Walter Schreifels, Rival Schools

Pedals is the new release (out March 8) from the recently reformed post-hardcore supergroup Rival Schools.  It’s their first since the critically acclaimed United by Fate in 2001, and it shows that the band has not lost its knack for aggressive yet melodic music. Pedals is also a reflection of where the quartet are in life: it's filled with songs about shedding the bad elements in life and ushering in positive change.

I'm reviewing the album for the Washington Post next week, so I've been listening to it a lot. I recently spoke to singer/songwriter Walter Schreifels about his songwriting process, including how songwriting is like bowling.  Read my interview with Schreifels after the video.

What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?

I dabble in the arts and do a little painting. I like to get artsy and craftsy every once in a while, but still what gets me most excited is songwriting. When I was little, drawing was the first thing I was into.  Comic books, stuff like that.  But once I learned to play guitar, that was all I wanted to do.  For me now, drawing is therapeutic. It take a lot of concentration, so if something comes out it's very rewarding.

What comes first in your songwriting process?

The easiest way for me is to get a feeling first.  Do I want something with energy, or do I want something sad or sexy?  Or maybe something that you'd listen to as you are getting ready to go out.  I start with the mood, then it's pretty easy to get a melody from that.  If it's exciting to me and I feel like I have something, I'll record it in case I want to come back to it.  If I'm really motivated, I might try to record it with lyrics and a title. That makes it more likely that I'll come back to it.  In rare cases, I'll sit down and start putting it together.  Each song I complete represents ten or fifteen little ideas.

So you start with a mood, instead of letting the music dictate the mood?

Yeah, and maybe less than half the time I let the topic drive the song.  It's easy to write if you know what you're trying to talk about, but often I don't know what I'm talking about until I go through the first chorus and lyrics.  I start to dive in more on the second verse, then the second chorus makes more sense.  By the third verse, I really know what I am doing, then I go back to the beginning and really sharpen.  Sometimes I have something important I want to express, but that can sound forced. 

The lyrics generally come after I have an idea.  For example, recently I came up with the song the other day called "Mama Needs a Blanket." I don't know why I thought of that. Maybe my daughter said it.  But I started thinking that it's something someone who lives in the mountains, maybe in Appalachia, would say.  Maybe there's alcoholism involved.  So I wrote a song around that idea by filling in the blanks. And I have to really make it convincing if I am going to make it sound like it's from Appalachia.  So that's a good example of an idea for a song that's a little more difficult than "Get on the dance floor." That's an easy one to fill in the blanks with, but an abstract idea is more difficult.

How has having a child affected your writing process?

If I want to do something, I have to do it now since time is so precious. It makes me so much more disciplined. And it makes the value of what I do more clear.  Before, I didn't have much competition for my time.  It makes me want to be a better songwriter so I can hold onto that sense of who I am and what I do well besides my identity as a parent. 

When you start writing a song, how important is it that you finish the same day?

I'd love for that to happen, but it happens maybe once a year. It's a great way to write because it's more in the moment.  But I also have songs that take five years for the lyrics to click and the chord changes to come together.  Those songs needed that time for me to fit into them. 

How important is distance from a topic you are writing about? In other words, is it possible for emotions to be too raw when you want to write a song about a certain topic?

It's helpful because sometimes things happen where you need time to romanticize or cope.  I think that if you can gather your thoughts on something instead of just writing from pure emotion, you can cope with the material better.

How much do you revise the first pass at your lyrics?

I try to hold on to the initial blast of inspiration as long as possible.  That's what the essential excitement of the song is.  Anything that comes afterwards should only clarify and purify the message. I don't want to cloud the original idea of what it was.  I just try to prevent myself from working in a circle or fixing things that aren't broke.  I have a lot of songs cooking at once.  If I don't have a song figured out, I set it aside for a couple of months and hope that it will make sense later.

Tell me how you get inspired to write a song.

Songwriting is like bowling. When I'm bowling well, its effortless.  I'm not thinking about it; I'm just throwing the ball down center of the lane.  The less effort I put in, the more successful I feel.  It's the same with songwriting,   Sometimes you gotta let go until something changes and it becomes something new.  Then you are approaching it from a different perspective,  and it's not like looking up at a mountain.  You can take an intellectual perspective, but emotional perspective is important.

I like a song that makes me want to jump up and dance, cry, or be with the person I love.  I want songs that feel some heavy emotion.  Even if I don't know the lyrics, they should be carrying the mood and emotional response. That's what i want to create. My best songs are those that happen quickly.  I start with a great line, and everything comes together, and what seems scattered now makes sense. 

What's your ideal writing environment?

It's nice to be alone.  Sometimes pressure can be good, but usually I need peace and quiet. 

Do you get writer's block?

I don't know that I've ever had it.  For about a year, nothing I was writing was good.  But really, that was more about my state of mind.  I didn't want to move forward with my writing.  The key to overcoming writer's block is to be OK  with writing bad stuff.  It takes the pressure off. No song I write represents all that I am in this world.  The best songwriters are those who are not afraid of writing shitty songs.

A poet once told me that writer's block is a myth.  It's more like a failure of courage.

Courage makes it sound like you are cowardly, but it is a matter of letting go and not judging yourself too harshly.  The best artists are those who just don't give a shit.  It's OK to write bad stuff.

How have you matured as a songwriter?

I understand what I like to do.  I still have an interest in doing different things.  It's important to nurture the side of you that doesn't know what it's doing.  You have to allow yourself to pursue a variety of creative urges, not just what's comfortable.  Through maturity, I've realized that it's better to be childlike in my creative process.

I always felt that way before my daughter, but now I have my finger on the pulse of kids more.  She doesn't judge anything she does.  The less you judge what you do, the more free you are to be in that childlike state.  It's more fun, and it's better for the creative process.  And that's what I want from music: to put me in touch with very base emotions.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like writers who inspire me with turn of the phrase.  Lots of Haruki Murakami books.  He writes in a very lyrical sense, and I've tried very unsuccessfully to rip him off.  But I like to think that reading any book helps.  I am reading a book now called The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Sparks, and since it written in the early 60s it makes me think about the language that the Beatles grew up with.  I've been reading a bunch of Hemingway, and I remember writing a song immediately after reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. Oh, my mistake, that was Metallica! Laughs.

Reading is an important part of songwriting; it helps you pick up the way people speak or wrote, and that starts to inform your writing and make you write different things.