Music Dorkery

The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley Guides You Through the Creation of a Song (Part 3 of 4)

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P1060876On June 17, New York noise rock duo The Austerity Program will release their new album, Beyond Calculation, on Controlled Burn Records (pre-order the album here). In preparation for the band’s first new release in four years, we asked our good friend, guitarist/vocalist Justin Foley, to take us through the creation of one song from the album, thereby giving readers some new insights into the creative process. You can catch up on the first part of Justin’s series on the building of “Song” 39 here and the second part here, then read part three below. The final installment will be published a week from today — don’t forget to come back and check it out!!! 

Last week I described how we made a bunch of progress in developing out of the song’s initial core but then arrived at a dead-end. So we hit “reverse” on our thinking process and kept battering away at it – I’ll show what we ended up with next week. It took a while, but we got there.

Now, having solved the riddle of the second half of the song, we were now confronted by another problem: how to get there. I did a scratch recording of all the stuff we’d developed and would listen to it every chance I could during the day, asking myself “what’s happened in the song so far to give this stuff maximum impact?” Doing dishes, walking to get a sandwich, going out for a midnight crawl around the neighborhood, listening and asking: what gets us there?

We’re usually writing more than one song at any given time. So while mulling over the song at hand, I’d also been bothered by the thought of a three note pattern that just kept going around and around and around. It was just a persistent, hectic insect of an idea. Transcribing it, it’s F-G1-G-F-G1-G-F-G1-G… over and over. (G1 here is the 12th fret of the G string, one octave up.) It’s more a rhythm than a melody.

At some point, I considered that maybe the mini-riff* could work for this song. I won’t burn a paragraph on each of the developments that this took but Fair Warning for those that read on: I am self-taught musically and am about to describe some things in terms that display my ignorance of musical nomenclature. I even had to use Wikipedia to match the notes I wrote above with the frets on my guitar. So this may get weird.

Got those three notes and here’s what we did:

1.Picture those three as one time around. Play them through 4 times around and call that a cycle.
2.Figure that we’re doing something 4 cycles long.
3.Cycles 1 and 2 start on the F note. But cycles 3 and 4 each skip forward a note; Cycle 3 goes G1-G-F-G1-G-F… and Cycle 4 goes G-F-G1-G-F-G1… Sounds like this:


4.Mix up the drums on cycles 3 and 4 to shift which beat in the measure is emphasized.

Okay, now we’d done all that. So what? I mean, we know enough about the different elements of our music that we can mess around with them for its own sake. But that process – even when creates something that sounds cool by itself – doesn’t make the song better. The test of whether or not an idea stayed was how the idea served the rest of the song. Sounds corny as hell but there you have it.

I feel like there’s a lot of music that I could like because of the style of its presentation (say, abrasive and violent, which I usually enjoy) that doesn’t end up connecting with me. I don’t get what the band is doing; it won’t make any sense to me why they chose to do one thing vs. another. Stringing together cool parts that don’t seem to be really connected as a whole … I’ve got a bunch of records like this that I’ve listened to a few times and then given up. I’m not exactly sure what the right word for it is – Coherence? Intentionality? – but if it isn’t there in something that we’re writing the idea is scrapped.

So I had to ask: if this part was going to stay- to lead off the song – why?

Well, it begins at nearly full throttle. The song would just, BANG, start. The 3 note riff provides a hypnotic, cyclical feeling but the shift in notes and drums through the different cycles keeps it off-balance. The first few times, the listener may assume that this is nearly structureless noise. (Confession: it has actually been that the first few times we’ve sloppily played it live. Sorry, audience.) But beneath the chaos there is a shifting pattern that serves up the introduction of the lyrics.

Firecracker start. Formed but quickly changing structure. Escalates in intensity from pretty noisy to a near din. And leaves the door open for what happens next. Let’s hear how it sounds:

I don’t know about you because you’re not in this band but I think it fits. An eensy, weensy part of me wonders about shifting the repetition of the cycles away from four times (repeating something four times is about the most basic thing one can do). But even then, I notice that doing it just three times feels undeveloped and five is way too long. Stick with four and gin-up the drums for the third and fourth passes.

So we had the beginning of the song. Very good.

Now the question is how to connect it to the part that we started off with. Because that bass guitar/drum part you hear at the end of the riff? That has got to go; it doesn’t work at all. Kill it dead now and get back to work on something better.

Work. (Again.) I sound like the Horatio Alger of post-industrial-noise-rock or whatever genre we’re supposed to be.

* Sorry, “mini-riff” is a really dumb term but it’s all I could come up with at the moment. Mini-riff.

Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for The Austerity Program.  Their new record, Beyond Calculation, comes out June 17 on Controlled Burn Records, and can be pre-ordered here.  Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com.  All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ, and monetary policy will be answered first. You can also get a list of their upcoming tour dates here.

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