September 30, 2017
I’m Not Blacking Out, I’m Breaking Through
By Scott Taylor
Man, my OCD is just killing me lately, no joke. It’s getting super difficult to get on with anything or see the forest for the trees. I am mentally, emotionally and spiritually disoriented, disheveled and disintegrating. Anyway, here’s my attempt at the moment to try and string some thoughts together. Maybe this will make some kind of sense. I’m gonna go ahead and talk a little bit about ‘Poptart’, a good song off our first album, 2008’s Only If…And Even Then.
Here we go again
Previously I’ve mentioned my penchant for sometimes composing out of the blue and almost completely in my head with no musical instruments around whatsoever. I like writing that way a lot actually. In fact I’ve been doing a fair amount of it again lately. For me it’s just about the purest form of inspiration. Spontaneous ideas pop out of nowhere and if I bother to pay them some attention or if they’re just kinda catchy they might hold my interest long enough to pursue further.
One morning when I was about 5 or 6 I remember standing at the bus stop in my neighborhood waiting for it to arrive and take all our stupid little asses to school. It was the bus stop by my babysitter’s house. Every morning my dad would drop my brother Kyle and me off at Mrs. Hayes’ (she was the sitter). She was super Christian, had about 5 kids, a big mole on her face and she chain-smoked. Their house reeked of cigarettes and the front door was always open wide for anyone to just walk right in. She also made us go play outside all the time, even when it was raining. That really has nothing to do with my story; I was just having a little flashback. Kyle knows what I’m talking about. Where was I? Oh yeah, so on those mornings, sitting in the cab of my dad’s old green GMC truck waiting for it to warm up in our driveway, we’d play Beatles 8 track tapes. We had Sgt. Pepper, Let It Be and Abbey Road. On this particular morning it was Abbey Road and my brain was stuck on the song ‘Come Together’.
Still can’t find the tune
Anyway, I’m standing there with the other kids waiting for our ride to Evergreen Forest Elementary and I had a strange experience. I thought for some reason someone at the bus stop was playing a radio with ‘Come Together’ emanating from it. When I said something to Christina (one of Mrs. Hayes’ many offspring) about how I’d just been listening to that song and that I liked it a lot she looked at me puzzled. She said there was no radio there playing The Beatles or anything else; there was no radio around at all. It sounded exactly like the record was playing though in my head and that was when I realized it must have been ONLY IN MY HEAD. Seriously, I could hear every nuance, every inflection, clear as day within the confines of my own brain, totally inaudible to everyone else.
As time went on I came to find that when I sang a song spontaneously and unaccompanied I tended to sing it in the actual key it was performed in on whatever recording I’d originally heard it from. I mean it wasn’t just the melody I could recall note for note with little effort, it was the exact key and identical to how I’d heard it. Think of it as a Walkman (or if you don’t know what that is, an Ipod) permanently accessible in-between my own ears. Now this didn’t seem all that strange to me, I guess because it was happening to me and felt, well, natural. Once I figured out this wasn’t happening for everyone else it started to dawn on me this might be something of a unique phenomenon. Years later my piano teacher, Mrs. Jackson, explained to me that my ability to identify a specific pitch when I heard it or sing a particular pitch when prompted with no que or point of reference was known as perfect pitch.
I guess where I’m going with all this is that I’ve developed a pretty good mental/intuitive grasp on tonal relationships. When it comes to songs taking shape entirely in my head I feel like I can hear the whole song already completed, like I’m hearing it on the radio or a record or whatever. My knack for exploring various chord intervals and inversions internally as a song reveals itself to me has often resulted in some fun, colorful chord progressions. In particular I’ve always had a tendency to favor bass lines that diverge from the root note in chord voicings. I talked about this a little bit in my piece about ‘Misspoken’ (Issue #5) and that song was one of the first times I made a conscious effort toward playing with that technique. ‘Poptart’ was like that, except I took it up a notch.
Take this one to heart
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been intrigued by the role the bass fulfills as far as influencing the emotional impact of a song, even before I knew what the bass actually was. An early memory in regards to this concerns the Christmas carol ‘Silent Night’ (Franz Gruber, Joseph Mohr, 1818). As a kid I observed how various versions of the song elicited different emotional responses in me when I heard them. Some sounded more joyful, others kind of sad and mournful (it was the latter, by the way, that I preferred). I wondered what could be the reason why the same song could sound and feel so different.
