modi operandi

April 10, 2010 3:19 AM

Thought it might be interesting to share operating methods. How do you approach writing? Recording? Production? Do you always work to a set methodology? Or do you play it by ear (heh)? What works for you? What doesn't? Why??
posted by MajorDundee (24 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

I write most of my lyrics on the Tokyo trains, although I keep a notebook beside the bed as well, as I often wake up with a line or two in my head. When it comes to recording, I like to work really fast, get it down as quickly and painlessly as possible, and keep moving on.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2010 always write lyrics first? And in terms of recording, what goes down first? Recording with or without printed effects, eq etc?? You get the idea - trying to unpack your process. Quite an interesting area this, I think.
posted by MajorDundee at 9:43 AM on April 10, 2010

I've traditionally been a words-first person. And I rarely write with any kind of prior intent; usually, a little smidgen of a lyrical idea will occur to me and if I don't lose track of it immediately I'll sit down and just try and turn it into a song. There's an even chance that it'll turn into a recording that gets posted here vs. a very rough demo that will just sit and rot waiting for me to come back for it.

Sometimes I'll write up a whole stanza or even a whole song worth of lyrics before I even work out anything more than a very basic metric cadence, and then try and find the musical setting for that after the fact.

As often as that, though, I'll get a lyrical idea, build it out into a single line or couplet while trying to figure out a melody and basic harmonic structure around that. Then I'll go back and build out more of the lyrics with that in mind, which can make it both easier (having a strong metric or structural guideline to work with) and harder (having to confine my writing to that intended structure) to keep producing lyrics.

I don't usually have a whole idea for a song at the beginning; I tend to write bottom-up, starting from some single line or phrase that I like and building out the "plot" from there as I get ideas for what sort of context that line could live in. So sometimes I'm a little surprised by what a song turns out to actually be about. Twist the Knife happened like that; it started as just the line "I bet you even double-cross your t's" as a funny one-liner in my mind before it turned into a more full-fledged downer rebuke of a song.

Recording for me at this point is mostly a matter of not getting in my own way when trying to make the sort of noises I either (a) am sure I know how to make or (b) suspect I can produce. I usually do that (a) stuff first and as well as I can before moving on to the (b) stuff which can be more of a crapshoot and lead to project killing frustration if I don't have my momentum up already from getting some solid basics on tape.

I don't really have any sort of artful approach to recording, I just set up a mic or plug in a cord, make sure the signal won't peak, and go. That I have very limited and cheap gear is probably equal parts cause and effect on that front; I don't take the time to fuss to much because I don't have real hi-fi components, and I don't by real hi-fi components because I don't have the inclination or the skillset to get a lot out of fussing carefully with any of it.

Production is almost always something I wing once I start recording. I'll usually have some sort of specific arrangement in mind and a general intent as far as instrumentation and atmosphere, but once I put down what I intended to put down I'll sometimes just grab something else and add that as a layer, and so on a few times. Whether that works out well for me or not seems to vary from case to case, though I'm getting better at throwing the stuff that doesn't work out.

When I was working on Inchoatery this all got a little disrupted—for one thing, I generated a lot more instrumental ideas up front than I normally would; for another, I ended up working out a sort of mental outline of the whole narrative of the album before I ended up finishing (or even starting) some of the songs, so I was writing to sort of specific pre-existing ideas about what a song would be about. It became like a series of little lyrical Music Challenges in that respect. A fun change of pace, and kind of exhilarating to do that much writing all at once, but I think it has a cost to it as well as I don't really have the option of shrugging off a song and saying "eh, maybe later" when there's that whole do-this-in-one-month time constraint.
posted by cortex at 12:44 PM on April 10, 2010

David Byrne recently did an amazing and insightful piece about the collaborative process that incidentally covers a lot of territory about his own, solo process here.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2010

Fascinating stuff cortex - excellent post.

