The following post first appeared on wearenoise.com in May 2013.
Conor asked me to expand on the themes and ideas in the songs on ‘Dark Matters’ for We Are Noise readers. I’d be delighted. Given a platform for some self-promotion, any independent act will jump at the chance. Reaching genuine music fans without the might of a PR company behind you is incredibly difficult. New music is so disposable in the Internet age. If someone with a big budget isn’t bankrolling advertising and PR, your independent album will most likely sink without a trace, regardless of how amazing it is. Thank goodness for We Are Noise. People say the album as a format is dead. I couldn’t disagree more. I’m ambitious about songwriting and I think songs need to be grouped together to give each other some kind of context. In isolation a good song is still a good song. But when you hear it in the context of a good album, your appreciation deepens.
Comfort Zone. Oddly enough, when I first wrote this song I played it much faster and with a lot of brute force on the acoustic guitar. It was almost punk. The lyric was delivered defiantly, with an undercurrent of violence. You should leave me in my comfort zone if you want my advice. The phrase ‘Comfort Zone’ is usually used to imply small-mindedness. I often take common themes and well-worn phrases and try to spin them into something new. My comfort zone is my music room, a creative space where ideas and innovation can thrive. It’s where I can escape the mind-numbing vacuousness of the world and engage with my imagination. During recording, I slowed the song down a bit and wrote a sweeter arrangement. I added some harmonies and made it all far less aggressive. Bouzouki and surf guitar, ukulele and rumbling feedback filled out the arrangement nicely.
Every Day We Wake Up. I’ve been writing more and more piano songs. This one is so much fun to play. The rhythmical interplay between the piano and the drums is really interesting. But it’s actually a straightforward song with very simple chords. I used some phat synth bass and distorted sawtooth pad on the album version. For the live version, it’s going to be Joe bowing a distorted electric double bass and James with his guitar in dropped-C tuning. We haven’t got a piano for the live shows but it’s been fun reworking my pie-in-the-sky album arrangements to play to our strengths as a band. Andy’s the most gifted harmony singer I’ve ever known, he’s taken what I’ve recorded and knocked all the rough edges off. That’s a weird thing about the way this album came together, the band were busy, I just went with it. For the next album I’ll have everyone on board, and it will sound very different. It’s really exciting. The song lyric is about having a positive attitude, about how you just have to pick yourself up and slog on through all the crushing setbacks and disappointments of life. That’s probably the main theme of the album, perseverance.
Reinventing the Wheel. My bass was on loan to a friend of mine, so I was playing around with the same kind of rumbling feedback I used in ‘Comfort Zone’ and ‘Feelings Unlike Words’ to fill out the frequency range. The droney bass effect jumps from left to right speaker every other beat, and that of the high-pitched ‘F’ drone oscillates between the speakers at twice the speed. This causes a dramatic effect, best enjoyed on headphones. It made me feel manic and energised, hyperactive even. Without a proper plosive bass in the mix, the driving rhythm of the acoustic guitar was a solid foundation for some verbal dexterity. Most songs have 16 beats in a bar, this one has 20. It’s five chords instead of four, constantly wrongfooting expectations and creating lots of opportunities for tasty rhythmical embellishments on the drums and interesting phrasing in the vocal delivery. The lyrics in this one are deeply existential and personal. It’s about the amount of time I’ve already spent thinking about the big philosophical questions, life, death, existence, religion, all of it, and how I’m still no closer to knowing anything about any of it. It’s a self-aware song, aware of the well-worn themes its exploring and the pointlessness of any of it, knowingly and sarcastically going over old ground, like a broken record might be a valid reinvention of the wheel.
Hell Is a Waiting Room. A song about how dreading something for a protracted period can be far worse than actually experiencing it. A pretty solid premise, explored with dark playfulness. If there was a Heaven and Hell and even a God as well, I couldn’t guess what Heaven would be like. But Hell, I’ve got some ideas alright. Could be the stretching out of your anticipation and the wringing dry of your imagination, you don’t know what but it’s coming soon. I think that Hell is a waiting room. I included an allusion to a doctor’s waiting room, as we all know how horrible and terrifying it can be to wait when you may or may not have a serious condition. I was thinking of when all the staff where I work had to get TB tests as there was a confirmed case involving someone we were working with on a daily basis. That feeling of waiting for results is just torture. Luckily I was TB free. We have containment. Condition green. I’m particularly fond of the dirty distorted bass and the piercing overdriven synths on the choruses. They’re really expanding on the chords, turning the straight majors and minors of the verses into colourful sixths, major-sevenths and minor-sevenths as the chord voicings ascend. I really went to town on the harmonies, too. Actually that’s true for nearly every song on the record.
