J.D. Cronise, The Sword (2016)

"I was just telling my girlfriend the other day, 'People don't take the words of Yoda seriously enough.'" And with that, J.D. Cronise of The Sword just gave me one of my favorite lines in the six years I've had this site. 

I've been a huge fan of the The Sword for years. I first saw them in 2008 opening for Metallica. (Down was also on the bill.) I reviewed Warp Riders for the Washington Post in 2010, and this is my second time interviewing Cronise (here's the first one). It's been fun seeing Cronise's songwriting process evolve, and with it, the band's sound from a more classic sludgy sound to a much more bluesy one. Watch the video for "High Country" from the new album below, then at the end of the interview watch "Maiden, Mother, & Crone" from Gods of the Earth, their second album in 2008, and you'll see the evolution.

What I love about Cronise is his introspection about his own creative process. He's very self-aware, and he can talk keenly about his growth as an artist. "On the early albums, I’d write a lot of things that I heard in my head, but these weren’t things that I wanted to necessarily play after ten years. Not that I'm ashamed of those early songs, but now I think of myself as more of a blues-based guitarist. But when we started, it was a much more aggressive style," Cronise told me. Even when it comes to the subjects matters in his songs, Cronise says that he "wanted to explore a different kind of lyric writing that wasn’t based on other people’s works. I didn’t want to borrow. I think you can pretty much glean from our first few records that I like Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Philip K. Dick. I let everyone know, so now it’s time to create based on my own ideas."

But back to Yoda and that level of introspection. Most songwriters I talk to usually can pinpoint an ideal emotion or state of mind under which they get their best writing done. To Cronise, though, it's an absence of emotion. He tries to get, in his words, into the most Zen state possible: a mind free of clutter, thoughts, distractions, anything. "It’s the non-emotional space that’s best for me. I like to be in a very Zen headspace.  Peace and calm is the most important thing to me when I write." Cronise never forces the writing process, only writing when he feels ready. In itself, this puts him in a relaxed state: there's no pressure to write, so he never gets blocked. 

I interviewed Cronise last month backstage before their show at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Read it after the video for "High Country."

When I reviewed Warp Riders for the Washington Post a few years ago, I mentioned that the album had a little bit of Texas boogie to it. The headline for the review was "Cut a Rug with the Danceable Sword." It made me cringe at first, but there's certainly some truth to that idea.

There’s a great book that’s out of print now called Crazy from the Heat. It’s David Lee Roth’s autobiography. He wanted all of the Van Halen songs to be danceable. Whenever the Van Halen brothers would bring him a song or a riff, he’d test it for danceability. And if he couldn’t dance to it, it wouldn’t make it.

What’s your typical process like?

Ideally, I like to get a flash of inspiration from a lyric or a riff that I can build a theme around. But it usually doesn’t end up that way. What usually happens is that I get a lot of miscellaneous parts that end up fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle. Kind of like This will work with this and This can go here. And before too long, I have something. But the songs that flow and feel the best as a writer are conceived already half done. They come out, and I already know where they are going.

Do you ever think about where you were or what you were doing when those ideas hit?

I try to keep myself in an environment that’s free of distractions. I live in North Carolina near Asheville. It’s beautiful out there and a great place to write. I guess I’m pretty Zen about it. I’m not disciplined about much, so I try to not think about it. If I force it, I get frustrated.

Do you write every day?

No. I really just write in spurts, for certain periods. I like the immediacy of playing music. A lot of times when you write something, it doesn’t get played for a while. It just sits. And I don’t like that feeling of having to live with it for a while. I don’t like for there to be a lot of time between writing and playing, between coming up with the idea and getting to play it live with the band. I tend not to write much when I know that we won’t get to play it for a while. Like now, on tour. Anything I write now is not going to get rehearsed and played for many months. I don’t even put myself in a creative mode on tour. I mean, I’ll still get lyrical ideas and jot them down, but that happens much more often when we’re off the road.
There are too many distractions on the road. I can’t really concentrate and shut everything out. It’s too hard to make that effort. I’d rather create a peaceful environment and let it come, rather than actively try to shut out distractions. 

What’s your ideal writing environment?

I’m not really a late night person anymore, but I do like to be alone. Solitude is key. I live with my girlfriend, and I even have trouble writing when she’s around. We’re very comfortable around each other, obviously, but I don’t like to write when anyone is around. Except my dog. He’s ok. So I guess it’s safe to say that humans are distracting. Laughs.