In general terms (and there are always exceptions), I tend to work in the same way you do only it starts with a bit of melody rather than a lyric. The best stuff is where it's just a pure tune that comes from nowhere - not chords or anything - and then the thing takes off from there. I'll work out some chords to go with it - deliberately trying to find something unexpected - and sing any old crap that comes into my head to articulate the melody. I usually put down a very simple looped rhythm track to give me something to pin it all to, and basically improvise and experiment until the thing starts to take shape. I always liken it to sculpture - you have a fucking big piece of stone that you hack away at until something recognisable emerges. Nowadays I tend to try to make sure that the melody works with just an acoustic guitar - so it stands up on its own. If it doesn't sound strong enough, I'll dump it.

Over the years I've also learned to simplify and not add layers of overdubs. I have a theory about that which I think has some merit. Thing is, if you work alone and it takes a while to finish a track your ears eventually get tired and/or at some level you just get bored with the song even if you know it's good. Kind of aural cramp. So what do you do? You start adding things to keep it interesting for you. Huge mistake. All you end up with is something that you think is good, but to someone who hasn't heard the track before sounds like a fucking cat's cradle, a total mess. So the lesson here is if you find yourself starting to add more than is strictly essential leave the track alone - go work on something else for a while. When you come back to it, if you still think that overdub is needed - ok. I think it's also important to understand that non-musicians might not hear music the way that you do. They may not be able to handle complex counterpoint and stuff like that. And a lot of people are unable to hone in on, say, a bass line and follow it. They just hear the whole thing as a single entity.

I'm bored with this now! But I'll put something else up later re mixing etc.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:57 PM on April 10, 2010

I've struggled over the years, especially recently, with using recording as a songwriting tool - it's something that I do all the time and wish I would do less, because I actually think it's counterproductive. It puts way too much focus on the recording and not the songwriting itself (nor the actual playing). But I'm really impatient, and that's why I do it so much - I get an idea in my head and I need to record it NOW. In the old days, way before I ever recorded anything, I would actually write the entire song before I ever played it to anyone else, but now I only write little bits of the song, record it, and expand from there. There are certainly positives that come out of that process, but all in all I really wish I had the self-restraint to write a complete song before I even touched my computer. And now that I have a real DAW, it's gotten even harder. Perhaps I need to sequester myself in a cabin without a computer for a while and see what happens.

That said, I am almost always a lyrics-last type of songwriter and recorder. Lyrics don't come easily to me - at ALL - but melodies seem to. I have an astounding number of melodies for a tiny number of lyrics, which has certainly led me to think I should find a partner who would write lyrics for me. Perhaps that will happen one day. My lyrics always seem wishy-washy and unfocused, and when I listen to really good pop music, or well-written music of any kind, I am envious of their ability to tell a story, or to pick a theme and stick with it, or to mix concrete ideas in with the poetry.

Anyway, great post and I'm excited to read more.
posted by ORthey at 4:25 PM on April 10, 2010

Sounds like you work pretty much exactly the same way as me ORthey. I'm not good with lyrics either, and - probably unlike you - I don't really care that much either. Although I'm into poetry big time, poetry is very different from lyrics. And just because I like poetry doesn't mean I'm any good at writing lyrics, or have any interest in writing them. Which is actually a bit of a puzzle to me.... Not sure how I can square my love of poetry with my almost total lack of interest in lyrics, mine or anyone else's. So actually I'm not really a songwriter at all - I'm half a songwriting team waiting for the other half to show up!

Maybe you should take a shot at what I did with those poetry tracks? If you have the facility to come up with a melody (and you do), it's interesting to just sit with a poetry anthology and just see if anything happens. You need to not try too hard though - let it come....or not. I mean my efforts weren't all successful, but I thought the Walt Whitman one wasn't bad. It's an approach I shall definitely try again. Gives a kind of unusual focus. The only real problem with it is that you tend to look for poems that have a song-like structure, preferably with repetitive lines that you can use as a sort of chorus. And that means if you're not careful you can be a bit undiscerning about the actual quality of the poem you're using (viz. my Thomas Hardy and Charles Kingsley ones - both a bit iffy, the Kingsley one being particularly crap). I'd suggest Yeats as someone who's work might resonate with you.
posted by MajorDundee at 8:47 AM on April 11, 2010

this is really interesting stuff. what the major calls 'aural cramp' is very familiar. i've been recording my own stuff for years but it's not really something i take that seriously - i'd rather be in a room with other musicians playing rather than dicking around with mixers, laptops etc. my usual problem is that i've never really learnt when to stop. part of this is the endless possibilities for fiddling about that technology gives you. what i do try and do is junk all the original session files once i've got a mix that i'm reasonably happy with, but even so i'll often find myself reimporting that mix and sticking loads of other stuff over the top and inevitably ruining the cake with too much icing...i try and ask myself the old oblique strategy question 'is it finished?' but i rarely say 'yes' till i've ruined it...this is probably a result of listening to too much todd rundgren at an impressionable age.
posted by peterkins at 3:02 PM on April 11, 2010

