What is it about Gio Betteo and cockroaches? Betteo and the rest of the Young Prisms wrote their debut LP Friends For Now (Kanine Records) in a roach-infested apartment in San Francisco's Mission. Not exactly the most conducive place for creativity. Now consider this: one of Betteo's favorite works of literature is Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," a story about a man who turns into a giant cockroach. Betteo was "disgusted" by it, but that disgust was what attracted him. Knowing that, the whole cockroaches-in-the-apartment thing makes a bit more sense now.
Betteo is one of the songwriters for Young Prisms, whose brand of no-fi psych rock is winning accolades on the band's current US tour. Read more about Betteo's creative process, including how living in San Francisco is a boost to his creativity, after the video.
There's a lot of things I enjoy doing, but I would never take myself seriously as an artist in any of those forms. Like painting and drawing. And some collage work. Just general visual arts. Matt and I have done short films and screenwriting. I like to tell stories within any medium I can.
Any idea why songwriters like to be visual artists?
I'll often have an image in my head, like a still from a film, and in that sense film and music go hand in hand. Painting is similar, but there is a more fantastical twist.
Do you start your songs with an image?
Definitely an image. Most of the time it involves a character, whether it's me or someone else, and I retell a story. Like the opening scene of a film, whether it comes at you as a harsh or a soft intro, but I always have an image of a main character in whatever medium I am creating.
Every song opens like a film for me. "Weekends and Treehouses" off our first EP was the second song I had ever written, and it was the most vivid image that had ever popped into my head. It might have been the intoxicants, but that song opens with two teenagers in a treehouse. They are experimenting with things like alcohol and pot. It's about the first time you experience life on your own.
How do these images pop into your head?
Admittedly we have done our fair share of experimenting, which makes the images and fantasies more vivid and easier to write around. "Eleni" is about my friend Andreas who moved to Greece and fell in love. A lot of my songs are about someone I know and often about how they are altered.
Can you group your songs in any thematic sense?
Half of the songs on the new record are about the experiences and surroundings we have at a certain point in our lives. It's about being young and experimenting with life in your early 20s, the people you surround yourself with, and doing fucked up shit with these people who are not going to be around you for that long. The title track on the new album, "Friends for Now," is pretty straightforward with that idea: we all have friends, we do fucked up shit, and no one really cares about life now. You do all this without even second guessing it. At this point, we get more drunk on Monday than on Friday, and it's just because we don't care.
But...since we wrote that record, things have gotten a lot brighter, so the next record will be happier. Laughs.
I don't think I seek out inspiration. There's a point in the process where we'll force ourselves to be inspired. We've been on tour for the past 2 1/2 months and didn't have the time to write about things that have come to us in that span of time. So we locked ourselves up in a studio this past week and brought it back out. We got back in touch with what were were thinking about.
It's kind of a mixture of both, as far as seeking out inspiration or letting it come to us. I don't go out and try to force myself to write about what I've seen or done. It's mostly about waiting until the mood is right. Songs start with a basic idea, and my mind is flooded with hundreds of those. I'll sit down and let half of those out.
When you let them out, what comes first?
It's different for every song. With "Eleni" the music came first, but with "Sugar" it was the lyrics. "Dream Catcher Panoramic" was written with guitar in hand while writing the lyrics and vocal melody all at the same time. What I would imagine Dylan doing, strumming a few chords and letting everything come naturally.
Do you find that the idea for the lyric is formed by the music you start with?
Sometimes. You can't really write about how you love your mom when the music is dark and in all minor chords. Sometimes the music makes me change the lyric or think of something darker.
How do you compose?
Pen and paper, or a pen on my hand. I've never typed lyrics. Pen or pencil is the most real way to write it down. It feels the most personal. And writing it on my hand makes it even more real. I can't stand typing lyrics because I feel like it's just going straight to the cyberworld. On my hand, I can go over it whenever I want.
When you sit down to write, what's a good environment?
Some were written in our disgusting apartment, where roaches were literally coming out of the walls. It was so uncomfortable, but we did some recording in a practice space we shared with the band Weekend in SOMA here in San Francisco, and it was pretty comfortable. And we wrote our newest songs in a proper recording studio, so I guess we keep on moving up.
How does living in San Francisco contribute to your creative process?
There's a lot here that gives you a drive to be artistic. We live in a neighborhood in the Mission where bands work and live. My parents moved to the suburbs when I was young, and living there for a short period of time after high school totally drained me. There's no energy. But here, the bar at the corner is a great environment to develop ideas. Even the people who work in the restaurants have energy that you don't have when you are surrounded by residential housing in suburbia. There's a lot of artistic presence. You go to the bar, and the guy at the door played the night before at a place like the Independent or the Great American Music Hall. It just makes you more inclined to be artistic.
Anything you read recently had an impact on your songwriting?
The last book I read that had an impact was Kafka's The Metamorphosis. I've read it at least three times. The first time I read it I was 15 and was disgusted. There's something about that feeling of disgust that made me go back. I wanted to know why it disgusted me. That applies to my reaction to films as well. I saw Irreversible like six times in the first week, because I was so bothered by it. It didn't make sense, and I just kept going back. The Metamorphosis was disgusting, bothersome, and kind of annoying, and I didn't really understand. He's such a downer, but I wanted to re-explore it.
How do you know when a song is done?
I can't answer that because no song is ever done to me. I wish it was, and the band always asks me why I don't think a certain song is done yet. Most of the time it gets mastered and released anyway.
Would you say you are a perfectionist in your songwriting, then?
I'd say it's more that I am stubborn. Like if there is a song where I use a lot of overdrive on the bass, sometimes when I listen a few weeks later, I wish I had turned down the sustain down a little bit. Things that no one else cares about. I always hear something that I want to be different. When we were mixing the album, I was listening to it five or six times a day. And by the fourth or fifth time, I'd hear melodies or harmonies that weren't there, because I was creating more in my head that I thought could be layered or added.
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