It sounds like the emotional space is more important than the physical space for you.

Really, it’s the non-emotional space that’s best for me. I like to be in a very Zen headspace.  Peace and calm is the most important thing to me when I write. It’s funny—I was just telling my girlfriend this today, that people don’t take the words of Yoda seriously enough. I was indoctrinated as a Star Wars fan at a young age, and I took it seriously when he said, “There is no emotion; there is only peace.” He also said that “fear leads to hatred, hatred leads to anger, and anger leads to the dark side,” or something like that. That made sense to me, even at a young age. I got that. They weren’t saying emotions were bad. They were telling us not to be controlled by our emotions and to find a place of peace where you don’t need to react emotionally to things. I take a lot of that to heart as a general life philosophy.

How much revising do you do to your lyrics?

Quite a bit. Some of my initial lyrics are just placeholders for the melody, and I know I'll change them later. I’ll tweak things here and there, like pronouns, tenses, and plurals, up until it’s time to record.

How much are the other band members involved in the writing process?

We all write independently and bring our ideas to the band, like a demo or something. We’re all pretty good about presenting our ideas with some kind of context rather than just a riff. We used to do that more when we lived in the same area and rehearsed regularly. Someone would bring in two parts, and someone else would bring in two more, and we’d make that into a song. We still do that to some degree, but not as much. Now it’s more about presenting full songs to the band.

How often do you give up on a song, at least temporarily because it isn’t working, then come back to it later on?

It depends. There’s plenty of stuff that I set aside forever. But there’s also plenty of times when I'll set aside a part or two that I know I'll return to later. But I liken writing music to creating a sculpture: you always have to step aside and take a look at the whole thing, the big picture. You can’t always whittle away at the small details.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

Not too much, because writer’s block is only a thing when people try to write. And I really don’t try. It just happens. That’s the challenge of being a writer: there are days when you think the well is dry. But new ideas always come. Just because it got dark doesn’t mean the sun will never come up again. You may think that you wrote your last song, but the sun will continue to rise whether you like it or not. You’ll always have some new idea. But I think the harder you try, the more likely you are to have trouble coming up with ideas.

You have to be incredibly confident to have that attitude. I’d think that would make plenty of songwriters anxious to wonder when and if that next idea is going to come. It sounds like you know it will eventually, so why worry?

I don’t know that it’s confidence. I think it’s more of a relaxed attitude. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, and we’ll play cover songs for the rest of our lives. Laughs. I love writing songs, but if I stopped writing, there are still plenty of good songs already written that I could play.

Earlier you mentioned “filling the well,” and that’s a phrase I hear a lot from songwriters. So how sensitive are you to your environment, trying to soak in ideas that may lead to songs?

I’m pretty aware of my environment all of the time. But with music that I write, I'm trying to create a certain mood or vibe. I really don’t put my opinions or beliefs in my music. That’s not my goal when I write. I express what I want to express and maybe get a little bit of my worldview in there, but that’s not the focus. I want to put people in a good place when they listen to my songs, so I don’t want to fill them with negative emotions.  In the past, I did do that, but it’s not where I am today.

We talked five years ago, so I’m curious as to how much your writing process changed over the years?

I try to realize what I'm capable of as a musician when it comes to songwriting, especially when it comes to vocals. I used to write based on something I heard in my head, and I stretched my range a lot as vocalist. Probably too much.  I'm a baritone and I tried to always go above that. I don’t do that as much anymore. And with the instrumentation, I’d write a lot of things that I heard in my head, but these weren’t things that I wanted to necessarily play after ten years. Not that I'm ashamed of those early songs, but now I think of myself as more of a blues-based guitarist. But when we started, it was a much more aggressive style.

What are you reading now?

I just finished a Michael Chabon book called The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. He’s been a champion of science fiction and speculative fiction, and those are two genres I’ve always loved. Plus, he’s a big fan of the band. The book is about the what if premise involving what would have happened had we dropped the bomb on Berlin in World War II and instead of the Jews settling in Israel, they settled in Alaska. 

Do books ever serve as an impetus for song ideas?

They definitely have in the past, but not so much on the new album. I wanted to explore a different kind of lyric writing that wasn’t based on other people’s works. I didn’t want to borrow. I think you can pretty much glean from our first few records that I like Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Philip K. Dick. I let everyone know, so now it’s time to create based on my own ideas.

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