On Songwriting Pt. I

As the promo cycle for the new Gruesome record Twisted Prayers draws near (shamelss plug – click the link to pre-order), a fresh round of interviews are about to ensue, as will further well-deserved opportunities to revisit Chuck Schuldiner’s profound musical legacy. There will also be many questions about the process of putting the record together – bold, incisive questions like “What was it like working with producer Jarrett Pritchard again?” (killer, he did a great job, this is the 4th record I’ve worked with him on in the last few years, so… um… hot take there!) and “What was it like having James Murphy do some solos on the record?” (very cool, 15 year-old Matt would have been blown away, James is a lovely guy who has been very kind about Gruesome from the beginning. – there’s a shocking revelation for you). These interviews rarely get into the meat of the songwriting process, which is disappointing, at least to me. The real work behind the songs is what makes the producing the record a thing that has to be done in the first place, but most interviews stick with surface-level stuff, which is often little more than name-dropping and mutual back-patting.

Tearing Down the Myths

I’ve learned through the years that music journalists prefer musicians to present their creative process something like this:

I went into the (forest / cave / psychedelic trance / ancestral home) where I commune with the (inner demons / childhood traumas / forces of evil / internal neuroses / drug addictions / spirits of pagan ancestors) that comprise the creative energy that flows through the universe, of which I am but a (humble / deranged / drug-addled / sexually desirable) (conduit / servant / messenger). Which makes me a (fascinating / tragic / dangerous / deep / intellectual / controversial / groundbreaking) talent that’s worthy of your attention.

I personally detest that kind of answer and most interviews that proceed in that fashion (and naturally end with the journalist humbled and awed by the opportunity to bask in the presence of such genius) make me physically ill.

As a prolific songwriter (notice I didn’t say “good”) I can’t help but think this kind of journalism is less elucidation and more obfuscation. It’s pretentious and counter-productive to truly understanding how music and art is created. Thinking about things in terms of metaphysical inspiration completely contradicts everything I know about craftsmanship and musicianship. The initial spark for a song or a certain aesthetic may have come from some sort of bohemian experience (may have), but craftsmanship and musicianship are the tools that nurture that spark and help it become a flame – that’s how songs and albums are written. And those things are work. They are the result of endless hours of frustrating practice. They take time, dedication and cooperation. Those basic building blocks of a craft are far less sexy than some sort of exclusive access to a fundamental energy, but the good news is that they’re things that everyone can understand and everyone can do. To chalk the creation of art up to some kind of unknowable talent is to make it exclusive, the province of the “gifted.” To talk about what it actually entails in a forthright, practical manner is to make the process accessible and comprehensible to others – to truly communicate and foster an empowering way of thinking that says “hey, if you like rock and roll and you wanna do it too – Good news – YOU CAN. Here’s how I do it, maybe that would be helpful.” (Yes, I realize the purpose of band interviews is to sell records, not to actually impart, you know… useful information)

To understand something (in this case, the process of songwriting / composition) we must start with an extremely basic premise: That knowledge is knowable. The sort of interview answer I alluded to above premises that the creation of art is animated by some metaphysical force that the “non-artistic” cannot understand. As someone who finds this kind of metaphysical explanation loathsome (whether it be an explanation of the creation of the universe or an album) I call bullshit. I’ve been cautioned that perhaps I’m too honest when I speak to the press, and it’s probably destroyed my ability to cultivate an “image.” I’ve always been tolerated as a “fan” – which of course I am. Why else would you play the style of music I do? In the eyes of many music fans and journalists however, being a “fan” means that you can never truly be an artist. Because the world of publicity is a zero-sum “reality:” You’re either born with an un-quantifiable gift beyond the possession of mere mortals, or you’re just another consumer of art, forever on the outside of the truly sublime, looking in with the hoi polloi and creating inferior, jealously derivative art work for hardcore genre completists or tasteless idiots only – not folks who truly love whatever art form you’re working in (you know, the people that own ten Death Metal records total and then write about the genre as if they love it and are authorities on it). Fans and journalists don’t really want a creator that’s “just” one of them. They want someone to idolize, someone to worship. A fundamental lesson of metal (and punk) is supposed to be that being a worshiper is fucking stupid. The desire to worship is for the weak, feeble-minded conformists of the world. Wasn’t that the point of all the anti-Christian stuff that the aesthetic of the genre was built on? So the idea that a musician should create a persona that people can’t fathom (see pseudonyms like “Lord / Baron / Count blahblahblah” or self-mythologizing interviews where musicians refer to their bandmates, or worse, themselves, by their full names, etc) and can only worship from afar comes across to me as a total crock of shit.