Dark Matter. This is another song about adopting a more positive attitude in the face of all the unknown and unknowable things that can play on your fears. I was also thinking about the experiences of a lot of mentally ill people I’ve known at work down through the years. The capacity of the human mind to play tricks on itself is awe-inspiring. Being a witness to other people’s delusions and hallucinations has made me very curious about the power of the mind. Delusions and hallucinations can be manifestations of extraordinary imagination and creativity. It’s very sad when all that creative potential is lost, and the person who’s suffering can’t tell what’s real anymore or maintain any kind of emotional stability. Parallels are often drawn between the human brain and the universe itself. In both, there are a lot of unknowns. Dark matter (or dark energy) is the mysterious force that seemingly holds the universe together. Scientists speculate as to its properties, but most agree it’s there. Something is there. Carrying dark matter as a metaphor into the brain, it becomes the areas of our consciousness that we will never fathom. It’s the source of our deepest insights and our biggest failings. We can’t know it. And yet it’s who we are. There’s a lot of weighty ideas behind some very relaxed and oblique lyrics. Most of all, I was enjoying the durrty groove and coming up with the oddball harmonies. It’s kind of a weird composition, never properly in one key or another, a bit minor and major at the same time. That stuff really interests me and I love it when the musical ideas tie in with the themes and lyrics of the song.
The Human Condition. Originally this was a more orchestral composition. I worked out all the parts and played them with awful cheesy synth sounds for clarinet, violins, viola, cello, tuba, trumpet and trombone. Obviously it sounded terrible, but as a compositional exercise it was worthwhile. For months afterwards, it kept popping into my head all the time so I eventually wrote some lyrics and did a more guitar-centric arrangement. The musical star of the show is probably the Rhodes(ish) piano, at least until the harmony guitar solo comes in. The E-string on the bass is tuned down to C#, so you know it’s hardcore. The lyrics expand upon the predominant air of existentialism in the album lyrics so far. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed sometimes. Everyone does. There’s a term for your condition, it is human, human, only human. Flowers don’t ask for permission before blooming blooming. Again, positivity and perseverance are the order of the day. The whole album is like a massive pep-talk for anyone who needs it. We are still vessels waiting to be filled. Still we are wonders waiting to be willed.
Noughts + Crosses. I often put myself in someone else’s shoes and try to write from their point of view. I think music, at least the kind of music that interests me most, is largely about empathy. For this song, I tried to imagine how Elliott Smith must have felt before plunging a knife into his own chest. It wasn’t that hard to imagine. He put all of that into his music. The more I got into it, the more I could empathise with where he was coming from. Noughts and crosses is my homage to the Xs and Os of Smith’s songwriting. I don’t know why people are always infatuated with these dead icons. I don’t know why David Bowie wrote Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. But for some reason it speaks to me and to a lot of other people. I suppose good mythology has always involved lots of death. I’m trying to explore that in a healthy open way, with lots of catchy guitar hooks and vocals delivered like a manic dramatic monologue. It’s all slightly tongue in cheek, well aware of the tortured artist caricature it could so easily become. The heavy subject matter is offset by the poppy, upbeat, energetic mood of the chords and arrangement.
Feelings Unlike Words. I’ve written a lot of waltzes. This one has very simple chords and a very direct lyric. It’s about letting go of your troubles and frustrations and enjoying the moment. As billions before us lived out their days, we’re made to be happy in small simple ways, to sit by the fire and gaze at the blaze. This one was also recorded while my bass was elsewhere. It might be the reason I went for such simple obvious unequivocal chords. The undercurrent of bassy feedback that builds throughout the song compensates for the lack of a bassline and adds something different. When the harmony piano melodies come in, right after the lyric ‘gaze at the blaze’, I tried to make it sound like the piano was on fire. A touch of overdrive, a touch of reverb. That and the crowd of handclaps on every beat, the fullness of the three-part harmonies, the richness of those bouzouki chords, make the song feel like a communal bonfire. And what are we burning? We’re burning our fears, our insecurities, our hang-ups. We can exist in the same simple obvious way that human beings have always existed. When you let go of all the intellectual baggage, we’re just animals who want to be comfortable.
