Matt Pryor, The Get Up Kids

The Get Up Kids formed in 1995 in Kansas and were a major player in the second wave of emo. They enjoyed considerable success, both in worldwide touring and record sales, before disbanding in 2005. Relatively speaking, back then life was pretty uncomplicated for singer and guitarist Matt Pryor.  Sure, he was busy touring the world and writing music.  But at least he didn’t have kids.

The Get Up Kids have reunited for a new tour and record.  And now, Pryor is the married father of three kids ages eight and under.  His family informs—in a good way—everything he does now as a songwriter.  He is a devoted family man.  He takes the kids to school in the morning and writes when they are gone.  He puts them to bed and writes when they are asleep.  His band schedule revolves around his wife's graduate school schedule.  He’s even written two children’s records.  As the father of three kids ages seven and under, I can appreciate Pryor's life.  But as Pryor told me, people ask him, “Well why can’t you just find time to write?” To which he responds, "Unless you have kids, you just don’t understand.”

The Get Up Kids return in January 2011 with a new release called There Are Rules on their own new Quality Hill imprint.  The first leg of their tour begins in January.  Check out the dates on their official website or their Myspace page.  And read my interview with Pryor about his creative process after the video.

You’ve written a couple of children’s records.  How does the songwriting process differ for that kind of music?

The only thing that’s different is the lyrics. It’s up-tempo folksy pop rock songs, which is what I write on my own anyway. I recorded them with the same band that did the New Amsterdams record.  None of the children’s songs is really silly, but they are definitely happy. I wrote down the funny stuff my kids would say and turned that into a song. Or my daughter would make up songs, and that melody stuck in my head and I’d finish the song for her.

What makes a successful kids song? Does the melody need to change, or is that kind of thing universal?

That’s what I think it is. Lyrics aren’t as important when writing children’s songs.  One of the things I’m told about my kids records is that they don’t sound like they are for kids. Instead, they sound like they are about kids.  And people thank me for writing something they can stand to listen to in the car with their kids.

I got worried the other day when I was out with our son, who turns five in March, and he was singing lines from the Drive By Truckers’ song “The Fourth Night of My Drinking.”

Yeah, my kids love those Flight of the Conchords songs like “Sugalumps” and “Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor).” I am certain to win father of the year.

Have there been any other artistic endeavors for you besides songwriting?

If I do have any creative outlet now, it’s cooking. 

Really!  Let’s pursue this.  What does cooking and songwriting have in common?

It’s the same concept.  A few basic rules to follow, then everything else you improvise.

Do you have any literary influences?

I am a big Vonnegut fan.  Alwayshave been.  I’ve read a couple of really good books lately, like one called The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak.  I’ve written a couple of songs about it that I haven’t put out yet.  The book takes place in World War II, and it’s about a little girl in Germany.  It’s narrated by Death.

How did that process work for you?  Rocky Votolato told me he did the same thing with a short story.  He took notes as he was reading.  Is that what you did?

When I was reading the book, I remember thinking that it was a really interesting concept to write from that point of view.  When I sit down to write, I usually write lyrics first, then music after. With this, I sang little lines from concepts in the book, and just wrote those down and started from there.

So that’s usually how you start?

Usually how I end up with the first germ of a song is by playing music and singing gibberish over it.  And the first line that makes any sense will be the foundation of a song.  So I must have had that book on the brain when those songs came out.

With the whole gibberish thing, Jack Tempchin, the songwriter for the Eagles, told me that he and Glen Frey named that gibberish voice “El Blurto.”

Laughs. That’s great. Sometimes—very rarely—I’ll come up with a line in my head before picking up a guitar.   But mostly I start with a guitar.  I’ve tried free association writing where I just write whatever comes to my head for a half an hour.  Then I go back and underline clever passages, then flesh that out into a song.

When I taught on the college level, that process is something that I used with my students all the time as an idea generator.  It’s called freewriting. You write whatever comes to mind for five or ten minutes.So when you sit down to write, what do you do after the gibberish?

I’ll usually get one or two good phrases from the gibberish, then go from there.  It’s a topic that I expand upon.  But you know what the hardest part of writing lyrics is?  Coming up with interesting lines and not doing something where each stanza ends with “you” or “say” or any of those simple words.

When you sit down to write a song, it sounds like the idea comes from the music.  You usually don’t have an idea of what a song is going to be about before you start.

That’s the way I am most comfortable, which is why I am trying other things now.  I don’t want to get stuck in a rut with that.  It’s easy to find yourself singing the same melody over and over again when you do that.  So now, besides freewriting, I sometimes start with a concept already in mind.

Note: at this point, Pryor asks me what I want to watch on TV and if I want a glass of water.  He then asks me if Scooby Do is ok. I quickly realize that he’s talking to one of his children.  With three kids close in age to Pryor’s, I tell him I know exactly how it feels. He tells me, “When I’m not on tour, I’m a stay at home dad.”

