead shows, and Phish shows from 1987 until around ‘95. At the time I was in my early twenties and going to a lot of shows, making as much money as I can to buy a bunch of tickets and going out for 2 weeks with The Dead.

In the late 80s, up until 1990, they were letting people camp in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows. They would do like 3 nights in one venue and then a day off, and in that day off people would leave that parking lot and go to the next parking lot where the next show was. And you could stay there for three days. And of course it turned into this whole village. Going into the show was the last thing on some people’s minds. So this is where I was when I wrote Port-a-potty.

You’re curious if it’s true? It wasn’t one particular girl, but a type of girl that you see.

Kidney in the Cooler, is it true?

100% true. On the way down to Deep Ellum, a section of Dallas, we broke down in Perry, Oklahoma and we got towed.

That line about “Little America”? That came when we were driving through Wyoming: on these big billboards we kept reading: “Little America! 100 miles! Hot Dogs! Swimming Pools!”, and then “80 miles!”, “20 miles!”

So you eventually made it to “Little America”, and what was it?

Little America was this giant oasis of a truck stop in the middle of the Wyoming wide open. Giant multi-acre hotels, showers, and a 24 hour auto-repair garage. And that’s what got us! We had a leaking radiator at the time and thought, “ok we’ll just go get this fixed we’ve got a day or two to kill.” And that took a whole 28 hours, which put us off schedule a day.

So we’re driving south, and two days later we break down in Oklahoma. They couldn’t work on our car because there was a woman delivering a kidney who’s car had broke down as well. She had this kidney in a Playmate cooler and was on her way to Oklahoma City. So they all had to work on her car first. We stayed in that town for three days!

Kidney in a cooler? You can’t make that stuff up.

The Sound of Songwriting: with Sherrie Dupree & Stacey Dupree of Eisley

Poet Rainer Marie Rilke gives a young poet the following piece of writing advice: “There is only one way: Go within. Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.”

This is how Eisley’s songs feel – there’s a fresh-faced sincerity in Stacey and Sherrie’s approach to weighty topics like love and loss – as if they are describing the world being seen for the first time.

For example, on the track “Just Like We Do” where Stacey asks her first boyfriend, “Did you know that people love each other?” Other times there are moments of dark discovery – most evident on their second album “Combinations” – where Stacey’s youthful voice sings a verse of “empty caskets” and “my parent’s death” on “Many Funerals”. Then followed by the track “Invasion” where a delicate vocal harmony carries spiteful stares at death with the words, “And it’s you that would take the breathe from my throat / You that will take the cherished people that I hold.”

When Stacey was growing up she was intrigued by her older sisters – Sherrie and Chauntelle Dupree – playing music around the house. She explains, “At the time I was eight and they were in their early teens so at first they were like, ‘Go away’. But I would sit at the door and listen under the crack and try to sing along to the harmonies and stuff.” Stacey began writing songs shortly after, eventually proving she was a “worthy” member to join the band.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the Dupree sisters – along with their brother Weston and their cousin Garron – have been dedicated to writing and performing as Eisley. “It’s pretty much our full-time job – [although] we occasionally have things on the side, like I do illustrations and tattoos for our fans,” Sherrie tells me. “Yes, but when we’re not on tour we write constantly. There are easily hundreds of Eisley songs we’ve written that haven’t made it onto any of our albums,” Stacey adds.

I like to think that Eisley didn’t have to “pretend” to resurrect childhood memories – as Rilke offers with his advice – because I imagine that they may have actually been seeing and experiencing the world for the first time when they wrote many of Eisley’s songs. While Rilke’s provides a valuable tool for writers – if occasionally Eisley’s songs are reminiscent of a fifteen-year old Jenny Lewis, that’s because many of the songs were written when Stacey and Sherrie were actually teenagers and listening to a healthy amount of Bob Dylan, Rilo Kiley, and The Decemberists.

