UPDATE: read my review in the Washington Post of Somewhere on the Golden Coast.
Joey Siara, singer and songwriter for The Henry Clay People, doesn't really deserve all the credit for the band’s infectious sound. Let’s give credit where credit is due: his Secret Santa.
You see, a few years ago at his old job, Siara got a Secret Santa gift that he actually used: a small writing journal. And for a songwriter, something as portable as a journal is literary gold, since it means they can write whenever inspiration strikes. And that journal even saw the banks of the Seine, when Siara, doing his best Lost Generation impression, sat and wrote with it while enjoying a glass of wine on the river's banks.
The Henry Clay People are a Los Angeles band, currently on tour with Silversun Pickups and Against Me!. I saw them a few months ago in Salt Lake City when they opened for the Drive By Truckers: a true rock n roll double bill. Siara has described the band’s sound as being a mixture of 70s Neil Young-type rock combined with a punk aesthetic. It’s certainly economized: the songs are short, the guitars loud, the lyrics anything but heavy handed.
Of course, when Siara told me that he had just finished reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the whole "word economy" thing made more sense. In fact, as you’ll read, that book had a profound effect on his songwriting. No doubt Hemingway would approve (especially of the colorful language) when Siara told me that The Sun Also Rises made him want to “cut the bullshit” out of his writing. The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books, but when Siara told me that he also loves Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night—one of the subjects of my dissertation—I had a hard time containing my excitement.
So read my interview with Joey Siara. We spoke recently on the phone. You’ll learn what he does for writer’s block (again, it’s so Lost Generation), his favorite period in world history, what book he just can’t finish (in this, he is hardly alone), his favorite time to write, and what one topic he would love to write about.
How did you start as a writer?
Besides short stories for school, probably the first creative thing I wrote were songs back in seventh grade. I listened to the radio and once I heard enough rock songs, I figured I could write some myself. So I wrote some pretty crappy punk rock songs in seventh grade on a guitar that my grandmother bought me. When I got to college, I fancied myself a critic and wrote some reviews for my college newspaper. As a career, I first considered the journalistic side of writing as opposed to the creative side. I never really thought the band would be putting bread on the table, so there was one point in college where I thought, “Yeah, maybe journalism would be a good career path for me.”
Where did you go to college?
UC Santa Barbara. I was a history major. I started as a film major because I wanted to make films and write about films.
What's your favorite period in history?
I am kind of obsessed with the French revolution. It was such a bizarre time in history, with these enlightened ideals along with horrible bloodshed.
Talk about the physical act of your writing process.
First and foremost, I've always been more of a guitar player than a songwriter or lyricist. It usually starts with me pacing back and forth with a guitar in my hand and playing a series of chords that I like playing and that are comfortable for me to play. I guess it's changed over the years, but lately it's been midnight or 2am walking back and forth in my bedroom with a guitar as I hit these chords. Then I'll tell my brother or the rest of the band, “Hey, I've got this song, but I don't have the lyrics or really the melody.” In the end, the only reason why our songs are melodic is because the chords are melodic. The vocal parts aren't necessary hook-y, because it’s almost talk singing.
A lot of times before I go to bed I'll have a glass of wine and just sit with my laptop and doodle stream of consciousness ideas. And then maybe a couple of weeks later I'll have this nonsensical stuff that I've written, so I'll combine bits and pieces of that into the song. That's one way I write.
Another way is that I have something I know I want to write about. I’ll attack a subject, trying to keep it short and sweet and to the point. We don't stray that far from the typical verse-chorus-verse, but I am pretty meticulous with getting the words right and getting them right the first time. I'll spend an hour spitting it out on the page, then go back one verse at a time and make sure it feels right. I'll try to sing it in my head. Then the next day, if I like that, I'll probably try to sing it to myself again in my room. If it passes that test, then I'll take it to the band. Usually when I do that, it goes out the window, because I realize I have too many words per line; while in my head I can sing them all, spitting them out live onstage is a lot harder. I have to go back and axe my word count.
