Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with Alex Turner and Matt Helders of the Arctic Monkeys before their show in Chicago, Illinois, last fall.
Online Exclusive: This is a full transcript of this text, which includes several questions and answers not available in the print edition of this interview.


photo credit: Timshel Matheny
 
What’s your favorite drink?
Alex Turner: There’s this Bourbon called Bulleit.
Wow yeah. That is really great stuff. I haven’t run into too many people that know it.
AT: Did you say you flew in from Nashville?
Well, we drove up actually.
AT: Yeah, I have probably driven more in America than I ever have in England really. This time last year I did the old PCH up the coast and then drove back to Joshua Tree as well. Somehow I feel like it is easier here or something. Maybe cause people don’t whine about it as much. [Laughs] ‘Cause things are so much more spaced out here.
Did you write these songs for the newer record after you had moved to Brooklyn?
AT: No. But I have written a lot since I’ve moved there.
A lot of writers have a newly infused life behind their writing once they leave their home country… it’s like they can write with an almost clearer eye about anything. Robert Frost, for example … his writing really took shape when he moved his family to the U.K. Have you experienced anything like that?
AT: Yeah. I think moving there seems to have given me like a kick up the arse or something. I mean I’ll sit there quite often, more frequently than I used to, and write. I feel like there is a lot more room here or something. But actually the songs on this record all came before [I moved]. But the next record probably will all be these songs I suppose.
Did either of you, have sometime when you were a kid when you heard a song and thought, “This thing or idea of a pop song, I get that. I might try to do that one day?”
AT: Well, I remember I must have been like twelve years old or something, and hearing “I Am the Walrus” and thinking, “Well, this is just like nonsense. I could write something like this, surely.” And sort of attempting to write in that style and really struggling with it. I distinctly remember getting aggravated because it’s like, “Well, he’s singing about custard and a cob sitting on a cornflake and why can’t I think of that?”[Laughs] And I still can’t do that exactly.
It reminds me of when I saw a Jackson Pollock painting as a kid and I thought, “Oh man, this guy has fooled everybody. This is some really easy stuff.” And then you get a little older and realize that there is something else going on there.
AT: Exactly. And there are other things: I remember being on car journeys with my parents and, I feel like that situation is the first time that I would hear music, as a kid. I suppose my Dad was talking to me about Beach Boys tunes and the harmony aspect of [their songs] as well. They evoke feeling from you—almost involuntarily—and the idea of that is something that’s stayed with me, because before the lyrics or anything in those songs, the chords and the vocal harmonies sort of get you. I remember being stirred even at a young age. It’s almost like you can’t help it.
Absolutely. How early did you start writing?
AT: Not properly for a while. When I’d hear the Beatles records, like Sgt. Pepper’s or whatever, I’d sort of try and write, but I didn’t know how to play an instrument. I had piano lessons a little bit, but I never got—off the white belt—you know what I mean? [Laughs] I could never sit down and figure anything out. But as soon as I got a guitar, I found you sort of get to that point quicker—where you can sit and make stuff up.
When you try to write lyrics do you imagine a song in terms of syllables and rhythm—like, “OK, I am going to hit these words or syllables in these places,” or do you think much about it? How much do you fit words to a melody?
AT: Well, I think that the melody is more the bit the struggle for me. I mean this guy (nods at Matt) has a really good sense of melody.
Matt Helders (drummer): I like a melody.
AT: He knows melodies and where harmonies are inside of melodies and…
MH: Sometimes I like a cheesy melody a bit. Quite often. It’s not bad though. Like r & b.
AT: Yeah but you’ll come up with alternate harmonies to exist in the songs…
MH: Yeah.
AT: I mean even when we are trying to cover a song and pick out the harmonies I find it hard to tune myself into that. I am still trying to work on that part. Some people are really good at it.
MH: Yeah , like (affects accent) Casablancas.
AT: Yeah. Like Julian Casablancas. He’s great at it. I mean there are great lyrics on those tunes too. But even on that new solo record, on that “11th Dimension” tune, the first thing that struck me about that is that there is the hook—and just when you are sort of getting your head around it he moves somewhere else. The way he just jumps around…
MH: It is like he has too many good ideas.
Yeah. That’s the thing I love about that solo record. It seems like he is getting a chance to pack all of these ideas into this one thing, and we get a chance to kind of see how his musical brain works a little bit more.
AT: Yeah. And I feel like that would be good for like their next thing now. In a way with those sort of melodies. Do you like The Strokes?
Very much so.
AT: I feel like writing lyrics is sort of different for each case, it seems. Sometimes, I’ll really have an idea for a tune, like a story or a format. Like with that song “Cornerstone,” I had this idea that I wanted each verse to be the same format and then you sort of know exactly where it is going, and the humor can get in there and it does that more narrative thing. Whereas, there are other songs where I’ll get excited about the sound of something phonetically and then build on it. You know like, “I wonder if I could get such and such a word in there?” Certain things just feel nice on the tongue.
You’ve managed to get the word “cuddle” into a couple of great rock and roll songs.
AT: Yeah, regrettably. [Laughs]
Oh no – it’s is well done I think, because it doesn’t sound out of place. When you’re writing, do you use any starting places for lyrical ideas like a scene from a film or a poem? Or do just shut off your TV or iPod and try to make a unique utterance?
AT: Yeah, I mean let’s say with that same song [“Cornerstone”] there is this guy called Jake Thackray and he writes these sort of narrations that are kind of humorous. In some of his live recordings he will sort of pause so that people can laugh. There is this song of his called “Lah-Di-Dah,” and it’s about all the sort of nonsense he feels he is going through now that he has agreed with this girl that they’re in love and they’re going to be married. And it’s, “And now I’ll meet your auntie and stroke her cat, and talk to your Dad about the war.” In each verse he sort of starts the same way and describes a different angle of it. And that sort of stood out to me in the way that you are always right there with him. I guess that is sort of the opposite to something like “I Am the Walrus.” The way you completely understand [each detail] of what he is writing. It’s sometimes hard to do without being banal, I suppose.
It seems like sometimes in your songs there is a really clear narrative of what is happening—like in “Cornerstone”—and then other times certain details might be really clear, but you are more turning your back to the audience on some of the main points, like “Crying Lightning.” It seems like there is this kind of interplay between, “I am laying it all out there for you” and then at other times, “I am laying half of it out there for you,” and the obscurity is what becomes interesting.
AT: I feel like there is a bit more of that as a device on this album for us—to still have a kind of a question mark when you are standing on stage playing. I feel like with these songs I almost wanted to kind of leave that [question mark] there a little bit so I could try and figure them out over the time we have been out playing. I mean, you still want to be the Walrus every now and again. [Laughs]
Yeah, it’s hard to do either one well, but it is rarer at the moment I think, to hear the crafted narrative-type song done well. When I first heard your first record, I wondered, “Who are these guys listening to?” Specifically any older writers, just for that reason. There’s an ear for stories in it. Did you listen to much older music?
AT: Definitely. Other than those things we mentioned from growing up—the Beach Boys or the Beatles or even like “Wall of Sound” things that my parents would always have on—I suppose that we started delving in and making our own tastes not long before when we did that first record. In terms of songwriters that I began to admire—Elvis Costello, the Kinks were two. I remember when we were recording that record, playing this tune—I think it is off of [Kinks] Face to Face called “It’s Too Much On My Mind.” It makes me laugh when I think about myself stewing over that as a 17 or 18-year-old. [Laughs] But yeah, we were lucky enough to have people in our lives that were turning us on to Elvis Costello and even The Smiths and others. Like the guy who taught me how to drive—I still have his Hatful of Hollow album. He lent me it. He was massively into that. I actually saw him the other week. We played in Sheffield and he came. His name is Carl and he taught all of us guys how to drive. He taught us to drive, but he really got us into the Smiths records. We’d spend more time talking about that then bloody three-point turns.
Man, that’s lucky. The guy who taught me how to drive was a Vietnam vet friend of my dad’s who had a half wooden leg. We were not talking about The Smiths. Was there ever a song or a particular artist you listened to that made you feel like you had a kind of secret—where you thought you might have understood the craft of what he was up to, more than a casual listener? I don’t mean in an — “I’m a superior listener sense,” —but in more of a “I’m hearing a bunch of subtleties here” sense.
AT: When we were at school I feel like “our thing” was this guy called Roots Manuva, this rapper. We used to be big into hip hop in school, and this guy Roots Manuva, and it was around his second album. He would tell tales, quite detailed, like he’d talk about smoking a spliff in his backyard and going out to the corner market; but he’d always have this kind of skewed perspective, probably from the spliff, but you know what I mean. He’d be describing his town but it would always be a bit countered. So I think maybe that was one of the first people like that for us. He is funny. We actually met him a few times. He ended up living not to far from where we grew up. I remember meeting him for the first time at this festival years ago and he happened to be on in the afternoon and we ran into him in the catering or whatever. And he was like, “Well, what’s the name of your band?” and we were like, “Well, the Arctic Monkeys, we just played a couple of hours ago.” He said, “There’s no monkeys in the Arctic.” [Laughing]
The other guy that had kind of an interesting spin, though the opposite, on our band name was [British poet] John Cooper Clarke. We ran into him and he really liked our band name. ‘Cause everyone used to think it was just the dumbest name, you know. I remember when we got a manager they were like, “Yeah, we really like what you do but the name just doesn’t make any sense, you know? There is no link to what you are singing about…” And for a minute even we were like, “We don’t know…” Then Johnny Clarke says [affects thick Lancashire accent] “Oh, I love that band name! It’s just a picture of trauma, you know? There’s this monkey…”
MH: “And there’s no trees for him to climb…”
AT: “His hands are too cold to peel his banana.” [Laughing] And we were like, “Great.” It’s interesting though, that name makes more sense to us now. I feel like we have grown into it. Now it sort of seems like we’ve either f***ed it up or filled it up, I don’t know.
Kind of like naming a child and they may not look like their name, but they grow into it. There’s a great story from when Picasso painted that portrait of Gertrude Stein - and a friend of his said, “But it doesn’t look anything like her.” Picasso replied, “Oh, but it will.” [Laughing] Naming a band is a tricky thing. I have a few names I’d like to run past John Cooper Clarke.
AT: My girlfriend said that she wants to have a band named “Cardboard Keyboard”. [laughs]
If your hand was forced and you had to cover a Madonna song tonight, what would it be?
MH: Maybe a brand new one of hers would be funny, or the one off of Austin Powers. What is it? “Beautiful Stranger?” [Laughs]
AT: I thought of the one with the leotard, or [sings] “Holiday.”
We have this thing in all of the “Drinks With” interviews where I mention a few more mainstream songwriters, and ask what the first thing that comes to mind is—so I’m going to mention a few folks and if you can say whatever comes to mind even if it’s a fried egg:
Joni Mitchell.
AT: My mother had Blue. I remember seeing that record lying around.
Bruce Springsteen.
AT: Born to Run. He was in Glastonbury last year. Feel like I saw a lot of him last year. We saw him actually. Our moms did at…
MH: He was staying at the hotel next to us in Vienna and our moms were there. There were hundreds of people outside his hotel. They saw him sneak out the back and get in a taxi and nobody noticed, just on his own. And our moms were like, “We just saw him! We saw Bruce Springsteen!”
Noel Gallagher.
AT and MH in unison: “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
Do you listen to any older writers like Cole Porter? There is a cleverness in his songs, phrasing and rhymes, that reminds me some of the writing on you all’s records.
AT: My Dad had a Frank Sinatra cassette that he would play on car journeys. It was the Nelson Riddle arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I remember the part where my Dad would always punch my knee was when Frank says [Imitates Frank’s voice] “Run for cover, run and hide.” I did hear that cassette quite a bit on car journeys actually, [sings] “They put coffee in the coffee in Brazil. You date a girl and find out later she smells just like a percolator…” [Laughs] Our guitar tech turned me onto a load of that a couple of years ago. Chet Baker does a lot of those tunes.
AT: Do you like country music?
Yeah—some kinds of it way more than others.
AT: I’ve always avoided it [pauses and smiles] naturally. But I heard this song recently, by George Jones, I think, called “Relief is Just a Swallow Away” [sings] “Well I’ve been blue before and I will again, I’ll drown all my worries or I’ll teach ‘em how to swim, And I won’t be the one to pay because relief—Is just a swallow away…”
That’s a great song. They play it at a particular club in Nashville occasionally between sets.
AT: It’s interesting to me because I know I’ll never make a country record…
Are you sure?
MH: [Laughs] It could be [deepens voice] “The record he was never going to make…”
AT: [Laughs] Yeah right. This is what I’m doing now. Are you on or are you off? — But at the moment it feels like, since I don’t think I’ll ever make anything that ever even sounds country, I can listen to those songs in a kind of distant or odd way. It’s interesting.
Thanks very much. Sorry we weren’t able to actually find a drink*.
AT: Maybe we can get one in a bit.
* (Skip’s note) Because of security etc. at the show that evening, we had to find a place to chat that had an accessible back door from the theater. There’s a great and odd diner directly left of the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. No drinks available, but a few senior citizens and some plants in the windowsill with aluminum foil covering the pots. After we had chatted for a while a few of the patrons picked up on the fact that Matt + Alex were being interviewed for something. When we got up to leave, I went back in for my jacket and was approached by an older man with a long, silver pony-tail. He was a professional native-american flute player, and asked that I pass his info along to the gentlemen in the interview. Naturally I did, but maybe more importantly I still have his card if anyone is in the chicago area and looking.

Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with Alex Turner and Matt Helders of the Arctic Monkeys before their show in Chicago, Illinois, last fall.

Online Exclusive: This is a full transcript of this text, which includes several questions and answers not available in the print edition of this interview.

arctics

arcticmonkeys

photo credit: Timshel Matheny

What’s your favorite drink?

Alex Turner: There’s this Bourbon called Bulleit.

Wow yeah. That is really great stuff. I haven’t run into too many people that know it.

AT: Did you say you flew in from Nashville?

Well, we drove up actually.

AT: Yeah, I have probably driven more in America than I ever have in England really. This time last year I did the old PCH up the coast and then drove back to Joshua Tree as well. Somehow I feel like it is easier here or something. Maybe cause people don’t whine about it as much. [Laughs] ‘Cause things are so much more spaced out here.

Did you write these songs for the newer record after you had moved to Brooklyn?

AT: No. But I have written a lot since I’ve moved there.

A lot of writers have a newly infused life behind their writing once they leave their home country… it’s like they can write with an almost clearer eye about anything. Robert Frost, for example … his writing really took shape when he moved his family to the U.K. Have you experienced anything like that?

AT: Yeah. I think moving there seems to have given me like a kick up the arse or something. I mean I’ll sit there quite often, more frequently than I used to, and write. I feel like there is a lot more room here or something. But actually the songs on this record all came before [I moved]. But the next record probably will all be these songs I suppose.

