One of the things I always ask writers to do here is describe their ideal writing environment, where they would be the most productive. Most mention someplace scenic, whether it’s the water, the woods, or high above a landscape looking down. Whatever it is, it’s a place of beauty.
Then there’s Hutch Harris of The Thermals, the anti-hero of the picturesque writing environment. Whatever is in front of him, it’s probably too much. He doesn’t want the sea, the trees, a gazebo, or a bay window. He wants nothing. Just white walls. Anything else is a distraction. That’s why I told him that if he ever does time, he could write The Great American Novel. Or if he ever becomes a monk, that would also work.
And it certainly fits the oeuvre of his writing process that Harris wants nothing to do with fancy pens or monogrammed notebooks. No moleskin journals for this guy. In Harris’ view, the more primitive, the better, which is why he stocks up on hotel ball point pens and writes on blank white paper. He used this writing process for The Thermals release this month, Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars).
So read my interview with Hutch Harris. You learn how hiking helps him write, why he likes coffee when he composes, what he calls “the clincher” in a Thermals song—and more about his monastic writing process.
Growing up, what was your first experience as a writer?
I feel like I’ve always been writing. Starting when I was about ten, I was really into comic books. I loved writing and drawing comic books. For a while, that’s what I wanted to do.
So how did that morph into songwriting?
I got a guitar when I was fifteen, and that was the only thing I wanted to do after that. I graduated high school in 93, around the time Nevermind came out. So I went from playing Led Zeppelin to learning Nirvana. I wasn’t really good at playing guitar, so I stopped learning other songs because they were too hard, and I started writing my own.
Is there a link between your creative process as a visual artist and your creative process as a writer?
Staying creative in any other form than what you usually do is good for you. It keeps the juices flowing. A lot of friends I have in music also try other visual arts or other styles of writing, just because they like making stuff. It’s healthy for your creativity.
Who are your literary inspirations?
Kurt Vonnegut was a huge influence for me, as a reader and a writer. It’s probably a cliché, but Hunter S. Thompson—his style was very lyrical and stream-of-consciousness. There were times that a lot of lyrics I wrote were pulled from some of the same things he would say or ideas he would write about, like when he wrote about drugs and politics.
You mention Vonnegut. How do you think he influences you stylistically?
I think the trippy way he thought, the way he blended science fiction and morality. That had a big influence on me. And the fact that something could be smart and funny without being stiff. And also psychedelic.
Do you ever read any poetry? I find that a lot of songwriters read poetry.
I don’t read that much poetry. I like Bukowski and Leonard Cohen, though. The poetry I like doesn’t rhyme and is really dark and cynical. Most of the reading I do of stuff that came out after 1980 is like rock biographies. Laughs. But as far as fiction, the books I like were written between 1945 and 1980.
Talk to me about the physical act of your writing process.
I almost always start with the music. Sometimes in the past I’ve pulled from poems I’ve written and made them into a song, but usually what I do is write the chords on guitar first. Other times I have a melody in mind that will come quickly, but usually I’m thinking more about the rhythm of the words, like where syllables and words are going to fit in the song, as opposed to where the melody is. I like the lyrics to be tight.
So I’ll write the music on guitar and then the lyrics. The melody finds itself—once the lyrics fit, the melody is just there when I sing it.
So when you revise those lyrics, how do you make them, as you say, tight?
It’s about paying attention. You know what’s not working right away. If I get to one lyric and I cringe, I know something’s wrong. It’s easy to get sick of a lyric after a couple of years, but if I’m already sick of it after a couple of days, I know I have to revise. A lot of times, I’ll have a song in my head for days. I’ll sing it in the shower, whenever I am involved in my daily routine. I keep it in my head, running through the different words and phrases. It helps to be thinking about the song all the time.
Also, physically rewriting the song helps a lot. Even if I am only going to change one line, I go back and cross a lot of stuff out. My first drafts are a mess. I have whole pages where everything is crossed out except for one or two lines. Rewriting the whole song helps the writing process stay fresh.
You mentioned paper. Is that your preferred method of composition? Do you start with paper then move to computer?
It only moves to computer when I have to type out the lyrics for the liner notes. I keep a journal on the computer, but if I’m writing poetry, I do that on an old typewriter, and then lyrics are on paper.
