It's not often that I get to exchange bedtime routines with a songwriter. But that's what Dave Hause and I did at the end of our interview. We had been talking for about 50 minutes and established that we had a great deal in common, so it's probably little surprise that it came to this point. We both read a lot of magazines. Too many, really, to keep up with. So they just pile up next to our beds, waiting to be read. The second we finish one, two more arrive.
Hause's songwriting process and reading material reflect his high level of engagement with his environment. And this level of engagement makes for one thing: Hause is a smart and introspective man. He doesn't just give me answers, he tells me why he does what he does. And he's able to do this because he's constantly thinking about his place in the world. He reads Rolling Stone for the political articles and GQ for the non-fiction. He's constantly picking up auditory and visual cues for song ideas, and he has an endless supply of notebooks and Blackberry files to show for it.
I don't do that much now since I've been so busy with music, but I'm a carpenter and a general contractor. For the first couple years of The Loved Ones, I ran a company with a partner. I went on tour and maintained all the invoicing and the paperwork while traveling. Then I'd come home and go to the sites. There's a lot of creativity there, imagining people's remodeling jobs.
So you have an innate desire to create.
Definitely. One theme I've started to think about as I write a new record is that creating solves some small part of the existential crisis for me. I'm not planning on having any children on my own (Hause has a step-daughter with his wife). But with my work, I put things in a place where nothing was before. Like building structures and making songs: creating things will outlast me.
What's the first thing that happens in your songwriting process?
I haven't found one routine to be the trusted one. The main thing that happens is that I start with small snippets, little lines and ideas. Even phonetic ideas, like a couple of little sounds.
I come up with melodies first. I'm big on melodies. I sing them into my digital recorder and hum a few bars of something that will end up being the hook of a song. Or I'll type a few lines into my Blackberry or in my notebook, something that I think is cool, like a conversation I overheard in a diner or a bar, or some line that a salty mason used on a job site. And a lot comes from movies and political writing.
I have a huge array of ideas. I sift back through them and find stuff that's worth chasing down. I hone the song into a basic arrangement, then take whatever lyrical idea I have and flesh it out. I wish I could say I have a favorite chair or a favorite bar where I write, but it's never like that. Inspiration hits in bursts. Sometimes I'll go a whole tour and not have a single blast of idea. Other times I end up with a huge creative outpouring. Resolutions was a huge creative outpouring, as was The Loved Ones' debut full length. They both came to me in bursts, three of four songs came to me in a week. I had great melodic ideas, then I'd sit down with a guitar and hash out the structure. Then I'd go to a notebook and words would just pour out.
How easy was it to write Resolutions?
It was really easy. I don't mean that flippantly or arrogantly; it was just a huge outpouring of ideas with not a lot of editing. Typically with my editing, I throw away about half of what I write. I hold my songs to a high standard; I'll say "Patty Griffin wouldn't write this," or "Randy Newman would laugh at this song." I probably unnecessarily through stuff away. When I have a basic set of songs, I see what themes are emerging, and that's the guiding principle when it comes to making albums.
What do you throw away?
I throw away the stuff that I'm initially leery of anyway. I have some kind of sixth sense of what I will be comfortable singing. I show stuff to a lot of people, including my wife. Like the song "C'mon Kid" is right on the verge of either anthemic and inspiring or really cheesy. A lot of that stuff rides the line because it sometimes seems too obvious.
It sounds like your creative process is idea-driven rather than music-driven.
Absolutely. Lyrics and music are separate to me. Something I've been toying with, though, is having a song structure that's major sounding, very upbeat, where the lyrics fit the phrasing of the melody in a perfect way that might be kind of negative or dark. At that point I keep the melody but go back and make it a bit more minor sounding, a little darker.
And you get a lot of ideas by listening to conversation? Brian Fallon told me that he never understood how Tom Waits could get song ideas just by listening to people on the subway.
Yeah, people end up saying things that in a different context can be really poignant. If you can be aware of your environment, you can tap into a bit of psychology and see what makes people tick. I can totally relate to the Tom Waits method. Brian has a romantic way of writing; if his glass is half full, mine is half empty.
Do you ever think about where you are or what you are doing when these ideas come to you, so you can replicate the environment and stay inspired?
Yes. Like when I'm mowing the grass or walking. There's something about the movement that gets me inspired. I've come up with a ton of hooks that way. It's the same thing with driving. And I hate to paint on job sites, but when I do, I end up with a ton of ideas.
When you write the first draft of a set of lyrics, is what comes out first usually the best?
You know, I don't hold fast to that. I definitely edit a line or two, but sometimes t all comes in one gush, like "Pray for Tuscon." I put together the basic idea musically and wrote the lyrics. The idea came from Dave, the guitarist in The Loved Ones. He noticed a sign in Tuscon, a religious billboard that said "Pray for Tucson." It was a pretty heavy idea, especially given that we had just seen a bad accident. The first couple lines of that song are about a dead body we saw as we rode into Tuscon. That song is the perfect example of a song that came out in one quick blast. I barely touched it. When a song comes in one blast like that, it usually doesn't need to be edited much.
A novelist, once told me that whatever is the hardest part to write, that's going to be the best part, so don't give up writing it.
