Remember all those physics majors in college who spent their time holed up in labs? If they are anything like Wes Miles, the songwriter for Ra Ra Riot, they might very well be writing songs as well as working with spectrometers. That's not to say that Miles (a physics major and 2006 graduate of Syracuse University) was writing music when he should have been working with mass and magnets; instead, it's pretty clear that being a physics major has made Miles a better songwriter. This is not the first time a songwriter has told me that, as you'll read, and it's something that I find fascinating. It's easy to see the link between, say, writing lyrics and reading literature, but I'm intrigued by the link between music and mathematics.
So read my interview with Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot. You'll learn more about how being a physics major helps him as a songwriter, how many of his lyrics start as pure gibberish, and why he likes Wuthering Heights.
How did you get your start as a writer?
The first time I ever wrote a song was in middle school. I took a creative writing class in high school, but I realized that I wanted to be a songwriter. I've been writing songs for much longer. But I did like writing poetry on my own as a kid.
You were a physics major in college. A few weeks ago I interviewed Charles Kipps, who was a chemistry major in college, and he talked about why science and math majors make good songwriters. He said, "Music is mathematical with things like time signatures it's always a mathematical process, and to be a good musician you must have a good sense of time, which is essentially an equation written in note form." Do you think this is true?
For me, I think it's more about the fact that the things I like about music are also the things I like about physics. The way that you get to use your imagination in physics is really inspiring to me. Physics can get very fantasy-like, and it's also easy to see that in music.
Who are your literary inspirations as a songwriter?
One of my favorite books that's inspired my lyrics is To Kill a Mockingbird. I also like a few Japanese authors like Murakami and Mishima. But the things I find most often inspiring are probably older books by Kafka and Chekhov. I never finished Wuthering Heights, but I need to finish it. I love the language in that book.
Do you find the writing styles of those authors inspire your lyrics?
It depends. Like for To Kill a Mockingbird, it was much more the theme and story arc that inspired me. But with Wuthering Heights, it was the language. In "Orchard," the title track from our new album, the lyrics were inspired by a Chekhov story called "The Black Monk."
Describe your writing process for me.
It's different for me every time, because being in a band with five other musicians who also like to write is a challenge. Sometimes, I may be the last person in the band to work on a song because there might already be so much there with regards to melodic ideas. If that happens, I'll start writing lyrics from what they give me.
But if I am writing by myself, I'll sing gibberish or some words that are stuck in my head along with a melody I am trying to write. A lot of times it stays like that and then I'll extrapolate from there until I get a full set of lyrics.
That sounds like the El Blurto voice that Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin told me that he used with Glenn Frey. They would play the guitar and sing nonsense words and sounds until something real came out. They named that voice El Blurto.
Yeah, a lot of time that happens with me. On the first album John, our drummer, and I wrote the lyrics together. We had this thing where we'd riff on a song and just make these phonetic sounds that I thought made sense or just sounded good. He would then interpret what I said into words. So a lot of our songs come from interpreting gibberish.
That's El Blurto!
Yeah, I guess it is!
But even if you start with gibberish, you must have some idea of what you are going to write about.
Well, yeah. A lot of times there's an idea or a vibe, or every once in a while I'll read something and think it's an amazing line or phrase. I'll see if that fits with the gibberish. Other times I'll just listen to the phonetics in my head and just start making sense of that before it comes out of my mouth. Just let my brain passively figure everything out. That's happened a few times, and it's the best feeling because it makes sense that what you were already trying to think of was a subconscious feeling you were trying to let out rather than a deliberate process.
I think that might be your physics training, don't you? You're talking almost in equation terms in a way, the way you talk about solving a problem.
Yeah, that's true. And also in physics it helps to use your imagination and think of the most bizarre set of rules that could exist. You just relax and let yourself wander inside your head, rather than plotting a specific task.
You mentioned something about jotting down ideas. It sounds like you are an observer of what's around you. How do you remember ideas for songs so that you don't forget them?
I've definitely done things like record a demo in a restaurant bathroom when I have an idea, but it never turns out as well as I'd hoped. The same thing with dream music: I'll dream this really intense music then wake up and try to get it down. But I'm not as good at manifesting what I hear onto the page or the iPhone. If it's a dense chord, you can't turn into one note. I carry around a notebook most of the time and have to have it when I read, in case I get inspired.
So what are you writing in there?
Anything out of the ordinary. I really like old idioms or phrases that we wouldn't use now that you can still get good context from. Like the phrase, "Fallen over head and ears." I read that in Wuthering Heights and it became a lyric. When I read that, I had never heard it before and thought it was so cool.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you set aside time during your day to write, or do you wait to get inspired?
I definitely get stressed out and anxious if I don't have enough time in my life to write. It's not a deliberate thing, but I need to have a certain amount of time every so often. If I don't get a chance to doodle around on the piano or read or make some demos, I get stressed.
Does writing every day relieve that stress?
If I could write every day, I'd be a happier person, but I don't get to, unfortunately. My ideal situation would be spending a few hours writing.
What time of day is a sweet spot for your writing?
Probably late evening. Around 10 or 11 o'clock.
What about when you compose. Do you use pen and paper?
It's either in my notebook or computer. Usually my notebook.
Describe your ideal writing environment
Probably any place quiet with windows, where I can see the trees.
Is there anything that you like to have with you to help you get creative?
I probably have to have some instruments to write the best. I can try out different phrases and words and test how they fit phonetically.
How do you know when a song is done?
Laughs. It depends on how happy I am with the first couple of drafts. If I have a couple of breakthroughs and find that one line I was looking for, I feel pretty solid. I've always been hesitant to say anything is done. What helps is knowing you WILL be finished.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
If I go through the normal processes, like listening to music or relaxing, then I'll just read more if those things don't work. That's the best thing: keep reading. Another thing that helps is exercise or playing sports. I get a lot of ideas while running, definitely.