Having taken a trip up to Pittsburgh in the spring to catch some baseball and hang out with some old friends, I proposed an interview to Phil Boyd from Shockwave Riderz and Hidden Twin. He and I had gone to college together and both were tangled up in words in various ways and he was kind enough to oblige in between tour dates. Here goes…
The Fiddleback: Hey man—so I figure this will probably unfold somewhat organically and I’ll tweak it some if we wind up heading off track. But first, let me ask something straight away what purpose do lyrics serve in the projects that you’ve been involved with (from Dean Swagger to Modey Lemon to Hidden Twin to TMI to Old Head to Shockwave Riderz…assuming they’re going to be used to different ends in many instances)?
Phil Boyd: Lyrics give the listener and singer the framework to experience the song within. Without lyrics or some external context (song title, picture of the band, or fantastic album art for instance), we’re just associating sounds with whatever responses those sounds evoke. I’ve made a lot of instrumental music and sometimes prefer it, because my inclination to hone in on lyrics will occupy too much of my attention.
I often listen to instrumental music when I need to focus on something external or when I need to let my mind unwind. Music is a celebration and or exploration of all of the moments that make up a life. As a songwriter, lyrics help me memorialize a moment, or trap an idea or emotion in a net to relive again. Sometimes those moments can take different meanings or become irrelevant as my perspective changes, but that’s all part of living and music is very much about being alive. Sometimes those moments are profound, sometimes they’re confusing, and sometimes they’re boring and simple and dumb, but those are all very real things we deal with and have a place in songs.
The Fiddleback: What do you think makes a set of lyrics songworthy, or otherwise “good”?
PB: I tend to like lyrics that are witty and a bit open for interpretation, but not clunky. I usually have a specific mood I’m trying to set with the song and I have to make sure that I’ll be able to follow my own words in the future. I like to use a lot of animals and elements in my songs because when I sing the songs, I want to be able to almost enter into the environment of the song, and it needs to feel like a living place to me as opposed to just some mental exercise or exam. It’s difficult to say though. Sometimes you just know when something is good. If I can follow the lyrics, or if they transport me to a particular place, whether that be some geographic place, or they help me recall some sensation or emotion (boredom, attraction, fear) then they’re good.
The Fiddleback: Picking up from some of what you’re saying—my inclination to hone in on lyrics will occupy too much of my attention—do you think that this is tied to the weight language carries? Or do you think there’s something that language does in songs that might be detrimental to a listener’s experience of the rest of what’s happening in a song? (this might be too tangential…) Or do you think that our natural inclination might be to attach to language because it’s how we grapple with making sense of things?
PB: I think it really falls on the listener. We’re all wired a little differently and are going to probably gravitate towards different components of a song. For instance, Paul* and I were listening to Pet Sounds one day and after “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was finished I said something like ‘Man, what a perfect song to sum up that restless anxiety of teenage love, where you think you’re old enough to fall in love, but too young to be allowed to stay out all night with your partner’ and he said something like ‘Oh wow I never thought about that before. Didn’t realize that’s what he’s singing about.’ To me it was super obvious, you know?
You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new
And after having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through
But he was probably listening to other things in the song, tone of the vocals, the melodies, the sounds of the drums. A few years later we had this Black Sabbath cover band that played out a few times. When we were rehearsing, I was on guitar and trying to learn the parts to these songs, some of which I had hear a billion times. In that environment, Paul would often point out to me parts that I was playing wrong—’there are two more notes in that riff that you’re not playing, it goes like this…’ and he’d hum the part for me so I could understand it. I’m supposed to be a guitar player and the drummer, who can’t play guitar, is telling me how to play. My point being, that despite that fact that a recorded song never changes each time its played, the listeners experience varies from person to person or even from day to day depending on your mood or age or whatever.