I sat down with Stacey and Sherrie Dupree down at SXSW this year – just hours before they would headline PASTE’s 2011 SXSW Showcase – to discuss their songwriting process, and some songs from their new album “The Valley.”

Can you tell me about the process for writing an Eisley song?

Sherrie: “It kind of depends on the song. Stacy and I write. We used to write a lot together, but I think as we got older we developed our own unique styles and became more individualistic.”

Stacy: “Individualistic and less dependant on each other.”

Sherrie: “We come to each other for perspective I guess. But we don’t write so much together in one room. Like we used to just fiddle around. We haven’t actually tried that in a long time.

We’ll complete the song, or have a rough sketch of the song and bring it into practice. We demo on GarageBand, and show it to the whole band if we’re writing for a record. And then we have everyone kind of pick through their favorites. Everyone kind of weighs in and writes their own parts and shapes the overall Eisley experience.”(laughs)

How much of it is done in GarageBand? Do you scope out all the drums and each of the parts?

Stacy: “I get more into producer mode when I’m in [GarageBand]. It can get kind of ridiculous. Ridiculous and meticulous.”

Sherrie: “I’m not as particular. It helps to write to a drum loop or a beat, because it helps me to get a feel for the song.”

Stacy: “I always try to get Weston [Eisley’s drummer] to write beats but he’s lazy and won’t write me beats. So I have to rely on the GarageBand ones.”

Wait, so most Eisley songs are written on the same one-hundred or so pre-programmed drum loops that everyone has built into their copy of GarageBand?

Sherrie: “Yup. Because when you’re writing a song you need to give it a backbone. And from there you can take [the song] and give it to the drummer. Weston is a fairly creative drummer, and he totally shifts the song into something cooler than what you thought it would be.”

So there is some flexibility between your original composition and what ends up on an album?

Sherrie: “Yeah, we’re very flexible taking a song away from what we thought it would be. [laughs]”

What was that laugh for?

Sherrie: “I’m just laughing because we’ve definitely progressed into being more flexible and it wasn’t always like that. I know that on the first couple records I would get more like… Stacey what’s the term? [Stacey doesn’t answer, but makes a silly face]. Well OK, we use the term ‘butt-hurt’. Just like more sensitive when someone would have ideas or suggest something about a song. It’s something you have to grow into… because you want to be like, ‘No! That’s my part!’”

Do you ever fight over it?

Stacey: “Yeah yeah! She’s…” [gets all excited and loud for a second]

Wait remember this is about songwriting!

Stacey: “[pauses] Not really about songwriting. But especially in the studio. There’s tension because there’s so many people trying to get there opinions in. ‘I think this song’s better,’ and “No, I think this song’s better.’”

Sherrie: “If there is something that all of us are battling on – we isn’t that often – it turns out that most of the time we have the same goals. Which is probably because we’re related and grew up in the same house. So I ultimately trust her, if she wrote the song.”

Stacy: “And vice versa, in the end I have to trust Sherrie if it’s a song she wrote.”

Was there ever a song that you wrote and though, “This is too personal for Eisley”?

Sherrie: “I’m kind of an open book with my songs and my personal life. I really am and I’ve always been like that. Stacey’s a little different – wouldn’t you say?”

Stacy: “Well, I guess I’m not scared to present them. But I’m totally fine if the band feels that [one of my songs] is not good for an Eisley record. So I just try to throw everything in there and then whatever gets tossed back is fine.”

Sherrie: “It helps having two songwriters, because then we have double the material to pick from. All our records will have anywhere between 30, 35, 40 songs per record. And that’s a lot of material. But if we have everyone in the band listening, and if everyone’s favorites end up being a pretty similar grouping then that helps boil it down.”

How many hours a week do you put into writing for Eisley?

Stacey: “Well, if we’re touring we don’t usually write on tour. We take breaks.”

Sherrie: “I haven’t written anything in about a year. We just take it easy and get around to it whenever the time comes.”