Of course I have musical heroes (not gods), but they’re not infallible, nor do I perceive them to be. More importantly: they all came from somewhere. There is a traceable line of influence and a trail of bread-crumbs throughout any musician’s catalog that you can use to reverse-engineer their work, not to diminish it, but to see it as it truly is: something that comes from somewhere. “Seek and Destroy” is a mashup of Diamond Head‘s “Sucking my Love” and “Princess of the Night” by Saxon. Don’t even get me started on “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” which is the intro from “Roundabout,” the verses and choruses from “Rainbow Warrior,” and then the outro has one one Metallica riff before it goes into the rhythm hook from “Tom Sawyer.” “Hello From the Gutter” re-purposes the riff from “Don’t Make No Promises” by the Scorpions. Half of World Downfall is just Master riffs. The chorus from “Torn to Pieces” is a slight update on the “Fight ’til Death” verse riff. I could go on and on ad nauseam but you get the idea. To hammer home my point again: Riffs and songs come from someplace. The guys you’re fans of are fans too (or at least they started their career that way), and they aren’t nearly as original as you might think (or as their publicist would like you to believe). Even Maiden got pulled over by the riff-police for “Hallowed be thy Name,” so the idea that my favorite musicians have some kind of special knowledge or “god-given talent” (one of the most odious phrases I can conceive of) is bunkum. Hogwash. Balderdash. Claptrap. Horse-pucky. What they do have is a novel take on their influences and great songs.

So how the hell does one write a bunch of songs then?

One of the nicer things people say to me is that I’m an extremely prolific musician. Compliments make me uncomfortable, but that’s one I’ll accept. I’d like to believe that I’ve managed to maintain a certain level of quality to the material I’m churning out – at least to a point where I can keep convincing record labels to give me studio budgets to record my shit. So I wanted to talk about songwriting and offer some thoughts, experiences, and insight into the process that makes projects go from the “Hey it would be cool to write some songs that sound like Death” to “Gruesome announce the release of their new album Twisted Prayers.” Some of it will be philosophical, some of it will be purely nuts and bolts. How much may be interesting or helpful is subjective, but all of it will be honest.

How does one write three albums in a year when you have a wife, a full-time job, and multiple touring bands? While it’s not uncommon for musicians to play in multiple bands, being the primary songwriter in multiple bands is more unusual. So here’s how I balance my workload.