Best advice I've come across was from William Trevor, the short-story writer and one of my favourite people. He said that when he writes something he puts it away in a drawer and doesn't touch it for six months. If he still likes it when he re-reads it, he'll maybe polish it a little and it's done. That approach, of course, takes a lot of self-discipline. Which I don't have. At all. The temptation is always to upload it immediately - while you still think it's the best thing you've ever done - and sit back to gather the accolades. And then you find after a week you've had two people listen to it and the comments are polite rather than effusive. And then you think it's not that great after all, and the mix is a bit shitty's a piece of really, it clearly is.....what was I on.......I'm really seriously going to give it up now 'cos I'm just soooo shit.... cue collapsing buildings, colliding cars, generalised flooding, wailing children etc. So the "Trevor Principle" is something I really must try to follow in future. Perhaps.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:35 PM on April 12, 2010

I usually start with a very vague plan, maybe a chord progression or a bass-line or drums or something, then record that and build on top of it. Lately, I've been starting with a keyboard, which has led to more interesting results, since I'm more comfortable with key changes and such on the piano. So, yes, from there I record the other instruments over the base track. Lyrics are almost always added last, sometimes just as an afterthought. Also, I tend to try to get my recording sessions done all at once so I don't lose motivation, and they usually involve either alcohol or pot or both, so, by the time I get to the lyrics, who knows what'll transpire. Or how many vocal tracks I'll record.

Lyrically, I'm always trying to tell a small story. Some of them, like Fending off the Invasion, are pretty literal and straightforward, while others, like Flyball's Lament, are more ambiguous (even though, in my head, I have a very direct picture as to what the lyrics are about). The inspiration for these stories can come from virtually anywhere, like coming across the Myspace profile of someone who looks like someone I used to know or hearing a guy on a bicycle shout to his equally bebicycled daughter, "I just want to feed the ducks, and you keep pulling me away!"

Most of my older recordings were just through a $5 computer mic using Cool Edit Pro (which I would still use exclusively if it had ADAT support), but I've since moved on to my lovely Behringer ADA8000 and Cubase. And real microphones.

Beyond that, I record far more tracks than I plan on using, then pare them down to the ones that best fit together. Lately I've been cutting, pasting, and looping more as a matter of convenience, though I try not to, for the most part.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 3:57 PM on April 12, 2010

I love reading this kind of stuff (thanks everyone for posting), so I'll add some thoughts on my songwriting.

I often will take a 5 minute break from whatever else I'm doing (usually visual art) to sit and mess around on the guitar. These little sessions sometimes yield little riffs or chord sequences, and over days they develop into something I think could be the core of a song. If it's a chord sequence, I often dream up a vocal melody for it and sing words that are kind of random. Because I'm constantly coming up with little things, I also forget those things very easily -- so once I have something I like, I record myself playing and singing into a Tascam DR-1 recorder. I also am not a musician who can instantly figure out how to play something even if I wrote it, so I'll write down tabs or chords with the random words, so I know I can relearn how to play what I came up with, should I forget how the thing goes.

As I play my sequence over the following days, sometimes a better lyric emerges in my mind. I then gradually build a song from the starting point that first interested me, a bit like how cortex works. Usually I'll end up with one verse and one chorus, which I'll just repeat as I figure out the structure. Once the song has bones, I start fleshing out more lyrics according to the established "formula," so that I get different verses, and maybe a bridge, etc. Usually my songs have pretty few lyrics compared to a lot of what's out there.

So once I have a song that can be played from beginning to end on a guitar, I'll sometimes record myself singing the whole thing into the Tascam, just so I have a decent demo of the whole idea. Sometimes I skip this step if I feel like I really know the song.