I’m not sure if I’ve always been predisposed to pay attention to lyrics, but I can clearly remember driving in the car with my dad and him rewinding songs and talking about the lyrics with me. I remember when Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” came out and he stopped each line to talk about the historical references in the song to my brother and I, or a few years later when I was a teenager and listening to Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and that story or The Doors’ “Five to One” and wondering what all the lyrics could be about. When I was even younger we had the Muppet Movie soundtrack in the car on cassette. My dad lived in another state, so we’d have to take these big road trips to visit. We spent a lot of time driving and we would have these sing-alongs. I had to learn the lyrics to be able to sing along. We sang those songs a lot and I guess that’s probably my earliest memory of music and lyrics. Funny, thinking about that soundtrack, I remember the music far more than I remember the movie. I know all of the words to that Muppet Movie soundtrack and it makes total sense that it might be responsible for the way that I think about music. Since it was a soundtrack, it followed somewhat of a narrative, even if we didn’t have the visual accompaniment or other parts of the film. I mean, they songs were laid out as they were in the movie even if a lot of the dialogue was gone. I knew the characters and I guess listening to those songs so much and having lot of time for my mind to wander over the several-hour-long drive, I guess it became a way to keep myself entertained, imagining that world and the characters and their hopes and dreams and journeys.
Sometimes the lyrics are a bit of a puzzle because they have effects processed on them or because of the way a singer will draw out certain words or cram them into the rhythms of the song, and so it becomes a little bit of a game to dust off the hieroglyphs before you can even start deciphering what they’re saying. It seems that most people aren’t very interested in lyrics any more, tending to focus more on the process and the innovations in sounds and genre. I’m a little old fashion like that and can get totally wrecked by listening to the most simple songs. I suppose lyrics will detract/distract if you’re a word-person. Otherwise, it seems easy enough for people to ignore them. Ha.
*Paul Quattrone—PB’s bandmate in Shockwave Riderz and Modey Lemon.
The Fiddleback: In terms of the things you return to in your lyrics—animals and elements—what pulls you toward these things as opposed to say, like domestic scenes, or mines, or other stuff? I guess what governs your obsessions might be a better way to phrase this…
PB: I’m also not sure what governs my obsessions. It might be more of a nature vs. nurture argument again. I’ve always been a little fascinated by birds. They can be elusive, predatory, musical, majestic, pitiful … I suppose they just cover a wide scope as far as imagery goes. Same with the elements. They’re simple in that everyone interacts with them and has their own associations. I have written about mines a few times and Shockwave Riderz has a song called “Talking to Mom” that is pretty domestic. So, after writing songs for a couple of decades, it’s hard not to write about a little of everything. I’m sure you do the same in your writing, but there are definitely themes that I return to.
A lot of my favorite bands have a sort of vocabulary that their songs utilize.
The Fiddleback: I’ve definitely got my set thematic clusters that have some odd gravity about them. Recently it’s been sort of landscape oriented, but anyway—what’s your writing process like—or how do you go about drumming up song ideas? Has this changed with your move from guitar to drums in Shockwave Riderz? And has the content/dynamic of your lyrics shifted significantly with the addition of another lead vocalist?
PB: As far as what changes between me playing drums and playing guitar, well nothing really as far as the lyrics go. My guitar playing has never been very accomplished and my drumming is considerably less. I sometimes wonder if I purposefully handicapped myself on my instruments (not taking lessons, not really practicing scales or anything too much) so that I could keep my songs simple enough and let my music become more of a backdrop for the lyrics. I mean, I definitely have my own philosophies about the music itself that are very important to me. Good rock music shouldn’t be too complicated anyway. Maybe I’m just lazy though. I do get frustrated at times with my limitations on my instruments.