Did either of you, have sometime when you were a kid when you heard a song and thought, “This thing or idea of a pop song, I get that. I might try to do that one day?”

AT: Well, I remember I must have been like twelve years old or something, and hearing “I Am the Walrus” and thinking, “Well, this is just like nonsense. I could write something like this, surely.” And sort of attempting to write in that style and really struggling with it. I distinctly remember getting aggravated because it’s like, “Well, he’s singing about custard and a cob sitting on a cornflake and why can’t I think of that?”[Laughs] And I still can’t do that exactly.

It reminds me of when I saw a Jackson Pollock painting as a kid and I thought, “Oh man, this guy has fooled everybody. This is some really easy stuff.” And then you get a little older and realize that there is something else going on there.

AT: Exactly. And there are other things: I remember being on car journeys with my parents and, I feel like that situation is the first time that I would hear music, as a kid. I suppose my Dad was talking to me about Beach Boys tunes and the harmony aspect of [their songs] as well. They evoke feeling from you—almost involuntarily—and the idea of that is something that’s stayed with me, because before the lyrics or anything in those songs, the chords and the vocal harmonies sort of get you. I remember being stirred even at a young age. It’s almost like you can’t help it.

Absolutely. How early did you start writing?

AT: Not properly for a while. When I’d hear the Beatles records, like Sgt. Pepper’s or whatever, I’d sort of try and write, but I didn’t know how to play an instrument. I had piano lessons a little bit, but I never got—off the white belt—you know what I mean? [Laughs] I could never sit down and figure anything out. But as soon as I got a guitar, I found you sort of get to that point quicker—where you can sit and make stuff up.

When you try to write lyrics do you imagine a song in terms of syllables and rhythm—like, “OK, I am going to hit these words or syllables in these places,” or do you think much about it? How much do you fit words to a melody?

AT: Well, I think that the melody is more the bit the struggle for me. I mean this guy (nods at Matt) has a really good sense of melody.

Matt Helders (drummer): I like a melody.

AT: He knows melodies and where harmonies are inside of melodies and…

MH: Sometimes I like a cheesy melody a bit. Quite often. It’s not bad though. Like r & b.

AT: Yeah but you’ll come up with alternate harmonies to exist in the songs…

MH: Yeah.

AT: I mean even when we are trying to cover a song and pick out the harmonies I find it hard to tune myself into that. I am still trying to work on that part. Some people are really good at it.

MH: Yeah , like (affects accent) Casablancas.

AT: Yeah. Like Julian Casablancas. He’s great at it. I mean there are great lyrics on those tunes too. But even on that new solo record, on that “11th Dimension” tune, the first thing that struck me about that is that there is the hook—and just when you are sort of getting your head around it he moves somewhere else. The way he just jumps around…

MH: It is like he has too many good ideas.

Yeah. That’s the thing I love about that solo record. It seems like he is getting a chance to pack all of these ideas into this one thing, and we get a chance to kind of see how his musical brain works a little bit more.

AT: Yeah. And I feel like that would be good for like their next thing now. In a way with those sort of melodies. Do you like The Strokes?

Very much so.

AT: I feel like writing lyrics is sort of different for each case, it seems. Sometimes, I’ll really have an idea for a tune, like a story or a format. Like with that song “Cornerstone,” I had this idea that I wanted each verse to be the same format and then you sort of know exactly where it is going, and the humor can get in there and it does that more narrative thing. Whereas, there are other songs where I’ll get excited about the sound of something phonetically and then build on it. You know like, “I wonder if I could get such and such a word in there?” Certain things just feel nice on the tongue.

You’ve managed to get the word “cuddle” into a couple of great rock and roll songs.

AT: Yeah, regrettably. [Laughs]

Oh no – it’s is well done I think, because it doesn’t sound out of place. When you’re writing, do you use any starting places for lyrical ideas like a scene from a film or a poem? Or do just shut off your TV or iPod and try to make a unique utterance?

AT: Yeah, I mean let’s say with that same song [“Cornerstone”] there is this guy called Jake Thackray and he writes these sort of narrations that are kind of humorous. In some of his live recordings he will sort of pause so that people can laugh. There is this song of his called “Lah-Di-Dah,” and it’s about all the sort of nonsense he feels he is going through now that he has agreed with this girl that they’re in love and they’re going to be married. And it’s, “And now I’ll meet your auntie and stroke her cat, and talk to your Dad about the war.” In each verse he sort of starts the same way and describes a different angle of it. And that sort of stood out to me in the way that you are always right there with him. I guess that is sort of the opposite to something like “I Am the Walrus.” The way you completely understand [each detail] of what he is writing. It’s sometimes hard to do without being banal, I suppose.

It seems like sometimes in your songs there is a really clear narrative of what is happening—like in “Cornerstone”—and then other times certain details might be really clear, but you are more turning your back to the audience on some of the main points, like “Crying Lightning.” It seems like there is this kind of interplay between, “I am laying it all out there for you” and then at other times, “I am laying half of it out there for you,” and the obscurity is what becomes interesting.

AT: I feel like there is a bit more of that as a device on this album for us—to still have a kind of a question mark when you are standing on stage playing. I feel like with these songs I almost wanted to kind of leave that [question mark] there a little bit so I could try and figure them out over the time we have been out playing. I mean, you still want to be the Walrus every now and again. [Laughs]

Yeah, it’s hard to do either one well, but it is rarer at the moment I think, to hear the crafted narrative-type song done well. When I first heard your first record, I wondered, “Who are these guys listening to?” Specifically any older writers, just for that reason. There’s an ear for stories in it. Did you listen to much older music?

AT: Definitely. Other than those things we mentioned from growing up—the Beach Boys or the Beatles or even like “Wall of Sound” things that my parents would always have on—I suppose that we started delving in and making our own tastes not long before when we did that first record. In terms of songwriters that I began to admire—Elvis Costello, the Kinks were two. I remember when we were recording that record, playing this tune—I think it is off of [Kinks] Face to Face called “It’s Too Much On My Mind.” It makes me laugh when I think about myself stewing over that as a 17 or 18-year-old. [Laughs] But yeah, we were lucky enough to have people in our lives that were turning us on to Elvis Costello and even The Smiths and others. Like the guy who taught me how to drive—I still have his Hatful of Hollow album. He lent me it. He was massively into that. I actually saw him the other week. We played in Sheffield and he came. His name is Carl and he taught all of us guys how to drive. He taught us to drive, but he really got us into the Smiths records. We’d spend more time talking about that then bloody three-point turns.

Man, that’s lucky. The guy who taught me how to drive was a Vietnam vet friend of my dad’s who had a half wooden leg. We were not talking about The Smiths. Was there ever a song or a particular artist you listened to that made you feel like you had a kind of secret—where you thought you might have understood the craft of what he was up to, more than a casual listener? I don’t mean in an — “I’m a superior listener sense,” —but in more of a “I’m hearing a bunch of subtleties here” sense.