Compartmentalize

For me, each band scratches a particular itch. Gruesome is obvious – it’s an homage to Death, which really streamlines the writing process. Pounder is my chance to play traditional heavy metal, which I listen to a lot more than Death Metal and Grindcore these days. Exhumed is where I kind of mix everything up a bit – the last album referenced everything from Christopher Young, Daft Punk, Slayer, Terrrorizer, Metallica, P.L.F., Exodus and Harold Faltemeyer – but the music still fits firmly within the Bermuda Triangle of Death Metal, Thrash, and Grindcore. So I keep my ideas about music, as a listener and as a writer, in different sorts of boxes. If I tried to fit all the stuff I write into one project it would be really disjointed and uneven, two things I can’t personally stand (hence the lack of Mr. Bungle albums in my record collection). I learned to compartmentalize my imagination as a young comic book fan in the 80s. I loved Legion of Super-Heroes and I loved the X-Men, but I realized that they inhabited different universes (DC for the Legion of Super-Heroes and Marvel for the X-Men). They don’t cross over- just like I don’t want to hear Napalm Death do an acoustic album, I don’t want to hear Diamond Head use blast beats and Death Metal vocals. To me, things are what they are and are best when they retain a purity of artistic vision. So each band / project is a self-contained universe with its own immutable laws. That gives me a way to categorize my ideas. Now, I hear you saying “why are you putting boxes around your imagination? That sounds like a limitation!” To which I respond, “great question, imaginary person. To me it doesn’t feel limiting, it feels like I have structure, without which I would spin off into a million different ideas without being able to follow through on any of them.” Again, this is just what works for me, which may or may not be helpful to you.

Be a part of a team

When I was younger, my immaturity and insecurity wouldn’t allow anyone in my band to be a better musician than I was. Which on one hand, helped me improve as a musician to compete with the guys around me, but in another, less obvious, way really stunted my musical growth. Once I started playing in Scarecrow, a band built around a musical vision rather than a group of friends (which was what Exhumed was for years), I quickly realized that I was the worst musician in the group. By that time, I was in my early thirties and had the perspective to see the situation for what it was: a tremendous opportunity to learn. If you perceive yourself to be better than everyone around you, you’ll never let yourself learn anything from them, which is a depressing prospect. Try to surround yourself with killer players and listen to them, watch them, observe them, see how they think, how they approach their instrument.

The key to making music, which should be extremely fucking obvious, is listening. Don’t just listen to your own ideas – listen to your band-mates, try to understand their approach to the songs and see what they bring to the table. Put yourself in a situation where you need to up your game or you’ll look like an idiot being carried by those around you. If you actually give a fuck about what you’re doing, you’ll rise to the occasion, or failing that, you’ll learn a lot while you try your best.

Another key dynamic for a primary songwriter is an environment where people can be brutally honest with you about your material. If every time someone doesn’t like your riff, you throw your guitar down, storm out of the room and threaten to fire them, it’s not going to foster honesty and collaboration. The folks in your band want to help you write your best stuff (which is also their best stuff), so don’t make it harder for them. At the same time, you need to have the confidence to believe in your ideas and the knowledge that your band-mates won’t be right all the time, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. How do you balance those two tendencies, you ask?

Be Objective

This is probably my core value as a songwriter and musician – and hopefully as a human being as well. Learn to think of the piece of music you’re working on from the outside. If you heard it and had no idea who wrote it, would you think it was good? Would you really? Think about others’ ideas the same way. Of course, no one can ever be 100% objective. It’s just not possible, but it’s something to strive for. It will hurt your feelings when you work on something for three hours and someone else comes up with a better part in five minutes, but if it’s a better idea, by all means use it. Serve the song – as a player, and as a writer.

Get a bigger measuring-stick

A lot of local musician types love to brag about how they’re the best in their local scene / high school / bar circuit or whatever. Even if it’s true, they’re only really comforting themselves. Echoing the band situation, compare yourself to the best, not to the people around you. Once you’ve stuck with playing for a few years, you’ll probably be pretty decent and can easily find other musicians that make you feel better about yourself. Sure your Death Metal band may be better than the other local Death Metal band, but is your band as good as Morbid Angel or Immolation? Because that’s what you should be shooting for. Being king of the ant-heap is just an ego-boost for you, and has nothing to do with actually doing good work. Hold yourself and your work to higher standards than you hold others to. You’d be surprised what kind of results you can get out of yourself when you don’t settle.