A perfect segue—what are some of your revision techniques?
I have to be aware of clichés. I think for songs, less is more. It actually works well that I write too much and have to go back and axe words and ideas, because sometimes it won’t make total sense. But to me that's part of the fun of songwriting: the audience can fill in the gaps themselves. I definitely have fallen into some rock and roll clichés, like writing songs about being on the road. I am very conscious of that, and I'll say to myself, “Oh my god, I'm writing a total road song.” So I'll cut down the road imagery and try to make it about something else. Or I might write a sad sack relationship song and have to figure out a way to make it more ambiguous.
I like songs that can be about two totally different things. “Working Part Time” is a song that a lot of our fans tend to cling to because it's about being broke and being in a rock band. And while it's about that, it actually arose out of a road trip I took right out of college. In order to pay off the road trip when I got back home, I had to get three part-time jobs. So if you listen to the song it would be really hard to say, “Oh yeah, it's a road trip song.” For me, at least, it's nice to think that the song started in one place, and whatever life people give to it is cool too.
What themes or topics inspire you? If someone were to say, "Joey writes about X," what would you want them to say?
About being in my mid to late 20s and still having a thousand question marks over my head. I think that's more or less what we write about—figuring out what it is we are supposed to be doing. Why are we doing this, and what means is it and end to? Am I supposed to be an ambitious young man scraping my way to the top and becoming a music industry suck ass, like I hope I don’t become?
Are you very conscious about not having that label in your writing?
Oh yeah. The three main things I write about are the “downtrodden, we are poor but we will overcome” songs, the “relationship moody” songs, then there's the “beware of the music industry and being corrupted by it” songs. Sometimes within one song, we'll hit all three themes!
That's impressive. That's really compacting your message. It's what I tell writers to do: be quick and to the point. Did you always want to be in a band, or did you have other career paths?
At the end of high school, I wanted to be a journalist. but then I got kind of lazy in college. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But the band was never supposed to be anything more than a hobby. My parents were supportive, but they kept on reminding me, “The band is just a hobby, the band is just a hobby.” Then the band started to pick up steam when my brother was still in college. I had graduated but he had not since he is younger, so they were constantly telling me, “We will support the band, we love the band. But we need Andy to graduate from college.” They were terrified that he would drop out of school and focus on the band. But for a long time, it was just a hobby, just a way to be social. Now, I'll ride this wave as long as I can, as long as it takes me, and then I'll be a rock critic.
How much collaboration is there in your writing process?
Laughs. I tend to be pretty authoritarian. I don't let them breathe as much as I should. I've done experiments where I've let the reigns off, but at the end of the day I am a control freak. The band all knows this. The good thing is that our piano player and bass player are in other bands and they are the creative forces behind those bands, so they get it. They understand what it's like to be a control freak songwriter. Our drummer is probably the best drummer I've played with and one of my oldest friends, and while he is not a songwriter, he knows exactly what I want. By default, my brother is the most difficult person in the band, but at the same time I look at him as my editor. When I do have that clichéd lyric or something that is too heart-on-sleeve cheesy, he'll be the first person to be brutally honest with me.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
Writer’s block sucks, and it is the most real, depressing, pain-in-the-ass thing. I totally had it, and I have it a little bit now, during the post record-release time when I know I need to be writing songs. I am very conscious about writing songs that sound like the old record. And like I told you earlier, with those three things we write about, there are only so many ways to say them before it looks stale. That’s the hard part—trying to say similar things in different ways. I’ll drink a bottle of wine, write some stuff down, drink the other half, then start writing nonsense on the paper. Or I guess it’s Microsoft Word, now that I’ve upgraded from the yellow tablet.
So you defeat writer’s block through alcohol?
Laughs. Yeah, I guess so.