Singing with Sara McElhaney in Shockwave Riderz has been awesome. Paul and I split the composition of the music, though he’s been writing more of it lately. I wrote some of the more simple tracks (music tracks) and he’s writing more of the involved tracks as he becomes more and more engrossed in his process with and understanding of the sampler. It’s kind of nice to have him hand Sara and I a track that he’s compiled because usually I have no preconceived notion of where the music is coming from (unless we’ve discussed it already or I know the original samples) and that allows me to kind of associate the sounds that he gives me with whatever lyrics and themes come to mind. With this band we tried to establish a general concept that would drive the band and it feels like a little gang. We all contribute and speak the language. Sara bought in right away and contributed some of the best stuff and it’s been fun to have someone else to write lyrics with. Sometimes she’ll come up with the main verse and I’ll write a second verse from my perspective or she’ll do the same for one of my songs. Sometimes I just write a bridge or she just writes a harmony… it’s been really fun. One of the songs that she came up with the main idea for is called “Pittsburgh’s PA Motor Speedway.” She wanted to write about a summer evening at the car race track and then I wrote a second verse about my memories of the speedway near where I grew up in the country, which were basically limited to the sounds of the motors rumbling over the expanse of cornfields out front of my house.
I’ve been doing a solo project for the last seven or eight years that has been my kind of catch-all for when my other bands aren’t playing or when I have something that doesn’t fit in that band. I started it when Modey Lemon was together and called it the “Hidden Twin” because, well my sign is Gemini, and I felt like there was a side of me that I wasn’t let see the light of day. Lately, most of the songs that would fall into Hidden Twin have ended up being songs for the band I play guitar and sing in, Old Head. My lyric process for both bands is different because the vision for each band is different. I think the best bands have a vision that all members agree upon and write to support it. In Shockwave Riderz, the lyrical vision is a little more narrow while I think Old Head is more about expansion, and so more would fly with that band. Both have their merits.
Oh and to clarify, I said both that playing drums and playing guitar didn’t change my lyric process and that my lyric process is different for both bands. Obviously that doesn’t make sense.
What I mean is, I usually come up with lyrics once the music and vocal melody has been established. So in that sense, where the music comes from doesn’t matter and as long as I have music or a vocal melody (or both) I can start writing the lyrics. So whether I’ve written a song on guitar, or we pieced together a song in band practice, or Paul hands me a composition, that doesn’t change how I’d come up with lyrics. What would change is most likely the content of the actual lyrics themselves, based on the vision of the band.
The Fiddleback: Oh, and I had this idea to ask you what is the best song with the worst lyrics? And what is the worst song with the best lyrics?
PB: There are lots of great songs with bad lyrics. Sometimes lyrics are best when they’re bad, if that make sense. Tame Impala has this song “It Is Not Meant to Be”— very simple lyrics
I wanted her
I wanted her
But she doesn’t like the
life that I lead Doesn’t
like the life that I lead. Doesn’t
like sand stuck on her feet. or
sitting around smoking weed,
I must seem more like a friend
And I boast that it is meant
to be, but in all honesty,
I don’t have a hope in Hell
I wouldn’t say there’s anything very complicated about those lyrics, but they fit the mood of the song and kind of flow overtop of the music so perfectly.
A classic song with kind of bad lyrics is “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Always funny to use the same word twice in a rhyme, but you can’t really argue with that song as a whole so who cares.
If a song has great lyrics, I’d probably have a hard time thinking it’s a bad song. I could probably, on the other hand, name a bunch of bad songs with bad lyrics.
The Fiddleback: Would you be willing to share some lyrics from each of the current projects and try to walk us through your writing process and maybe try to explain how the lyrics were shaped by the overall band vision?
PB: A lot of my favorite bands have a sort of vocabulary that their songs utilize. This is a corny example, but one thing that I liked about the Oliver Stone movie The Doors was that I think the imagery really matched the vocabulary of their catalog: a giant moon over Venice Beach, an eclipse over the desert, LA at dawn… there’s even a funny quote in that movie where the Robbie Krieger character presents “Light My Fire” to the group. Morrison had written most of the lyrics, so when Krieger presents this song he says “I call it ‘Light My Fire’ because I figure if I’m going to contend with your songs, I should probably write about earth, snakes, or fire.” So they even reference that in the film. I think a band can define what its vocabulary is going to be. I usually get that from hanging with my bandmates, coming up with our own inside jokes, listening to records, whatever goes into bringing us together in the first place and what we end up spending our time doing once we’re together. All of that helps define the vocabulary. A lot of the music that we draw inspiration from in Shockwave Riderz is either older, sentimental music, simple old rock and roll, old hip hop or noise. So lyrically, the words tend to match those concepts. In my band Old Head, we hung up black light posters in our practice space and we like to drink tequila, so our songs have been about being old, hating work, walking through the desert, Mexico etc… I think I get a feel for what I’d feel comfortable singing about based on the relationships and experiences I have with my bandmates.
