Paul Sprangers, Free Energy (redux)

When I interviewed Paul Sprangers of Free Energy in 2010, he mentioned his affinity for psychologist Carl Jung.  It's the only time I've ever heard a songwriter namecheck the father of the collective unconscious. Knowing this, then, you can read some context into our discussion about his creative process when you see words like subconscious, urge, tension, and ego. According to Sprangers, lyrics come from a place unknown even to him; his body is just a conduit for the words and ideas.  "It's all my subconscious barfing lines onto the page," he told me.

Free Energy is touring now in support of their second album Love Sign.  Read my interview with Paul Sprangers after the video for "Girls Want Rock."

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I do, and I think all the other writing I do informs my songwriting more than sitting around trying to write songs does.  I draw, I write, and I'm working on a few screenplays.  A lot of the imagery from those screenplays actually gets put back into the music.  Like stories about rebellious kids fighting against an ominous corporate threat moving into their small town.  I write these stories, and those images make their way into the music. In the songs, it's never direct, but it's more of a thematic connection.  I'm from a small town and I still have this romantic notion of rebellion and what it's like to live in a small town. 

Is there a moment when you're writing a screenplay or a short story when you realize that the idea might be better as a song?

It's a back and forth.  There's a tension between the two because I'm always writing a more traditional story format, just letting my mind unravel, creating scenes, and fleshing out ideas.  That part is like my reserve of ideas just sitting there; as I let my mind wander for the lyrics, it draws from that pool I've been fleshing out.  

I look at the songs as ideas that were written in that other universe that I'm just fleshing out.  This album is a mixtape from that universe.  It's like I idealize this nostalgia from something in my past that doesn't actually exist.  

You mentioned that you draw.  Does that inform your songwriting process as well?  Do some songs start as images?

Man, I have no idea.  Laughs.  I tend to think that it's all my subconscious barfing lines onto the page.  It just demands to be expressed.  When I draw things, I see a connection to the music, but I don't know if everyone else can. I do see the imagery in the lyrics.  I am by no means technically proficient as a visual artist, so songwriting satisfies that urge to express things that I can't draw.  My songs are almost a nebulous version of what a more talented artist might be able to draw.  It's just a different way of expressing the source of wherever those ideas are coming from.  

That makes sense.  You are the only songwriter I've ever interviewed who referenced Carl Jung, after all.  Now I see why you talk about your subconscious "barfing lines onto the page" and about how you are just a vessel for the words.

I see music now, more than ever, as something that I just get in the way of.  I'm just a conduit.  My ego just gets in the way, and it's all I can do to just work on myself and break down the barriers and allow the words to come out.  It's about eliminating any block I have so that the music can be more pure. I look at music as the greatest means for me to grow as a person.  It burns away the baggage. 

Do you go to art galleries when you're on the road?  I could see you spending the day in there.

We don't usually have enough time.  But I get so self-conscious in art galleries. Laughs. There's pressure to have a connection to art impeccably framed in a white space, and it's hard for me to do.  I am one of those people who just doesn't get a lot of it.  Art galleries are tough for me.  Maybe I don't have the patience, but they seem like mausoleums.  

Getting back to your process, how does a song start for you?  Is it the lyrics or the music?  

Music.  It never starts with the lyrics.  It always starts with the melody.  Sometimes one just pops into my head, but other times I'll play a riff over and over until I get it right.  Or I'll just mess around on the guitar, bass, or keyboard and the melody presents itself.  The lyrics are always suggested by the melody.  The melody suggests the imagery that suggests the lyrics.  

The last time we talked you mentioned that revising lyrics is very important.  Was that the case with this album?

Over and over and over.  And not always to the benefit of the song, to be honest.  Like with "Backscratcher," we rewrote the melody and the lyrics a lot.  But some came really fast, like "Hold You Close."  Those songs are always the best.  That song was so easy to write; it was like a children's nursery rhyme.  And that really appeals to me.  I'm in awe of people who can write so simply and can express the greatest amount of information in the fewest amount of words. I think that's genius.


photo by Dominic Neitz

photo by Dominic Neitz

So in your revision, do you try to stay as close to the first version as possible? Because it seems like what comes first is the rawest expression of the unconscious, right?

That's right, and I need to get better at that.  I need to do that more.  That's a good question.  I need to trust that first initial blast out of my subconscious.  I listen to INXS's Kick a lot.  It was my favorite record as a kid, and I feel like a lot of those lyrics are so different.  Sometimes they rhyme, but sometimes they aren't syncopated with the music. Mick Jagger is like that too.  It's awesome because it sounds so spontaneous.  It's so free.  I think that's the next step for me: to not control the lyrics so much. Sometimes I labor too much over lyrics.

It seems like if you revise too much, you can become too far removed from the raw emotion that brought you the song in the first place.  But that has to do with the bigger question of inspiration, and whether you have to work at it or just let it come to you.  The people I've interviewed who have been around the longest, like Chris Difford, Neil Finn, and Andy McCluskey, all say that you have to work at inspiration.  You can't just sit around and wait for the muse.

That's the whole point.  It's not just applicable to songwriting; it's applicable to living. Everyone needs to be actively working to be inspired. That's why we're here.  Some people can apply that to songwriting, some people to cooking.  That's when people come up with ideas.  All the other things around my life are more important than the music, but they inform my music.  

Would you say you actively pay attention to your environment?

If you're able to stand in line at Starbucks, look around, and find something to be inspired by, you've created a pattern in how you observe.  It widens your mind to be more aware of your surroundings.  It's almost like a channel is created in your mind, so when you sit down to write music, you look around in your mind and are more able to pick things out of the ether.  If you don't do that, it's hard to argue that you could just sit down every once in a while and think you're going to get some great ideas.  

How do you record these ideas?

I use the voice recorder on my phone to record melodies, and I use a journal to write down my dreams and other ideas.  I prefer writing since I've always handwritten everything.  

Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?

If I'm involved or if I have a crush or if I'm excited about something.  I've tried to write when I'm sad, but nothing comes out.  I can write a sad song if I'm happy or excited; I can still channel inspiration into that type of song.  But when I'm sad, I'm in recovery mode. I'm not really thinking about songs. 

A lot of songwriters tell me they write their best when they're hungover.

I believe it.  You're not really thinking when you're hungover.  You're very much in the present.  

What song on this album was the easiest to create?

"Hold You Close" was just Scott and me jamming with Nick.  That happened really organically.  We were in the basement of our house Philadelphia; it might have even been before Stuck on Nothing was released.  

Do you ever set aside songs that you're struggling with, only to return to them months later to find that they're so much easier to write?

Definitely.  We still have a song from eight years ago that we think might still be something.  I'm very impatient, but I've finally learned to walk away from something when it isn't happening.  

Is there anything you do during the day that you find helpful to generating ideas for songs?

Walking.  I think that really helps.  And biking.  I always get melodies in my head when I'm biking.  I pull over and sing into my phone.  I also do that while I'm walking, but I wait until people pass me so I don't freak them out.  I get self-conscious.  Laughs.  Anything that makes my mind wander helps me.   But I do need to be alone. 

So what are you reading now?

Right now in my bag I have a book by Paul Stamets called Mycelium Running. He's the mushroom expert of the world.  Also in my bag I have a Deepak Chopra book. And I just finished reading Man's Search for Meaning  by Viktor Frankl.  It's insanely good.