That's really good advice. Something that I also need to do start writing a song a week. The problem is that I edit so quickly that I end up scrapping things pretty fast. But seeing through the process of writing one song a week or a line a day, some sort of daily commitment to the work, would be satisfying. I keep telling myself every year as a New Year's resolution that I'm going to write 52 songs, one a week.
Writing every day will make you a better writer. You have to practice to get good.
That's somewhat built into the the commercial aspect of the business as well: writing, recording, touring. Then repeat. You can buy yourself a longer period of time if you are popular, but that's why there used to be so much good songwriting in an artist's early days: they were under the gun to write. But later in life, when you are Billy Joel...when's the last time he's needed to write a hit record? Don't get me wrong, he's a great songwriter. But at the end of the day, I'd rather be on the Elvis Costello side of things. He's just a prolific writer who, when he's dead and gone, we'll have an incredible scrapbook of his life through his music.
Do you write well under deadline?
Lyrically, I do work better under pressure. Musically, I'm not sure. With Build & Burn, there was pressure to get back out on tour because the band had wind in its sails. As a result, I think we rushed things a bit, and I wished we had more time to make some better decisions. But that was musically. Lyrically, I need a deadline, and that's why I'd benefit from a regimen, carving out time for creative output each day, even an hour or two of dedicated time.
How often to song ideas come to you in dreams?
It has happened. But that takes discipline: you have to make sure you scrawl it down. When I was on tour in Europe recently with Franz Nicolay from The Hold Steady, one night in London I woke up in the middle of the night with an incredible melody. But he was sleeping in the next bed. So I grabbed my Blackberry, but I sang it so quietly that I couldn't hear it the next day! Laughs.
In what emotional state do you get the best writing done?
I hate to admit it, but after it's over I've come up with some good song ideas after going through something really emotionally difficult. Like a particularly brutal argument with someone I love: after the makeup has already happened but the wounds are still there, I have a clear idea.
I wrote Keep Your Heart after losing my mom and grandpop in one year, and I wrote my way through that loss not too long after it happened.
When you wrote about the loss of your mother and grandfather, how much were you writing with an audience in mind? Because you were really writing for yourself.
Absolutely, and that's the interesting thing about my path. My first foray into writing on my own was the first Loved Ones record. And that record is all about losing my mom and grandpop, but also about relationships breaking down around me. Again, at that point, there was no preconceived notion about what the band would be. That record established my songwriting.
It's interesting to follow that up with Build and Burn. I took a slightly more objective approach to the songwriting, because I didn't have that visceral pain anymore. But Resolutions came out a lot easier than Build and Burn. Now I'm writing the third Loved Ones record, and I'm writing around a theme that's close to my heart. I wrote Keep Your Heart to get past the pain, and also as a love letter to my sisters and my dad.
That reminds me of what Ernest Hemingway says when he talks about writing about place. You can't write about a place, whether emotional or physical, until you've left it.
I agree with that. I think you need a little clarity. "Pray for Tuscon" is one of the most well-written songs on the album in my opinion, but you at least have to make notes about being in a strange place while you are there. That's why I keep a Blackberry file with so many song ideas, and all my notes and journals. There's notes I've kept for ten years that I want to go back to for the next Loved Ones record.
And it's not hard to go back to the place that you wrote about years ago?
No, I actually find it exciting to go back like that. It's like looking at an old photo.
What's the hardest part of songwriting for you?
The thing I struggle with the most is self-doubt. The best way to work through that is probably to go to a shrink and work it out, but fear can stop you from doing exciting things in life. Every time a new record comes out and people gush about it, I'm like, "Really, you guys like this? That's wild!"
Who are some of your favorite authors or literary inspirations?
One book that really affected the last Loved Ones record was Steinbeck's East of Eden. Hemingway is also big one. Also Arthur Miller. I love his plays. And of course Cormac McCarthy. He's got a simple, yet effective, style.
Why Arthur Miller?
I'm not sure. It hit me at the right time, as did Eugene O'Neill. Reading a play is like putting a movie together in my brain, and maybe that's what appeals to me. My wife and I watch so many movies together, probably three or four a week.
I imagine Miller's economy of dialogue appeals to you as a songwriter as well.
That's probably why I tap into plays: the economy of dialogue. But East of Eden is some pretty descriptive writing, so I do like variety.
I spend most of my time reading magazines like Harpers, GQ, and Rolling Stone. I read Rolling Stone for the political articles. Matt Taibbi is awesome. He's punker than any of the punk guys I know as far as the sharpness of his pen. I read GQ for the non-fiction. And I read Harpers cover to cover. A friend of mine has been trying to turn me on to the New Yorker.
I subscribe to those, plus the New Yorker, Atlantic, and Esquire. But I can barely get through them each week.
Yeah, I need to check out Esquire. But I get so frantic about my magazines. I feel like I have to read all the articles, and I don't have the time. It causes me so much anxiety!
I'm the same way. There's a stack of magazines next to my bed that just piles up, and I find myself going through it quickly not for the enjoyment, but just to make headway into the pile so that it gets smaller.
Laughs. I am the same way! I am glad there's another maniac out there like me.
And it totally defeats the purpose. I do it just to shrink the pile, not for the pleasure of reading.
Part of the problem is that we live in the internet age, where things are coming at us so fast. I have to keep up with Twitter, Facebook, CNN, and all these new sites. How am I going to keep up with everything? I need a job that involves doing research, where all I do is read magazines.
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*photo credit: Jesse Deflorio