So you don’t feel forced to write? Like, “I’ve got to write a song today”

Stacey: “No! No way. That would be so tiring. It just comes and goes. There’s an ebb and flow.”

Sherrie: “Stacey, what’s that you say about writing? [directing her question to Stacy] It’s like a little pet or something?”

Stacey: “Yeah, writing is like a pet. It comes and goes and you just have to keep your eye on it. But eventually you know it’s going to come back to you.”

I wonder why people write songs?

Sherrie: “We’re probably just all narcissists.” [laughs]

“No, but a lot of people say that about musicians – it’s just that world. When we started doing it we didn’t ever go [in a snarky voice], ‘Let’s be in a band! This is going to be so cool.’ It’s just we started doing this because we love music, we had a passion for music, we loved singing, and we loved doing it. It kind of just developed naturally. It was something that we all just loved.”

Is there any favorite song you have on the new album?

Stacey: “What a hard question – there’s so many that I love.”

Sherrie: “I like playing ‘Sad.’”

Stacey: “Yes, playing ‘Sad’ is really fun.”

Sherrie: “I also like playing ‘Ambulance.’ There’s not a lot of songs that I don’t have to constantly need to concentrate on singing.“

Stacey: “You just like rocking out. I see you rocking out on that song.”

Sherrie: “I do! I just get to play the guitar really loud.”

Do you know what all of each other’s songs are about?

Sherrie: “I’d say no, there are songs of [Stacey’s] that after 6 years I have no idea what they are about.”

Does it say who writes which songs on your albums?

Sherrie: “It does on the new record. Above each of the songs it has the name of who wrote it – because everyone is always asking. If you can tell our voices apart, then typically whoever is singing the main vocal wrote the song.“

Sometimes it’s really difficult to tell your voices apart – they blend really well.

Sherrie: “Yeah it’s even hard for me.”

Stacey: “I have the nasally voice, and Stacy has the sultry voice.”

So now I’m going to name a few song – and get your reaction.

Sherrie: “Our songs right?”

Wow you really are a narcissist! Yes ok, your songs.

Sherrie: “Oh no!” [laughs]

10 Cent Blues
Sherrie: “That’s honestly one of the ones that I’m also like, ‘What’s happening.’ Yeah what’s it about? [directing the question to Stacy].”

Stacey: “Well it’s not a story from real life. I mean, it’s not one girl in particular – just about jealousy. Getting into my Texas vibe. [laughs] It’s kind of sassy I guess, like ‘Girls will be jealous’, you know?”

Sherrie: “It’s just a fictional fairytale. I had the original beat for it, and it’s just kind of bouncy and silly. Which inspired this weird journey.”

Where did the idea for come from for the lyrics of at the beginning of the song: “Out one day, with you Hallelujah / We found a wood with Trolly’s on wheels / Rolling all around the hills / Hallelujah”?

Sherrie: “I was probably just writing some fantasy novel. I don’t remember, it was so long ago. Sometimes when I write I kind of just like the way that things sound, or I just get a vision in my head that I put into words.”

I think the word Hallelujah is an interesting word. Whenever I hear that word in a song it sticks out in a memorable way.

Stacey: “Yeah, we’ve used it twice (in two different Eisley songs)”

Sherrie: “Sure, it’s very jubilant. Hallelujah! I’m happy!”

Sometimes there’s this really poignant imagery like in the song “One day I slowly floated away” there’s the line, “All the war horses wore rubber bands / to hide their hooves from sinking sand”.

Sherrie: “I was listening to a lot of The Decemberists when I wrote that song. Can you tell?”

No I never noticed a direct connection with the lyrics from [“One Day I Slowly Floated Away”] and Colin Meloy’s lyrics.

Sherrie: “I’ve talked to him before through email. He’s an English major, and he’s lyrics are really neat. I love whimsical poetry that he uses. So that kind of inspired that song. It’s a wartime song about some who’s love is at battle.”