Lately I've been good about playing the song a whole bunch before starting the official recording. This way the song becomes more a part of me, and my mission becomes clearer.

To record the thing, I usually start by entering in some simple drum pattern in an appropriate tempo to play along with. I try to get the general feel I want for the drums, but with no variations yet. Then I start recording instrument by instrument. I usually start with guitar or keys, then bass, then more work on the drums, then vocals and whatever "extra" instruments I want to add.

A lot of my instrument takes are done as follows: Say I want some guitar noodling (notes rather than chords) in a certain section. I'll practice for 5 minutes to get a general feel for something, without really figuring out exactly what to play. I'll then hit record, and start playing along to a section of the song over and over and over and over for 20 minutes. Each time I succeed at playing something decent, I'll palm-mute my strings and scratch the strings a few times, resulting in a distinct sound that works like a marker telling me "this part that I just played is good, use that." I'll then dump 95% of what I just recorded, but keep the little isolated bits that were good. Then I'll distribute those around the timeline of my song project. I record my vocals in a similar way, except in bigger chunks.

Every third song or so that I work on, I end up trying to "write something in the studio." This means working in FL Studio and trying to come up with something based on cool sounds or programming in patterns or whatever. It's exceedingly rare that this leads to anything good, and every time I curse myself for bothering with it instead of truly writing something completely first. But lately I have managed to come up with some good things here and there in this fashion. I created "oslo nights" that way, and also major parts of "first step". I also have a keyboards-based project going on now that is being figured out entirely in the studio, and it's got some potential.

Another thing I do a lot in my songwriting, is sort of hating my sound and deciding that I should produce music more like X, where X is whatever artist I'm obsessing over that month. So if I've been listening to Mazzy Star, I decide to make my next song almost exactly like a Mazzy Star song. I then go to a lot of effort to shape and mold my song into something I think will sound like Mazzy Star. Once I'm done, it sounds exactly nothing at all like Mazzy Star, and exactly like a new edlundart song. But, still, maybe the fact that I drew some inspiration from somewhere impacted the song in some more subtle way.

If anyone has more specific questions I'd happily answer!
posted by edlundart at 9:46 PM on April 12, 2010

I tend to start by just playing the guitar, looking for some chords or a riff that seem catchy. That will usually suggest a melody line or another set of chords, and I build out from there until I have two or three parts that fit together well and have a decent melody. Then I keep playing it and refining it until the melody sticks in my head enough that I can write lyrics to it without having to go back and play the parts. At that point I have a good idea of what the hook is and sometimes even what the lyric will be that reinforces the hook. I find it really hard to write lyrics without a melody to fit them to, so this lets me put that off until the last minute.

At that point the song goes to the band, and if they like it we start working it over. Sometimes it stays much as I wrote it, but other times it gets some major changes before everyone is happy.
posted by InfidelZombie at 10:27 AM on April 13, 2010

So if I've been listening to Mazzy Star, I decide to make my next song almost exactly like a Mazzy Star song. I then go to a lot of effort to shape and mold my song into something I think will sound like Mazzy Star. Once I'm done, it sounds exactly nothing at all like Mazzy Star, and exactly like a new edlundart song.

i do this too, i think. it was probably eno who said something like 'imitating things you like is a good idea. as long as you fail'. i relate to much of what everyone says here. a great thread.
posted by peterkins at 12:23 PM on April 13, 2010

It's funny that I've always been utterly paranoid about not sounding like anyone else. To the extent that if I get a "that sounds like x" moment, I dump the idea or the whole track. Maybe I'll give it a go though - on the basis that even if I think something sounds like x it probably won't at all by the time I've finished it, or at least it won't to other people. This is the sort of thing I was hoping would emerge from this thread - some new flavours to taste.

I promise I haven't been drinking, but another thing I'm musing on working out how to do comes from watching a recent BBC drama-doc about Vincent Van Gogh. His experiments with colour - like green skies and orange seas - were really bold and counter-intuitive, but, somehow, they work. If that kind of "turn it on it's head" approach could be done with sound........what would it come out like, I wonder....? And I'm not talking about cliched 60's psychedelia (maaaan). Perhaps, edlundart, this is a challenge for you given your day job!
posted by MajorDundee at 2:48 PM on April 13, 2010

There was a period in high school where I would have liked very much to have been able to sound like Pink Floyd—it's both a tragedy and a relief that I no longer have my earliest teenage demo cassettes, banging out a terrible two-track version of Wish You Were Here and such—but I sort of gave up on either trying to sound like someone on purpose or ending up sounding like someone by accident.

