On Songwriting III

Putting the puzzle pieces together

Welcome back, those of you with long attention spans. If you’ve been reading through the first two installments (thanks), we’ve established what components make up most “popular” songs – “popular” here including everything that isn’t classical or jazz, so we mean everything from My Bloody Valentine to Terrorizer to Lana Del Rey to Whitney Houston. The most direct way to make general observations on how songs are generally put together is to dissect other people’s song and analyze their structures. Through studying songs, you can find what resonates the most with you as a listener, and then carry that into your songwriting.

The weird thing is that for most musicians, everything I outlined in the previous two installments (what’s a verse / chorus / bridge, music as a form of communication, etc) is stuff you learn right away as an instrumentalist or composer. However, many people playing extreme metal are self-taught, or have focused very narrowly on one aspect of playing – being “brutal,” sweep arpeggios, 240bpm blast-beats, etc. Extreme metal is a genre whose appeal is its apparent lack of any real rules – there can be keyboards, harsh noise, odd time signatures, screaming, singing, sound effects, whatever. That lack of orthodoxy often carries over to much of the songwriting in the genre. There are certainly great albums without a lot of traditional structures (Slowly We Rot and Effigy of the Forgotten come to mind) but even most of the extreme stuff that has become “classic” still has some kind of verse / chorus pattern.

So without further ado (unfortunately for you, dear reader, further ado is kind of my specialty) let’s take a look at the basic construction of some songs – we won’t get into the more specific stuff like mapping the key changes and number of repetitions of parts at this stage, we’re just going to create general outlines.

So Come On, Jump in the Deep End

My philosophy is to learn from those I consider the best, so here’s a breakdown of two of my all-time favorite songs side-by-side, both of which are fairly compositionally complex, especially to a non-musician.

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Both of these songs have a lot of separate parts, but they also both essentially go:

intro / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus

with some extra bits. The extra bits are part of what gives each song its “personality,” but if you go too far afield of a traditional structure, that personality gets lost because the song becomes difficult for listeners to follow. So you can include fairly elaborate / complex arrangement variations while still retaining a basic sense of form. Slayer does all the extra riffing and “jamming” at the beginning of the song, Metallica does it in the middle. Metallica uses a more traditional pre-chorus, Slayer uses a transition riff as a “post-chorus.” But ultimately, these are both fairly traditionally structured, if elaborate, pop songs.

Anatomy of a Heavy Metal Hit Single

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of metal tunes that are less structurally complicated and have shorter run-times that we all know and have heard a million times:

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Pretty similar, right? All Wasted Years needs is a 3rd verse, and they’d be practically identical, structurally speaking. So, on one hand yes, I’m boiling art down to a formula, but on the other hand, the formula is pretty rad. It’s also the same formula as 99% of pop songs that have been on the radio for the last 40 some-odd years, so like it or loathe it, it works on the level of connecting with listeners.

The hook in Rainbow in the Dark is so infectious, they even thought they could sell beer with it.

Song Structure – Taking it to the EXTREME*

(*Disclaimer: this section is not about the use of Mountain Dew or Monster Energy Drink to improve your compositional skills)

After looking at the previous examples, I hear you saying (from all the way across the internet, I have really good hearing) “these are all dad metal songs – what about more extreme stuff? That stuff breaks all the rules!” So let’s dissect some classic extreme metal staples.

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These examples are a little bit more elaborate or quirky, but still firmly rooted in the verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus template. The Autopsy tune falls into a structure type I’ll get to at the end of this post (cliffhanger!). I’ve chosen older examples because a) I’m old and these are the songs I like, and b) these songs have stood the test of time to be considered classics in the genre (or at least Decibel put them all in their Hall of Fame series).

Ultimately, structural quirks are a matter of personal preference. Some people hate long intros, some people love ’em. Some people don’t like guitar solos, others can’t get enough of ’em (looking at you, Trey Azagthoth). There’s still a lot of room for variation within more straightforward song construction. Ultimately, any song with discernible verses and choruses is a lot closer to being catchy than 90% of the Death / Extreme Metal that’s out there, so just the presence of hooks and choruses will help differentiate an actual song from a “song.”

In the early days of “extreme metal,” the extremity and style of the music was so shocking that having a well-crafted song was less important, simply because of the novelty of the style’s trappings. In 2018, we’re 31 years (!) removed from Scum and have heard thousands and thousands of blast beats in the intervening years, so just being “extreme” isn’t particularly interesting – hence people adding all kinds of different instrumentation or combining seemingly incongruous styles (folk metal, world-music influenced metal, etc). These are gimmick-based ways to stand out – “Sure you’ve heard metal, but have you heard it with a xylophone as a lead instrument?” I’ve never cared for that kind of approach, which again is simply a personal preference. I just want to hear extreme metal with actual songs. Speaking of Scum, even a song flies by in a blur like The Kill by can manage to have coherent structure –

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They packed all that into 19 seconds – now that’s what I call efficiency.