Is there a place that you go in your head to draw these ideas?

Stacey: “Yeah it’s very visual, and you have to go there in you head. I don’t even know what that lyric means, but I was thinking of some kind of device to keep horses from sinking and I thought of rubber bands.”

Where were you when you wrote the song “The Valley”?

Sherrie: “That was one of the first songs on the record. I was probably living at home still recording it on GarageBand.”

What musical ambitious do you have in regard to Eisley and songwriting?

Sherrie: “I would love to write, not really a concept record, but a completely fictional children’s storybook and put it all to music and have the whole thing flow. Abbey Road is like that, all the different musical styles go with whatever is happening with the lyrics. That would be such a fun project.”

Stacy: “Yes, I love that idea.”

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 James Vincent McMorrow

The Sound of Songwriting: With James Vincent McMorrow (SXSW Edition)

James Vincent McMorrow’s debut album “Early in the Morning” was entirely self-recorded during a period of five month off the Irish coast. According to McMorrow, he does his best writing in situations where he is cut off from the outside world. 

McMorrow describes songwriting as if it was a zen meditation: “It’s probably quite like sculpting, you have a chisel, you know what’s waiting for you inside the stone, all that’s left is to chip away the pieces and reveal it.”

During this process he admits that he can be overly protective about the creative process: he believes that a song must be one-hundred percent complete before sharing it with anyone. In our conversation McMorrow explained this process in detail, “I like the idea of something being yours, and people either liking it or not. If I show my music before it’s done, or let people into the process it tends to change the outcome. And I don’t like that notion.”

 ‘Early in the Morning’ is a balance of light and dark songs. The opening track ‘If I Had A Boat’ (with its five part falsetto harmonies and soft catchy chorus) being on the lighter. McMorrow elaborates, “I always knew when I wrote that song that it would open the album. The lyric is very much about transition, about change. And so out of that transition comes the darker side of the album, “This Old Dark Machine” (a song about an automobile accident that McMorrow uses to symbol a worn relationship) and “From the Woods” (a song marked by McMorrow’s blood curdling howl. At the climax his voice erupts like a gunshot, “From the woods! From the wood! They are coming from the wood!”).

I found McMorrow wandering the Convention Center at this year’s SXSW conference. It was St. Patrick’s day, and just moments after McMorrow had finished his set on the KCRW Radio Day Stage (his first SXSW performance ever). After some searching we were able to find a relatively quiet nook and chat a bit about songwriting:

Can you tell me a little bit about how you start writing a song?

It’s usually just the seed of an idea. I’m not a linear songwriter. I sit down with a guitar and if I hear something I sort of follow it. I tend to have a small idea that I repeat over and over again to myself and I put it aside. Then if I’m still thinking about it and if it’s worth looking into I’ll come back to it. Everything comes together in such a fragmented way for me. And it takes a little while to piece it all together. It’s slightly mind bending – you have to take pieces from everywhere and trust that it comes together.

It sounds like you have a batch of verses lying around, and a separate batch of choruses, and then you piece them together like a puzzle?

It sort of happens a different way every time. It’s the same process, but sometimes I might have a verse from something else that I just realize is not working and suddenly it occurs to me that it works for something else. Sometimes I can see the whole thing, but that’s a rarity.

Is there a song that you can think of where it really came together all at once?

‘Down the Burning Ropes’ is the only thing I’ve ever written that I sat down and did start to finish. I wrote the lyrics really quickly, on just a scoff of paper. Which is probably why it’s a simplistic song on the face of it. It’s very much just driven by just three or four chords and quite repetitious. I kind of just wrote a verse-chorus-verse and then I had my middle section. It’s the one and only time, and I remember later after I wrote it, I sat down with my guitar and though, ‘Ok let’s do this again.’ [shakes head and sighs] …and it never did happen again.

