The Collaborative Process of Song Writing… and The Simpsons… and Japan…

Posted on March 14, 2011


“Let’s start from the nebula, and then–” Kim nodded at our vocalist, Tuna, and the bass player, myself, “we’ll stop playing for one measure while you–” now pointing to our drummer, Kris, “–do your thing, and then we’ll come in with that ‘Dead Kennedys’ riff,”

Kris said okay and then counted off with this sticks, clapping them together three times before all four of us started playing again.

We played the nebula–a term we created to describe the series of notes we just created that were completely different from the rest of the song we wrote–“the nebulus” of the song.

We stopped playing while Kris did something of a solo for one measure, and then I started in with the first few notes of the ‘Dead Kennedys’ riff until Kim looked at me and waved her hand. I stopped playing, immediately cursing myself with a quick “Now, what the fuck?” and then realized within another split second that she was right–there was something about having two measures of nothing but drums that sounded inexplicably right. None of us were expecting that.

After counting the full two measures we all came in at the same time with the ‘Dead Kennedy’s riff,’ but as we played it–it sounded more like a ‘Bauhaus’ riff–slow and dark as opposed to the fierce and manic idea we talked about earlier. Tuna was the first to point that out.

“That time it sounded too slow after the nebula, like it’s getting away from that original Dead Kennedy’s idea.” We all nodded. The Dead Kennedy’s idea sounded great by itself, but finding a working transition to it was the problem. I spoke up.

“Okay, what if I play the notes like this instead of matching what Kim’s doing.” I played them. “And then gradually sped it up to this.” I played them faster.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” replied Tuna.

“So from the nebula again?” Kim asked.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

Kris counted off and we started from the nebula again. By this point, it was the fifth or sixth time within the past thirty minutes. And it was the last–I came in at just the right speed after the drum solo and then sped it up gradually to make it sound like the ‘Dead Kennedy’s riff that we all got excited about twenty minutes prior.

“I think that works for now,” Kim said. We all sighed, a collective sense of relief filled the room. And accomplishment. Our time was up and we knew we had to play the song a few more times from start to finish on our next practice to work out the kinks, but for now we had a solid beginning, middle, and end to a first draft. The song was stuck in my head the rest of the night, so I doubt there will be any major overhauls.

Playing in a band is one of the most extraordinary creative processes I’ve ever been a part of. It’s like any other creative work in that the logic of your brain gets lost in a mix of intuition and gut feelings, but you’re sharing this experience with multiple people working towards the same goal, and their mix might be different from your mix. And your ears tend to hurt in the process since you’re playing in a room that’s so small that the sound of your instruments has no where else to ricochet except inside your head. But if you’re doing it right you’re having fun, and nothing else really matters.

It’s also a tremendous way to periodically keep my mind off the situation in Japan right now. I didn’t have a television or Twitter account when Katrina hit New Orleans. Nor did I when Haiti was struck by an earthquake in 2010. And neither of those disasters made the same emotional impact on me as this current one. And now I’m faced with hourly updates on Japan because of my compulsive need to open my Twitter app. I’m okay with that.

The most recent news I heard was that the Japanese government declared a state of emergency for five nuclear reactors, and that radiation surged to around 1,000 times the normal level in the control room of one of them. My brain can’t even begin to fathom how dangerous that is. All it wants to do is resort to images of that Simpsons episode where Homer gains 300 ilbs to get on disability. He prevents a radioactive explosion by falling into an opening in the reactor and plugging it shut with his newly enormous ass which then neutralizes the situation. If only real crises could be prevented so hilariously…

If you haven’t donated to yet, I can tell you honestly from personal experience that it’s really, really easy to do. It even helps.



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