The members of the New York City based band The Dig have been playing together since they were teenagers, so they know each other's songwriting process well. It's a good thing, because they have a unique collaborative process: all four are involved in the songwriting. That's not an easy thing to do, but their comfort level with each other makes it easy. (From what I recall, I've only interviewed one other band member whose band collaborates like that: Andy Hamm of the Local Natives.)
I first met The Dig's Emile Mosseri backstage at the Black Cat in DC, where they were opening for The Henry Clay People. They are out touring in support of their debut release Electric Toys. Mosseri gave me a copy of Electric Toys, and while this is not a record review site, I can tell you that it's good stuff. Read about Mosseri and the rest of the band's creative process after the video.
We generally write together as a band. Often someone will bring in a song or maybe just part of a song, then we'll work on it and arrange it together. Sometimes it's just a lyrical hook or a vocal melody. Sometimes it's a poem that someone will put music to. It happens all different ways. Some of the more unique sounding songs were written by everyone.
So what do you bring to the group?
Depends on the song. Could be a melody, hook, verse, chorus. More often than not it's the music, and then someone will write lyrics to it. Sometimes someone will bring in a chord progression and we'll start singing nonsense over it until we find something we like. Then we find a hook and everyone contributes lyrics, a line here or there. After that, one person will take it home and organize it into a song. Other times a couple of us will flesh it out with an acoustic guitar and bring it back to the band.
That's a similar process to what Andy Hamm of the Local Natives told me. How disciplined are you as a writer?
I go through phases of discipline. It's definitely tougher when we are on the road. We've done a fair amount of writing in the van, but for some reason we have a different mindset when we write there.
As for me, I write late at night. I can't write during the day. I teach music lessons when I'm at home, and it seems like inspiration always happens when it's the least convenient. Sometimes it comes at inopportune times; it's hard for me to sit down and say I am going to write something.
Do you set aside time or wait until inspiration strikes?
I do both. I set aside time but get into trouble sometimes when I finish something just for the sake of finishing something. But then if I have one piece of something I am really attached to, I want to sure that the rest of it lives up to that one piece. I feel that if I have a lyric or chorus that's strong enough to be the heart of a song, then the rest of it falls into place quickly. It just comes out. But if I write something something without the chorus or a hook, it takes a lot longer. And the more I force it, the more contrived it sounds. So I sit on it until something pops up.
But doesn't that make you anxious?
Yeah, I feel like I can't just wait around. Whenever I have a lyrical idea, or I hear or read something cool, I write it down and then sift through what I like. It may not end up in a song, but it will often trigger something else. I think it's important to try to be productive even if you know you aren't going to write a whole song in one sitting. So my writing process is happening all the time since I write a lot of stuff down throughout the day.
Probably half of the songs on the new record are fiction, and half are about girls or personal things. Sometimes the guys will read something in the paper that will inspire them, but often it's a lot easier to write from personal experience.
How much do you read?
A lot. I don't feel like I get direct inspiration from reading novels, but I read a lot. Some of my favorites are Dennis Johnson, Jonathan Lethem, Hunter Thompson, nothing too obscure.
You're working with people you've known for a good part of your life. There are advantages to that, of course, because there's a great deal of openness, but is it ever difficult?
It's easier for me to talk about the good. It's great because you can be open and honest about feedback and fall into a routine of knowing how to give feedback. We can all tell when one of us isn't 100% sold on an idea. If someone has a personal attachment to something, it can be disappointing. We've been on the same page musically for a while, but we each have our strengths when it comes to contributing to a song. If I bring a song to Erik, for example, he'll hear something that I never would have heard. That's what you need. It's liberating, but one of the challenges is having all four people get behind the same thing. Since it's a comfortable environment, we keep each other in check.
You mentioned that you are all on the same page. If you know what other people like, are you worried that it could lead to complacency since you're not really challenging each other?
I could be, but I don't think we write things to please other people. But living together on the road and listening to the same songs, that's what puts us on the same page. Your comfort zone and limitations are your style in terms of falling back on the same thing. In a sense it's limiting, but on the other hand it makes you sound like who you are.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
Just play. Sometimes it doesn't form anything, but just playing is a way to relieve stress. Or learning other peoples songs. If I am blocked, I might as well learn a tune I heard the other day, and that will spark inspiration. But that's dangerous: you don't want to learn a song then immediately start writing, because then it's going to sound like a different version of someone else's songs.
Still, learning someone else's songs is productive. It's not as satisfying as writing your own songs, but it's just about playing music simply for the satisfaction, and that's important. We are a band that's going for it, and it's work. It's a job. You drive hundreds of miles, unload your stuff, set it up, play for 30 or 40 minutes, then pack it up and crash on a couch. When you are writing songs, it's work. So it can be refreshing to play tunes just to play tunes. Recently one of our good friends just got married, and we played his wedding. We played 20 covers purely for the love of playing music. That's important to do.