This site is woefully short on metal, which surprises me given that I grew up listening to the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. My tastes have expanded, but I still love to revisit my roots (and play "Hallowed Be Thy Name" at ear-splitting levels). Sadly, the only other metal interview on this site is with J.D. Cronise of The Sword.
A few weeks ago I was at the Red Palace here in DC. Above the din of the bar, I heard a killer riff (you can always hear metal over crowd noise). I was mesmerized. I asked the bartender who the band was. "Red Fang," she replied. "They're from Portland, and they're awesome." And she's right. So last week I talked with Bryan Giles, one of the songwriters and guitarists in the band. He's in the passenger seat in the video below. Their new album Murder the Mountains (Relapse Records) drops in April, so read my interview with Giles about his creative process, including how endless repetition is an integral part of his songwriting.
I let most other creative outlets go by the wayside when I was younger. I used to do a lot of visual art and a small amount of creative writing, but songwriting eventually took over.
Is songwriting a visual process for you?
I don’t think so. It’s more storytelling and mathematics when I write a riff. In our music, if you want to connect with another riff and make it interesting, you want to make sure that two successive riffs don't have the same turnaround time. I might make the second one turn around twice as often as the first one to keep it fresh. So it’s more mathematical than visual.
The structure of music can be broken down mathematically. It all comes down to numbers when you are communicating with each other in a band. You're always thinking in numbers. There’s some really complicated and creative stuff that happens with syncopated drums, for example, and what happens in a three piece band with all the interplay.
Do you sit down with the intent to write a song about a certain idea?
What concerns me now is what the diction will be. I try not to censor my lyrical content; I just want to see what sounds good in the important parts, like how you want two hard beats to hit with hard consonants. I'll free associate until I come up with an evocative word that emphasizes the chord. Then I’ll develop a story to make the word make sense in the song.
When you sit down to write a song, I assume music comes first, then the lyrics?
We are all involved in songwriting, so each song comes together in a different way. But when it’s a song I am writing, my process involves repetition. I usually play the same riffs a hundred times and hum over it, varying things ever so slightly. When I arrive at a space where the riff is good and I'm humming to it, I try different vocal ideas on top of it. When I find something that I like, and the vocal cadence and melody are really working well together, then I worry about the lyrics.
Lyrics are really an afterthought to me. They are important, but I find that the more I think about them, the dumber they become. I write the first thing that comes to mind, and that’s often the case in the studio. I won't have lyrics for the song until we’ve finished the guitar overdubs. I’ll write the lyrics right before I sing. Then I look back on them and surprise myself with how disturbing they are! I’ll look later and say, “Buddy, you need some help.” Laughs.
What's important to you in a song?
We try to be technically interesting all the time, like trying to have multiple time signatures changes in a song. We want to get back to what really grabbed us when were kids. Buts sometimes we have to strip down, like do we really need all those notes? We just strip it down to one chord, because you don't always need the guitar to be doing something challenging. Often that can take away from the vocals.
Is your songwriting collaborative?
Very much so. It’s why i am so happy with our songwriting; we are coming from four different places. We all pick up other people's ideas. One guy will be stumped working on something, then someone will take it and reinvigorate it. We jam in the practice space and try things out, but we also do mashups on the computer by taking parts of our rehearsal and cut and paste on a recording program on the laptop.
One of our better riffs is the meat of the song "Sharks." That came out of trying stuff when nothing was working, and John our drummer suggested that we change it to what ended up being. The products are the culmination of everyone's work.
Do two people ever sit down together to write?
Not too much. Most often a verse and chorus will come together, then everyone will take that idea and strengthen it by adding a bridge. It starts with the individual. It’s great because the first riff in "Prehistoric Dog" was rattling in my head for a year and a half in a much weaker song in a previous band. I always felt bad for that riff because it’s so fun to play, but I couldn't put it to anything. But when I brought it to these guys, it came to life.
Would you consider yourself a disciplined writer?
I’d like to think that I can just sit down to write a song, but that's very rare. I can play guitar, the same riff, for hours, until I tweak it just the right way. The discipline is being willing the play the exact same thing forever. That would bore many people, but I love it.
What is a good writing environment for you?
I would say if I could be in a space where no one can hear me and I can amp it up loud to really hear an open E chord, that’s great. I don’t get that too often. I play my electric with no amp just straining to hear the notes, but that’s not the same.
How do you get inspired?
I am not really a taskmaster, but that actually frees my brain up to play guitar in there. If I get something I like, I grab the guitar to make it happen and see if that fake guitar in my skull is true.
Do you get to read often?
I am not much of a reader now, but one movie that's influenced my songwriting is Blade Runner. The mood, the dystopian future, makes me feel the same way a Slayer record would. I try to capture that feeling. I just read the vampire book Let the Right One In. It blew me away. It was so over the top. Back in the day I was into Vonnegut, books like Cat’s Cradle.
Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are popular among songwriters I interview.
I loved The Road. Read it twice in a week and a half. The starkness and alienation are incredible. If I can make someone feel a tenth of a way that book makes people feel, I'd be happy. I guess the inspiration from books comes from how art puts you in a certain mood, though I am attracted to the more disturbing tale.
When does the new album come out?
April 12. The songs were written at the end of 2009, and the recording process took a long time. Some of the new songs are actually five or six years old. We went back to the archives and pulled out a lot of riffs that we quashed because we were all in a bad mood when we came up with them.
How has your songwriting changed over the years?
When we started the band, we wanted less flash and more meat and potatoes. We now step outside of our comfort zone. The songs on the first album were a lot more homogeneous. I was the screaming over everything. On this new album, one song sounds almost like it belongs in spaghetti western. We trust our ideas more. Track for track, it almost sounds like it comes from a bunch of different bands. It has cohesion because of the guitars, but the styles are different. We’d all get really bored with writing four chord punk songs all day long. If someone has an idea—any idea—we go with it.
Common Ground: read my interview with J.D. Cronise of The Sword here.