The Fiddleback: Who are some of your more identifiable lyrical influences? And who do you think people would be surprised to hear influenced your writing?
PB: Well, in order for me to surprise people, they’d have to know of me first, which is probably unlikely. This is actually a tough question to answer. I couldn’t really say any one person has been my lyrical role model. I have several and I think they’re often more situational influences. I have a lot of associations with different artists and what kind of mood they put me in when I hear them.
I was stuck on one song in particular this fall and was listening to Neil Young’s songs “Thrasher” and “Powderfinger” a ton to try to get me through it. Some songs like those two paint this vivid scene and evokes a lot of emotions like fear, loss, anxiety, even nostalgia? but its hard to tell exactly what he’s singing about. My song was more about lust and loneliness than it was about a novice fighting off an invading force, or whatever that song is about, but there was something that struck me about the how “Powderfinger” feels like a dream and even though dreams are hard to make sense of, their imagery often sticks and affects your mood for the rest of the day. So in that case, he was a writer I gravitated towards because that’s what I took from that song. That approach wouldn’t exactly fly with a song like “Talking to Mom,” which is a Shockwave Riderz song that we wrote about being bored and well, calling up mom on the phone. I always liked Ian Svenonius’s lyrics too since I started listening to him in my later teens and early twenties.
The Fiddleback: Oh, and the Muppets! Man, so wild how all of us were really tapped into that on some level. What do you think the appeal is there?—I mean, I have my ideas—weird sort of arts collective and the notion of misfits, and that’s all pretty tied to personal history and the fact that we were lucky enough to have them in our living rooms for a great portion of our younger years. Which muppet do you identify the most with?
PB: Yeah I’m into all of those ideas for why they were appealing, but I guess I also liked having something to enjoy with my family and, well my step-mom was 18 or 19 in 1967 so she’s from the love generation of the late 60s and had a lot of uphill battles to fight to establish herself in her career during that time period. I think she liked the Muppets’ message about having hopes and dreams that you should try to make happen for you. I had some other leftover records from the early 70s that were kind of spreading that message too. They were very encouraging of being aware of our emotions as kids, which I think is interesting. There’s a certain loneliness in those Muppets which maybe every kid can relate to. Maybe that’s where the group of misfits comes into play, because everyone is having trouble fitting in and figuring out there place in the world and then they all come together. I don’t know. It’s kind of obvious, but I guess I liked Kermit. I mean, he’s the star for a reason, but I also liked the Electric Mayhem band, Rowlf, I had a Scooter doll. I don’t think I selected him though, I think someone just gave him to me. I have a different appreciation for them as an adult. Rowlf has one line in that soundtrack where he’s talking about ‘women’ and he says “nowadays I come home, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk and go to bed.” Pretty funny stuff for a kids’ movie.
Another big impact piece from that era was A Light in the Attic. We read that book all of the time and before bed. I still remember a lot of words from those poems too and I haven’t looked at that book in ages. I think Silverstein’s stuff was pretty big to our age group too. Did you read a bunch of him when you were younger?
The Fiddleback: I remember Where the Sidewalk Ends being around a lot in like 2nd or 3rd grade. Can remember the smell of the book—sort of bready. It wasn’t something we owned, though, it existed in school. The books at our house were mainly fiction. This is a bit of a sidewinding question—what book has had the largest impact on your writing, or if not on your writing on how you see and interact with the world?
