[Obligatory Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl reference]
Chris Shiflett doesn't get to write as the guitarist in his other band, so his side project Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants allows him to showcase his songwriting and love of honky tonk. It's a good thing, because Shiflett knows what it takes to be a good writer: he writes every day, and he reads every day. He knows that you can't improve as a writer unless you practice, and you won't be a good writer unless you know what good writing looks like. "You write all the time so that even if you write shitty songs, you'll be in good shape when the good ones come along," he told me.
Now that Shiflett has a family (three young sons), he doesn't have much free time, driving the kids to school and taking them to afternoon sports practices. So to maintain his skill as a writer (not just a songwriter), he often gets up at 5am before the kids are awake and writes. As for the reading, Shiflett has dedicated his remaining free time to immersing himself in the classics, having recently torn through F. Scott Fitzgerald's catalog. I came away from our conversation impressed with his dedication to the craft: Shiflett is a tireless student of the writing process.
Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants have a new album out called All Hat and No Cattleon SideOneDummy Records. Read my interview with Shiflett about his songwriting process after the video.
What other creative outlets do you have?
I don't have any now, but for the past few years my aunt has been a part of a writing group, not for songwriting but for storytelling. That really appeals to me, so I've started to look into doing something like that. I think it would be fun. For a while, I approached writing lyrics and finishing songs as music first. But what I've tried to do the last few years is write more consistently. Just write all the time. Whether it's journaling what I did that day or stream-of-consciousness stuff, I just write. And I work on lyrics along the way. The more I write, the easier the words come. That's why I'm interested in exploring the writing groups. I'd like to write short stories, not for publication or anything like that, but just to make me a better writer.
Those workshopping experiences in writing groups can be very valuable. I took a creative writing course in college where we had to share our poems with the class. Most of what everyone wrote was awful, but the experience made me a better writer.
I can totally relate to that. About a year and a half ago, I signed up for a songwriting workshop that Peter Case ran. I'm a big fan of his work and thought it would be interesting to hear what he had to say. I had never done anything like it. It was so much fun, but it's exactly like you said. We were a roomful of people and we had to write a song a week with the topic he assigned. Then we had to play the song on an acoustic in front of a group that you barely know. And one of those guys, Peter Case, was someone I had a huge amount of respect for.
It was a great experience, and my takeaway was that you just have to write. And write all the time so that even if you write shitty songs, you'll be in good shape when the good ones come along.
Nils Lofgren told me something similar. When he starts writing for an album, the first month is total garbage but he has to get through that garbage to get to the good stuff.
I wish I was more disciplined about it. I wish I really could just wake up every day and spend a significant portion of my time working on music and writing. But the reality is that I don't. I have three kids, and the Foo Fighters are obviously a massive part of my life. So there's all that real life stuff that can wear me down. Not wear me down emotionally, but by the end of the day when I put my kids to bed, I'm burnt. Laughs. The more time I spend working on songs and writing, the happier it makes me. And I wish it wouldn't get away from me. That's my goal: be more consistent.
[At this point, one of Shiflett's children asks him for something in the background] Laughs. See what I'm talking about!
I know the feeling. By the time you put your kids to bed, you want to relax and do nothing.
Then combine that with the fact that I'm in an inherently undisciplined line of work. Laughs. I mean, we're not a bunch of investment bankers.
That's true, but do you find that children have made you more disciplined as a writer because your free time is so much more limited? I'm wondering if that's the case since you try to write every day.
My life is much more compartmentalized now than it used to be. I wake up, get my kids ready for school, drop them off, have a few hours to do my thing, then pick them up from school before I take them to baseball practice and piano practice, all those practices. So my good time is just those few hours in the middle of the day. But having kids has turned me into a morning person. I love to get up early, ahead of my kids, and write. Then there's those mid morning hours, when they're at school, when I'm most open to working on stuff.
Hayes Caryll told me that he doesn't think he's ever written a lyric before noon.
Then we are on exact opposite schedules.
But when you say you get up early, how early is that? Because early to a songwriter can be noon.
It's not unusual for me to get up at 5am. It's funny, because when I go on tour, that schedule is a really hard adjustment to make. When I'm touring, I'm obviously up late all the time, especially if it's a Dead Peasants tour where we play bars.
You say you want to be more disciplined, but you also say that you try to write every day. How can you be more disciplined than that? When you write, you're not always writing songs, correct?
It's a little bit of both. Some are songwriting exercises, but there are times when I just write about whatever is on my mind or write about what I did that day. I've been so focused on this covers record we made that I feel like I have a million half-finished songs and no complete songs. I have a bunch of parts and incomplete ideas.
All we've been doing is cover tunes, which is great. That's something I wish I had done more of when I was a kid. My bands in high school rarely did that, but in the last year and a half, between learning my own band's honky tonk songs, Taylor's cover band Chevy Metal, and Sound City, I've been immersed in other people's music. It's actually a fun thing to do that I wish I had done earlier. You get to examine other people's craft, what they were thinking when they wrote, and how they put their songs together.
That was the thinking behind the new album. I like old country a lot. It's what I listen to now more than anything else. I didn't grow up listening to that kind of music, so it's fun to dive into a whole new catalog. However, it's not my natural instinct to write or play that kind of music. I wanted to live in that world for a while so that it could influence my writing. I want it in my own music. So being in a cover band seemed like the best route to doing that.
When you do other writing besides, do those ideas ever seep into your songs? Does your journal writing ever generate song ideas, or is that separate?