Everything is crucial, everything is trash

You have to treat being in a band and writing a song like it’s the most important thing in the world. Pour all your energy into it. If you’re not tryomg dozens of variations of riffs and arrangements and sit for hours by yourself agonizing over tons of details, you’re not trying. It’s a meticulous process of trial and error that should keep you up at night if you really care about it, but it also doesn’t matter at all. If you dropped dead tomorrow, the world would keep spinning and not even notice you were gone, let alone that your song never got finished. There are so many important things happening every day, life or death shit, that your song doesn’t matter at all. Remember that existential insignificance (hopefully) before you get in a screaming match with your band-mates about a riff. The thing you’re getting upset over, even if you’re a stadium-packing rock god with hordes of fans waiting with baited breath for your next platinum single, isn’t really that important.

Remember that even though you’ve worked really hard on something, it’s completely possible that it’s simply not good. Or not good enough. So you need both complete dedication to, and complete detachment from your work. It’s probably never going to ever be good unless you sweat every detail and put in the work to really craft something, but don’t believe in something just because you’ve put in all that work. Believe in it only because it’s actually good. Again, listen to your song. If someone else wrote it, would you give a shit? If the answer is no, throw it away and start again. Throw it away and never look back, because:

Riffs are a renewable resource

Always use your best stuff. Always. Don’t “save” something (unless you’re already signed, making records and have a tangible schedule with deadlines and release dates, marketing strategies, etc) for something that may or may not happen later. Don’t hold onto it until a better thing comes along (I hear people say things like, I’m saving my songs for the album we’re gonna release ourselves next year, this EP doesn’t matter). Sometimes, nothing better ever comes along and that one EP / Demo / Albanian compilation tape is your band’s entire discography. Conversely, if you think something you’ve written might not be good enough, it probably isn’t. If your band-mates unanimously don’t like something you’ve come up with, scrap it. You’ll come up with something better.

You have to believe that more and better ideas will come, or you’ll become so attached to your work that you’ll lose objectivity about it. That’s a tough pill for younger musicians to swallow, because when you’ve only got five songs that took you a year of hard work to compose, it’s tough to let go of a tune. For me, I’ve got a discography as long as my arm and I think a lot of it isn’t that great anyway, so I’m completely comfortable with the reality that sometimes my ideas suck. That said, I only became comfortable with my rampant suckiness when I became confident that there will always be another idea. That’s a perspective that comes much more easily with age, but it’s a valuable one. If you truly want to be a songwriter, you will continue. One shitty song, one album that doesn’t sell, one demo that gets rejected, one bad review, one show where nobody comes out – none of those things will stop you from writing songs. And the more you write, if you’re applying yourself and learning and listening, the better those songs should get. Of course people may not like these better songs more (“Their demo was way better”), but they will be qualitatively better songs (more on how songs stack up qualitatively to follow).

Define yourself

I started Exhumed when I was fifteen. We signed with Relapse Record when I was twenty-two. That’s some depressing math: I was in the band seven years before we got signed – a loooong time to play basements, shithole bars, and community centers – even for a teenager. And when we finally did ink our deal, I was already older than most of my favorite bands had been when they recorded my favorite albums. I took stock of where I was in my “music career” and the answer was disheartening. I had to accept that I was not a genius, not a visionary, not a genre-defining trailblazer. I made a pact with myself when I turned twenty-one that if the band hadn’t signed with a proper record label by the time I was twenty-five, I was going to quit. Clearly, if I couldn’t secure a record deal, I wasn’t doing good enough work. Luckily (unluckily for my bank account and credit rating) we got signed and went on to do a bunch of shit since.

Since then, I’ve realized that I can’t control what happened before, and I’m not any of my heroes. How old they were when they made their records is their story, not mine. I’ve accepted that my bands aren’t cool enough to win awards or get glitzy photo shoots in magazines, so I don’t gauge my personal concept of success by that kind of stuff – or anything else determined by other people. I had to redefine what my goals were and structure them in a way that a) allowed myself to be happy and not jealous of others or worrying about what others thought of me and b) gave me as much control over my own development as possible.

