Jay Gonzalez, Drive-By Truckers

Jay Gonzalez: Drive-By Trucker, Bay City Roller. Sure, Gonzalez is guitarist and keyboard player for the Truckers.  But his solo stuff sounds nothing like his Truckers work.  Gonzalez is an unabashed fan of 70s power pop, bands like The Sweet and The Bay City Rollers. In his own words, "I possess the attention span of a goldfish. I’m a sucker for short pop songs filled with hooks and devoid of filler." The defining element of 70s power pop is the melody.  It reigns supreme. Lyrics exist merely to enhance the melody, not to tell a story. According to Gonzalez, "I think the ideal situation is to have a song that if it were an instrumental or if it were a Muzak song, you would recognize the melody. It’s strong enough to stand on its own without the lyrics."

Gonzalez has released one solo album, The Mess of HappinessHis latest work is called Bitter Suite. For this, he took 5 songs with a similar lyrical theme and linked them musically.  According to Gonzalez, "The Bitter Suite is my take on the classic form used from Bach to Bernstein to the Beatles. The medley, or suite, is a grouping of songs or song sections linked together into one piece, put together in a way to make it arc like a longer piece would, but with the benefit of having each song section be its own entity."  He says that Bitter Suite varies stylistically and makes some dramatic jumps in tempo and texture, and that "the continuity is provided by the core band lineup of electric guitar, electric piano, bass and drums. Each individual song has a different coloring instrument to keep it varied. It was important to me that it could be played live by a 4 person standard rock lineup and not need the London Symphony Orchestra or a marching band."  

And because Gonzalez is pure old-school, he wants to put Bitter Suite on high quality vinyl. He started a Kickstarter campaign that you can get behind to support his project. In the meantime, read my interview with Jay Gonzalez about his songwriting process after the video.

It’s the mark of a catchy melody when I listen to a song once and cannot get it out of my head. That’s what I feel like with “Turning Me On."

That song is definitely an earworm. I think the chorus repeats 20 or 30 times. There’s a fine line between super catchy and wanting to put a drill through your head, though. Laughs.  The aim is to always be as catchy as possible.

I’m reminded of bands like The Sweet and Bay City Rollers when I listen to your solo stuff. What about that music appeals to you?

It’s always about a strong melody with immediacy.  But I also like an athletic melody that surprises and jumps around. I like melodies that go all over the place. And 70s bands like The Sweet, those power-pop bands, have it. I like songs that are short and to the point, but that have some gravitas and arrangement to the guitars.  It’s funny how so few bands from that era are really well-known, even though they’re really rooted in bands like the Beatles or even the early Who.  

Well, I vividly remember as a young kid playing over and over the 45 of The Sweet’s “Fox on the Run."

I still get chills when I hear that song.  I’ve never owned a lot of The Sweet records, but songs like “Little Willy” and “Love is Like Oxygen” were great.  It’s immediate, it’s three chords, and the lyrics are pretty much meaningless, almost like nursery rhymes.  But it doesn’t really matter in that genre because it’s all about the hook.

Few artists are writing music like that anymore, so is it difficult for you to write songs in that vein when you don’t hear them very often?

Yeah, I think so. Some indie bands like the New Pornographers do a version of it, but even theirs is pretty esoteric. It seems like the 90s was the last hurrah for power pop, with bands like Fountains of Wayne.  Those bulletproof catchy songs, where there’s not a lot of distinction between the verse and the chorus.  

What comes first when you write, the music or the lyrics?

I think I work better if the melody comes first.  A strong melodic structure.  But the problem there is that it’s more difficult for me to plug in words after. I write lyrics almost out of necessity.  I’ve gotten better over the years, but I used to write nonsense lyrics, then just leave 'em. Then a friend kidded me about how nonsensical they were.  It’s different now, though; I try to write about my life and experiences. It’s not easy.  If I’m on a plane or somewhere I don’t have access to an instrument, I write words, but the songs are a lot wordier.  They tend to jump around a lot and are a lot less economical than when I have a set melody and a certain number of syllables to use.  

I think the ideal situation is to have a song that if it were an instrumental or if it were a Muzak song, you would recognize the melody. It’s strong enough to stand on its own without the lyrics.

Your melodies are so catchy.  When do they come to you?

At pretty random times.  A few have come when I’ve just woken up, almost as if they came to me in my sleep.  I used to think that was bullshit.  I’d read about songwriters dreaming songs and would think, “No way.” I’ve never dreamed entire songs. But I have woken up with a four note melody, written it down, then recorded it. I try to put those in songs because I feel that those melodies come from the most natural part of me.

But so many of my melodies work off the chords.  Every songwriter says they are like a Beatle.  I’d like to think I’m a McCartney guy, but I’m more of a Lennon guy. The melody is good, but what really matters is the chord progression.  That’s what the melody works off of.  A lot of my melodies come from just pounding it out with the chords underneath.  I work it out on a piano or guitar. I’m thinking about the chord progression as it’s going, and the melody happens on top. 

 photo by Jason Thrasher

photo by Jason Thrasher

If you read the liner notes for some of The Sweet’s music, the lyrics are not known for their depth.