How does having kids affect your writing process?  I think I’ve become more disciplined as a writer because I know that my free time is limited. I recently talked to Corin Tucker, who has two young kids, and we talked about how she can’t even start writing until the kids are in bed.

Well, yeah, and I am a husband as well.  So the kids are in bed at 9pm and I’ve been up since 6am.  And then it’s like, “Ok, now I am going to go work.” But then I also want to hang out with my wife as well.

And when the kids are finally in bed, you're exhausted.  Probably the last thing you want to do is write.

Yeah.  It’s hard to get inspired to just go do it. Once I’m there, it’s fine. But getting there can be difficult.  Of course, it’s also hard because it’s not terribly pressing.  There is no deadline.  Anything I am writing now isn't going to be heard by anyone until at least next fall.

So does having kids make you a more disciplined writer as far as establishing a routine to write? It does for me.

I seem to be the opposite.  I had nothing but free time in the old days when the Get Up Kids were off tour.  We were living in Boston, and my wife, who was then my girlfriend, was in school full time.  So I wandered Boston all day then came home and wrote for hours.  Now I have so much more shit to do.  Things are so much more complicated now. I have to deal with the label side of stuff since we are putting out the Get Up Kids record on our own.  There’s lots of detail work that I didn’t have to deal with before.

When you have trouble sitting down to write, do you use certain tricks to get going?

Lately I’ve been going into my studio/office space and starting with one drum beat.  I can build a percussive element and write something off of that, instead of sitting down with a guitar in a singer/songwriter sort of way.

But songwriting is unpredictable.  Sometimes I can write a great song in twenty minutes. As far as getting motivated, the driving force is panic.  I’ll go through long stretches without writing anything, then I’ll randomly pick up a guitar and come up with three ideas at once.  But sometimes I’ll be like “Oh, my God.  I have to work.”

The “w” word.  Most songwriters I talk to avoid calling what they do “work” whenever possible.

I am a disciplined songwriter when I need to be.  I don’t think of songwriting as something I do for my own enjoyment, since I do it for a living.  I can’t sit around and wait for the mood to hit me.

Is there anything you need to have with you to have an effective writing session?

A rhyming dictionary, but i try not to rely on that too much.  If it’s the morning, I like to have coffee.  If its the evening, then whiskey.

Wow.  A songwriter who writes in the morning!

The kids go to school at 7:45 and I am back in my house at 8am. I’ll be writing by 8:15 if I need to.

You remind me of the poets and novelists I interview, who approach songwriting more job-like than most songwriters.

It’s just something that had to happen because of my home life.  But now, we have no choice because the Get Up Kids are so scattered.  We make plans to all be in the same place over certain dates, and everyone has to commit to four hours a day of writing or a ten hour day in the studio.  My non-creative life is consuming.  My wife is in grad school, and her break starts a month before the Get Up Kids tour starts, so I am like, “During that time, I am going to write and record a record.  That’s my window.”

But I do find that if I can block off my whole morning and write, I am always very happy with what comes out. It’s a creative and productive time of day for me.

Talking about panic—you know that when the kids come home, you have to stop writing.

Yeah, there is no way to do anything creative when the kids come home.  

So if you could pick your ideal writing environment, what would it be?

A cabin in the northwest, or on a boat.  But I’ve always liked trains.  I think it would be cool to get one of these cabin cars and take a cross country trip and just write on the train. I’m curious if the rhythm of the motion of the train, or the view, would affect my songs.

Adam Turla of Murder By Death wrote their last album while hiking.  He found that the rhythm of the hike that day—the cadence of his steps—often ended up influencing the rhythm and cadence of the song he was writing that day in his journal. And Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit told me that he wrote their new album on the beach and that the crashing waves certainly affected the rhythm of the songs.

That’s another thing I have been trying to do—take the digital element out of it and scribble on paper. 

Why is that better?

I was starting to feel stale always typing on the computer.  That’s where I am now as a writer, trying to find any new techniques to spice it up a bit without buying a bunch of drum machines.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I stop for an extended period of time and do something else.  We have a mini farm.  We live in the city but grow our own food.  Over the spring and summer, I hardly wrote, so when the cold came around, I was flush with ideas.  So I’m trying to write seasonally.  Having that other element keeps me on my toes.

How have you matured as a songwriter?

I am better at letting go of a bad idea than I used to be.  It’s hard for me to write a song, write the lyrics, really like it, and then realize it may not be as good as I thought it was.  Then I have to edit or let it go. I’ve gotten better, but its still hard.

How do you know when a song is done from an artistic perspective?

It’s hard to gauge that with the band.  There are five guys who have different ideas of when a song is done, and you have to have consensus and pick your battles.  Do I really want to fight the fact that I think there should be vocal harmonies on the chorus of a song?

If I can get to the point where I am not embarrassed by any of the lyrics, I like the melody, and I like the structure of the song, then it’s done.  But that still might go back to the fact that I have limited time now that I am a father.