Most bands have one tangible element in their name. Sure, there are exceptions, but most have at least one. You can touch a vampire, but you can't hold a weekend. You can't see a best, but you can walk along a coast. So in this sense, Paul Spranger's band Free Energy is somewhat unique, since their name consists of two intangibles. But after talking to Spranger, it makes sense. He has a keen interest in philosophy and spirituality, both in his writing and the writings of others. For him, It's more about the abstract and ethereal, rather than tangible objects. After all, how many people would list Carl Jung and Bertrand Russell as some of their favorite writers?
In March, Free Energy was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the "Best New Bands of 2010." So read my interview with Paul Sprangers as we talk about his creative process. You'll learn how his sleeping habits affect his writing process, more about his affinity for Jung, and what kind of stories he wrote in elementary school.
As far back as I can remember, I was writing stories. This was early in elementary school. I wrote by hand on lined paper, pages and pages of stories. I didn't know why. I would imitate movies or include character from movies.
Was there a theme to your stories?
Fantasy and violence, a lot of guns and swords. Then in middle school they become grittier and more complicated, but they still had that Die Hard or Robocop theme, regurgitating any pop movies I had seen.
How long did that continue?
When I got to high school, I started getting my own ideas for stories, and I started writing massive outlines and treatments, but I would never finish them.
When did that start to turn into songwriting?
I don't think that there was really a natural transition. I was also playing piano. I always had melodies coming into my brain, so I guess I don't look at writing songs the same way I look at writing a book.
Did you have any favorite authors growing up?
When I was growing up, I would read stuff like Less Than Zero, but I also read big graphic novels like Tintin. Maybe that explains all the fucked up imagery like fantasy stuff in my writing.
Do any authors today influence your songwriting?
Now I read mostly non-fiction, like Erick Fromm, Carl Jung, Terence McKenna, Buckminster Fuller, Bertrand Russell. I like to read stuff about spirituality.
You are one of the first songwriters I've interviewed who talks about reading a lot of non-fiction. How do you find that influences your songwriting? The act of reading fiction or poetry is an easy connection with the act of songwriting, because there's similarities in things like structure, style, and imagery. But with non-fiction, not so much.
But that's the connection for me. There's an absence of style, and the authors I mention are really interested in truth. Their writing is honest, and I hear a pure voice. That's what I aim to do. Their writing is about self-understanding, and that process is what interests me. That's part of art: your unraveling of your own self. That's what informs everything at a bottom line; any style or choice will be based on that process of self-understanding.
When you sit down to write, what do you do?
Sometimes I'll get a melody in my head and will record it, or Scott will riff on it and make it go in another direction. But as far as the lyrics, they always begin as another melody, and the melody suggests certain words or word shapes, the way your mouth moves, and you keep sculpting it down. Then I play with it. Same with the imagery. I feel like there is something absolutely suggested by the music when it comes to writing the lyrics.
How important are the lyrics?
They are important, but they should be innocuous. They shouldn't be attracting attention until you want to make a point. They should be woven into the song, into the fabric, until a certain point in the song when you use them like hammers.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I am very undisciplined, but I do act as soon as inspiration strikes. So if I get a melody, I will record it, or if I get an an idea I'll write it down. That's a big component: acting on my impulses.
But do you ever worry about not being inspired?
I am constantly inspired. There is no lack.
So what inspires you? Do you pay attention to what's around you and write it down?
I've read authors that do that, but I don't think I am aware enough of my surroundings to do that. I'm not a journalist type. It's more like very abstract ideas for me.
How do you go about revising your lyrics?
I keep rewriting them like a madman. I'll keep rewriting a phrase and maybe change one word. Sometimes I'll write the same thing over and over. My revision process is very scatterbrained. There will be words, like a word soup, all over the page. Everywhere.
So you compose on paper?
It's always been on paper and in my drawing journals. But lately I've been doing it on the sticky pads on my laptop.
Is there anything you have to have with you in order to have a good writing session?
I don't know that I have to have anything, but I need to be by myself. Driving is a good time, when I am mulling over things and suddenly I'll get a melody that I will build upon after humming it.
Do you ever get writer's block?
I've never been in a position where my creative output has stopped. I tend to have more ideas than necessary, for any given project. If I get stumped, my problem is that I keep fighting to make it work. I don't stop to acknowledge that I am blocked. The best thing, really, is to stop and work on another song. It's like a puzzle: you have to stop and look at something else from another perspective. You're not in the zone and you're not inspired, so the quality of work won't be as good.
It sounds like you are just filled with ideas. Why do you think that is?
I don't think it's necessarily more ideas than anyone else. Ever since I was young, I've always acted whenever I get a spark. My friends--some of them are writers--get these great ideas, and I tell them that they have to act as soon as it hits them. They have to stop and acknowledge what's happening. You are either telling your brain it's a high priority--and for me it's the highest priority in my life--or it's a spiritual thing that's been brought to you. Either way, just the act of acknowledging it is the essence of creativity. But if you make excuses, like you are too tired or you have to go somewhere, you're conditioned let these things get away. It's all about letting your brain open up and things come through.
Do you get a lot of middle-of-the-night inspiration?
Laughs. A lot of people talk about how they wake up from dreams with all these great ideas. I am so interested in dreams, and I want to be inspired by them, but I am a heavy sleeper and usually don't wake up.
So someone is writing a college paper on the themes of Paul Sprangers. What would they write?
That's a really good question. There's certain words and images that are satisfying to me, even outside the music, that I try to apply to the music. Things that have been totally ingrained in me since I was a young kid growing up in a small town. That's why I like Springsteen. He finds inspiration in totally horrible things like roads and streets and cars. He still finds the heart in these things, and that's appealing to me. I like to find the dark stuff in a positive loving light. So there's a lot of dreamy city imagery.
What got you into Carl Jung? That's typically not on people's reading list.
When I first read him, he was suggesting ideas about the world and consciousness, and the idea that the physical world is simply this reflection of our vast unconsciousness. Of course there's his idea of the collective subconscious, the thought that there are recurring archetypes and that we are almost at the whim of our own collective unconscious because we don't recognize them. But they keep popping up.