AT: When we were at school I feel like “our thing” was this guy called Roots Manuva, this rapper. We used to be big into hip hop in school, and this guy Roots Manuva, and it was around his second album. He would tell tales, quite detailed, like he’d talk about smoking a spliff in his backyard and going out to the corner market; but he’d always have this kind of skewed perspective, probably from the spliff, but you know what I mean. He’d be describing his town but it would always be a bit countered. So I think maybe that was one of the first people like that for us. He is funny. We actually met him a few times. He ended up living not to far from where we grew up. I remember meeting him for the first time at this festival years ago and he happened to be on in the afternoon and we ran into him in the catering or whatever. And he was like, “Well, what’s the name of your band?” and we were like, “Well, the Arctic Monkeys, we just played a couple of hours ago.” He said, “There’s no monkeys in the Arctic.” [Laughing]

The other guy that had kind of an interesting spin, though the opposite, on our band name was [British poet] John Cooper Clarke. We ran into him and he really liked our band name. ‘Cause everyone used to think it was just the dumbest name, you know. I remember when we got a manager they were like, “Yeah, we really like what you do but the name just doesn’t make any sense, you know? There is no link to what you are singing about…” And for a minute even we were like, “We don’t know…” Then Johnny Clarke says [affects thick Lancashire accent] “Oh, I love that band name! It’s just a picture of trauma, you know? There’s this monkey…”

MH: “And there’s no trees for him to climb…”

AT: “His hands are too cold to peel his banana.” [Laughing] And we were like, “Great.” It’s interesting though, that name makes more sense to us now. I feel like we have grown into it. Now it sort of seems like we’ve either f***ed it up or filled it up, I don’t know.

Kind of like naming a child and they may not look like their name, but they grow into it. There’s a great story from when Picasso painted that portrait of Gertrude Stein - and a friend of his said, “But it doesn’t look anything like her.” Picasso replied, “Oh, but it will.” [Laughing] Naming a band is a tricky thing. I have a few names I’d like to run past John Cooper Clarke.

AT: My girlfriend said that she wants to have a band named “Cardboard Keyboard”. [laughs]

If your hand was forced and you had to cover a Madonna song tonight, what would it be?

MH: Maybe a brand new one of hers would be funny, or the one off of Austin Powers. What is it? “Beautiful Stranger?” [Laughs]

AT: I thought of the one with the leotard, or [sings] “Holiday.”

We have this thing in all of the “Drinks With” interviews where I mention a few more mainstream songwriters, and ask what the first thing that comes to mind is—so I’m going to mention a few folks and if you can say whatever comes to mind even if it’s a fried egg:

Joni Mitchell.

AT: My mother had Blue. I remember seeing that record lying around.

Bruce Springsteen.

AT: Born to Run. He was in Glastonbury last year. Feel like I saw a lot of him last year. We saw him actually. Our moms did at…

MH: He was staying at the hotel next to us in Vienna and our moms were there. There were hundreds of people outside his hotel. They saw him sneak out the back and get in a taxi and nobody noticed, just on his own. And our moms were like, “We just saw him! We saw Bruce Springsteen!”

Noel Gallagher.

AT and MH in unison: “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”

Do you listen to any older writers like Cole Porter? There is a cleverness in his songs, phrasing and rhymes, that reminds me some of the writing on you all’s records.

AT: My Dad had a Frank Sinatra cassette that he would play on car journeys. It was the Nelson Riddle arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” I remember the part where my Dad would always punch my knee was when Frank says [Imitates Frank’s voice] “Run for cover, run and hide.” I did hear that cassette quite a bit on car journeys actually, [sings] “They put coffee in the coffee in Brazil. You date a girl and find out later she smells just like a percolator…” [Laughs] Our guitar tech turned me onto a load of that a couple of years ago. Chet Baker does a lot of those tunes.

AT: Do you like country music?

Yeah—some kinds of it way more than others.

AT: I’ve always avoided it [pauses and smiles] naturally. But I heard this song recently, by George Jones, I think, called “Relief is Just a Swallow Away” [sings] “Well I’ve been blue before and I will again, I’ll drown all my worries or I’ll teach ‘em how to swim, And I won’t be the one to pay because relief—Is just a swallow away…”

That’s a great song. They play it at a particular club in Nashville occasionally between sets.

AT: It’s interesting to me because I know I’ll never make a country record…

Are you sure?

MH: [Laughs] It could be [deepens voice] “The record he was never going to make…”

AT: [Laughs] Yeah right. This is what I’m doing now. Are you on or are you off? — But at the moment it feels like, since I don’t think I’ll ever make anything that ever even sounds country, I can listen to those songs in a kind of distant or odd way. It’s interesting.

Thanks very much. Sorry we weren’t able to actually find a drink*.

AT: Maybe we can get one in a bit.

* (Skip’s note) Because of security etc. at the show that evening, we had to find a place to chat that had an accessible back door from the theater. There’s a great and odd diner directly left of the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. No drinks available, but a few senior citizens and some plants in the windowsill with aluminum foil covering the pots. After we had chatted for a while a few of the patrons picked up on the fact that Matt + Alex were being interviewed for something. When we got up to leave, I went back in for my jacket and was approached by an older man with a long, silver pony-tail. He was a professional native-american flute player, and asked that I pass his info along to the gentlemen in the interview. Naturally I did, but maybe more importantly I still have his card if anyone is in the chicago area and looking.

Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — interviewed Brendan Benson and Ashley Monroe earlier this month for Lake Fever Sessions on Nashville’s Music Row. Be sure to check out the video below.
The first question we always ask is, “What’s your favorite drink?”
Brendan Benson: It’d be wine. I’d be red wine. Maybe a blend [laughs].
Ashley Monroe: Red and White mixed together.
That’s an under-talked-about…
Ashley: I’m going to bring it back. [laughs]
Are there any songwriters that you are inspired by that might surprise your listeners, if they were just imagining what your records sound like?
Brendan: Yeah actually, George Jones is one of my favorites. In my case, there are probably a ton that I could mention that would probably surprise people. I mean, George Jones, The Stooges, Elvis Costello…maybe that one is not that surprising.
Any new, current discoveries?
Brendan: Yeah, there is one guys that I an really excited about that isn’t exactly “new” but, Andrew Bird I think is really great. Particularly his recordAndrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.
Right. His first records.
Brendan: Yeah. I think he’s got kind of an alter-ego or something. I can’t figure it out. Because if you go out and buy Andrew Bird records, they are not necessarily gonna be [pauses] well they are all great actually, but he does this one thing that’s really cool I think, and it’s his Bowl of Fire records. It sounds like it could be recorded in the ’40s or something.
Yeah, the first time I heard those records I was like, “What year is this from? — Oh, it’s 1999 or whenever it was…”
Brendan: Yeah, yeah.
So you mentioned The Stooges and I read somewhere that your parents played you things like David Bowie and The Stooges when you were a kid and—if I hadn’t known that about you, and first listened to your records—The Stooges wouldn’t come to mind first…
Brendan: No, yeah.
But, you know my parents didn’t play ‘cool people’ records for me when I was a kid and so when I first got a chance to hear rock and roll records, it was a whole new world to me from the beginning. And so I’ve always wondered what it would be like if your parents had raised you saying, “Okay, here’s your bottle, and some Gerber, and we’re gonna play Highway 61 today straight through just so you can get it in your head now. I’ve always wondered if you would have an opportunity to discover things on your own if you had been handed things from such a young age?
Brendan: Yeah, well there were a few records that were played around the house as I grew up like Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. Those records I was familiar with. And I think when I got older and I started to really appreciate music, really delve into it, or analyze it, or get fanatical about it. Then I started collecting and discovering other Bowie. I mean Bowie is a great example because he kind of ran the gamut. You know on Low with Brian Eno or even Pin Ups. And those probably don’t even describe how adventurous he was. So then I subsequently discovered all those other Bowie records. Same thing with T-Rex. I really don’t remember it though. It was later in life that I had started picking through my dad’s records that he had left behind. My parents divorced and what was left behind of him was this record collection. And I would just look at the records, like Todd Rundgren records, and—based on the covers really—play them. And it has never ceased. I love that. I love discovering. And you know how Bowie was associated with Iggy and even Mick Jagger came into that scene. I don’t know, I love that stuff.
It’s fascinating to me because I have a four-year old and a two-year old and I am always going back and forth between thinking that I should play them all this great stuff now or I should wait until they are 16 and they can discover it for themselves. ’Dad you don’t understand I just heard this great record, Ziggy Stardust…’
Brendan: Right. I’ve got a baby on the way and I am thinking about that too, you know. Like how am I gonna do this? Am I gonna force it on him?
It’s an ongoing struggle.
[laughs]
Brendan: Yeah.
Congratulations on the baby by the way!
Brendan: Thanks.
We should have a toast.
Brendan: Yes.
Ashley: Congratulations to the baby for being born into a world of love….