Sometimes the structure is more obtuse, like most pre-Heartwork Carcass songs. Here’s a comparison of Exhume to Consume and Heartwork to give you an idea of how much they streamlined their arrangements.

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So, while Exhume to Consume is pretty zany, it still has verses and choruses (even though each “chorus” has different lyrics, so maybe I’m fudging the rules a little here, or maybe Jeff was). Fast-forward four years to the much more confident, musical iteration of the band that wrote Heartwork – Not only are there fewer individual parts in this song, but the song reuses more of the same parts in novel ways. I personally like Exhume to Consume better as it’s rawer and nastier in disposition, but in terms of quality songwriting, Heartwork is far more direct and effective. Identifying these elements and being able to chart them out will help you wrap your head around how songs work – after you start seeing similarities in these breakdowns, you’ll start immediately hearing them as you listen to music.

The Patterns of a Certain Individual’s Thoughts

As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the Death catalog, Chuck’s sense of song-structure is one of the clear through-lines throughout his stylistically varied career. Death songs consist of multiple verse sections (usually between two and five), often featuring key / tempo / time signature changes and breaks that culminate in a chorus, followed by a bridge with at least one guitar solo section. After the bridge, the multiple verse sections repeat, culminating in a second chorus and the end of the song. Spiritual Healing is a good example of a longer iteration of that formula with more different parts and The Philosopher is an example of the same song form, but more compacted and featuring an outro. This isn’t exactly your standard pop song-structure formula, but it really isn’t all that different either. Chuck also uses highly repetitive lyrics (often only the first or first two verse sections feature differing lyrics) which help to balance the complexity of the music with something that remains catchy and listenable. Here’s a breakdown of three Death tracks from different points in their discography as well as a Gruesome track:

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When I’m writing for Gruesome, it’s a very specific process that reflects my interpretation of the Death catalog, not necessarily what I would do from my own sense of song-writing style. We also tend to have more parts and breaks because we don’t have the novelty of having our own style – we’re assuming that the listener is familiar with the source material that we’re referencing, so we spend less time displaying the individual riffs and throw a bit more stuff at you because you’re already familiar with it. We presume that we’re already on the same page as the folks listening to us – we like Death, you like Death. So we take some liberties in terms of pacing and amount of riffs per song compared to what Chuck and the gang(s) were doing.

Money, meet mouth

In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, here’s a breakdown of songs that I’ve written for four pretty different projects, so you can see how they compare structurally and call me out for any number of musical transgressions:

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They’re certainly not identical, but… they all have 2 or 3 verses and 3 choruses with guitar solos in the middle so they ain’t exactly wildly different either.

Pounder “Web of Fear”

Scarecrow “Scapegoat Parade”

Stairway to… Somewhere Else

Before I wrap this up, I want to discuss one other fairly common song structure type I haven’t gotten into but I alluded to earlier when we looked at Ridden With Disease. I call it the “Stairway to Heaven” structure – a song has a fairly traditional verse / chorus structure but then instead of a traditional bridge, the song goes into a contrast section that develops as much as a separate song normally would and – here’s the important part – never returns to the original verse / chorus section. These songs often retain the feeling of being more “jam” oriented, a vibe that is mostly associated with 60s and 70s stuff. Here’s some examples.

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One important thing about these three examples is that each use different ways to contrast the sections of the song. “Stairway” has a drastic dynamic change between the initial part of the song and the second half, “Mesmerized…” goes from 4/4 timing to 6/8, and “Sanitarium” uses a tempo shift and consistently loud dynamics to contrast the second section of the song from the moody dynamics of the verse / chorus part of the song.

Chartwork (see what I did there?)

To anyone who wants to improve as a songwriter, I’d task them to find 10 songs that they like and break them down similarly. Then, take 10 songs that they don’t care about but are “hits” or “classics” and break those down. If you really decide to attempt this, make sure to include stuff from different genres and different time periods. You may be surprised at how structurally similar many of these songs are.

When I do stuff like this, I usually grab a guitar and try to at least figure out skeletal interpretations of each part, and make notes on chord progressions, how many times each part repeats, the number of beats of any transitions, etc. How deeply you go is up to you, but you should at least be constructing rough outline maps like the ones I’ve included above.

My intent behind this fairly extensive comparison / contrast exercise is to find commonality between different songs and understand their differences in construction. You should be able to make maps of your own songs and unless you already have a record deal and are playing packed shows every night, you should probably work to make them look fairly similar to some of the examples above. As I press onward into this exploration of songwriting, I’m going to get into practical examples of building a song and analyzing different transitions, but I feel like this post is already pretty bloated and unwieldy, so if you’ve made it this far, thanks!

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!