Of course, given the spartan arrangements of my first few years of recording, often just acoustic guitar and vox with maybe some overdubbed harmonies and acoustic lead or something, there wasn't much chance of cloning someone's style in production anyway.

At this point it makes me happy when I can do a decent knock-off on purpose on the rare occasion when I try (I really had fun making that Bob Dylan Zimmerlujah recording, though I wish I'd been more studious about the impersonation), but I'm comfortable enough knowing that I'm mostly just doing whatever the hell comes out for no particular reason that I just don't think about it much at all.
posted by cortex at 3:13 PM on April 13, 2010

Great post, Major. Lots and lots of interesting stuff.

I've been thinking for a couple of days how to sum up my "methodology." The problem is, I don't really have a structured approach. I'll try to summarize some of the ways in which I've developed my songs.

For writing songs, most of times I get little pieces of songs (mostly on guitar) while fiddling around. Those pieces gather, I keep playing and changing them, and some of them eventually become songs.

But then there are other set of songs that I "develop" while trying to learn an actual song from somebody else. In the process of learning the song, I'll find a combination of sounds that might end up becoming a song on its own. This is somewhat similar to the Mazzy Star phenomenom edlundart mentioned and peterkins quoted here, and while it is different, I gotta admit I also suffer from that exact same thing: since a lot of my songs can be easily categorized in a genre, (not all of them in one genre, but each one in a single genre) I try to copy things that are "standard" in the genre. Most of the time, I don't get things to sound as they should, and they end up sounding like something else. Like me, I guess.

Then there are a handful of songs that I've specifically written trying to do a song in X genre, say, a "vallenato" song, or a "son jarocho" song. A rock song. That sounds cold, detached and almost "scientific", but in practice it's a very interesting thing, and it's the exact opposite of that typical process of trying to get a feel of "what the song wants to become," and try to follow that direction. Here, you, no matter what happens, I try to end up with a song in a predetermined genre.

I've done a few things "on commission", but that kind of experience is worth a thread of its own. The misunderstandings between what people think they want and what they really want, the language they use to communicate them, and then the added factor of having many backseat drivers involved is a recipe for disaster/hilarity.

Then there is the recording process. With recording what happens is that I've always thought of the stuff I record as "sketches." Everything I record I think of as demos of things I'll eventually record a proper version of, but as the years pass and I gather a growing number of those "demos" - which I inevitably keep showing to people and uploading to sites- I've come to the conclusion that I should record actual "final versions." This is a very recent decision, so everything I've recorded so far fits in the demo category.

In the last few years I've moved countries a few times, so my actual processes have changed a lot from one to another. I'll try to narrow it down to how I've recorded most of the stuff I've uploaded here.

I have an 8-track digital portastudio that records into CD. Mostly, when I use beats as a time reference, it will be a default rhythm in the studio or a reference beat imported into it, but most of the times, it won't be a beat that I'll keep in the song. Having that, I record a guitar track all the way through, from beginning to end, that will serve as an "audio map" for the different sections. That track won't be there at the final mix, either. After that, I record each instrument. Acoustic instruments with a condenser mic, electric instruments go directly into the studio. Then I mix the tracks in the studio, export them in a CD, and import them into the computer.

The last 14 months or so I was without my portastudio, so I recorded everything posted in that period with a laptop (using ACID 2.0, which I swear by) and a plug-n-play, 1-dollar mic. Though the quality was terrible, the experience of editing onscreen was wonderful, and now that I have my studio with me, I think I will be using it to record, and then I'll export/import those tracks (a painstaking and hideous process) into the laptop to edit there.