Who is the first person you will show a new song? Is there someone in particular you trust with that responsibility?

No, I don’t trust anybody. [laughs] I don’t play anything for anybody, until it’s at a level where it’s worthy of being heard. Because of the nature of how I write, sometimes I can be really sure something is right, and then the next day realize I’m completely wrong. And that’s happened to me too many times.

When I was learning how to to write, I’d come up with an idea and I’d be incredibly excited about it and I’d play it for somebody – a friend, or parent or [anyone] – and then the next day I’d come back to it and realize I didn’t like it. And I’d change it again, and some people start going, “I really like what you did there”. Your mind gets a little bit cloudy [shakes head in confusion]. That’s why I make music [the way I do] – because at the end of the day once something is finished in my mind it’s finished. And if people like it then they like it, if they don’t that’s fine, whatever. But there’s none of that element of, ‘I could have done this differently.’

Is that why you’re a solo artist? Because you can’t get along with other people and their opinions?

To be frankly honest, yeah. The reason I never played in bands was because the ideas were slightly more interesting than the physical act of playing in a band. A lot of musicians have other ideas, of course – a band’s supposed to be a democracy, but I don’t work well in a democracy. 

It’s not that I have a dictatorial drive to go in one direction, it’s just that every time I’ve ever played in a band there’s a lot of sitting around and talking about stuff. It would just go a different direction. I’d try to make suggestions and it was a frustrating process. It comes back to again, this notion that if it’s just me, I can live and die by it, I’ll stand by it to the end. But if there’s somebody else involved then it’s not quite what you want it to be, then it’s just a frustrating thing.

But it can also be frustrating writing only by yourself? You have no one else to rely on.

I mean, what are the odds of finding one other like-minded soul in the world, let alone three or four to make a band. So I’m completely in awe of bands. And that’s why I listen to bands, perhaps, far more than I listen to singer-songwriters or solo artists.

Like The National, I just saw them in December, and watching these musicians in sync with each other making the sounds they made. It’s a rare thing.

I’m going to name a few of your songs and if you can give me your first reaction.

We Don’t Eat

It was an idea that I had for a while. It was quite strummy and slow. Something in the middle of the album. It’s kick-starts and it goes. Like, sonically I had an idea for a song to just kick and move along the whole time.

There’s this great line in ‘We Don’t Eat’: ‘We Don’t Eat Until Our Father’s At the Table’

Yeah, that’s just something I had written in a notebook. And sort of skitted out one day. I was playing the piano and I just sang it and it made sense. What appealed to me about that particular phrase was that if I play it slower, with the guitar, it almost sort of takes on this very sort of countryish feel. You can play it pretty slow. But then playing the way it is on the record it’s a different thing, and I just liked the way it could flow in any given direction.

In “This Old Dark Machine,” there’s this lyric, “If they should touch the hem of your dress.” How does that fit into what you’re trying to say with the song?

The lyrics are sort of a vague and annoying thing to me. I don’t have a sort of set agenda or a plan when I’m writing a song. I tend to have the first lyric and that guides me. So I had the first lyric ‘Spring It Came Upon Us / Every Insect filled the air.’ I write lyrics the same way I write music, very sort of abstract and out of context, and then I pull it all together.

 It’s sounds kind of ridiculous to say that I don’t really understand the lyrics that I write, but I don’t really examine them so hard. I look back at what I’ve done and I see what I’m saying, I think, but I’m never 100% sure. That lyric could mean innumerable things.”

I don’t think you’re the only songwriter that does that. I think sometimes we look really deep into what certain lyrics mean. It’s kind of interesting to see your thought process.

And I think that’s maybe the point as well. I kind of like when people have opinions on songs. And I certainly would never ever give someone what a song was about, if I knew, because I think that sort of defeats the purpose.

My favorite songs are the ones that constantly keep me wondering. I don’t understand my favorite music at all. And I think that’s a good thing.

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”