Posts in Punk
Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

When Brian Fallon writes, he's constantly being watched. There's Paul, Tom, B.B. and George, among others, looking over his shoulder. And yes, that's McCartney, Waits, King, and Harrison. You see, there's a room in Fallon's house where he does most of his writing. (When's up there, he's always dressed as if he's going to work. No slippers or pajamas. But that's another story.) And in that room Fallon, also singer of The Gaslight Anthem, hung pictures of some of his songwriting idols. Fallon purposely put them high, close to the ceiling, so he always feels like he's being watched, even judged. He looks to them for inspiration and affirmation. He'll even carry on the occasional conversation, imagining how they might react to a line he's written.

For a guy who writes so much and who has such impressive chops, one thing stands out among the songwriters I've interviewed for this site. Most, if not all, have all their old lyrics and journals from previous albums stored somewhere. They might be in a closet or a box, but they keep them. Some might never look at these journals again, while others go through them for inspiration. Not Fallon. He has nothing, save for the notes from the Horrible Crowes project and the notes from Handwritten. He joked that the notes from the Gaslight classic The '59 Sound are probably on the I-95 shoulder somewhere. Fallon's reason is simple: "I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me." Of course, Fallon doesn't keep a steady journal, though he admits he'd probably benefit from it since it would help him remember things.

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Ted Leo

Every writer has a ritual, some consistent part of the writing process that brings them the comfort or confidence to be productive. Ted Leo has one: stacks. Stacks of things. When Leo is around the house, he carries with him from room to room a stack of pads, some pens, his phone, and his Roget's Thesaurus. And when he sets them down, they are each their own stack, not one giant stack. Almost like a fortress of words around him. 

Leo's lyrics have been rightfully praised for years, and I have to think that much of this has to do with his voracious reading habit. It's not possible to be a writer unless you read. It's just not. Leo is a good example of that; he goes down rabbit holes of genres or authors or topics, especially while on tour. And these are some pretty dense topics. That's why, after one tour, Leo was able to riff about 70s urban planning in the UK and Russian constructivist architecture with ease. And while he may not have written any songs about these topics, he says that on some level all of that reading made him a better, and a more thoughtful, songwriter.

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Lydia Loveless

Want to be in a Lydia Loveless song? It's easy: sit next to her at dinner. Well, don't sit at her table, because she might not listening to you. Instead, she's listening to the tables next to her for a line or two that she can put in a song. "It's a bad habit. I'm always eavesdropping on people. If I'm out to dinner, I'm always listening to the other tables and not paying attention to mine. I'm not even doing it consciously. But I get some great song ideas from those conversations," Loveless told me.

Loveless's songwriting process involves a few rituals. She journals every day, and she's been doing it ever since she was a young child, even though her first journal was nothing but lower case e's because that was the only letter she could write. Now that Loveless is an adult, there's one part of her process that cannot waver: she must use a Pilot Precise Extra Fine Pen with black ink. Any other pen "ruins the process," she said. 

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Chuck Ragan

Man would I love to take a look inside Chuck Ragan's piano bench.  Songwriting for Ragan is an intensely personal act, a type of therapy.  It's something he has to do, and he really doesn't care whether anyone sees or hears what he writes.  The last thing he's thinking of is turning a piece of writing into a song. That's why, according to his estimate, probably three quarters of the stuff he's written you'll never see.

And this is where the piano bench comes into play.  Ragan is always writing down ideas and thoughts everywhere he goes, usually on a notepad he stuffs in his back pocket. Then when he gets home, he opens up the bench and adds those scraps of paper to the growing pile already there.  Some of those scraps have been there for over five years. And that's where a lot of his song ideas originate.

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Franz Nicolay

After reading this interview with Franz Nicolay, you'll want to do two things: brush up on your classic works of literature and practice your detective skills.  Because according to Nicolay, his songs are like puzzles: he fills them with literary references waiting to be discovered and word games waiting to be solved.  Nicolay is a voracious reader, so it comes as no surprise that his lyrics contain many references to works of literature, and he's constantly mining those works for a line or a reference he can stick in a song. Given the methodical nature and intensity with which he approaches his songwriting, the depth of his lyrics comes as no surprise.