For a while, I was really specific—I had to have a fine tip black ink pen. But then I got into this way of thinking that the more crude the material, the better, like blank white paper and a shitty ball point pen from a hotel room. That’s been my preferred method for three or four years. I just thought that I was getting too precious about the physical act and the tools I was using. I used to have a nice moleskin book and a nice hardback journal, and I was keeping it really neat. And always using a fine tip pen. Now, all I have are stacks and stacks of white paper.
That’s very monastic. It sounds like you keep the process as simple and as pure as possible.
Totally. It shouldn’t be about the tools. Everything is coming out of your head, so it shouldn’t matter. I feel the same way for gear—you’re not going to write a better song on a $2000 guitar than you would on a $75 one. Odds are you may write something much better on a piece of crap.
It sounds like you want to keep the technology—along with Facebook and Twitter—away form the creative part.
Yeah, I am already so addicted to my iPhone and laptop and email that I feel like so much of my day is spent staring at a screen. It’s nice to keep things separate.
What about when you are outside your house and suddenly get inspiration? A lot of the songwriters I talk to use their iPhone to record those moments.
A lot of those ideas are cool, but so often the small things like words and phrases seem important in the moment, but they don’t work in a song. I’ve been inspired when I've been out, but something that’s really important will stick in my head. I am not one to keep track of what inspires me.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you carve out time or wait to be inspired?
Both. You can’t force it, but at the same time if you don’t set that time, you won’t do it. A lot of times someone will sit down and say they can’t think of anything, but the longer they go without writing, the time that it takes to get into an idea gets longer and longer. Usually when I sit down and write, the first pass is terrible, and then after an hour and I’ve crossed out everything I’ve written, I finally get to something I do like. I have to set aside that time so that I can get through sucking or through whatever shitty ideas I have. I need to take the time to did through those ideas to the good ones, which are farther down.
You mentioned that you have to be alone when you write. Besides the shitty paper and shitty pen, is there anything you must have with you to be productive?
Coffee is important. I am already kind of hyper, but drinking too much will make me fucking insane. What happens is that I start writing a lot faster, so I am able to get through the junk at the top of my head quicker and get to the good ideas faster.
But I am really into sensory deprivation. I go into my bedroom, where there is nothing except a couple of paintings. It’s just a bed and white walls. It’s a great place to think. I don’t want to see anything, and I definitely don’t want to see any words.
It sounds like if you ever do prison time, you’ll be a heck of writer. You are describing a prison cell!
Laughs. Yeah, I’ll write a novel!
Are you a late night writer?
Either late night or early morning. So much has come late at night. My brain really starts waking up around 8 or 9 at night, so a lot of the times around midnight I come up with good ideas.
But sometimes I’ll get up early and exercise. There’s a big park near where I live in Portland, near Mount Tabor, and it’s a five mile walk up and back. A lot of mornings I get up and take that walk. Climbing the mountains really opens up a lot of creativity, and I’ll think of tunes or lyrics while I am hiking. When I come home, I am ready to write.
Note: Harris is on to something. See this study about the creative benefits of interacting with nature.
There's a lot of research about how exercise has an immediate--as in same day--effect on creativity and higher order thinking.
When you have writer’s block, what do you do?
I don’t write. That’s just miserable for me. But sometimes having a tight deadline forces me to write. We'll be in the studio and I’ll just hate what I've written, so I go home and write a completely new set of lyrics. But I have to be careful that it doesn’t sound too forced.
Back to the image of your lyric sheets filled with crossouts and writing everywhere. Some of what you describe sounds like freewriting. Is that what you do?
No, but I just wrote that down—freewriting. I don’t do it, but I think it would work for me well.
Note: after our conversation, I sent this essay on freewriting to Harris, called “Shitty First Drafts.”
How do you know when a song is done?
A lot of our songs are built in standard ways, with verses, bridges, and choruses. But there’s always a climax, where I say something that’s not anywhere else in the song. I called it “the clincher” for a while, because it’s the line that tells you what the song is about, no matter how vague the rest of the lyrics are. Almost every time I write the song, that part gets rewritten. Often I can’t get that line when I just start writing the song. It always comes later. Once that line has been written, I know it’s finished.