The first thing that struck me when I saw Linfinity earlier this year was the diversity of Dylan Von Wagner's songwriting. They were at Lincoln Hall in Chicago opening for Murder By Death and Ha Ha Tonka. I didn't know much about Linfinity at the time, but I came away impressed by the band's range and inability to be pigeonholed by any genre. As Von Wagner says, "There are so many different styles on our first record. None of the songs sounds remotely familiar." That record is called Martian's Bloom, and it's earned high praise from the critics (I will be reviewing it in next week's Washington Post).
By his own admission, Von Wagner writes many of Linfinity's songs from a point of anger. He's not sure what it's directed towards, but it's there. And it drives his songwriting. But the good thing is that this vendetta makes for a deliberate and methodical writing process, and Von Wagner has a keen awareness of how that process works for him. For example, to be an effective songwriter, he needs to have a routine that allows him to write every day. And that routine, as you'll read, allows him to compare a song to a steak. Read more after the video.
Not really. I was an English major at the University of Vermont. Scriptwriting came naturally for me. I did some of that, and when I got out college I worked at Miramax for a year. When I was in my mid 20s and started picking up a guitar, I was writing short films because I have a lot of friends in the film business. But as far as a creative outlet, it's always been songwriting.
Has scriptwriting informed your songwriting process?
I think that watching films has informed it. I am a film fanatic. I'm into the creative process of films; I think about everything from the structure to the plot from the eyes of a filmmaker. Songwriting is black magic, but scriptwriting can help songwriting as far as the ability to tell a story.
I can come up with some weird stories. Like the song like "Holy Rain." It came to me at 4am on Christmas Eve; the melody was there and it was one of the quickest songs I put together, in like three or four hours. Then a few months later I realized I had to write lyrics for it. Normally I just hum or mumble it while I am playing it for the band, then add lyrics later. "Holy Rain" sounded like it was about some sort of terrorist plot, so it ended up being from a policeman's point of view in Algeria. A woman had just blown herself up in a hotel room, and he is sifting through the rubble.
So when you write songs, do you see yourself as a storyteller?
Eventually. Sometimes I have an image in mind that will become a story. Some songs, like "Martian's Bloom," are existential, where you are thinking about the possibilities rather than an actual story going down. Some songs are snapshots of a scene. "Seesaw Love," believe it or not, is about hookers and a guy addicted to sex. I wrote the song and then thought it sounded like some old-time 1800s ballroom song of some sort.
You mentioned images. Most novelists I've interviewed start with that; they don't start with a plot, but with a single image in their minds.
All of the songs start with an idea or melody or riff. Sometimes a verse and a chorus, other times just a verse. Usually it starts with that creative spark that pops in my head. That's the curse of songwriting: if you don't do it, you go insane. When you love music and want to create it, you are constantly thinking about it. But at the end of the day there's genius: you are sitting in the shower and something comes to you. Or, you are sitting around writing material and messing around on the guitar, and something pops up. That's where the creative spark comes from.
Songwriters seem to go one of two ways on this. They are either actively seeking out inspiration, or they know that it will come eventually and don't worry about it happening.
The great thing about being in a band, where you travel all the time and meet people and have new experiences, is that the songs will come to you. You don't need to go looking for it. I used to live in London, and one time I went to a museum to see if I could get inspired. It was a bunch of bullshit. Like I am going to look at a painting and be flooded with ideas? In a city like New York, there is stimulation everywhere. You don't need to seek it out.
But do you ever get anxious when the ideas aren't coming?
The inspiration comes from playing. You're sitting there trying to find something. That's the journey. With your brain and instrument and vocals, trying to take it somewhere. It doesn't come from hanging out on a mountain. That's total rubbish.
So take me through your process when you write.
I have a master list of songs I've come with and an 18 track that I demo on. For our next record, I have probably ten songs that are ready to be brought to the band. A lot of times I'll be out on the street, and a melody comes to mind that I'll put it in my Blackberry. Then when I go back to writing, I'll go through it and read through all the notes or melodies I recorded to see if I want to latch on to anything.
