There’s nothing like a big ol’ crustacean to get you in the songwriting mood. That’s right. If you're a songwriter and need a creative nudge, you should try seeking inspiration in a nice lobster dinner. Because that’s what Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos did. At a restaurant. With his parents.
What’s fascinating about Reinhart is that he never lacks for inspiration. He has, in his words, “a vat of inspiration” in his head. When he mentioned that inspiration is everywhere for him, I couldn’t help but think that he talks like a poet, who sees wonderment in the most mundane of objects. So besides his crustacean-centric creative process, he gets inspired by going to Disneyland: Reinhart has an annual pass, and every time he returns home from a visit, he can’t wait to pick up his guitar.
There is much going on in Reinhart’s head. In fact, he has to actually force himself to stop thinking about things to create. And I love that. Similarly, there is a lot going on in the music of Tera Melos. As I told him, theirs is not music you passively absorb. You don’t have it on to while surfing the net or working out or even driving. It’s music you listen to. This is old school, slap-on-the-headphones, sit-on-a-couch, stare-into-space music. Which we need more of today.
Most definitely. I’m very interested in film. I shot a bizarre, jangly, lo-fi feature with two of my best friends four summers that we self-released. It was a bizarre take on the lives of the people in this middle-of-nowhere town, sort of like a Gummo meets Kids in the Hall thing. I’ve done some other films here and there and put together some music videos. It seems like most songwriters I meet are into painting and other visual aesthetics.
How does that affect your songwriting?
It actually ends up being a problem sometimes. I start projects that go unfinished because I get excited about something else. I end up with a hundred things halfway started. It’s frustrating because I can’t end up finishing a lot of paintings, songs, and movies.
Well, does being involved in films make you a better songwriter?
Music for me is visual. The film we made is called Snakeville. I don’t want to say that it’s stream of consciousness writing, but it feels that way because nothing really happens in it. It seems bizarre, random, and not logical. The cool thing with my music is that I take bizarre ideas and turn them into something that makes sense. I do the same with film. The same with paintings and drawings. My brain is constantly thinking about fun ideas to pursue, and a lot of them are not musical.
That leads to my next question. Your songs seem very visual to me, almost like a musical landscape. Do you start your songs with an image? Where does the inspiration come when you write a song?
Inspiration is something I can’t pin down. I can’t describe how it starts because I am constantly inspired by something, everything. It’s not like I walk down a street and get inspired when I see a man kissing a woman, which makes me want to write about true love. Everything I see and hear funnels into my head and is constantly moving around. And I pick from that vat of inspiration in my head.
Give me an example.
I watch a lot of The Simpsons. I’m fascinated by that show and the cartoon universe, really cartoons in general. What can happen in that universe is infinite. Anything goes, and I really like that concept in music. All kinds of weird shit can happen. And I am also a Disneyland freak. A few weekends ago, I went there a couple of times, since I have an annual pass. Just walking around is super inspiring. It’s this alternate universe of weird shit happening. Something like that gets me excited to come home and play my guitar.
You mentioned the “vat of inspiration.” How do you choose what to pull from there?
Musically, I am writing about stuff. It’s not just the lyrics that have meaning. They come from certain places, but it’s hard to explain why I grab certain ideas. I’m not certain that I choose anything, really; I just play guitar and cycle through those ideas, and usually it happens naturally because all all those musical ideas work together. But sometimes, there are ideas that have been stirring for a year and have never concluded themselves. To make them work, I had to attach new ideas to the end of the old ideas. People say that inspiration is natural and that you have to wait for it, but for me it’s inspiring to take myself so far out of my comfort zone and force inspiration.
That’s a big issue with songwriters I interview—whether you should actively seek inspiration or wait for it to come to you.
I like those pure moments of “ah ha” inspiration, whether it’s lyrics or music. But doing it the other way is very interesting to me. Actually, a lot of the songs on our last record wouldn’t have been completed without seeking inspiration and trying to go for it in that moment. Those parts on the record are some of the most favorite I’ve ever come up with.
Is there a common theme around those moments—like a certain time or place?
Not really, because those moments are always there for me. It’s just when I choose to grab them. My brain is always thinking about that stuff unless I force myself to NOT think about it, and even that’s difficult. Like going to sleep is hard for me, because my brain is constantly moving. Getting back to cartoons, for the last ten years I’ve fallen asleep to a Simpsons episode, since it takes my mind off of the creative process and what I want to get done.
