Chris Farren, the vocalist and guitarist for Fake Problems, is a disciplined man when it comes to songwriting. When he's in one of his "writing cycles," he gets up early, eats, takes care of distractions, then sits down to write. In fact, he compares this process to an "office job."
And when he writes, he almost always begins with a single line in his head, not music. That's something that I haven't heard too often from the songwriters on this site, who usually begin a song with a guitar and music, letting the lyrics emerge from the chord progressions. And this discipline is reflected in how Farren's songs are created: he writes them in a linear fashion, in the same manner you hear them as a finished product.
Fake Problems is in the middle of a brief break before setting out on the road again in support of their album Real Ghosts Caught on Tape on SideOneDummy Records. It was produced by Ted Hutt, who also produced The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang (read my interview with Gaslight's Brian Fallon later this week). I wrote a review for Real Ghosts in the Washington Post in advance of their show in DC recently, but it never ran because the show was cancelled. There is considerable variety on this album: doo-wop, dance punk, and pop rock, with some country and folk thrown in. It’s all held together, though, by guitar-centric songwriting. There are many places on this album where Fake Problems remind me of a happier version of The Thermals.
Read my interview with Chris Farren of Fake Problems after the video.
A little bit. I tend to dabble in writing in general, but my primary objective is songwriting. I do that more than anything else in my life. It’s my real passion. And I like to control the aesthetic of our band and work with like-minded artists who fit into the right mold and aesthetic view I hold our band to.
Like with record covers, posters and anything that our music comes packaged in. I like it to all have the same vibe. With every record cycle, we have the same artwork for the full lengths, and we like the 7” to have the same font and text. We’ve been fortunate to work with Chris Norris, who goes by the alias Steak Mtn, as our artist for the past three full lengths.
When you say you dabble in other kinds of writing, what do you mean?
I write stories on my computer or in my notebook. Everyone in the band is a writer of some sort. Derek and Casey are writing short stories now. It’s something we do to satisfy our creative outlet. We have so many ideas as a band. I hear about bands who don’t have many ideas and who struggle to figure stuff out. Our problem is narrowing our focus to one idea since we have so many.
Tell me about your writing process.
I definitely have a routine. I normally come up with one line that intrigues me or could lead to an idea. I sit down with that line and start playing something, anything. If it’s good, it’ll start moving forward. Then I come up with a second line and the first verse, then the chorus. I write songs part for part, in the order they appear. I’m not the kind of person who writes a chorus, then goes back and writes the verses. My songwriting process is very linear. At times I’ll tweak and add a small piece, but not often.
Most songwriters I interview don’t start with a line. How does it come to you?
I’ve tried writing the music first Sometimes I’ll write a whole instrumental to a song, with all the components of a verse, a chorus, and a bridge. But when I try to write the words or a vocal melody, it always feels like I’m putting two things together that don’t belong together. If I can’t write the words and music together and make them fit, it never works.
Where does that line originate?
A lot of the times it just pops into my head. You know how people say that dreams are a reflection of what’s going on in your life? I relate it to that. The line comes out of nowhere, and it’s my job to write a song to figure what it means.
Do you find yourself writing songs based on what you hear or read in your daily life?
It’s a combination of all my surroundings: the songs I hear, the movies I see, the books I read, or even conversation.
How active are you in seeking out inspiration?
The best songs come from nowhere, and I don’t know how that happens. When it happens, It’s magic and you can’t recreate that. But I also believe that if you are not exercising those creative muscles, you are less likely to get there. So when we’re writing a record, I try to write a song a day to make sure I am working towards something. I might come out with a few songs that were forced, but the natural ones always shine.
I agree that it’s important to write every day, regardless of the genre. Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
When we are approaching a writing cycle, yes. I wake up every morning and try to treat it like an office job. I set a schedule where I’ll wake up at 9am, eat breakfast, then do the things that will distract me during the writing process. I start writing around 11am. I try to set a stopping time, and that’s how I know it’s going well because I choose not to stop on my own. But sometimes I just won’t be feeling it, and if I dedicate 5 hours to it and can’t come up with a song, it’s ok to step back.
It sounds like work, which is a dreaded word to many songwriters.
It is work, but it’s always fun.