I think I was telling you outside that I was interviewing Tom T. Hall yesterday who is a total hero of mine songwriter-wise, and he said that on some of his songs—the more masterpiece-type songs—and he said, about those songs:
"Well you know, I got in a zone. I don’t know how I got there, and maybe I didn’t have a great time while I was there, but you know, I wrote this song and I came out the other side. I wish I knew more about it. I wish it was like cabinet making; like it was this craft, because then it would have a handle, and I could get a handle on it. But it doesn’t. And it’s just sort of out there."
When you guys are writing, do you have a similar “being in a zone” experience, or is it just sort of a work ethic approach, you know, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down in hotel room, “We’ve got three hours here, let’s write “Eight Days A Week”?
Ashley: It kind of changes every time. I mean sometimes you just have chemistry with someone, creatively. You know, like he could play a G chord and I’ll hear something but if I play the G chord by myself than I might just play something normal or terrible. Sometimes when you get paired up with the right person, it’s exciting. I mean when we start a new song we get excited. And then a lot of the times I’ll start saying words that mean nothing and then it kind of turns into something that says something. It’s actually a really amazing thing to look back after you finish a song. You think, “I can’t believe that just happened.” Because not every song is amazing, like what Tom said, but when it is really good you just feel so blessed to have been able to channel that.
Brendan: Yeah. It’s always in retrospect, too. I think at the time, maybe you aren’t conscious of it but, like [Tom T. Hall] was saying, you hope that you get into the zone. If you are one person or two people writing a song, you hope that you get into the zone and when you do, its ideal. And I think that is only in retrospect that you can say, “Oh, wow man, we were really kind of in a zone.” You’re just not… you’re almost not conscious. You’re just going and your going and the next thing you know…
Ashley: It’s happened a lot. We’d end the day and say, “Oh, that was good.” And then the next day we would call each other and say, “Hey, have you listened to this song? This is AMAZING!” [laughs]
I love that next day thing.
Ashley: I never know at the time.
Brendan: ‘Cause it could go either way.
Right.
Ashley: A lot of times when you think you are writing a good thing. Oh God, this has happened so many times—where I’ll listen that day and think, “Oh, this is a masterpiece,” and then the next day I’ll listen and think its awful. I am not turning that one in.
Say that you guys are really “facing the dragon” so to speak and thinking, “I’ve got to finish this song” or “I’ve got this idea with lyrics but I need a chorus, I’ve had this sitting around for a year now.” What do you do? Do you go on a walk, watch TV, go read a book, read poems, comic strips?
Ashley: I kind of just wait for it to hit me. If I try to look for it, it just leaves me. It messes with my mind and I can’t do it. So, if I know something’s missing and it needs to come, I know it will come when it needs to and sometimes it’ll come when I’m watching T.V. or thinking about what I am going to wear. So I don’t tell myself, “Just get in a zone,” ‘cause it doesn’t happen. I mean I wish I could. I wish I could just say, “Listen here, write this.”
Brendan: I think that if you set out to write a song… and the two of us [nods at Ashley] have actually set out to write a song and written a song. But on my own, left to my own devices, if I’ve got my pen and paper and my guitar and I am all comfy and I think, “I’m gonna write a song today,” it is always the most inopportune time. [Instead it’s when] you are out to dinner.
Ashley: Or you’re driving..
Brendan: Or you’re driving, and you’re swerving and you’re like, “Where’s the fucking pen”…
Yeah, I have this one aunt’s voicemail that I know I can always leave a long message on. [laughs]
Brendan: yeah.
The first time I ever heard your work on anything, it wasn’t your own record. You were producing a Greenhornes EP which was great. I kind of discovered your records backwards from that, which was cool, but my first impression of you was from this production angle. So I was wondering, when you are writing, how much of the production is already in place in your head while you are making it up? You know: “Obviously this is where I am gonna have Otis Redding horn hits.” Or, “I’m gonna fool everybody into thinking this is a ballad and then I’m gonna turn it into a ska song.” How much of the production is in place when you finish it? Or are you starting from scratch when you go into the studio and all you have is this great acoustic demo?
Brendan: I mostly don’t know. Contrary to what people might think. Because I have recorded and written my own records, I think people tend to think that I have this great vision and I don’t. And I don’t mind that. I am cool with that. I like kind of trying to figure it out as I go. Mostly I kind of go with my gut and I’ll start working up the song and then, in the end, maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. But I never really have a clear vision.
From a musical standpoint, your records have always sounded to me as very defined and confident, almost as if you kind of woke up, walked into the studio, put-out this music, and went home.
Brendan: And in reality I spent hours and hours and hours punching in. “That note is not right.” Literally.
Absolutely. But the lyrics always seemed less definite, or less “complete.” Which is a fun contrast against how “complete” or “defined” the music sounds. The first song on your first record is “Tea”—it’s an invitation. I feel like the music on these first records—and I am not into analyzing psycho-content behind lyrics, so I’m not trying to go deeper than we should [laughter]—is really defined and inviting, and the lyrics seem to be continually saying, “Well, come on in and chat, but if you come inside, I don’t know how far you’ll get, because I’m still figuring things out.”
Brendan: Yeah. I think the topic that has been pervasive throughout my career is just trying to figure things out. And I have always hoped that is going to sell records—that people can relate to that—but apparently not. Apparently everyone has everything figured out. [laughs]
They have sorted the whole thing out and are at home right now watching football.
Ashley: Yeah. [laughter]
Brendan: And recently, I just got married and I am having a baby now but the whole next record is just going to be a whole mess of…
Ashley: Question marks?
Brendan: Yes. The bar has been raised. It’s gonna be, well… [raises his eyebrows]
[laughter]
That’s all I got. Thanks very much you two for chatting. 

Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — interviewed Brendan Benson and Ashley Monroe earlier this month for Lake Fever Sessions on Nashville’s Music Row. Be sure to check out the video below.

The first question we always ask is, “What’s your favorite drink?”

Brendan Benson: It’d be wine. I’d be red wine. Maybe a blend [laughs].

Ashley Monroe: Red and White mixed together.

That’s an under-talked-about…

Ashley: I’m going to bring it back. [laughs]

Are there any songwriters that you are inspired by that might surprise your listeners, if they were just imagining what your records sound like?

Brendan: Yeah actually, George Jones is one of my favorites. In my case, there are probably a ton that I could mention that would probably surprise people. I mean, George Jones, The Stooges, Elvis Costello…maybe that one is not that surprising.

Any new, current discoveries?

Brendan: Yeah, there is one guys that I an really excited about that isn’t exactly “new” but, Andrew Bird I think is really great. Particularly his recordAndrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.

Right. His first records.