PB: That is hard to say. I read a lot of biographies about athletes and then musicians when I was young. After I started reading about musicians, I’d typically try to read some of the books that I knew had influenced the musicians. Staying on the topic of The Doors, I read and drew a lot of influence from Rimbaud’s poetry, resulting in at least one of the mainstay songs off of my old band’s setlists. Around that same time I also read Journey to the End of the Night and Camus’s The Stranger. The Stranger also led to another song, called “The Guest,” which also pulled some influence from mythology and the host-guest relationship and Zeus’s role as patron of that in Greek mythology. Since two of those books directly resulted in songs for the same album, I’d probably cite them as having an influence on my songwriting.
I really don’t know what book affected how I see the world though. I guess that’s a bit of a nature vs. nurture question. I’m not sure if I gravitated towards the things that I gravitated towards because I was shaped by any one thing and then inspired to seek more of it out, or if I was predisposed to feel a certain way to begin with and sought out books and music that further spoke to that.
The Fiddleback: Read your response to Ray Manzarek’s passing the other day, and we’re both Doors fans—I’d had a jean jacket airbrushed with JM’s face and the logo in 8th grade and really a lot of the reason that I’d originally started writing was because of American Prayer…what sort of impact did his language have on you?
PB: I champion Morrison’s lyrics and the general aesthetic of The Doors despite a lot of the haters out there. I think there are so many good moments and great lines like “the store where the creatures meet / I wonder what they do in there” or “insanity’s horse adorns the sky.” These lyrics aren’t too clunky but still add a lot of personality to the world of their music. In the middle of otherwise pretty songs (“Love Street” and “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind”) he twists the scenes into something weird. I think the world is a pretty weird place. Some people are religious and believe in miracles, some people believe in magic, ghosts or whatever, some people just think the world is crazy, confusing, and weird. It speaks to not taking the world at face value or at least to thinking a little bit about what lies beyond everyday objects and interactions and these lyrics capture that for me. A personal favorite is “Not To Touch The Earth” which is a fully unsettling song from the instrumentation to the vocals and lyrics. The instruments are kind of creeping along hypnotically while the suspense builds and Morrison’s lyrics are full on bizarre “Dead president’s corpse in the driver’s car / The engine runs on glue and tar” or “Some outlaws live by the side of a lake / The minister’s daughter’s in love with a snake / Who lives in a well by the side of the road.”
Some of their love songs are also painfully simple but effective at painting this mood that can envelope the listener. “Indian Summer” is one of their earliest songs and is just as, if not even more simple than “This is the end, my only friend.” The whole song is kind of sleepy and Morrison sings, “I love you the best / Better than all the rest / That I meet in the summer.” It’s been an abnormally long, hot summer season, presumably full of life and love and yet as it all dies down, there’s only one love that prevails. On a physical level, “My Eyes Have Seen You” is another simple, garagey song that captures lust and excitement in the lines “My eyes have seen you turn and stare / Fix your hair / Move upstairs / Move upstairs!” “Moonlight Drive” has “Let’s swim to the moon / Let’s climb through the tide”…another great date night line…
Usually there is some element of the natural world that ties into these lyrics that I think I latch on to (seasons, oceans, moons, creatures, is ‘insanity’s horse’ a constellation in the sky of the Doors world?’) But in the case of “My Eyes Have Seen You” there is a more primal physiological response that just as natural.
I could go on for days about the Doors, ha.
The Fiddleback: Thanks so much for doing this, man! Been really fun to hear how this stuff is swimming in your head! Hope it’s been better than annoying for you…
PB: This isn’t annoying at all. I enjoy thinking about/talking about the writing process, especially with another writer. You know, writing songs for a band always feels a bit like being a paperback romance novelist. There’s a lot of cynicism in the music world. There’s a lot of focus on style and sound, since sound obviously the primary component of music, and also, being a songwriter and a lyricist is kind of a selfish act, right? I mean, getting up on a stage and singing about what’s going on in your head…I think a lot of people have every right to say ‘who cares?’ because they have their own heads to deal with. I think that’s why it’s rare that someone wants to actually talk about lyrics, but it’s very much a big part of my life and what I’ve done for the last couple of decades.
Gallery images by Agatha Donkar.