Dave Davison doesn't really understand the label “math rock” that some people have given his band Maps and Atlases. Math rock the music, like mathematics the subject, after all, requires “coldness and calculation,” according to Davison. But the four members of Maps and Atlases met at Columbia College in Chicago—an art school. Davison majored in cultural studies, Erin Elders and Chris Hainey were film majors, and Shiraz Dada majored in sound engineering. As a band, they’ve been called math rock because of their complex rhythmic structures and unconventional time signatures. But with their debut release Perch Patchwork (Barsuk Records), they've written what critics have called a more accessible sound. Regardless, Maps & Atlases plays some wonderfully unique and creative music. But that's what you get when four guys from art school start a band.
After the video, read more about Davison and his writing process, including how poetry affects his songwriting, how a good long walk is the perfect way to write a Maps & Atlases song, and his penchant for leaving long voice mail messages for friends.
Two of you were film majors. How does that background inform the band's songs?
In the early stages of songwriting we were setting up scenes and describing things you could see and situations, but in a lot of ways I don’t have much of a choice because so many of our songs are based on quick observations. I’ll jot down scenes and work those into a larger song idea. Basically setting scenes or observations and framing it within the song, rather than telling a specific story. The images are what create the story. So now it's a bunch of scenes.
Have you always been a songwriter?
I started writing poetry a lot in college, but not too often anymore.
What poets have influenced you?
Definitely Charles Simic and James Tate. The World Doesn't End by Simic is one I really love.
I really like that a lot of his poems have worlds that are a mixture of fun, emotional response, and mystery. They are so simple; they create a world for me but also allow me to create a world.
I find that songwriters like to write or read poetry because they appreciate the musicality of words. Does reading poetry makes you a better songwriter?
Definitely. And my only advantage in writing poetry is that I've played so much music. I have a lot of friends who are great poets, and they have a great ear for poetry and a knowledge of literary devices that are both assets. But there’s an easy transition for me between poetry on the page to lyrics in a song.
When you revise lyrics, I would imagine you're thinking about the musicality of the words, how they stand alone as music even without the instruments.
Definitely. I feel like I have to do things fast so I don’t get hung up on either side of it, whether the words or the music. The editing process for me is so strange; my one problem is that once I get something in my head and it becomes too concrete, it takes a while for me to break away. So if something starts working well, I have to maintain that. I’ve always felt like I had to work quickly so that the song gels all at once. Sometimes I'll write something and want it to be a song, but it's really a poem at first. So I get in the mindset that if it sits there too long and I start liking it too much in poetic form, it ends up being two years before I stop being stubborn and make it into a song.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I do try to write all the time, but I am not that disciplined. One thing I've become conscious of is that writing has to be the opposite of homework. I can't get into typing things or having a specific time to do things or sitting down at a computer. I always write things on scrap paper or record things into my phone or leave voice mail messages for friends. Before I had a phone I could record on, I would leave voice mail messages for friends and play ideas so that they were recorded that way. Having that element of informality is fun, and being spontaneous is an important part of the process for me.
It's also easy for me because I play a lot of music. I also take long walks every day and a pretty good percentage of what I write comes from walks and seeing weird things or even just having quiet time where I'm moving physically while observing and thinking about things. It's a meditative thing.
So when you are on those walks, what inspires you?
A lot of things. I think about something going on in the world. Sometimes I stumble upon strange situations. One time I was on a long walk in Chicago and there were hundreds of pigeons everywhere. I was daydreaming and surrounded by all these birds under a bridge, kind of an eerie vibe. So I made up a song right there, our song "Pigeons."
How deliberate is your inspiration process. Do you say, "I am going to go for a walk and write a song"?
Usually i have no idea. I just set out to walk. But at the same time I try to write one or two things every day, even if it's short. I do make it a point to write every day, to ensure that I am conscious of the world around me. It keeps me sharp. but the best inspiration is the one that is spontaneous. That being said, sometimes I feel compelled to write about something, and I use the walk to flesh out the idea.
When you create, what comes first for you, melody or lyrics?
There’s a weird balance and sometimes it ends up shifting. Sometimes it will be a lyric and I'll start creating a melody around that in my head, or I'll start singing something. But the words are important, and the sound of them—that’s what draws me in. You barely even know what they're saying, and that's ok, because the sound of it is so special and it makes sense regardless of the message. I've always been conscious of leaving a little bit of room for that—incorporating some thought out message on the page and along with the melody.
But my process changes a lot. Before this year, there was a much more straightforward process where it was more page oriented or with a few changes here and there. But having this strange idea of trying to write all this stuff with a balance has been a positive, even though it makes the process more muddy.
So you do start with the lyrics. I don't hear that very often.
Many times. I do respect the nonsense word aspect to it, the intuitive sound portion of songwriting and certain words, but I really strive for a balance. When a song is too heavily based in going from the page to a song, it feels stiff. But if I write a song too heavily based on the intuitive sound of things, I like how it sounds but it could have been more interesting or had a stronger message. So I combine the two in different ways.
Another aspect of starting with the lyrics and walking around that also works is that I avoid becoming too formulaic. I come up with different ways to shake up the process. If I'm starting with words, I'll start singing them in different ways without any music and seeing where that melody takes it. A lot of times it does some strange things musically. Like "Pigeon" and "Glamorous Calling." With both songs, I recorded the vocal part without music and made the music fit after. They both have changing time signatures and chord changes in ways that seem more natural that they would have if they were really thought out. They just feel kind of natural with the words.
You are all in side projects. How does that make you a better band?
It gives me a better perspective on what we do well together. With recording music outside the band—when you do stuff with other people and you are in a band and play with the same guys all the time hundreds of shows, it makes you realize, “Yeah, these guys are really good.” When I have a break and come back, I remember how awesome it is to play with them.
For more of my interview with Davison, see my recent Q&A with him on Midnight Sun, the Baltimore Sun's music and entertainment blog.