Been Burned. I wrote this song about (or rather, for) a close friend of mine. I won’t get into specifics, but many many things went wrong for him over the space of a few years. There were deaths, legal battles, financial woes, personal betrayals, family drama, relationship problems, health worries. I wasn’t doing so well myself, but I wasn’t quite in his league when it came to being totally screwed. So we would constantly complain to each other about how terribly unjust the world is and how selfish and unimaginative most people on planet Earth are. It became our hobby. It slowly dawned on me that my negative reaction to my numerous setbacks was compounding my problems, that staying positive and being open and trusting are the only ways to move forward in your life. I wanted to get through to my friend and lift his spirits. That’s why the lyric in this song is so straightforward, I’m just talking to a friend. Ooh don’t, please don’t think, don’t think it’ll always be like this. It won’t.
Fresh Starts. The cryptic lyrics stem from the ideas in a surreal short story I wrote about organ harvesting. That’s neither here nor there. On their own, the lyrics are probably wide open to any kind of interpretation. Maybe it’s better left that way. Musically, it again blurs the lines between major and minor, the effect all the more dramatic this time as it’s all one big droning D chord. There’s a sustained menacing tension in that drone. As the song builds it gets really intense. Listen loud on headphones.
The Beersoaked Blues. I really wanted to conjure the image of a dirty redneck dive bar, I wanted to write a proper country song. And proper country for me is always very dark and nihilistic. Sometimes on stage I sip a brandy, someone told me once that it’s good for your singing voice and I’ve actually found it to be true. I drink something strong to loosen my throat, so that I might hit all the high notes and sing of higher hopes. I thought it would be a nice theatrical thing, to sing that line after having sipped my brandy. It takes the audience into the song. I can then speak directly to them. From this stage I can see every face, I’m drinking up the atmosphere of the place. Oh, the beersoaked blues. After almost yodeling the word ‘blues’ I shout HEY! (as in, “Hey, I’m talking to you!”) I got a feeling that your feelings are the things you choose. The tinkly piano part was the most fun to come up with, that lazy bluesy saloon honky-tonk thing. Since we’re piano-less for the live shows, James is giving it some real twang on the lead guitar instead. And Joe’s doing it on the electric double bass. I’m loving the new live arrangements. When I was recording the album version, my friend Geoff (from Letters to the Echo) was on holiday and I was feeding his cat while he was away. So I stole (borrowed without asking) his acoustic bass to get a more country sound. I think the guilt of the stolen bass adds to the authentic country effect.
Soso Farso. I was playing this song on the piano for months, singing random syllables and la-la-las until a song coalesced from the fragments of meaningful phrases I would sometimes randomly generate. This is about as poptastic as I ever get. It almost doesn’t matter what I’m singing, but since I know I’m probably going to have to sing it a few hundred times I try to write interesting lyrics before I sign off on it. When I behold beauty, shit is juxtaposed. You can trust your eyes but try to also trust your nose. Eventually you reach a point where it’s like the song has always existed and it wouldn’t make sense any other way. Like ‘Been Burned’, this song explores the themes of trust and empathy. James Eliot Taylor plays the drums on this one. He’s playing guitar in the band and he’s a great songwriter in his own right. Check out ‘Artichoke Stew’.
Flip a Coin. I don’t write many love songs or break-up songs. This one is about that feeling you get when a relationship is dying, that feeling you could go one way or the other. And that raw emotional confused feeling leads you to not care one way or the other, you may as well flip a coin to decide. Ultimately you’re better off making a decision and accepting it, whether it’s to break up and be done with it or to resolve to make a real effort to heal the broken relationship. The things we do for love. The vocal delivery plays on this unsureness, leaving a long gap mid-line. I don’t want you… to be unhappy. This is another song that’s kind of country. The ukulele and bass sound tight together, leaving a really nice space for the vocals and the guitar solo to float around in. My little ‘Oh yeah!’ at the end is a nod to John Lennon.
I Don’t Think (A Song in Two Halves). This is one of the weirdest compositions I’ve ever written. The first part is a sort of musical puzzle. It goes G#, C, E over and over, three chords for a bar each in a rhythmical and melodic structure that requires four bars. Thus it starts on a different chord each time. The guitar/synth melody spirals through the unnatural intervals of this unusual chord progression, ascending into chaos. As the crescendo subsides, the second half of the song begins. The same three chords are used but this time it’s not sixteen bars, it’s twelve. The structure’s been straightened out to accommodate some singing. I don’t think we ever really think. I don’t think, I just act on instinct. The lyrics were influenced by the weirdness of the music. Obviously a lot of thought went into the composition, the lyric is an ironic take on all that effort and a dismal prediction of what the casual listener will probably get out of it. When you look at what’s popular in music, it doesn’t instill you with confidence in mainstream tastes. I feel like I’m at a disadvantage, I don’t write music for morons. I have my mind on other things, oh, if you had something else in mind, fine. This is how our lives will be defined.
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