It wasn’t until much later on when I started playing musical instruments (first piano, then guitar and, ironically, lastly bass) that it all began to make sense. Also I loved The Beatles and The Beach Boys and recognized both Paul McCartney’s and Brian Wilson’s tendency toward off the root note bass playing in their compositions. Songs like ‘Michelle’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ (The Beatles, 1965, 1967), ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (The Beach Boys, 1966) all implore this method with magnificent results. In a sense this is pop music approached from a classical perspective and perhaps that is in large part the way I tend to lean when I compose. The big point I’m trying to make though is that my natural inclination is to write from the bass perspective and the choice and placement of bass notes is of utmost importance when considering the desired emotional response a composer wishes to elicit in a listener.
Bearing in mind that off root oriented bass lines can take a relatively straightforward chord progression and make it much more interesting, it was in this spirit that I surrendered to the muse when I put ‘Poptart’ together in early 2001. I should mention that I had been listening to Squeeze quite a bit (another of my favorite pop groups ever!) and was tantalized by their compositional arrangements in relation to exactly what I’ve been talking about here. Songs like ‘Up the Junction’ (1979), ‘Pulling Mussels [From the Shell]' (1980), ‘Is That Love?’ (1981) and ‘Black Coffee in Bed’ (1982) were relentlessly stuck on repeat in my brain. I was enamored with the way such sublimely catchy melodies were so expertly situated atop already enticing, meandering and occasionally unorthodox chord progressions. Add to that some very clever lyrics that seem to pair perfectly with the moods of the melodies and man, what great songs!
Innocence was cruel, time for something new
This was all very inspiring during a period when I was living in a weird limbo hell. I found myself in the awful position of (gasp!) still living with my ex-girlfriend following our break-up. I do NOT recommend this to anyone. No matter what you have to do, get out! Break away, completely. The pain and confusion I experienced was utterly excruciating. I hit that wall so many people do when they resolve that they cannot and will not ever be capable of fathoming the opposite sex. Why couldn’t I make love last? You certainly can’t make someone feel how you want them to feel if they don’t feel the same way. This sucks, especially if they once felt quite differently toward you. True heartbreak is the realization that your star has fallen from the sky of the one you love.
I’ve stood here before, though I thought that I’d learned more by now
The more I tried to convince myself I was okay, the more spiteful I became; consumed by an unquenchable longing and pining for a day I knew would never come. I was burnt out on love. I had trouble letting go and was sure I couldn’t and wouldn’t love again. ‘Poptart’ is my pondering that ridiculous old saying 'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Those words seemed like a rhetorical bullshit statement to me. The sentiment in this song has resonated like a broken record in my life ever since.
Getting what you want is always never enough; it makes you passionate, but it makes you throw up
cyclone of uncertainty once again found me bursting with creativity. There’s something about channeling uncontrollable emotions seemingly too painful to endure through art and music. I’ll never understand it, all I know is it’s probably a very good thing as far as sanity goes. That winter I was in the middle of a pretty big songwriting jag, trying to work all this shit out for myself. I can’t say it totally resolved anything per se, but it provided some solace and helped me exorcise some demons.
The way this song germinated in my mind as I paced around my house alone one evening was at once melancholy and exciting. In the spirit of those Squeeze songs I liked so much I found myself treading darkly comical waters I was futilely attempting to navigate. I messed with the bass note placement in the chord inversions pretty much from the get-go until they matched the color of my mood. The chord progression in its entirety poured out rapidly and the melody fell right in with it almost simultaneously. I can’t recall specifically if it was the lyrics that suggested the melody or the other way around, it all happened so fast. I do think the ease with which the melody ascends and descends the major scale is a fitting and oddly natural match/juxtaposition with the accompanying manic lyrics. Each verse swells until it explodes into a chorus that has no words! I thought then and still think now that it’s weird a chorus can exist without singing in a song that is otherwise not instrumental.
I can see it through
All in all, ‘Poptart’ represents a direct, almost instantaneous line from inspiration to realization, entirely in my head. I was so manic and twisted up when I wrote it I couldn’t even sit myself down with an actual, physical musical instrument to hear how it all checked out until the next day. Similar to the genesis of ‘Misspoken’, I figured if I could hold it in my head (and in this case, actually sleep on it) then it must not suck.
Well, it did check out and reaffirmed my experience of that morning at the bus stop way back when. Not only that, it suggested to me that I’d likely be capable of creating music even if I was deaf. Alas, I hope it never comes to that. I know I could always entertain myself in my head and probably even be able still to express my musical ideas to others. But I sure would miss the transference of artistic expression from the voice of another human being to my own ears.
So, there ya go, that’s the scoop on another one of my favorites. Thanks for joining me again on a stroll through my wacky process. I went on for a little bit about this one, but I am feeling a little less OCD now. So, that’s cool.
Side Note: I decided on the title ‘Poptart’ because it insinuates a sweet sounding, catchy tune with a bitter little sting to it (no disrespect intended to the tasty, albeit quite unhealthy breakfast treat!) The more you know...
Someday it’ll all be okay
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