We Were Promised Jetpacks' second album In the Pit of the Stomach represented a bit of a departure for the band's songwriter, Adam Thompson. He wrote their first album These Four Walls in a rather spontaneous fashion: not paying too much attention to the lyrics, just playing the music and, in his words, sometimes "mumbling anything to get the song done." The lyrics were almost an afterthought.
But that changed with Pit, because with this second album came expectations from the music world that were absent from their debut. After all, you don't get that "it's time to make another album" feeling before you've ever done anything. So Thompson's lyrical process, and in turn its content, became more deliberate: though he still never sits down with the express idea of writing a song, on Pit Thompson tried to string together themes across the songs while spending more time on his laptop crafting the words (and drinking some good rum, I might add).
WWPJ toured the US late in 2011 and embarks on a European tour in a few days. They'll be back in the US to play Coachella in April. Read my interview with Thompson about his songwriting process after the video.
How old were you when you wrote your first song? And why did songwriting appeal to you?
I was about fifteen. My dad was in a band, and he used to play guitar to me when I was in the bath as a little kid. He used to just sit there and play for me. When I was about twelve, I decided that I wanted to play, so I bought a Squier Strat with my pocket money and Christmas money. I started writing when I met Sean and Lackie, our bassist and drummer. We started by playing covers, which wasn't that much fun, so I just started writing and writing.
What's a typical songwriting process for you?
I've never sat down to write a song. I've always just picked up the guitar and started to play. I don't think I've ever said to myself, "I have an afternoon free, so I'm going to stay inside and write." I just pick up the guitar and mess about. If it sounds quite good, I remember it. Then maybe a week or even a month later I'll come back to it. It usually always works out that I'll have about three different things, little pieces of music, in my mind, and there will be a eureka moment when I realize I can put it all together. I find that if I like the song, I keep going back to it and keep working on it. The ones I don't really like are the ones I don't remember. But there's always a spontaneous and relaxed approach to songwriting, though that's changed a bit with our second album because there's that "it's time to do another album" feeling. We really concentrated a lot more on actually writing songs.
It sounds like you make a deliberate effort to set an idea aside once it comes to you.
Yeah, I've never had that urge to really finish a song once it comes to me. If it's good enough, I always come back to it until I feel I've done everything I can with it. Then I introduce it to the rest of the boys.
Do you ever feel like you lose the emotional intensity of a song if you are always setting it aside? What's the advantage of returning to a song over and over?
If I think about a song too much, I just end up annoying myself. If I ever consciously think about finishing a song, it never happens. The best is to leave it for a while, to not even think about it.
When do the lyrics appear in your songwriting process?
That changed for the second album. For the first one, we recorded a demo and it never really bothered me if we didn't finish the lyrics. I'd just mumble anything to get the the song done. Laughs. It was like, "Fuck it." If I liked playing the song, I'd just play it and work my way through it. So for that first album, we just pieced together the lyrics over a long period of time, and they were always changing.
But for the second album, I found writing lyrics really hard, because I've never been one to write everything down at one time in an outpouring of emotion on a piece of paper. Over half the lyrics on this album I wrote after doing my guitar parts, and I just spent a couple of days drinking rum and listening to the demos and writing stuff on my laptop. It really was the first time I had ever written anything down so deliberately.
Was there a change in the lyrical content on the new album because of that new process?
On this new album, I made everything tie into everything else a bit more. There were a couple of phrases, for example, that I used across a couple of songs. That helped me tie all the songs together, whereas on the first album every song was its own separate idea. There were themes on this album. I remember repeating words like stumbled, staggered, stuff like that.
It sounds like the music drives the lyrics.
Yeah, lyrics are always the last thing. It's never bothered me to never write a song about a topic. I never really think about what a song is going to be about. It's usually about nothing and everything at the same time. I never think about writing a song about how I feel. Looking back, though, I thought a little bit more about writing about certain topics with the second album.
It's an almost poetic way of looking at songwriting: you let the sound of the music drive what the words are going to be.
I've always found it difficult to write words down without music. It almost seems silly and forced to me. I like to be a bit vague with the lyrics, to get more of a gut feeling than to actually listen to what is going on. You get that if you don't think about it too much and instead let your subconscious drive the creative process naturally.
Do you have to be active in the inspiration process, or do you let it wait and come to you?
There is a point when you've got to knuckle down of course, but for me it's about letting it come naturally. I think about a couple of words that sound good together and about creating nice imagery from that. But I do think that there has to be a balance between knuckling down and letting it flow.
Is there anything you do to get inspired?
I pay attention to strange phrases that I hear in conversation that dob't make too much sense. I'll take a mental note of things I hear.
Are you a computer person or a pen and paper person when it comes to lyrics?
I used to keep it all in my head, but I used the laptop for the new album since I wrote a lot of lyrics in a short amount of time. I'm a laptop guy now. It's a lot easier to write down alternative phrasings to lines when I've got my laptop.
Do you keep notes everywhere, or are you generally pretty organized when it comes to song ideas?
I have an iPod Touch and wrote the notes and song ideas on that. So when it came to do the second album, I had a long list of phrases to use.
How do you know when a song is done?
As a band, we play a song over and over. Just play it and play it play it. Then at some point in the process, we all just look at each other and say, "Yeah, it's done." Everyone just nods and smiles.
What the ideal emotional state for you to get your best writing done?
I write at home now, but when I was at university, I used to always write after coming home from nights out. I'd just plug in my guitar and start playing. Lots of playing drunk. Laughs. That was really good. But I'm at home living with my parents now, so that's a little harder to do.
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