Kick, Snare, Kick, Snare: On Writing and Bandmates
I write. Stories, poems, lyrics, music, anything. I wouldn’t be an English major with a creative writing emphasis if I didn’t.
There’s something about writing that’s always fascinated me — the idea of creating something entirely of your own mind and of your own volition, whether it’s an outpouring of some emotion through song or a story that’s begging to be told. While each form of writing has its own nuances and practices, there’s something very special about writing music.
As a drummer, it’s hard to write music by myself. Sure, I could write different fills and patterns and what not, but it’s not the same as playing a guitar and being a singer/songwriter. In most forms of modern music, drums and other instruments take a backseat to the vocal talent of the frontman or frontwoman, as evidenced by such shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice.”
That being said, the only times I’ve ever seriously written anything is in a band setting. The first time I ever sat down behind a drum kit and wrote my own parts to my first band’s own song, it made me realize that what truly makes writing music unique — and a hell of a challenge — is the collaboration and understanding needed in order to write something that flows and sounds good. And let me tell you, it’s quite the fine line between magic and crap.
Usually, I can tell if writing a song is going to work out within 15 minutes of jamming with someone, either on my full set or on my cajon and tambourine for acoustic sets. There should be a natural flow and connection between the different musicians in a band — otherwise, everything will sound forced, and everyone who knows anything about music will be able to tell.
One recent example that comes to mind is an instance just a couple of weeks ago. I’m in a club on campus called Open Jam, which is basically a club for musicians of all kinds to get to know each other, network, play gigs, etc. One particular Monday night, members had the opportunity to play what they’ve been working on in front of everyone in attendance, more for practice than anything else.
I wasn’t planning on playing anything that night, but I did. My friend Audrey, who’s a singer/songwriter, noticed that I had brought my cajon and (half-jokingly, it seemed) suggested that I should just play along with her songs, even though I had never heard them before. I figured the worst that could happen was that I mess up in front of a bunch of friends and other club members, so I decided to go for it. The only instructions I had for one of the songs was that “the beat is sort of like a heartbeat.”
Fully expecting to completely screw up, I made it through the song only missing one measure in which I had to pause and get back on the beat. What that told me immediately is that Audrey and I had musical chemistry, which is perhaps one of the hardest things to come by in seeking out other musicians.
I’ve tried just jamming with friends here and there to see what happens, but it doesn’t always work out the way you would expect. Sure, you get along well and great, but when it comes down to actually writing there has to be some sort of spark that I can’t quite explain. It’s like being able to finish each other’s sentences, but instead of sentences, it’s verses and choruses, riffs and beats.
That’s not to say that you can’t be friends with your bandmates (I used to have an inside joke with my old band where we would say, “We’re not friends, we’re bandmates,” in jest). In fact, you should be best friends when it comes down to it. Finding the right combination of someone you click with musically and someone you can hang out with on a near-daily basis can be a challenge all in itself. In the end, it’s all the foundation for writing music together, being on the same page and most importantly, having fun.
So if you’re a musician reading this and you’ve never tried writing anything of your own, I challenge you to try. It doesn’t have to be good. Nobody has to hear it other than yourself, if you want. There’s an element of self-discovery in putting chords and melodies together, in seeing what kind of lyrics come naturally. You don’t have to be a singer, either. Just write. Even if you’re a drummer like me, just sitting down and playing whatever comes to mind can be an interesting process.
You’ll know you have something special once you feel as though you’ve given your entire self to writing a song, and then doing it again for the next one. Whether it’s happy, sad or funny, it doesn’t matter. Just write.