Yep. For me, melody is king.  I just try to write lyrics that are not cringeworthy. As long as I write about something I know or something I experience, it’s all right. But there’s also an element of rock or even power pop where the music is sunny but the lyrics are dark.  And I’m starting to lean towards that now. The Happiness record was, I thought at the time, a pretty happy, upbeat record.  But I listen to it now and probably half of the songs have a dark subject matter. Maybe that’s why the power pop bands seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, because people can’t relate to them lyrically as much. 

Is that strange for you, coming from a band that values storytelling and lyrics so much?

It is. Patterson and Cooley are obviously serious about their lyrics. I’ve been in bands with good lyricists who wrote poppy songs without as much emphasis on the story.  But the Truckers are a lot different.  And being with those two guys has made me a lot more self-aware, even self-conscious, lyrically.  And to be honest, it’s given me some writer’s block that I’m just kind of getting out of now. When I’m home and off tour away from the Truckers, I can get into my own head and write the lighter stuff.

How often do you write a song about a certain topic?

I do that a lot more, now that I’m writing more personal songs.  I like to work off of a title. I’ve heard that once you have a great title, you’re halfway there. A good title will give you an idea of what the song is about, so a lot of the time I just write down titles in my iPhone.  I keep them and set them aside for a while, just to ferment in my subconscious. Then I work on it when it comes back up.  That’s also where I’ve changed as a songwriter.  I used to force it a lot more, feel like I had to write the song at that point.  But as I get older, I’ve realized that the good ideas always come back.  Those things you want to write about will come back.

There’s a song on Bittersuite about my grandfather dying, which is not an easy topic to write about.  I tried to write it a few times and it was too forced, too blatant. Then I had half a song with a dummy lyric and realized that the lyrics about my grandfather belonged in that song.  But it took at least a year to figure that out. So I think sometimes it’s more effective for me to just write down a list of titles or subjects at first, rather than whole songs, and eventually those songs come out.  

So do you get any writing done on the road?

I did, when I first joined the band. I had a laptop and keyboards and made a lot of demos.  A lot of Bitter Suite came from demos on the road. Now I tend to write more at home. I do write some on the road, but since my role in the band has gotten a lot bigger, it’s taken up more of my time. I’m not in my own head as much.  And I think it’s harder to play and write the type of music I create when I play something so different on the road and am not around it.

With the type of songs you write, it seems like the words and their meaning are not as important as the sounds within the words.

I struggle with expressing myself eloquently in lyrics, but being primarily a music guy, I try hard to make the words not sound awkward.  Not to compare my music to opera, but you can go see one that’s entirely in Italian and you don’t need to understand a word because the sounds are so beautiful. I definitely do that whole Keith Richards thing, where I play songs and sing nonsense syllables. Eventually, the vowels start to fit, then a word comes, and then you can base a song around that one idea.

Jack Tempchin, who wrote "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and other Eagles songs, told me that he and Glenn Frey would sit down with a guitar and belt out those nonsense words.  And they gave that voice a name: they called it “El Blurto."

Laughs. That’s great. I definitely do that. I’ve written with other people, but you have to be really self-assured and lack any element of self-consciousness if you are going to belt out nonsense words in front of someone else. I wish I could be one of those people who sits down with a journal and allows the words to flow from my pen in a stream of consciousness, but I’m much more deliberate.  Which is why I’ve often struggled lyrically.  What really helps me is that I’m always around music, even if I’m not writing it.

I’m still an inherently lazy person, and I wish I was more disciplined when it comes to writing.  But with a family, my time is so much more compact, and having a family actually makes me buckle down a lot more. I look back on my 20s and think about how much time I wasted when I could have been writing songs. As I get older and my time is less my own, I realize that I’m starting to be more disciplined. 

How does your producer, Chris Grehan, influence your songwriting?

I’ve known Chris since I was a teenager. He produced both of my albums. He lives in New York, so we work long distance. He’s my confidant, someone who's relentlessly honest. He’s not a jerk about it, but he’ll let me know if something doesn’t work. I”m not that honest with myself. I can convince myself pretty easily that something is fine. I work on something a lot, but I’m not that much of a perfectionist that I’ll just throw something away if it doesn’t work. I’ll convince myself otherwise and say, “Oh yea, it’s great.” Laughs. I’m so full of shit that I can just bullshit myself.

So you’re not a very good self-editor.

No no no. In the actual process, I’m pretty good at editing. But as far as recording and being in the studio, that’s where I need someone to be honest with me. The problem is I have such a short attention span that by that time I’m already thinking about my next project, and he’s like, “Hey, I’m just trying to help you out, man.” Self-obsessing is definitely not my strong point. Laughs.

How important is environment to you when you write?

I’m definitely more of a solitary, late at night writer.  But I’ve been trying to get up early to write, and you know what? I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results.  My head is so clear in the morning.  I do some chores, get my son off to school, and write.  There’s a clarity that I don’t have at 2am. I think that from 11am to 3pm is my ideal time. We have a brick ranch house in Athens in a subdivision that was built in the 50s. Half of the houses have carports, and the others have a closed in space that’s a room where the carport should be. That’s my music room. 

When I write, I love to used the notepads in hotel rooms.  They are usually small, and that compactness forces me to be tight with my lyrics.