When you write, is there an environment where you are most productive?
I like to lock myself in my room. I live with most of the people in the band, so I like to write when no one’s home since I sing in my room to work out things. Sometimes I’ll be self conscious as to how it sounds out there to my housemates. But most of the time, confidence powers through it.
When you are writing, are you tempted to share something with them that’s not completed, just to get some feedback?
No. That would be an awkward conversation. It’s important when I write a song to make it as clear as possible for the other band members as to what vibe I am going for. I tend to make the truest of versions according to what it sounds like in my head, then record it as a home demo.
When you compose lyrics, are you a computer guy or a pen and paper guy?
Computer. A Blackberry guy.
That’s pretty rare.
I like computers for their flexibility. Instead of crossing things out, I move things to the bottom of the page to see if I can come up with a better idea. I am always hesitant to delete any lyrical ideas.
How do you know when a song is done?
Most of the time I write a whole song on acoustic guitar, then I’ll put it down to some drum loop, then put the vocals over that. A lot of times I stop there, but sometimes I add bass or another guitar keyboard to flesh out the idea in my head before I present it to others.
The band lives in Naples, Florida. What does living there offer to the creative process?
Maybe the weather? We’ve got sunny days, then we have shitty, rainy days. In Naples, there’s not much going on as far as an artistic scene. No music venue, just bar bands. Ironically, that isolation breeds in me some real desire and passion for creating.
That’s an opposite response to what I would expect. I’d assume that a thriving scene would make it easier to create.
Oh, I would love to be a part of a more active arts scene, but it drives me to create my own artistic scene in my room.
What’s your ideal emotional state for maximum creativity?
Confidence. After I’ve written a good song, that’s the best time to continue writing. Almost half the songs I’ve written have come after writing a really good song. It’s that confidence that helps me. Like, “Wow, I've done it, and I can definitely do it again.”
What do you do when you have writers’ block?
I’ve experienced it, and usually it starts at the beginning of the writing cycle for the band. I’ll spend a week writing a song and go into this great depression, thinking how I’ll never write a good song again. Then I snap out of that. Like clockwork, after a week I’ll write something and get excited. That’s when I’ll write another song. It snowballs.
I’ve always overcome it. I just need to get over that initial barrier of writer’s block and get my bearings again. It’s not so much about being blocked. It’s more about that I am on the road for months, then back home. Every recording cycle is like that. It’s more about knowing what my mind is trying to tell the rest of my body to do.
Everyone’s creative process comes in waves. You have to recognize that you can’t be prolific all the time. How have you matured as a songwriter?
I’ve learned not to obsess over one topic. Our first two records were pretty much concept records about the same thing: mortality and religion. A whole lot of vaguely theological sarcastic ideas about religion. I was on a roll because that’s what was inspiring me. But now I listen to those records and think, “Will I just shut up about devil already?”
Inspiration is a difficult thing to grasp. It’s hard once you get to thinking about your career as a musician with a back catalog. You look at past releases and wonder if they fit in with topics you write about now. Is it too cheesy? Too out in left field? Is it pandering?
I’ve learned to broaden my horizons and accept that once I’ve written a song about something, I can move on. I don’t have to rehash the same idea. I’m getting better at writing about a lot of things, instead of just about what I am thinking about at that moment.
Have you become a more efficient songwriter?
Fore sure, because now I know when a song is bad. Even if like it, I can tell it’s not going to make it.
How aware are you of your environment when it comes to gathering ideas?
Very. I have a Blackberry with a memo feature that is nothing but one liners of songs. I also have another memo that is just titles. But I never write a song starting with just the titles. I just look at it, and it tends to get me thinking about song ideas.
What kind of literature are you interested in?
I Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. I just started reading the one about Pat Tillman. Krakauer can really capture emotion and attitude.
Into Thin Air was fantastic.
I am really intrigued by other people’s ambitions and delusions. It leads to either success or disaster.
Do you try to address that idea in your songwriting?
Real Ghosts caught on Tape is about unfulfilled expectations. It's about saying that when you are a certain age, you are going to be doing something specific. Then once you get to that age, you still aren't doing it. So that’s where the ambitions and delusions come into play.
Common Ground: Also read my interview with