That broadly sums it up. I'm sorry to have gone crazy with "title sections" and "section numbers" but writing it here in this box it all seemed like a huge, unreadable chunk of text and I thought that could help.
posted by micayetoca at 3:50 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

This has been a great thread, so thanks for posting it MajorDundee and thanks to all the contributors. I keep trying to write something and getting stuck, so I think what I'll do is just post a link to the blog we've been writing about the upcoming project from the band I'm in because it's exactly what I would write here, but over a longer period of time. Start from the bottom post. It's a cop out, yeah, but saves me from carpel tunnel. I'll try to come back and actually write something.

I will say that the bit about Van Gogh that you wrote, Major, tends to be how I do things anymore--looking for juxtapositions that stick, thinking of the colors of the songs. Doesn't always work the way it should, but that's the fun of it.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:00 PM on April 14, 2010

Lyrics come first maybe 95% of the time. Maybe half of that time (and more, lately), I start with the title. (Fun Fact: The longer a song title of mine is, the more likely it is that the title was the first thing I came up with.) I keep a file -- okay, a paper bag -- of possible titles and add titles to it whenever one occurs to me.

If I'm lucky, the song title suggests a point of view and a direction, and then I can write the lyrics quickly. (Example: "My Favorite Sunbeam's Gone Away," a title which came with a clear POV and a boxful of easy weather analogies.)

As a non-musician, I never really spend any time "noodling" or "practicing" or "jamming," and so I very rarely create anything "music-first." (Relatedly, I almost never do instrumentals.) Occasionally I'll think of a riff and sing nonsense along to it until it forms itself into real words and I'll proceed from there.

I write words by walking around and singing to myself, mosty, so I start putting together the melody right away. Once I have a rough idea of the structure I sit down with the Autoharp and work out the chord sequence. ("Oh, look, it's I-IV-V. Wow!")

Then I, usually, record a basic drum-machine rhythm track and a basic Autoharp trap. This stuff is all tempo synched so that I can cut and paste easily, and I cut and paste until I've figured out the song structure. Then I record new stuff over the top. Since it's tempo-synched, I can swap out the drum machine and control MIDI keyboards by running the recorder out to an old Roland sequencer (it uses floppy discs!).

(Occasionally some of this base stuff remains; here's an example, as explained in the original post.)

I find recording a kind of onerous process. I like making songs, but I'm no good at and/or don't really care about engineering or musicianship or any of the stuff that people use to gauge "credibility." I mean, I find discussion of process really interesting, but what matters to me is the three minutes you end up with when you're done. If you make a great song by comping two dozen vocal takes and a crappy song by playing live with no overdubs, I think it's silly to complain about the process of the first song. Not that anyone here is doing that. I am tangenting!

Anyway. I really like that Eno quote about imitating and failing. I can't help but fail most of the time, just due to my limitations (self-imposed and otherwise) -- just the "no guitars, ever" thing forces me one degree away from most popular music automatically. Currently, I am imitating Katy Perry and Neil Sedaka.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:56 PM on April 14, 2010

Thanks to everyone for sharing! A lot of what has been said resonates with my own experience.

Then there are a handful of songs that I've specifically written trying to do a song in X genre

This tends to be how I create. When you have something to say, thru a certain inspired lyric or melody, that particular idea can send a song in a certain direction, where the genre of expression takes a backseat to the larger artistic idea. But often I don't have a big idea, or a specific direction in mind, I just want to create music. Having a preordained context helps to create music. I think most music comes into the world this way, whether people realize it or not.

I record a guitar track all the way through, from beginning to end, that will serve as an "audio map" for the different sections. That track won't be there at the final mix, either.

This is a great approach to creating interesting and effective arrangements. The "ghost" track is the one idea that every other idea is playing off of, but when you remove it, all the new ideas seem fresh and free, and the listener can't quite pin down the common thread between everything he/she hears.

As a non-musician, I never really spend any time "noodling" or "practicing" or "jamming,"

This is an approach I could learn from. More often than not, I decline to record an idea or a song because I don't think I'll be able to perform the music exactly the way I want it, or I will not be able to record and reproduce the sound exactly as I hear it in my head. As a result, I play a lot of music, but I rarely record and share with others. One of the biggest draws of a place like this is seeing other people put their ideas out there. It is inspiring.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 6:13 PM on April 14, 2010

MajorDundee: If {Vincent Van Gogh's} "turn it on it's head" approach could be done with sound........what would it come out like, I wonder....?