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Dave Hause

It's not often that I get to exchange bedtime routines with a songwriter.  But that's what Dave Hause and I did at the end of our interview.  We had been talking for about 50 minutes and established that we had a great deal in common, so it's probably little surprise that it came to this point.  We both read a lot of magazines.  Too many, really, to keep up with.  So they just pile up next to our beds, waiting to be read. The second we finish one, two more arrive.

Hause's songwriting process and reading material reflect his high level of engagement with his environment. And this level of engagement makes for one thing: Hause is a smart and introspective man.  He doesn't just give me answers, he tells me why he does what he does.  And he's able to do this because he's constantly thinking about his place in the world.  He reads Rolling Stone for the political articles and GQ for the non-fiction.  He's constantly picking up auditory and visual cues for song ideas, and he has an endless supply of notebooks and Blackberry files to show for it.

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Teri Suarez, Le Butcherettes

Sure, it might be hard to discuss Teri Suarez (aka Teri Gender Bender) and her band Le Butcherettes without a mention of her performance art: the fake blood, the pig's head, the flour, the apron, all that lipstick, and the broom. But what's onstage is a package, and you have to appreciate the innerconnectedness of it all to realize that this is part theater (and I mean that in a positive way). But once you understand the extent of her creative endeavors, her performance is not that surprising: she writes music, poetry, fiction, you name it.  She's influenced by everyone from Henry Miller to bell hooks to Dostoevsky.   In Suarez's life, art is everywhere, whether she's taking it in or dishing it out. And that manifests itself in both the visual and aural aspect of her music.

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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

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Brian Fallon (2011)

The next time you come across a song by The Gaslight Anthem, see it.  And I don't mean watch it on YouTube.  When it hits your ears, don't just listen to it.  See it.   Because I have a feeling that's what Brian Fallon wants. He may be a songwriter, but he talks like a poet.  He says that "imagery is more important than content" in his songs.  Most all of his songs start with scenery, and his job as the songwriter is to describe what it looks like, to get you the listener to see the imagery that Fallon conveys with his words.  It's no surprise he writes this way, once you know his favorite poet: Dylan Thomas.  As you'll read, Fallon used lines from a Dylan Thomas short story to describe his new side project Horrible Crowes.

I'm assuming that the whole Gaslight Anthem thing will work out for Brian Fallon.  He writes great songs and they put on a great live show. But there's a part of me that thinks he'd make one hell of a poet. Sure, this inteview is long.  I even trimmed some.  But every introspective answer is a window into a fascinating creative process. 

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Chris Farren

Chris Farren, the vocalist and guitarist for Fake Problems, is a disciplined man when it comes to songwriting.  When he's in one of his "writing cycles," he gets up early, eats, takes care of distractions, then sits down to write. In fact, he compares this process to an "office job."

And when he writes, he almost always begins with a single line in his head, not music.  That's something that I haven't heard too often from the songwriters on this site, who usually begin a song with a guitar and music, letting the lyrics emerge from the chord progressions.  And this discipline is reflected in how Farren's songs are created: he writes them in a linear fashion, in the same manner you hear them as a finished product.

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Corin Tucker, Sleater Kinney

What is it with the connection between manual labor and songwriting? Corin Tucker becomes the third interviewee (Grace Potter and Lissie being the others) to tell me that working around the house inspires her to write, be it housework or yardwork.  Tucker offers an explanation: the time when brain and hands are moving is "meditative time" that stimulates creativity.  

We know Corin Tucker as the singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney.  In October she released a solo album entitled 1,000 Years (KillRockStars) that she called "a middle aged mom record." In her late thirties, Tucker is a mother of two with a full-time job outside the record industry.  And the routine of her writing process reflects that: her day job has given her a healthy respect for deadlines when it comes to writing, even though she often can't work on meeting those deadlines until after she puts the kids to bed.

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Patrick Stickles, Titus Andronicus

There were only a few times during my talk with Patrick Stickles, singer and songwriter for Titus Andronicus, that our conversation felt like an interview.  Instead, it really felt more lit an upper-level lit seminar.  This is what we talked about: Camus, Faulkner, reader response literary theory, and whether a text has any inherent meaning.  The depth of our conversation reflects not just Stickles' concern with the songwriting process but the anxiety of being a writer and his concern with whether the audience (and by audience, I mean the people hearing or reading his words) understands his authorial intent. It takes Stickles months to finish a song, and indication of the care he takes to craft that message. The result is an album like The Monitor, a concept album loosely based on the Civil War and civil war: it's about both the historical event and Stickles' existential angst.

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