The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley Guides You Through the Creation of a Song (Part 1 of 4)
On 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. Read the first part of Justin’s series on the building of “Song” 39 below, then come back next Friday for part two!!!
Two years ago I was sitting on my couch, alone on a Sunday at 10:15 PM, and I was stuck.
My band, The Austerity Program, had been writing our next record for nearly two years and the basic elements of all eight songs were there. At this point the skeleton of the final song, “Song 39,” felt like it was coming together and I guess liked it just fine. We’d built a slow-ish sort of waltz with a straightforward melody.
These first ideas for the song had grown out of me just messing around on guitar and finding a riff. With a simple drum background, it could go lots of places. But one thing seemed already set: the type of song it was going to be. The tempo and the way the riff slithered along seemed to cast a mold of what was and wasn’t going to happen. The song’s DNA, if you will, was in place. It now needed us to make it grow.
Which brings us back to the couch. Because while I liked what was gelling so far, I guess, I had spent so much time thinking and re-thinking and thinking again about what the songs on this record would be. And now, starting the final one, it seemed like a few basic ideas had already sent the song down a pretty clear road. Now I liked the road, I guess. But I didn’t recall choosing it specifically and that bothered me.
And so, instead of being in the practice space working on ideas around that riff – refining, trying things, keeping some, dropping others – I was inside my house on the couch with no instrument anywhere nearby. The fatalism just leaked the energy out of me. It just seemed like it was going to be a lot of work to start to put the thing together and it’d been a long day and there just seemed to be so many reasons not to work on it. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but “I guess I like the song” meant that I didn’t, really.
On the couch, eyes closed, I had the riff going around and around in my head. It was not developing; it was just sort of circling. I started to drift asleep. I vaguely sensed that this record would never come together despite all the hard work we’d done on it. The whole things would just sit there drifting. Circling. Driffffting. And then… BAM.
This has never happened to me before, but I sat up suddenly because I knew – knew – what had to happen. It was (it wasn’t really, but it kind of felt like it was) a voice in my head saying:
“Justin. That’s not the song. The song is faster. MUCH FASTER.”
Huh? Wait… faster. Yes.
“Do not creep along with that riff. Chop it up between octaves and DRIVE IT.”
Yes. That actually would be better. Yes that would be much better.
“The drums are not a slow burn. They are a shit-ton of fast 16th notes. Again – FAST.”
Got it. Drop the drums in a blender and hit whippify. This is all correct.
“Change the key.”
“And the guitar has to do something else – a similarly aggro counterpart. Lots of harmonics.”
Hold on, the riff is now the bassline?
“Of course, yes. And most importantly – GET OFF THE FUCKING COUCH. NO ONE EVER WROTE A GOOD SONG ON A COUCH.”
Off the couch.
I got to work. Five hours passed that I barely remember – it felt like a minute. But when I crawled into bed at half past three, part of me was pissed that I was passing-out-exhausted and had to get up for work in three hours. Because the real core of the real song had really arrived and it was exciting. I wanted to keep going.
Here’s that riff from up top, ripped apart into a much better bassline. Second time come in the drums, third time the guitar.
I don’t have any clear insight into what drives the ebbs and flows of the creative process, so I won’t draw any big conclusions on what was going on. What I do know is that I’d gotten too far inside my head about how a song comes into being. It became a chore and I’d ready to settling with something that was indistinct. But some lucky thing clicked in my brain and now we had the core of something that, even if no one else cared, I was genuinely drawn to. Here was a song that would never exist if we weren’t the ones to write it. So the foundation was there and now it was time to roll up sleeves and start building. Off the couch and get to work.
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.