Written By Skip Matheny
Are there any specific books or authors you were reading while you were making the record, or maybe you’re reading at the moment?
No. I mean I read a bunch of stuff before Phrazes For The Young like The Analects [Confucious], quotations of people and stuff. No I haven’t really read any new things. Siddhartha and translations of the Bible on the bus right now that I’m trying to get through. It’s hard to read on the road. I think I’ve only read two books like front page to last page in my entire life.
The Odyssey and Crime And Punishment.
Wow. If you had to pick two…
It’s hard, well, the thing about The Odyssey is, every chapter is like a book. Every thing’s is like a poem, every line is like this deep quote on life. It’s really amazing. That’s probably why it lasted 5000 years (laughs). But the translation I read is really good too. I feel like translations are super important. I always go to the book store and check out different translations before you buy a book because — its night and day. I mean like the first line of Crime and Punishment, you read the first line of any book, and I mean, its insane. One is , you know, “Todd walked down the street and saw his friend.” And one’s like “Todd on the second of the ides crossed passed with his sister’s other sibling.” or you know what I mean…
Do you find yourself writing much, when you are on the road?
More than ever before on this tour actually. Its been pretty great. Yeah the drummer, he kind of made a song. We called it “Beat” but it was pretty elaborate. We worked on it together — it was kind of rad -– so I’ve been relatively productive, way more than ever before on the road.
The lyrics on this record seem to use a method of describing things through collections of statements. Some are proper aphorisms and some seem like off-hand thoughts, and a bunch kind of fall in between. In “11th Dimension,” for example, there are these oddly paired thoughts or statements, some remark as casual and internal as a personal greeting, “I’ll just nod. I’ve never been that good at shaking hands” — with something as spartan and abstract as a zoomed-out photo of earth – “I live on the frozen surface of a fireball” – but when you hear them all together as the record progressses, they start create a more over-arching description of scenes or characters. Were you just writing what came out naturally , or were you sitting down sweating these lyrics out, working with a line at a time?
I was sweating a little bit because I had the name first. If it’s called Phrazes For The Young the lyrics can’t just be throw away. I do a similar things with lyrics now, I tried really hard to sit down. I can do that sometimes. But ’11th dimension” did not come that way. It was more like a collection of thoughts. There’s different themes on the record and for me, “11th Dimension’ was almost like a kind of summary of the whole record a little bit — the whole thing, ‘it’s kind of like in the back of your mind whether you know it or not’ type of thing. So that was the theme. “11th Dimension” was basically just about the sub-conscious, that was the whole idea behind it. And the opening line, yeah I thought its always nice to start off like, ‘Hey how’s it going?’ (laughs). I had a lot of different lyrics that I wrote over a course of a year. Different thoughts – different lines that I would have. I went through them all, and I would collect different things ,and some things fit musically and some things fit thematically. I feel like a lot of my process now is editing. You know — the creating — I don’t sit there and think “oh you know, I gotta write,” because that can be fruitless and frustrating. But now, I’m constantly playing music and thinking about things. And then just when it comes out, I record, and then eventually I go through everything later.
Just reading the lyrics as text, there are a lot of details crafted into place that can get easily overlooked by a casual listener. My favorite line on the record, and maybe an actual “phrase for the young” in a modern sense, sits on the fade-out of 11th Dimension: “Don’t you dare get to the top and not know what to do.” Another kind of subtle heavyweight is on the last song on the record, “Tourist.” The listener has to hang on to the very last line to have the whole song fall into shape. “Everywhere I go, I am a tourist / But if you stay with me I’ll always be at home” is kind of out of nowhere at that point, and turns the whole song around. I would say it kind of changes the lighting on the whole record. These are some pretty artful arrangements that require a listener to lean in a bit…
It’s tough to write. I feel like I suck at writing like ‘pop’ because I get too greedy, meaning wise. Because I want it to work on two or three different levels, its really hard for me to just, you know, “I went to the door and I looked you in the eye and … that’s why I’m a happy man!” (laughs) You know what I mean? I just can’t. Its gotta be — maybe something weird or complicated, like a thriller… I don’t know, now I’m rambling. The pop lyrics, I’m bad at the simple thread. I just get greedy. Like Rumi’s my favorite kind of poet. Did you ever read him?
Yeah, I have.
That stuff is bonkers out of this world cool. And out there crazy and yeah, that’s always the dream; that the lyrics can still work like that. Cause I think he was a musician, you know? So it can feel like those poems he sang, that’s like ideal.
Yeah, that kind of goes back to the Greeks we were talking about. All those memorized poems were passed down by bards actually singing them. There wasn’t always, so to speak, a separation between music and poetry.
Although did Homer sing? Do you think?
I imagine he did, I don’t know.
Did he have like a horrible voice? Were people like “Stop singing. Just tell the story… if you could just tell us the story…” (laughs)
This article originally appeared in American Songwriter Magazine