Ben Fox, Dinosaur Bones
At the end of my interview with Ben Fox, the singer/guitarist and songwriter for the Toronto-based Dinosaur Bones, he was noticeably relieved that I did not make any reference to paleontology. And I think I promised him that I wouldn’t even discuss dinosaurs or prehistorical times in this introduction. But Ben, I have to go back on that promise, because after listening to our interview, I must say that a dinosaur analogy is perfect here. So bear with me.
When we call people or companies “dinosaurs,” it’s not a compliment. What we mean is that they are behind the times, old-fashioned, stale. And therein lies the irony with Dinosaur Bones the band, because Ben Fox’s creative process is anything but stale. In fact, as you’ll read, what’s unique about his songwriting is that he turns the whole thing on its head. While most songwriters begin their creative process with chord progressions, with Fox that part always comes last.
Read more about Fox's songwriting process after the video. The band recently signed to Dine Alone Records and released their EP Birthright in November. Their debut LP is scheduled for release in early 2011.
Have you ever had any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
It’s always been music for me. I played multiple instruments growing up and sang in the choir when I was a kid. Even before writing, I played the violin, so music has always been a creative outlet for me. For example, I’ve never been much of a painter. I wish I was—I am so jealous of our drummer, who is a fantastic painter.
Since you studied English in college, of course you have to tell me about your favorite authors.
I love Kurt Vonnegut, of course. And Kerouac. Bob Dylan’s writing as well. It’s hard to say what informs my songwriting, though, since it’s such a personal outlet.
Vonnegut and Kerouac are popular with songwriters. Why do you think that is?
Vonnegut is so cynical, but there’s also a hidden sense of optimism by being able to laugh off all the ridiculousness going on. A lot of that connects with young readers—the element of being able to see past the mask of ridiculousness in society.
Take me through your writing process when you sit down to write a song.
Lyrics and music happen separately, but music always comes first. I build rhythms, then melodies around that. It’s never about chord progressions, which is a common way of writing songs: building chord progressions then putting a melody on top. I like to flip it around, which most people don’t do, and build melodies around each other. The chords underneath it come after. That results in some more interesting progressions, and it helps me break out of the box of conventional chord patterns and structures. We really try to avoid the cliché chord progressions that you hear on the radio, while still trying to end up with a pop songs.
Why the unorthodox writing process?
It evolved because I loathe hearing the same chord progressions all the time, and I think it’s lazy and uninteresting. My process evolved from a desire to get away from those things that I hear repeated endlessly. I find it tricky to avoid that if I sit down with a guitar and write with chords, so the best way for me to end up with something different is to not even address chord structure initially, but instead to create melodies and letting that steer the direction. Then I build chords around that.
When do the lyrics come?
They are totally separate. I never sit down to write lyrics. More often than not, I just write things down throughout the day in my notebook. When most of the songs are completed musically, I go back to my notebook while listening to them. I search through the lyrics to find elements that connect in terms of tone or things I am trying to convey musically, then pair the music with the lyrics. Then we flesh out the lyrics.
It sounds like you don’t deliberately sit down to write a song. So are you more likely to write bits and pieces here and there?
Not really. It’s more about jotting down phrases, then going back and fleshing out the phrases or ideas into a song. I don’t sit down with music and write a song from scratch. I take phrases that have popped up in my mind and put a star besides them so that I can return to them when writing music. I use them as launching points.
That spark just hits me on the head out of nowhere. It’s difficult just to sit down in front of a piece of paper and fill it up and get excited about that. I try to let things happen organically. It’s much better for me that way instead of sitting at a desk and writing a song.
I’ve talked to some artists who will be in a restaurant, overhear a conversation, and run to the bathroom to type out a lyric on their iPod.
Random conversations in restaurants usually don’t inspire me, but it’s definitely happened with fragments of conversations that I’ve had. That’s the kind of thing where a phrase or an idea will pop into my head when I am talking to someone like my grandmother, for example. Or I’ll be out and all of the sudden a lyric will come to me. I’ll write it down and go back to it later when I have a song with a certain tone or feel to it, and I’ll use that lyric as a springboard for the rest of the song.
How actively do you seek out inspiration?
There are a million of ways to write a song. There are times when I’m not writing and I feel like I need to seek out inspiration, but it’s not the kind of thing where I can force the issue. With music, I can sit myself down and work on it, and good things will happen. I have an approach that works, but with lyrics, the process of plunking myself down and writing usually doesn't work. I find that it usually has to come to me. At least for those initial sparks. After that, I can force myself to sit down.
I have a friend who gets up three hours before he has to go to work, and he writes. I feel that way about making music, because I need to force myself to sit down with a guitar and record, but lyrically that doesn't really work. But I revise my lyrics endlessly.
I haven’t heard many artists say that they revise lyrics endlessly. What are some of the things you do to revise?
It’s like when I’m working on a song. I don't believe that the first thing to jump out is always the best thing, and as we rehearse I’ll discover words that are more effective than what I had originally. I think it’s ok to make those changes and embrace that improvement. In any of our recording processes, I’ve found myself revising literally in the studio as we are tracking lyrics. I never shy away from constant revision.