Brendan: Yeah. I think he’s got kind of an alter-ego or something. I can’t figure it out. Because if you go out and buy Andrew Bird records, they are not necessarily gonna be [pauses] well they are all great actually, but he does this one thing that’s really cool I think, and it’s his Bowl of Fire records. It sounds like it could be recorded in the ’40s or something.

Yeah, the first time I heard those records I was like, “What year is this from? — Oh, it’s 1999 or whenever it was…”

Brendan: Yeah, yeah.

So you mentioned The Stooges and I read somewhere that your parents played you things like David Bowie and The Stooges when you were a kid and—if I hadn’t known that about you, and first listened to your records—The Stooges wouldn’t come to mind first…

Brendan: No, yeah.

But, you know my parents didn’t play ‘cool people’ records for me when I was a kid and so when I first got a chance to hear rock and roll records, it was a whole new world to me from the beginning. And so I’ve always wondered what it would be like if your parents had raised you saying, “Okay, here’s your bottle, and some Gerber, and we’re gonna play Highway 61 today straight through just so you can get it in your head now. I’ve always wondered if you would have an opportunity to discover things on your own if you had been handed things from such a young age?

Brendan: Yeah, well there were a few records that were played around the house as I grew up like Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs. Those records I was familiar with. And I think when I got older and I started to really appreciate music, really delve into it, or analyze it, or get fanatical about it. Then I started collecting and discovering other Bowie. I mean Bowie is a great example because he kind of ran the gamut. You know on Low with Brian Eno or even Pin Ups. And those probably don’t even describe how adventurous he was. So then I subsequently discovered all those other Bowie records. Same thing with T-Rex. I really don’t remember it though. It was later in life that I had started picking through my dad’s records that he had left behind. My parents divorced and what was left behind of him was this record collection. And I would just look at the records, like Todd Rundgren records, and—based on the covers really—play them. And it has never ceased. I love that. I love discovering. And you know how Bowie was associated with Iggy and even Mick Jagger came into that scene. I don’t know, I love that stuff.

It’s fascinating to me because I have a four-year old and a two-year old and I am always going back and forth between thinking that I should play them all this great stuff now or I should wait until they are 16 and they can discover it for themselves. ’Dad you don’t understand I just heard this great record, Ziggy Stardust…’

Brendan: Right. I’ve got a baby on the way and I am thinking about that too, you know. Like how am I gonna do this? Am I gonna force it on him?

It’s an ongoing struggle.

[laughs]

Brendan: Yeah.

Congratulations on the baby by the way!

Brendan: Thanks.

We should have a toast.

Brendan: Yes.

Ashley: Congratulations to the baby for being born into a world of love….

I think I was telling you outside that I was interviewing Tom T. Hall yesterday who is a total hero of mine songwriter-wise, and he said that on some of his songs—the more masterpiece-type songs—and he said, about those songs:

"Well you know, I got in a zone. I don’t know how I got there, and maybe I didn’t have a great time while I was there, but you know, I wrote this song and I came out the other side. I wish I knew more about it. I wish it was like cabinet making; like it was this craft, because then it would have a handle, and I could get a handle on it. But it doesn’t. And it’s just sort of out there."

When you guys are writing, do you have a similar “being in a zone” experience, or is it just sort of a work ethic approach, you know, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney sitting down in hotel room, “We’ve got three hours here, let’s write “Eight Days A Week”?

Ashley: It kind of changes every time. I mean sometimes you just have chemistry with someone, creatively. You know, like he could play a G chord and I’ll hear something but if I play the G chord by myself than I might just play something normal or terrible. Sometimes when you get paired up with the right person, it’s exciting. I mean when we start a new song we get excited. And then a lot of the times I’ll start saying words that mean nothing and then it kind of turns into something that says something. It’s actually a really amazing thing to look back after you finish a song. You think, “I can’t believe that just happened.” Because not every song is amazing, like what Tom said, but when it is really good you just feel so blessed to have been able to channel that.

Brendan: Yeah. It’s always in retrospect, too. I think at the time, maybe you aren’t conscious of it but, like [Tom T. Hall] was saying, you hope that you get into the zone. If you are one person or two people writing a song, you hope that you get into the zone and when you do, its ideal. And I think that is only in retrospect that you can say, “Oh, wow man, we were really kind of in a zone.” You’re just not… you’re almost not conscious. You’re just going and your going and the next thing you know…

Ashley: It’s happened a lot. We’d end the day and say, “Oh, that was good.” And then the next day we would call each other and say, “Hey, have you listened to this song? This is AMAZING!” [laughs]

I love that next day thing.

Ashley: I never know at the time.

Brendan: ‘Cause it could go either way.

Right.

Ashley: A lot of times when you think you are writing a good thing. Oh God, this has happened so many times—where I’ll listen that day and think, “Oh, this is a masterpiece,” and then the next day I’ll listen and think its awful. I am not turning that one in.

Say that you guys are really “facing the dragon” so to speak and thinking, “I’ve got to finish this song” or “I’ve got this idea with lyrics but I need a chorus, I’ve had this sitting around for a year now.” What do you do? Do you go on a walk, watch TV, go read a book, read poems, comic strips?

Ashley: I kind of just wait for it to hit me. If I try to look for it, it just leaves me. It messes with my mind and I can’t do it. So, if I know something’s missing and it needs to come, I know it will come when it needs to and sometimes it’ll come when I’m watching T.V. or thinking about what I am going to wear. So I don’t tell myself, “Just get in a zone,” ‘cause it doesn’t happen. I mean I wish I could. I wish I could just say, “Listen here, write this.”

Brendan: I think that if you set out to write a song… and the two of us [nods at Ashley] have actually set out to write a song and written a song. But on my own, left to my own devices, if I’ve got my pen and paper and my guitar and I am all comfy and I think, “I’m gonna write a song today,” it is always the most inopportune time. [Instead it’s when] you are out to dinner.

Ashley: Or you’re driving..

Brendan: Or you’re driving, and you’re swerving and you’re like, “Where’s the fucking pen”…

Yeah, I have this one aunt’s voicemail that I know I can always leave a long message on. [laughs]

Brendan: yeah.

The first time I ever heard your work on anything, it wasn’t your own record. You were producing a Greenhornes EP which was great. I kind of discovered your records backwards from that, which was cool, but my first impression of you was from this production angle. So I was wondering, when you are writing, how much of the production is already in place in your head while you are making it up? You know: “Obviously this is where I am gonna have Otis Redding horn hits.” Or, “I’m gonna fool everybody into thinking this is a ballad and then I’m gonna turn it into a ska song.” How much of the production is in place when you finish it? Or are you starting from scratch when you go into the studio and all you have is this great acoustic demo?

Brendan: I mostly don’t know. Contrary to what people might think. Because I have recorded and written my own records, I think people tend to think that I have this great vision and I don’t. And I don’t mind that. I am cool with that. I like kind of trying to figure it out as I go. Mostly I kind of go with my gut and I’ll start working up the song and then, in the end, maybe it worked and maybe it didn’t. I don’t know. But I never really have a clear vision.

From a musical standpoint, your records have always sounded to me as very defined and confident, almost as if you kind of woke up, walked into the studio, put-out this music, and went home.

Brendan: And in reality I spent hours and hours and hours punching in. “That note is not right.” Literally.

