Ken on songwriting.

January 6, 2011

Jefe asked me about my approach to working up a new song. Well, there isn’t just one way. In the beginning of the band we normally all just sort of practiced it, jammed around more or less what you might think a band would do. I remember years ago when Rhett had written “Going, Going, Gone” I had been at a bar the day before and had heard a Tom Jones song that had that lick that intros the song on it. I thought it would be fun to put it at the beginning of the song and it fit in great. As a side note, I had also noticed the verses sounded like the Sesame Street song “Going for a Ride” and Rhett changed his melody enough to also reference it. There are tons of those references through the years on the songs. Most people never know.

These days, since two of the guys moved out of state, it’s a little more clinical. Often we get a CD or mp3 with a song, but I don’t usually “unwrap” it and start working on it right away. I prefer to do that with the band. (“Dance With Me” was the exception. As soon as I listened to the song I “heard” that intro in my head, grabbed a guitar, and worked it out so I wouldn’t forget it.) On The Grand Theater though, there was this week where I really had to cram to prepare for working over at Salim’s. I spent a week here at my house jamming along with our rough mixes that I was playing though my daughter’s Hello Kitty mono jambox. Sick right? Big time rock and roll guitar player doesn’t own a stereo. Damn iPod culture we live in.

My best work usually comes after the other guys have gone away and I have time to create with the producer or engineer. The first time I got to do this was with Wally Gagel on Too Far To Care. We disappeared for 5 days, 10 hours a day and just rocked guitars. It was kind of a brain melt but was also delicious. That’s really where I started learning what recording guitars was all about.

The coolest story on this current session was on this song “Grand Rapids.” The song is very sad. Rhett sounds miserable on his vocal and I remember the day he wrote it. He was not happy. But we just aren’t a sad band. The basic track (bass, drums, acoustic, vocal) was just melancholy. I had tried twice and failed to dress it up. Once sort of 70’s jazz style and once sort of big open “The Who” chords. Both failed. I was running out of time and was freaking out that I was going to have nothing. On a Saturday night I woke up at 4am and for two hours fretted. I finally came up with what I thought might be a reasonable solution. I was going to “Belle and Sebastian” it. (BTW, this is really the way we talk. As in, I “AC/DC’d” the big chords towards the end of “The Easy Way.”)

I got to the studio a few days later and laid down some really nice sounding Belle and Sebastian tracks using Salim’s Rickenbacker through a Princeton. Then on a whim we decided to lay down some spaghetti western style guitars on the bridge and then the back half of the song. Sounded marvelous. The coup de grace, however, was added when Salim suggested to add what he called “Jackson 5” style rhythm chords underneath the solo and then at the end of the song. I’m talking about those kind of little “clinky” chords you hear underneath tons of 70’s soul songs like “Love Rollercoaster.” When I was first starting to play guitar, I was told those were called “street chords.” I’m not sure if that’s true or not but suffice to say it was the first time I got to play that way in the 97’s.

Anyway, the guitars on the song are just terrific. In my top ten all time I’ve ever done. It just works so beautifully with the song, as it still starts out just Rhett and an acoustic, all sad, and ends with a total Belle and Sebastian/Spaghetti Western/Jackson 5 party. Kind of like something the Clash would have put on Sandanista. I hope people like it.


  1. Excellent info, Ken. Excited to hear Belle and Sebastian/Spaghetti Western/Jackson 5 party meets Old 97’s.

  2. Great insight into the anatomy of a finished song. I really love how you guys are mixing it up and stretching your legs musically. Thanks, Ken. Looking forward to hearing the varied collection of tunes you’ve cooked up for Volume 2.

  3. It’s really cool to get a bit of an understanding of how a musician’s brain works! Thanks Ken!!!

    • 01/07/2011
    • Reply

    Wow–the range of musical allusions blows me away. It’s the alt-country version of Joyce’s Ulysses!

    Thanks for letting us see inside like this. Very cool.

  4. Wow, can’t wait to hear it! Love your blogs Ken 🙂

  5. Hearing that you guys changed an Old 97’s song to sound more like a Sesame Street song is the cutest thing in the history of cuteness.


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