Listen to the UK band Sharks, and you'll hear echoes from some of punk's classic acts: The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Social Distortion, and The Stooges, among others. Coincidentally, they toured last year with The Gaslight Anthem, and this spring they'll be on tour with Social Distortion before setting out on the Warped Tour. For singer/guitarist James Mattock, songwriting is a personal process; in the past, he's always found himself writing more for himself than for his listeners. However, now that the band's profile is growing, Mattock at times struggles with the public profile his lyrics now have.
April 5th is the release date for their debut LP The Joys of Living 2008-2010. Read my interview with James Mattock of Sharks after the video.
There isn't a strict step-by-step process. Lyrics and music come together naturally. I can't force them out. I usually write the lyrics for the band, and our guitarist Andy brings me the music. A certain vibe to the music evokes an emotion in me that I want to bring out in the song.
Sometimes I have a page or two of lyrics and some music. And I'll sit down and start improvising different lines to see what fits in the bars. Just see what sounds good, then elaborate from that. Most of the time I pick up melodies straight off the bat, then think of words that fit the melody. Sometimes it's about finding a syllable that fits. A melody comes to mind and I start singing gibberish, and usually some lyrics come from that. I can have a whole song with gibberish, then the proper lyrics fit later. Or I'll write template lyrics that fit the melody, then go back later and put together the song with an actual subject.
What gets you inspired to write?
Mostly different music and different stories. Even books and films. Like if I hear a song that really speaks to me and impresses me, I interpret what they are saying in my own way. Sometimes I have a a preconceived idea of what I want to write about, but usually I sit down with a paper and pen and words just flow organically. Whatever feels right, I just go with it. When I start writing, that's when I realize what it's about. But I don't think there's a strong idea that we are trying to force on people. It's not like there's some big idea of what this band is supposed to be about; we aren't political or anything like that.
You mentioned that the words flow organically when you write. How much do you revise those words that come from that process?
I don't necessarily think that whatever comes out first is the best fit. It does change most of the time; sometimes I even change words to make the song have another meaning. I do revise a lot, but the ironic thing is that I consciously try to make the lyrics sound really simple. I analyze each line so that it sounds good to me. And that might even cause the lyrics to take on an abstract meaning. But I'm not sure that matters, since most of the time people don't even read the lyrics. It just ends up being background music. But as long as I am happy with it and I'm getting my emotions out, I'm happy.
So it sounds like when you write, it's as much for yourself as it is for the audience.
Yeah. It's only really recently that I've started to become aware that people are listening to us. It's interesting to hear what people have to say about the lyrics, because those words are quite personal. And sometimes I have a hard time explaining them. In some regards, I liked it better when I just wrote for myself and didn't have to think about other people hearing or seeing my words.
It sounds like it's harder for you now.
Yeah, it makes me much more self conscious. Because I'm on a higher platform, like I should be discussing more universal subjects. I think about it too much, to be honest. I torment myself with what I should be doing. But then words come out, I am right back in the game, and my head is clear again.
Does that give you writer's block.
Yeah, definitely. I'm actually having a bit of a time with it now. We've got demos to record in a month, and we need five new songs. We only have one or two. They'll probably be the last songs we write before our album, so it's driving me crazy. They have to be extra perfect, since if they are the last songs, they will ultimately decide what the album should be.
I've found that overthinking something can really block me. But eventually, things click and I start to write again. And a whole bunch of other stuff starts gushing through. So I wait on that moment. I don't worry about it though, because I see it as a part of the process. I wish right now I could step back a bit and wait to get inspired, but this is sort of an inconvenient time.
Do you carve time out of your day to write, or do you just sit back and wait for those words?
A bit of both. We have a huge tour coming up, so I am just spending my days in my room, writing songs. And that can be a headache. But I'd rather have more time to think about my lyrics. We are not a punk band who comes up with lyrics on the spot. The lyrics mean a lot to me, and I want to take all the time I can with them. I want to do something interesting with them. The more time I have to structure the words, the better.
Does it frustrate you that people don't look too much at the lyrics, even though they mean so much to you? Lyrics matter to you, so it's got to be extra pressure to write meaningful lyrics that people pay attention to.
I don't want to get too hung up on that. I'd rather stick to what I want to do and not worry about if people pay attention to it. But people like you and me look at the lyrics of songs, so I am writing to those sorts of people.
When you write, are you a paper and pen kind of guy?
I get too distracted on the computer. I can concentrate more if the page is there. And I can let my hand flow and write whatever comes to mind. On the computer, I always think about my words before I type them, and that ruins the creative moment. With a pen, I doodle. I write words and lyrics. And when I have a page full of lyrics, I start picking pieces out that I like.
What books do you like to read?
Charles Bukowski has been quite a big influence. His poetry is great. His words are often deep and melancholy, and he's got a cool way of bringing it down to earth, not in a silly and depressing way. He's a straight talking and funny guy. I try to go there as well with my writing.
How important is it to start and finish writing a song the same day?
That's a good question. Sometimes if it takes too long, the original intention changes. As long as it ends up being something I am happy with, it doesn't matter. Even if the subject matter changes, that's fine, so long as the words are good. If you are onto something really meaningful, you'll get it done in one go. If it's something really specific, like if something happened on one night, you'll finish it in one sitting. And if you don't, the meaning might change. That's not always bad. I've done that before: I've set it aside and gone back to it later with a different headspace. I changed it for the better since I had a different perspective and a more open mind after returning to it.
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