Absolutely. But the lyrics always seemed less definite, or less “complete.” Which is a fun contrast against how “complete” or “defined” the music sounds. The first song on your first record is “Tea”—it’s an invitation. I feel like the music on these first records—and I am not into analyzing psycho-content behind lyrics, so I’m not trying to go deeper than we should [laughter]—is really defined and inviting, and the lyrics seem to be continually saying, “Well, come on in and chat, but if you come inside, I don’t know how far you’ll get, because I’m still figuring things out.”

Brendan: Yeah. I think the topic that has been pervasive throughout my career is just trying to figure things out. And I have always hoped that is going to sell records—that people can relate to that—but apparently not. Apparently everyone has everything figured out. [laughs]

They have sorted the whole thing out and are at home right now watching football.

Ashley: Yeah. [laughter]

Brendan: And recently, I just got married and I am having a baby now but the whole next record is just going to be a whole mess of…

Ashley: Question marks?

Brendan: Yes. The bar has been raised. It’s gonna be, well… [raises his eyebrows]

[laughter]

That’s all I got. Thanks very much you two for chatting.

 

“Drinks With” is a new feature at AmericanSongwriter.com in which two or more songwriters have a drink and a talk with each other (almost exclusively) about writing. For our first in this series, Skip Matheny — currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with the U.K. band Wild Beasts in the basement of New York’s Mercury Lounge.
 Who We’re Drinking With: Wild Beasts are from Leeds. They’ve released two records in the last two years, both of which have received numerous accolades (Pitchfork, NME, the list is long). In a recent live review, Jon Pareles, chief music critic for the New York Times, praised their ability to “tuck broad ambitions into succinct, brilliant songs.” They credit their songwriting four ways within the group, among band members Tom Fleming (TF), Hayden Thorpe (HT), Benny Little (BL), and Chris Talbot (CT).
What is your favorite drink?
TF: There’s this thing called a Negroni, which is Campari, gin, martini [sweet vermouth], and orange.
That’s a very civilized drink.
BL: Bloody Mary
CT: Whiskey and Coke
HT: We just discovered Shochu last night — it’s like a Japanese martini. It’s sort of a rice spirit.
TF: They do a thing where we’re from called called a “Turbo wife-beater” which is a shot of vodka in a pint of Stella Artois.
If you wake up and think, “I’ll try and write a song today,” where does that usually happen? At a piano, guitar, full band in rehearsal space?
TF: Well all our songwriting is credited four ways. We usually start with a lyric or a melody, or the bare bones come from Hayden or me. But when it comes to the practice room, it gets pulled in all kinds of different directions, and there’s a sense of “let’s try and press it.” We try and kind of surprise each other and see what we can do with all of the bare basics, and we go through different versions.
HT: I think [the phrase] “bare bones” is brilliant, because it is like a skeleton. Sorry for the analogy [laughs] — but it’s like a skeleton of a cat. If you look at two cats or five cats, they’ve got the same skeleton. But with the flesh and the fur on, it’s a black cat, furry cat, fat cat, you know.
Cats with sweaters.
TF: Exactly.
When you are writing, do you all think in terms of pop songs or craft? For example the repeated line from your song “All the King’s Men,” “Let me show my darling what that means” works in a similar way to an old ballad, or to the repeated line in a song like “The Gallery” by Joni Mitchell. By the last time you hear the repeated phrase, it’s incredibly different and twisted from the first time you heard it.
HT: I think the beauty of pop is that it’s forgiving of everything. You can throw anything into it, and it’s still pop. You can throw in some sort of Japanese folk music with ghetto hip-hop, and it is pop. Also, it is a really underestimated skill: taking big ideas and condensing them down into simple lines. Some people have just got it. I think we’ve gotten better at it.
Do you have any favorite authors that you have in mind while you are writing?
TF: Oh man, do you know the French writer Helene Cixous?
Yeah, I believe she was friends with Derrida?
TF: Yes. There’s a line in “Two Dancers (II),” “Do you want my heart between your teeth?” which was taken directly from her. It’s a center point. She’s definitely one of my favorite writers, although I don’t read French and most of her books haven’t been translated.
HT: Rimbaud was a big influence for me. It was a translation from French. I think the French language does have this sort of sensuality to it — anyway — it seems to have.
TF: I think French writing has a “f*ck you” arrogance to it as well. It’s like “I’m just going to say this now.” Like Baudelaire, who is very much like “Here it is” — which is great.
If your hand was forced and you had to cover a Phil Spector song tonight, what would it be?
TF: I don’t want to speak for everyone but the Christmas one where he does the voice-over thing, and there’s a picture of him with Father Christmas.
Perfect — I think that was “Silent Night.”
TF: I’ve also got a version of him doing “Spanish Harlem” on his own with a guitar, really badly. For somebody like Phil Spector to sing those lyrics is really disturbing, but I really like it. “Be My Baby” is his high point though, for sure.
Do you have any habits when writing lyrics? For example do you use jumping off points like a poem, scene from a film, or do you lock up your iPod and turn off the TV, and try and make an entirely unique utterance?
TF: I think jumping off points are good. Obviously, we are trying to get out what we’re doing, but… and it might sound odd as a sound byte to say “Yeah yeah, [we’re influenced by] French Post structuralist feminist theory and Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey.” But it is that kind of juxtaposition I suppose.
HT: I just think you have to have your ear on all the time. It’d be silly to put limits on yourself. You just have to be ready or aware.
You all are from the Lake District and Leeds. Do you work better isolated from great amounts of activity? Or does it matter?
HT: You’ve got to let yourself go mad in a way. You’ve got to get dangerously obsessed to get [an album] out. You have to give yourself the right space and environment to allow that, and not to, sort of, “break the spell.” It doesn’t take a lot to pop the bubble, and then you’ve got to work hard to build it back up again.
Can you tell me a little about how the writing of the Two Dancers took shape?
HT: Rather than having a core starting point, and everything emanating from it, we sort of built towards a center point as if it was a ripple effect but it all sort of came inwards. So it was a ripple — but in reverse. It’s almost like an eye contracting rather than dilating. [Laughs]
With the lyrics on this record, sometimes it seems like you all are painting a picture, sometimes it seems like you are taking a photograph or sometimes you are giving a narrative. Do you think about the differences between these ways of writing, or do you just follow what happens in moment?
TF: It’s supposed to be about a series of scenes — different ways of saying the same thing.  HT: I think in a strange way, a lot of the album discusses the same subject, and we’re just taking pictures of it from different angles. It’s also like taking a picture of someone full-on, in profile, and you get this façade, and you take a photo from behind them, when they don’t know you’re looking and you get this completely different aspect.
Lastly, I’ve got a few pictures of some songwriters, and if you don’t mind just say whatever song or thing pops into your mind when you see these artists — even if the song or thing doesn’t have anything to do with the writer:
[Photo of Burt Bacharach circa 1975]
HT: “Walk On By.”
[Photo of Bruce Springsteen circa 1995}
They all sing guitar riff from “Born to Run.”
[Photo of Bob Dylan circa 1995]
TF: “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”
[Photo of Captain Beefheart circa 1975]
TF: “Ice Cream for Crow”
Well thanks very much. I guess I better get upstairs.*
TF: It’s a real pleasure. We rarely get the chance to talk about this stuff.
* Roman Candle was opening for Wild Beasts the night of this interview

drinkswith_wildbeasts
“Drinks With” is a new feature at AmericanSongwriter.com in which two or more songwriters have a drink and a talk with each other (almost exclusively) about writing.

For our first in this series, Skip Matheny — currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with the U.K. band Wild Beasts in the basement of New York’s Mercury Lounge.