That's the most important thing. If you wake up at 2am with a song in your head, you gotta get out of bed and do what it takes to get it down, even if it means going into the bathroom with your Blackberry and singing it. Then you can come back later to see what you want to do with it.
So at home I'll take three or four hours just to go through a bunch of songs. Maybe one doesn't have a chorus, or another one has a bridge that sucks. I keep on going through them, not spending too much time on each song, until they are all developed. When you know you have a good song, you feel like you've heard it before. Then I bring it to the band. They translate the song into something. I bring the blueprint, and they build the building.
When you say "idea," does that idea take the form of a lyric or a melody?
It's always melody. Writing lyrics first is tricky. When I work from the lyrics only, I restrict the melody because there's only a certain number of beats in the verse, for example. I could change the lyrics to help the melody, if a verse line, say, has too many beats or words, but then it's more restricting because I have to sing the notes that are in those words. But if I don't have the words, then the melody goes where my brain takes it. At the end of the day, that's the song. It doesn't matter what I'm saying if I have a great song. Eddie Vedder sings "Yellow Ledbetter" and its lyrics are just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, but it's melodic when he sings it.
So many of your songs just start with a bunch of mumbling?
Yeah, like with this recent song I wrote called "Boom Boom." When I was singing it, natural words just started coming out after a while. A lot of times I'll use those words to come up with a story. I'll start singing something, and a couple of definable words will come out, and it will guide the story of the song. In the finished product, it's about how the words flow together. Like William Butler Yeats, the poet. His whole thing was that the words flowed well.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
Extremely. That's how you get good. You constantly set aside time with a guitar and fiddle around. That's when the magic happens, when you've been working hard all day and are about to quit, and boom. That will never happen if you don't put the time in.
So you do set aside time to write?
Oh yeah. It's also about the fact that there is so much anger. That's what drives me. I operate on a vendetta level towards music. It's a vendetta against somebody, I don't know who or why. If I don't work at it, I become a moody shit. It comes from a lot of anger or something. Like I am out to prove a point.
I try to mix it up. In the evening when it's dark, I get some good ideas. And around 3pm is great for me, for some reason. My apartment is a good place for me to write.
It's about making sure that I am constantly in a routine. Even if I'm touring, I have to write. If I don't, I'll get to the end of the tour and be bankrupt with no songs. I don't have a lot of time on tour, but even an hour a day to squeeze in helps. Playing for an hour and a half and driving eight hours in a van is not going to get the songwriting done. It's not the 1990s anymore, where we can sit in the back of a tour bus and write songs all day.
But I have to do it every day. If I do it for an hour a day on a forty day tour, that's forty hours, or a week's worth of songwriting. That can easily be four or five songs.
How do you compose?
On a sheet of paper. On Martian's Bloom, I made the mistake of writing the lyrics late, after the songs were written. And I'd sing some songs live and almost forget the words. Now, when I finish a song, I write the lyrics immediately so that it's ingrained in me.
What inspires you?
Certain things inspire me. Anything to do with resistance or war or sex; I like a little shock and awe in music. Rock n roll is supposed to be a cultural car bomb. There are so many different styles on our first record, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. It might take people a record or two to get used to, the fact that we are all over the map stylistically.
So on the second record I want to be more adventurous. Even the new songs we're writing, none of the songs sound remotely similar. But that's the point of rock n roll; you want to throw a monkey wrench out there.
How do you know when a song is done?
It's done when it's done, like a steak on a grill. You just know. You know how to cook your steak. If you like it medium, you'll know when it's medium without having to look at the inside. You might have a song that you think is definitely medium. Then you bring it to the band, and they say, "No, you have to take it off the grill and re-season it. And cook a whole new piece of meat." Or they might tell me to chop the steak up and make it into a salad.