Karlos the Jackal: I can't help but fail most of the time, just due to my limitations (self-imposed and otherwise) -- just the "no guitars, ever" thing forces me one degree away from most popular music automatically.

I used to have a lot of self-imposed rules. When I first started making music, I thought: "OK, I'm not a good musician, but I could make something really interesting by being incredibly unconventional, by questioning everything and avoiding the expected" etc. I made the following observations:

1. The only instrument I can play at all (at the time) is the guitar. Guitar is used in 99% of popular music. These are two great reasons to NEVER use any guitar in my music.

2. Popular music has beats. My music should therefore not have a beat. Not only should it not have drums, but nothing should happen at regular intervals.

Some of my first stuff was pseudo-jazzy and included samples of a water cooler from my office and tiny single-syllable interview clips from PBS of a stripper/entrepreneur. I used Jay Leno's whiny beginning-of-a-laugh as a kind of drum sample but made sure to have it never be on any kind of beat. The more melodic elements were played by sort of a hello kitty happy happy happy synth sound, and every note was at 100% velocity because I didn't know how to make a softer note.

I know what at least a few of you are thinking: "You should post those songs!"

Well, I won't. Because it was terrible and actually far less interesting than maybe it sounds. And I decided that I needed to learn how to write "regular songs" first, and then I could return to my super-experimental roots. Years later I'm still trying to improve my craft as a more traditional songwriter, although my experimental interests do sneak in.

My recent multiplication entry was a fun attempt at writing a song in a different way, and self-imposed rules or systems do interest me a lot. I'm sure I'll come back to it a lot in the future. There's no moral to this story, just sharing more about my music-making journey inspired by the many great posts in this thread.
posted by edlundart at 8:36 PM on April 14, 2010

edlundart: I used to have a lot of self-imposed rules.

I should probably own up here and say that my referring to any of my rules as "self-imposed" is mostly a cover story. The "no guitars" rule, for instance, is because a) I can't play guitar, or in fact anything with frets; and b) I have a lot of difficulty working with others.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:44 AM on April 15, 2010

I'm not so sure that being deliberately or consciously "experimental" would really work. Arguably, Vincent Van Gogh's originality was in some way connected with his bi-polar illness and, perhaps, he didn't consider what he was doing as particularly off-the-wall. He was just doing his thing. Speculation, of course. His story breaks my heart - poor bastard.

I think conscious quirkiness would probably come across as just that - rather arch and knowing...and maybe a bit pretentious. I suppose what I'm saying is that either you're naturally left-field or you're not. And if you're not, you have to rely on passion, conviction, strong melodies etc i.e. orthodoxy. I guess the ideal is to couple a strong orthodoxy (i.e. stuff that people can relate to - like structured songs and identifiable hooks) with oddball or experimental production. I'm thinking Remain In Light as an exemplar here. Although even there, Mr Byrne (a fellow Scot - born in Dumbarton - although that's apparently not widely known) comes across as just a little anyway. But a very cool dude, nonetheless, and one I'm very fond of.
posted by MajorDundee at 8:38 AM on April 15, 2010

...and there's a whole load of other infernal layers connected with that last post of mine that's about self-expression and so on. I mean, it's no good - and this is a personal, non-judgemental view - trying to sound or be like another artist. You should be digging down and finding the artist that you are. And you might not like what you find...... You might think you're a raving metal freak, but your true artistic core - who you are - is gentle and acoustic....... So there's a big difference between what you want to be, and what you actually are artistically. And I suspect the "real" you is the one that connects most with listeners - because at some level it rings truer than anything else. Good lord - we'll be on to Cartesian dualism next.....
posted by MajorDundee at 8:55 AM on April 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

i used to be a lyrics first person a long time ago - sometime in the last 10 years i started going towards music first - these days, the most typical way is to come up with a good drumbeat, come up with a guitar or keyboard rhythm part and just build it up from there

sometimes, though, i just write the words and music in my head and then jot it down

truth is, i'm willing to try anything, including weird synth tracks - right now, though, i'm mostly into a folk based acid rock direction, with some long jams - i'm pretty sure the next batch will be out here by june
posted by pyramid termite at 9:35 PM on April 28, 2010

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