Even though Exhumed and my other bands will never be arena-slaying rock gods, I’m able to put out records and work with great people in the industry that I’ve met through the years. That’s a HUGE opportunity. To be able to email a record label and have someone write you back – that is a big thing. I’m accustomed to it now and it seems normal, but I try to remember that it really isn’t. It’s the same thing with the group of musician friends that I know and work with. The guy playing guitar in Gruesome plays in Possessed, one of my absolute favorite bands. The guy playing “The Exorcist” onstage with Jeff Beccera is also learning and recording my riffs. That’s crazy. Even crazier is that I’ve actually played with some of my favorite bands. I try to remember that I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am (certainly I’ve worked hard, which is a big factor, but there are other contributing factors that aren’t directly attributable to just me) and I should be capitalizing on the opportunities that I have right this fucking instant to write, record and perform as much music as possible. Beyond the idea of appreciating what I have, it’s also an incontrovertible truth that none of this goes on forever. There are untimely deaths, debilitating conditions, market upheavals and all sorts of things that can take all of this away at any given moment – to say nothing of the fact that I’m not getting any younger. I try to remember that life is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

I’ve tried to define myself as a musician too. There’s an ever-flowing stream (see what I did there?) of guitarists who play circles around me, and trying to be the fastest / most extreme / ____est is a goal that only allows one person to succeed. It’s an all-or-nothing Ricky Bobby “if you’re not first, you’re last” mentality. There will always be someone faster, hungrier, etc. And if you’re known as the ____est, you’re going to attract competition from others that have “something to prove.” So I decided to hone something besides my technical chops – songcraft. I studied, I read about The Beatles, charted out songs, figured out tons of chord progressions and arrangements from pop, motown, country, and anything and everything else that had hooks. I looked around the Death Metal genre and found a real dearth of actual songs. I found tons of speed and aggression and energy and sick riffing, but not that many verses, catchy choruses, or truly crafted compositions that were conceived as songs.

As far as my overall work ethic and philosophy, that’s something else I learned from comic books. Alan Moore can write a gritty Batman story like The Killing Joke and fun, nostalgic romp like 1963 or a macabre period thriller like From Hell. Hell, Jack Kirby (my personal hero and main life inspiration) drew (and co-plotted) 80% of all Marvel Comics for most of the 1960s by himself, creating and co-creating just about every summer blockbuster for the last 10 years. So I should be able to write a nasty Death Metal song, an epic power ballad, a 1980s training-montage synth piece and anything else I might want to do. If Kirby could draw 5 comics a month, plus covers and pin-ups, I should be able to write 3 albums of quality material a year. Kirby was incredibly creative, because he worked his ass off. He had to be, his livelihood depended on it. And that’s how you should be working if you want to be prolific and professional, like your fucking life depends on it. You know what I do before work? Work on my material. You know what I do on my lunch break? Work on my material. You know what I do after my wife falls alseep? You know what I do in the van on tour when I’m not disgustingly hungover? Work on my material. That’s the real “secret” to this whole thing.

Now that the philosophical side has been exhaustively covered, my next blog is gonna get into the nuts and bolts of putting together a good ol’ fashioned ditty.

Thanks for reading, see you at the bar!

4 thoughts on “On Songwriting Pt. I

  1. Great writeup. I’ve been following your music for about 16 years now, so it’s really cool to hear some of the behind the scenes stuff. Also, assuming you’re talking about having a full time job outside of music, I have no idea how anyone could balance all of that. The idea of being that productive after working all week is crazy to me…or maybe I’m just lazy.

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  2. I really enjoyed your post. And I have a question that always concerned me. How can you tour all those dates even a month without quiting your full-time job? Is that possible? And how do you do it? Thanks man !

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    • I work at a music electronics manufacturer and they are very understanding and supportive. Touring so much prevents me from becoming a manager or any other type of “essential” personnel, but it’s a worthwhile trade-off. It’s just finding the right job, which can take… well, years. I’m very fortunate.

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