I say that seriously because some people defeat writer’s block by not writing, but you do it by barreling forth. Writer’s block is a lot like insomnia, where the more you think about the fact that you can’t sleep, the harder time you have falling asleep. It’s the same with writer’s block. I tell people that the best way to overcome it is to stop writing.
You mentioned legal pads. Is that a favorite method of composition for you?
Actually, the computer is recent thing. I just bought a laptop that I keep next to my bed. I used to keep a yellow pad there. Now I’ll open up my laptop and write a few lines before I fall asleep. And I have this five-inch wide journal that I got as a Secret Santa gift at my old job, and that thing is good because it fits in my pocket.
Last year we went on a family trip to Europe and I carried that journal around to write songs while sitting on the Seine drinking a glass of wine. What city is more inspiring than Paris?
When it comes to typing thing on the computer, that’s the most refined of the three mediums I use, since it usually is the second draft of things I’ve written on the pad or the journal. Except when I use it for my late night brainstorming sessions.
Drunken brainstorming sessions and writing on the Seine! You are in good company with a lot of famous writers like Hemingway.
Yeah, I just hope I don’t end up like they did.
Any quirks to your writing process?
Going back to the writer’s block idea, I am a sucker for collecting guitars. That’s what I spend all my money on. So whenever I am stuck with writing, I’ll ditch whatever guitar I am writing on and write on a totally different guitar. I write certain songs on certain guitars. I only have two guitars that I play live, but the amount of songs I’ve written on other guitars is ridiculous. I’ve probably had 30 guitars in the past ten years. I compulsively buy and sell on eBay and craigslist.
Back to the Seine idea, what is your perfect writing environment?
A cabin somewhere as far away from civilization as possible, because I get distracted too easily. I’ll need a guitar and a record player with tons of records. I find my most immediate inspiration from listening to records. No TV, no computer. I grew up going to Mammoth Mountain for family vacations, and there is something about going to a place like that which makes me weepy nostalgic. Just throw a fishing pole in a lake, and I’ll be set.
When you say “record player,” you mean literally records?
Besides guitars and music equipment, buying records is my other vice as long as I can get a good deal. When we are on tour, we scour the country for good vinyl shops, and I will spend most of my per diem on records.
How much do you get to read on tour?
Well, speaking of Hemingway, I just read The Sun Also Rises for the first time.
And what did you think? That’s my favorite book.
Really? I thought it was great. It made me want to cut all the bullshit out of my writing. It's so sparse but so vivid, and I can sense him saying those words. It changed things for me in terms of wanting to write as simply and colorfully as possible.
I think Hemingway is one of the most descriptive writers in the past 100 years, yet his language is so simple. His descriptions of the bullfights are so bare, yet you feel like you are there.
Very true. I don’t end of reading as much as I like, but I read a lot of books about the music industry. But I have a stack of novels I want to get through. My problem is that I want to read the classics because I feel like I should be informed by the greats. I would like to someday read more James Joyce. I’ve made it through the first chapter of Ulysses twice, but couldn’t get past that first chapter.
Well, my PhD specialty is 20th century American drama—all plays! Very short.
Long Day’s Journey into Night by O’Neill is one of my favorite plays.
Excellent—that’s one of my dissertation chapters! Last question: what’s the one song you want to write but that you haven’t written yet?
I’ve been around a lot of family lately, and it’s a sensitive thing to write about. Touring, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of family members that I never met before or that I barely knew. My dad has a giant family spread all over the Midwest, and growing up I never saw them that much. So on tour, I’ve made an effort to reconnect with these people. And in doing so, it’s terrifying that these are the people that I don’t know at all, but they've opened up their homes for an entire band to stay with. And they are gracious and loving and awesome people, and when I talk to them I feel like they are family. Who cares if we haven't seen each other for 20 years—there’s some kind of transcendent connection there in our blood. I’ve been wanting to make a song about that idea, to hit on the subject of family ties that are so strong that you don't even need to be present to have it. I don’t know how to write about that without being heavy handed, and heavy handed isn’t really out thing.
For more on The Henry Clay People: