After talking to Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs, I want to thank his utility company for still sending him a paper bill each month. You see, Granduciel eschews the traditional notebook favored by most songwriters as the place to write his lyrics. Instead, he uses scraps of any paper lying around, which oftens happens to be the back of retail receipts, parking tickets, and electric bills. He piles these scraps into a heap on the table in his studio (and warns his girlfriend that it isn't trash), where they form the basis for his songwriting.
What I found most interesting about Granduciel's process is that he favors imperfection. As a teenager, he was immersed in photography and painting, and just as he does in those creative endeavors, he finds that the "unintentional little mistakes" that emerge from the creative process of songwriting often produce the best work. Those scraps of paper I mentioned above only contain lyrical ideas, because Granduciel tends to hold lyrics in his head and "write" them in that space until he's ready to sing them. He doesn't do much revising: much of what you hear in his recordings is a first take improvisation after the lyrics have stewed in his head. With "Brothers," for example, eighty percent of the lyrics were improvised; it went, in his words, "from nothing to something in six minutes."
Slave Ambient is the latest release from The War on Drugs. They'll continue to tour in support of the album in 2012, and this is a show you don't want to miss. I've seen them twice in the past couple of months, and without a touch of hyperbole I can tell you it's one of the best live shows I saw in 2012. Read my interview with Adam Granduciel after the video.
For the last couple of years not so much, with the exception of photography, which I've done for a long time. That's a true hobby of mine; eventually I'd love to get stuff printed large scale or do a photo book. I started when I was around fifteen, and when I was in college I did tons of Polaroid stuff. I spent all the money I ever made on 6,000 Polaroids. Around that same time, I got into painting; I've always loved to paint and draw. I don't do so much painting anymore, I guess because I don't have the space for it. I continue to study art, though. For a while, I was writing short stories. If I need to get away from songs, I'll move to something else to keep it flowing.
Many of the songwriters I interview are also visual artists. Do you find that your other creative outlets bleed into your songwriting process?
I don't think they are connected in that sense. The cover of the new record is indicative of the stuff I do with photography; I do a lot of medium format stuff with light leaks. And painting-wise, I've always been into the 50s and 60s Bay Area abstract painters. I think it's connected to my music because I'm not afraid of the unintentional little mistakes that will happen in songwriting, just as they do in visual art. That's what I'm drawn to in my painting and photography: it's about embracing little accidents and the general feeling of not worrying about how straight a line is but about the color of the line.
And that's the same way in your songwriting?
Yeah. I don't perfect things and then record. For me, the writing, recording, and producing is all in one. Some songs are written beforehand, but I'm kind of past writing a song, having it all mapped out, then recording it. I want the little raw moments that happen when I'm creating something to show up on tape and not after the fact.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I like to do it when it comes to me instead of always carving out time. It's difficult for me at this point to sit down with my guitar or at my piano and really write a song and see it through. I've always had problems with that. I find that when I'm in the moment and in my studio and working there for a day or two, that's when things start to happen. I'll sit at the piano, capture something quickly, and start working on it. So while I don't make it a point to write every day, I do make it a point to play every day, mostly just around the house on my electric guitar. I like to listen to stuff I worked on a few months before and try to let the ideas seep their way into my head. Towards the end of that process, four or five song ideas will become one song. Little parts will become one.
It sounds like a very stream-of-consciousness process for you.
It definitely is. I know there is an art to songwriting, and I respect and envy people who can sit down and write a great song with an acoustic guitar in an hour. I've had moments like that on the first couple of records when I was just learning how to write songs and record. But with Slave Ambient, I didn't consciously approach the process differently; instead, I found myself writing songs by playing every day and recording little moments, then listening for hours to those little moments then working on the songs.
With the lyrics too, that's the same approach. As I was working on the backbones at home, I'd always be doing improvised vocals in the moment just to get an arrangement or idea or melody. And through doing that, I'd always come up with these little gems of vocals. I'd come back to the song later as I was writing song lyrics, and those gems always found their way into my songs. It's the same way with the music; I'd record something on the computer then focus it into a finished thought later.
How important is it to refine your lyrics, then, or are you of the mind that what comes out in the first draft is meant to be?
It's a little of both. I like coming out and really saying what I mean to say, then usually as long as the song is alive - that is, before it gets mastered - I'll tweak a few lines from that vocal. By the end it's a mix of 65 to 75 percent improvised in the moment, and the rest of the lyrics are tweaked slightly. A lot of the times it's just the sound of the word that I like. I'm not even sure what the word is that I said in the moment; it was almost just like a sound. And a lot of it is me editing the improvisation while not overthinking it and definitely not trying to perfect it. I usually just tend to know when something feels right; if a lyric is done in the moment and feels a little too rough or more of a sound than a word, sometimes I'm totally ok with that.
So you are willing to sacrifice the word if the sound is more important.
Yeah, and in some cases that's gibberish, and other times it works. Sometimes a sound is more about the mood that it is about a lyrical content.
When I listen to your music, a lot of abstract visual images pass through my mind. Your music is very visual to me. So when you first start to write a song, what's the first thing in your mind, an image or a sound?
In a weird way, it's the landscape of the song, the background. Like the rhythm track or the tone in the background. Sometimes it's a guitar or a couple of chords and a melody. But when I really feel a song coming together, or when something happens to the point where I'm motivated to do something, there's usually a bed or a landscape of sound there that I can see.
How often do you start with lyrics? It sounds like you start with the music most of the time.
Every day I walk around the house and scribble down a few lines in my notebook, but rarely do I sit down and write a whole song first. I might write one verse at a time, but I'm not sure where it goes; it might be a year, it might be five years later that I use it in a song.
Most of the songwriters I interview refer to that notebook stuffed with lyrical ideas. Do you have one of those?
Actually, what I have is more like scattered bills everywhere. I swear to God, I'll just write on the back of my electric bill or the back of a receipt or a parking ticket. Then it's in a pile on a table in my studio. Sometimes my girlfriend will think it's trash, and I have to tell her that it's not. I have ton of notebooks from years' past, but actually I tend to remember a lot of stuff.
Do you ever go back to those old notebooks when you get in a rut?
Absolutely. It's like a circle. A lot of songs on the first record started as lyrics five years before that. The stuff from Ambient, just those little ideas, might have been written around when Wagonwheel came out. It doesn't matter if you wrote or recorded something during a different time of your life, because it's still you. It's just the way that you see it in that moment or play it differently on the guitar six years later that's important. It's about adapting it to the person you are presently. I go back to stuff all the time just for inspiration.
If you go, say, five years back to an old idea, do you worry about losing the emotional intensity you had when you first created it?
Yeah, but that's also true if I wrote a song on my couch and recorded it two months later. I've lost emotional moments there too. It's also not important for me to start and finish a song in the same sitting. At this point of my life, I want something beamed down to me, which happened with "Brothers." With that song, I had the rough drum beat and sat down one night, strummed those three chords, and sang "Brothers" without every writing it. The entire song was improvised, and 80% of the recorded version was truly improvised, and the other 20% was only slightly edited. That song went from nothing to something in six minutes. The same goes with "Arms Like Boulders." The chords were floating around for a couple of days and then one night I wrote the lyrics in an hour. But that kind of thing rarely happens for me.
How important is environment for you when you write?
Definitely late at night is when I get my best writing done, or early in the morning. But I have to be working in the studio. I have to be really involved in the process. I can't write just sitting on the train. If I'm walking around New York City with the headphones on, listening to demos of my music, that's also a good time. I listen and sing along, and words just come to me.
I have difficulty translating the feelings or the words of the lines that come to me, though. Going from my head to the paper is difficult. I lose the moment easily when I do that, and I just prefer to let it exist up there. Then when I finally sing it, it works. I've never spoiled the moment or the delivery that way. I let it sit up there and I remember the lines. I write it all in my head over time, so when I sing it, it all comes out naturally.
You let them stew for a long time before you commit them to paper.
Yeah, but that's if I ever commit them to paper. A lot of the songs on Slave Ambient were never on paper. Instead of editing by looking, I was editing by listening to all the vocals I had done over the course of four or five months. The songs just built up. As I recorded one vocal, I'd do another vocal and just record it a bit differently. Then I'd spend weeks listening to the demo and doing more vocals. By the end, if I felt the need to do a real take, I had been listening and self-editing for so long that it was easy to do one take that's just really in the moment and natural.
How do you get inspired to write?
Although I'm not as disciplined as a long form writer who sits down every morning to write, when I find myself in the moment to work on something seriously for a couple of days, I don't sit around. I think playing every day, keeping in touch with your music, is about going after it as well and not waiting around. But you can't think about it too much and you can't think about deliberately sitting down and writing a certain number of songs. If you do that, the muse can intimidate you. Francis Ford Coppola on NPR last week gave some good advice to writers. He said to sit down in the morning, write 15 or 20 pages, then put it away. Don't come back to it for a few weeks. If you try to revise it immediately and in the moment, you'll overanalyze it. He says that if you let it breathe and come back to it in a different head space, it will make a lot more sense.
How do you know when a song is done?
For me, there's a difference between the song and the production. The song for me is done when it's doing what I imagined it doing. It's sounding like I thought it could sound in my head.
Read any good books lately?
I should read a lot more than I do, but I love Raymond Carver, and I continue to read whatever I can find of his.
Also read my interviews with:
- Nils Lofgren (E Street Band)
- Kurt Vile
- Matt Iwanusa (Caveman)
- Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers, Archers of Loaf)