Some bands write concept albums about love or divorce or spiders from mars. Philadelphia indie rockers mewithoutYou’s new album Ten Stories centers around animals who escape a circus train in 19th century Montana. We spoke to band frontman/songwriter Aaron Weiss about songwriting and the new album, the followup to It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright!, songwriting and more.
The story opens with a circus train crashing in the mountains of Montana. The menagerie animals on board have the opportunity to escape, but only some of them do. Each one stays or leaves for distinct reasons, and the rest of the album traces their stories, either individually or in pairs, imagining some of the consequences of their decisions & motivations.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Well, the Beatles of course, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and definitely early Morrissey/Smiths lyrics have inspired me a lot. As for younger folks, probably Jeff Mangum and Joanna Newsom are my favorites.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing lyrics right before the band formed, about 11 or 12 years ago, but I didn’t start writing any of the music until about 5 years later. As for the second question, the very early songs & demo recordings were abysmal. Some of our first LP is pretty embarrassing to listen back to, lyrically, though I still like the energy we had & some of the music. By the second album (Catch for Us the Foxes) I think we began to find a relatively distinct sound, and the words are better.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
There are three songs on our 3rd album, Brother [Sun]/Sister [Moon] about spiders, yellow, orange and brown, which were originally one song. It was the first time I tried putting chords and lyrics and a melody together myself. Then our friend (and now manager & tour manager) Almquist suggested we break it into separate tracks. All three were about a little spider I saw in Pittsburgh near some train tracks. Funny(-ish), I was trying to write about a train crash that day, a preoccupation of mine I guess.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
I write a whole lot of words, disjointed mostly, short phrases or sentences, maybe a rhyme here and there, sometimes just individual words I like. Then, with most of our records (newest one included) I’ll listen to the music we’ve written and try to match up the mood of the songs with the imagery or rhythm in the words. In doing that, usually a basic picture emerges of what the song will be about, and then I can elaborate on the details. Also, I’ve only ever written songs for an album, never individually, so I try to keep in mind the overall theme or mood of the record, to try to have some sense of how it will fit together as a whole. The latest record was a bit different than the others in its reliance on something like research: looking up political events, geography of Northwest U.S., obscure towns & roadside attractions, specific parts of old trains, old methods of fortune telling, courtroom procedures. While the story is entirely fiction, I tried to situate it within some semblance of historical reality.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
Musically, the band probably keeps somewhere in the ballpark of 80% of our songs. I’m largely responsible, in a roundabout way, for the fact that the other 20% of the instrumentals are discarded, simply because I can’t come up with decent vocals for them.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere to when choosing them for an album?
Nothing clearly stated, no, nothing specific or strategic. But obviously we have standards with regards to our own tastes in what makes a good song. We’re pretty good at offering and receiving criticism during the writing process; if anyone feels that any part of a song isn’t up to par, we don’t hesitate to say so and will keep working on it until we’re all satisfied. Now, for our 4th record (It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright), I had a pretty clear sense of not wanting to shout, of wanting to write songs that could all translate to all acoustic instruments, be played in a quieter way – but that’s the only time we’ve done anything deliberate like that, and even then, I think it was more my agenda than a group consensus.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Having studio time booked, an approaching deadline & my friends’ expectations.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
It’s called “Four Fires,” the hardest one to finish of the new batch. It ended up as a B-side, not on the full-length release.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
Maybe the last song on the record, “All Circles.” It’s a departure for me, the first time I really experimented with using the vocals more as an instrument than a source of constant lyrics — there’s only one line throughout the song, repeating in a kind of a round that gets basically everyone in the band (as well as a few guests) singing, very celebratory. There’s a lot of sadness on the record but it ends on this, a joyful note. The only lyric is taken almost verbatim from Hegel, so I guess I can’t be proud of the words…but proud I’ve read Hegel, no doubt!
What’s a lyric from the album you’re a fan of?
“All our dads die.”
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
I don’t think there’s been a linear movement in one way or the other. For each record there have been songs that came together pretty easily, and others that have been super difficult. This time around, some of what I wanted to write about seemed a bit inappropriate, maybe indulgent, if expressed directly, so it was nice to mediate the more sensitive content through fictitious characters. Also, this time around, there wasn’t really anything I wanted to convince anyone of, which was nice. It was more a chance to explore possibilities than to prove a point, so in this sense there was less burden. I used to feel strongly compelled to be a “teacher” of some kind, or to come across — whether in our lyrics or in personal interactions — as wise, good, loving, and so on. I still like those ideas but I don’t feel truthful positioning myself as a model of them in any way.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I’m in school again, so I’ve got a bunch of papers due next week – that’s about all the writing for me: our songs and schoolwork.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
We have a song called “Gentlemen,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek (or so hindsight allows me to believe) jealous lunatic rant from our first record. I guess folks can relate to whatever anger or sorrow they hear there, maybe are entertained by the unbridled mania & desperation, maybe just feel sorry for me; but we still receive fairly regular requests to play it.
What do you consider the perfect song, and why?
Maybe “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. As for why, I don’t know, but the line so often comes to mind: “Well, how did I get here?”