I guess it does. I tend to write about my own life and experiences. It's not a song, just a bunch of thoughts. Then I go back and pull some lines out and see if I can make it into a lyric.
I always felt like lyric writing was a forced, laborious process in the past. Eventually I'd get it done and be comfortable with it, but it was always a struggle. And now, I try to write more than I need for a song. I just scribble some shit out, let it flow out of me. A lot of times, with my stream-of-consciousness stuff, if I'm not trying to force the subject to happen, it just happens anyway and goes in a different direction that I first thought. But that's ok, because it's still rooted in the same feeling and it comes from the same source. When I go back and reread, the words and ideas often have more meaning than I first thought when they originally came out.
So do you revise lyrics a lot, or do you believe that what comes out first is what's meant to be?
I wish I revised more. We'll see with the next record. I was hoping to be able to write another record of originals this year, but I don't think that's going to be the case because we might start working on new Foo Fighters stuff a little sooner than I thought.
When it comes to songwriting, how important is environment to you? Is there a certain place or time when you get your best writing done?
I like being in a room with windows and sunlight. It's funny, because I put in a little recording studio/rig in our garage when we moved here a few years ago, thinking, "That's gonna be my spot. Daddy's writing zone." And you know what? It's the fucking garage. I never go there. You know what I use? I use the voice memo on my iPhone. That's my recording studio. Of course, when we're ready to get thing done as a band, we go to our recording studio in the valley.
You mentioned all of your half-finished songs. How often do you come back to those? Along those lines, when you struggle to finish a song, do you think it's sometimes best not to struggle too much because it's probably not meant to be?
Yes, I definitely go back. A lot of times I record little ideas on the fly when I'm traveling, then go back months or even years later to listen to them. It's nice to go back and revisit quick ideas that I put down and forgot about. Listening to those ideas alone inspires me to do something bigger.
And to you other point, I feel like the best stuff I write is always the stuff that comes out quickest and easiest. Some ideas on the last record took a while to figure out and ultimately made me happy, but I usually feel like if something is taking a while to come together, it's probably not coming together for a reason.
It's a tough call. On one hand your don't want all that effort to be for nothing, but on the other hand how good can it be if you are forcing it?
That's right. And for me, it usually is not.
When it comes to inspiration, how active are you? Do you seek it or let the muse come to you? Some of the classic songwriters I've talked to, like Chris Difford and Neil Finn, told me that you have to work at it. You can't wait for it to hit.
That's an interesting question, because I feel like I often draw from a specific time period of my life for inspiration. And that's something I need to work on and get out of. My life right now is great, and who the fuck wants to hear songs about how great my life is? I love my kids and my wife is awesome and I've had [success professionally], but who wants to hear about that? That's not even interesting to me!
So I tend to draw from a period in my life that wasn't like that, before all this stuff now happened. But to be honest, I feel conflicted about drawing from that period. It feels lazy. On the other hand, I don't want to write songs about getting into an argument with my wife while driving my minivan around. So this inspiration thing: I need to work on it. Maybe take Chris Difford's advice.
Is there an ideal emotion that gives you your best writing?
I'm not sure about ideal emotion, but by far the best time, like I said, is when I just wake up, pour myself some coffee, and start writing when everyone else is asleep. That's when my mind is the clearest. I grab my notepad and scribble some thoughts. It's that hopeful morning time after the first few sips of coffee. I used to not be a morning person at all. I used to sleep in until 1pm and live that whole life. Mornings used to depress me, and now they don't. I don't know exactly what that emotion is, but it's when I'm at my most clear.
You mentioned earlier that when you write a song, the music comes first. How soon after do the lyrics appear?
I'm doing it in reverse now. Lately, I've been doing a lot more lyric writing than music writing. We have one original tune on the new Dead Peasants record, and that came together in a way that has never happened before. In the past, I never really had bands around me when I'd write. I'd just rope in friends to play with me on songs that I had completed all by myself. But now, I've had more or less the same group of guys for a while now, and when we were rehearsing, we came up really quickly with the music for the song "A Woman Like You." It was absolutely a group effort. Then I wrote the lyrics that night and we recorded it soon after. Everything was so fresh. I loved coming up with the music on the fly then the lyrics right after that, instead of letting the music sit for a while while thinking, "Oh man, I've got to finish that song." When you do that, it turns into a burden. So I hope the way that song came about points the way for the next record.
When you write lyrics, are you a pen and paper guy or a keyboard guy?
Both. I scribble a bunch of crap, then type it into my computer. But now I'm trying to take out words in my process.
When you revise?
Yeah. I've never really thought about this before, but in the past I always wrote too many words. And the result was that words get crowded and the ideas get crowded. As a result, the vocals get crowded.
But don't you feel that it's better to always overwrite your first drafts, to write too much so that you don't leave anything out in the early part of your process?
Definitely. I write a bunch, then start scratching shit out. That's when it congeals into a song.
How much reading do you get to do in your busy schedule?
I read all the time. It's funny you ask, because I just decided that I'm not going to read any non-fiction for a while, except for news sites. That's all I ever used to read. I'd read books on politics, shit like that. So I'm only reading fiction for a while. How long, who knows? But I'm tuning out. I'm done. I'm just going to read the classics. I dropped out of high school, but I really stopped paying attention in junior high. While everyone else was reading Catcher in the Rye and all that stuff, I wasn't there. Now I'm going back.
Who are you reading now?
I just read The Great Gatsby, which made me realize that there are a ton of books that I thought I read when I was a kid, but when I went back to read them as an adult, I discovered that I just read the first chapter.