Who We’re Drinking With: Wild Beasts are from Leeds. They’ve released two records in the last two years, both of which have received numerous accolades (Pitchfork, NME, the list is long). In a recent live review, Jon Pareles, chief music critic for the New York Times, praised their ability to “tuck broad ambitions into succinct, brilliant songs.”

They credit their songwriting four ways within the group, among band members Tom Fleming (TF), Hayden Thorpe (HT), Benny Little (BL), and Chris Talbot (CT).


What is your favorite drink?

TF: There’s this thing called a Negroni, which is Campari, gin, martini [sweet vermouth], and orange.

That’s a very civilized drink.

BL: Bloody Mary

CT: Whiskey and Coke

HT: We just discovered Shochu last night — it’s like a Japanese martini. It’s sort of a rice spirit.

TF: They do a thing where we’re from called called a “Turbo wife-beater” which is a shot of vodka in a pint of Stella Artois.

If you wake up and think, “I’ll try and write a song today,” where does that usually happen? At a piano, guitar, full band in rehearsal space?

TF: Well all our songwriting is credited four ways. We usually start with a lyric or a melody, or the bare bones come from Hayden or me. But when it comes to the practice room, it gets pulled in all kinds of different directions, and there’s a sense of “let’s try and press it.” We try and kind of surprise each other and see what we can do with all of the bare basics, and we go through different versions.

HT: I think [the phrase] “bare bones” is brilliant, because it is like a skeleton. Sorry for the analogy [laughs] — but it’s like a skeleton of a cat. If you look at two cats or five cats, they’ve got the same skeleton. But with the flesh and the fur on, it’s a black cat, furry cat, fat cat, you know.

Cats with sweaters.

TF: Exactly.

When you are writing, do you all think in terms of pop songs or craft? For example the repeated line from your song “All the King’s Men,” “Let me show my darling what that means” works in a similar way to an old ballad, or to the repeated line in a song like “The Gallery” by Joni Mitchell. By the last time you hear the repeated phrase, it’s incredibly different and twisted from the first time you heard it.

HT: I think the beauty of pop is that it’s forgiving of everything. You can throw anything into it, and it’s still pop. You can throw in some sort of Japanese folk music with ghetto hip-hop, and it is pop. Also, it is a really underestimated skill: taking big ideas and condensing them down into simple lines. Some people have just got it. I think we’ve gotten better at it.

Do you have any favorite authors that you have in mind while you are writing?

TF: Oh man, do you know the French writer Helene Cixous?

Yeah, I believe she was friends with Derrida?

TF: Yes. There’s a line in “Two Dancers (II),” “Do you want my heart between your teeth?” which was taken directly from her. It’s a center point. She’s definitely one of my favorite writers, although I don’t read French and most of her books haven’t been translated.

HT: Rimbaud was a big influence for me. It was a translation from French. I think the French language does have this sort of sensuality to it — anyway — it seems to have.

TF: I think French writing has a “f*ck you” arrogance to it as well. It’s like “I’m just going to say this now.” Like Baudelaire, who is very much like “Here it is” — which is great.

If your hand was forced and you had to cover a Phil Spector song tonight, what would it be?

TF: I don’t want to speak for everyone but the Christmas one where he does the voice-over thing, and there’s a picture of him with Father Christmas.

Perfect — I think that was “Silent Night.”

TF: I’ve also got a version of him doing “Spanish Harlem” on his own with a guitar, really badly. For somebody like Phil Spector to sing those lyrics is really disturbing, but I really like it. “Be My Baby” is his high point though, for sure.

Do you have any habits when writing lyrics? For example do you use jumping off points like a poem, scene from a film, or do you lock up your iPod and turn off the TV, and try and make an entirely unique utterance?

TF: I think jumping off points are good. Obviously, we are trying to get out what we’re doing, but… and it might sound odd as a sound byte to say “Yeah yeah, [we’re influenced by] French Post structuralist feminist theory and Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey.” But it is that kind of juxtaposition I suppose.

HT: I just think you have to have your ear on all the time. It’d be silly to put limits on yourself. You just have to be ready or aware.

You all are from the Lake District and Leeds. Do you work better isolated from great amounts of activity? Or does it matter?

HT: You’ve got to let yourself go mad in a way. You’ve got to get dangerously obsessed to get [an album] out. You have to give yourself the right space and environment to allow that, and not to, sort of, “break the spell.” It doesn’t take a lot to pop the bubble, and then you’ve got to work hard to build it back up again.

Can you tell me a little about how the writing of the Two Dancers took shape?

HT: Rather than having a core starting point, and everything emanating from it, we sort of built towards a center point as if it was a ripple effect but it all sort of came inwards. So it was a ripple — but in reverse. It’s almost like an eye contracting rather than dilating. [Laughs]

With the lyrics on this record, sometimes it seems like you all are painting a picture, sometimes it seems like you are taking a photograph or sometimes you are giving a narrative. Do you think about the differences between these ways of writing, or do you just follow what happens in moment?

TF: It’s supposed to be about a series of scenes — different ways of saying the same thing. HT: I think in a strange way, a lot of the album discusses the same subject, and we’re just taking pictures of it from different angles. It’s also like taking a picture of someone full-on, in profile, and you get this façade, and you take a photo from behind them, when they don’t know you’re looking and you get this completely different aspect.

Lastly, I’ve got a few pictures of some songwriters, and if you don’t mind just say whatever song or thing pops into your mind when you see these artists — even if the song or thing doesn’t have anything to do with the writer:

[Photo of Burt Bacharach circa 1975]

HT: “Walk On By.”

[Photo of Bruce Springsteen circa 1995}

They all sing guitar riff from “Born to Run.”

[Photo of Bob Dylan circa 1995]

TF: “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”

[Photo of Captain Beefheart circa 1975]

TF: “Ice Cream for Crow”

Well thanks very much. I guess I better get upstairs.*

TF: It’s a real pleasure. We rarely get the chance to talk about this stuff.

* Roman Candle was opening for Wild Beasts the night of this interview

The XXJulian CasablancasPegi YoungSondre Lerche(coffee with) Doc WatsonThe Rosebuds Dr. DogSuzanne VegaFanfarloJason CollettThe WhigsPains of Being Pure at HeartAmy Ray Bear in HeavenJustin Townes EarleReal EstateBlack Rebel Motorcycle ClubHarper SimonAdam GreenChris StameyLissieFrightened RabbitSurfer BloodSuckersDavid VanderveldeJohn P Strohm Minus the BearAkron / FamilySean Moeller of DaytrotterFyfe Dangerfield (Guillemots - UK)Hurricane Bells / LongwaveThe Soft Pack

The XX
Julian Casablancas
Pegi Young
Sondre Lerche
(coffee with) Doc Watson
The Rosebuds 
Dr. Dog
Suzanne Vega
Fanfarlo
Jason Collett
The Whigs
Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Amy Ray 
Bear in Heaven
Justin Townes Earle
Real Estate
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Harper Simon
Adam Green
Chris Stamey
Lissie
Frightened Rabbit
Surfer Blood
Suckers
David Vandervelde
John P Strohm 
Minus the Bear
Akron / Family
Sean Moeller of Daytrotter
Fyfe Dangerfield (Guillemots - UK)
Hurricane Bells / Longwave
The Soft Pack

About:

"Drinks With" is an artist-on-artist interview series about songs & songwriting.

Typically the questions are asked by Skip Matheny, currently a songwriter in the band roman candle. The conversations always happen in person, and usually over drinks.

If circumstances allow, Skip (formerly a bartender in a retirement community) will make the drinks.

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