I don’t know that there is a certain place or time, but I am always so pumped up at Disneyland. I love to go by myself. Heck, I can be at dinner with my parents, and I won’t be able to stop thinking about an idea because I just ate a lobster on my birthday. I remember that was a weird moment for me; being at a really nice restaurant eating lobster with my parents and feeling this flood of inspiration.
The idea of finding inspiration and meaning in everyday things is much the way poets view the world.
Yeah, and I actually don’t know shit about poetry. I started noticing it when I got to college. Even reading a book is difficult for me because my brain wanders. Often I need to read the same line over and over because my mind wanders. And it’s like you said, because I find so much magical stuff in the environment. I just love finding these weird, unique magical things in everyday life.
Then how often do you feel the need to write a song about a certain topic?
I would say probably half the time it’s deliberate. The other half, while I may not recognize that I am writing a song about a certain topic, I know that I am inspired by something, even if I don’t know what it is. As far as lyrics go, that’s how it usually works. I am usually inspired not necessarily by something, but about something, like a little story. Lyrical content is always about something.
Do the words come first when you write a song?
Music always comes first to me. I’m not one of those guys who walks around with a Moleskine notebook in his back pocket, constantly writing down ideas. I just can’t do it. Writing lyrics is not the same as writing music to me. I don’t see myself as a lyricist. I am not one of those dudes who’s like, “Oh this is awesome. I have to write it down!” The only thing I do is jot in my phone words or phrases that I hear or read and find interesting. Usually I sit down and really try and process what I want to say. It takes me a long time because it’s all musical. It’s not literally translated into words—it’s all notes. So a lot of times it’s difficult for me to choose the right words that go along with the notes. And on top of that, make it something logical or a story.
So do you revise your lyrics a lot?
Oh yeah. I’ll go back a month later and look at something I wrote and say, “That is fucking terrible. I need to delete this forever.” It’s funny you ask, because I’ve tried to keep journals throughout my life, and I'll go back a few years later and read them. And I am always so irritated with what I wrote. I just want to throw it away, burn it. It’s not that I care about someone else reading that stuff—I’m just so embarrassed to have written it. So I’ll revise ideas until I am 100% happy. That’s why I was so stoked with the lyrical content on the last record. Obviously, I can’t erase any of that, but every single word and phrase I used I am happy with.
Is revision a struggle for you? Do you revise until you drive yourself crazy?
Once I don’t cringe, I know it’s good. Again, I have to like what I come up with, but often that means throwing something out because of one cringeworhy moment.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I have no discipline when it comes to writing lyrics. But that’s what I was saying musically; every day I pick up my guitar and try to grab music from that inner space. With notes, I am extremely disciplined. But I put off lyrics until the last minute. I know it will be a battle in my own head, so I put if off.
Do you get lyrical ideas from the music you create?
Actually, it’s not lyrics, but with me it will be a syllable or sound. Like what word goes with this sound? What word will complement this chord? I’ll jam a part and hear a succession of sounds coming out, and the trick is to find some sounds and make sense of it through the words.
So you want to tell a story with the music, but you also want to tell a story with the lyrics. Is there tension between the two?
That’s funny you say that, because a lot of the times it doesn’t match. There are two different conceptual ideas. Between what’s happening in the melody and what’s being said, it’s almost always two different ideas.
Why does that work?
I don’t know why. Actually a lot people probably don’t think it works. I know a lot of people think we are a weirdo band, so maybe that’s part of it. There’s so much happening musically, and as far as what it all means, it can get pretty dense. But I like it that way; that’s what makes this band the way it is.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Yeah, a lot of times I do struggle, but that’s because I take myself out of the zone of wanting to finish a song today. So I tell myself that I am going to open my computer, and I want a done song when I go to bed. That’s when forcing inspiration comes into play. And because it’s so bizarre, that why it works. Maybe it’s a weird subconscious thing where it is natural, but I'm tricking myself in thinking that I am forcing it. It’s not like I am sitting in front of my computer, researching chords or Googling synonyms, but I do sit there and and say, “Fuck, what does this need?” So I play for hours and hours until I grab it.
Is it important to finish a song the day you start writing so you don’t lose that emotional state you were in when you started?
That’s not important at all. That’s what makes us sound the way we do. I might have an idea from two years ago that I was never able to complete. It’s fun coming back to that and giving it new context, giving it tension between parts. I love giving ideas space, then coming back to them and applying new ideas.
When it comes to lyrics are you a pen and paper?
I am a pen and paper on the fly guy. I scribble ideas or a word or a phrase, then once I get down to writing lyrics, I use the computer. Again, it’s so I can erase all my stupid ideas and never have to look at them again.
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