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learning love songs

est. 2008

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January 2017

1/30/17

Ever see a project or a performance and think to yourself, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?!” Last last year, punk news outlets bubbled up with postings about a fellow who wrote a screenplay off of one of my favorite albums: On the Impossible Past by The Menzingers. What a concept! OTIP is a deeply literally, emotional ride of a rock record, and writer Adam Reiss took its core meaning and messages to develop a plot and  characters for “On the Impossible Future.”

I read through his screenplay and immediately reached out to Adam, wanting to learn more about how he let his imagination run away with him to create a love story between Greg, a down-on-himself Philly boy and Casey, the spirited waitress who gives him something to live for and love, inspired by these songs that have come to mean so much to me over the years. I was also curious about the feedback he received to this project, knowing that fans can be pretty touchy about their sacred songs.

Talking with Adam (who turns out to be quite the intrepid world traveler) over the past few weeks was a treat — what follows is a lightly edited transcript of a Q&A. Check out his screenplay, or at least play “After the Party” real loud while reading this. Thanks to Adam for opening up to me and for The Menzingers for bringing us all together.

First off, how did you discover The Menzingers/On the Impossible Past? What spoke to you in their music? 

I first heard the Menzingers when “A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology” came on my Against Me! Pandora station and I was into it because it kind of reminded me of old AM! But I didn’t get super into them until OTIP came out. I remember checking out the punknews.org stream (which, by the way, was terrible quality) as a casual fan, more curious than anything, and when I got to “Casey” I had a “woah, this is something special” moment.

I was 22 at the time, in my last year of college. It was an emotionally turbulent time for me and all of the themes of the album fit with what I was going through — feeling like good things only fall apart, getting high all the time, self-loathing, falling in and out of love, drinking a lot, going to shows, constantly wanting to escape to somewhere far away. “Casey” is probably my favorite track because it has all of those things and wraps them up in a way that is painfully romantic. And man, what a catchy chorus. Favorite non-OTIP track and criminally underrated Menz song: “My Friend Chris.”

When you first started working on this, what came easily? What was a challenge?

The easiest thing was probably creating Chris’s character. He’s such an outrageous person, always saying something vulgar — and he’s kind of a dick to be honest. But I’d like to think he’s a lovable dick and he serves to off-set a lot of Greg’s mopiness. I partially modeled him after a friend of mine, so a lot of writing his dialogue was just thinking “What would so-and-so say here?” Any scene with Chris was a blast to write.

The challenge was figuring out the plot. I really wanted to tell the story that I felt was in OTIP and spent a lot of time studying lyrics as if I was trying to crack a code, to decipher the plot secretly kept inside the songs, but obviously it doesn’t work that way.

My first draft was about 40 pages shorter than it is now and there just wasn’t much story there, I think because I was too focused on directly translating the album into a movie rather than developing a story. Subsequent drafts were each a bit better, but it took a long time for me to feel satisfied with the plot.

How often did you listen to the album for inspiration/what role did it play during the process of writing?

Man, I listened to the album non-stop. I’m honestly surprised I still haven’t worn it out yet. It’s one of those albums where I found myself putting on a specific track to listen for something in the lyrics/to get inspiration and then I’d find myself listening to the whole album all the way through.

Like I said before, I initially tried too hard to translate the album directly into a film. I really, really wanted a scene with Chris and Greg in a CVS parking lot, for example, but couldn’t figure out how to work it in. I also had Casey quoting Leonard Cohen in bed in one draft a la Sun Hotel. Eventually, I moved past trying to make “On the Impossible Past: The Movie,” and started using the album as more of a mood board, as a guide of overall themes and emotions, and that really helped me develop the plot a bit more.

Your description of this project sounds like it was a labor of love. How did you motivate yourself to keep writing? 

I started the project in my last quarter of college and had to complete the first fifteen pages for my screenwriting class, so for the first bit (which sometimes is the hardest part, getting a creative project off the ground) I was lucky to have an entire class pushing me.

After graduation I moved back in with my parents and struggled to find a job. The pairing of these two things left me feeling pretty worthless. I used this project as something I could do every day, some semblance of routine that would also be rewarding and help me feel like I wasn’t just wasting my days as an unemployed piece of shit. And of course, searching for a job, I was hoping that the screenplay would be my ticket to my dream career — getting paid to write. Thinking “this will help me achieve my dreams” is a good motivator, turns out.

Which themes from the album did you want to focus on the most? What lines/verses really drove your plot? 

Definitely the theme of having a relationship based on drugs, alcohol, and punk rock and then having things fall apart. In fact, seeing that written out, that’s basically a summary of the entire screenplay. Also, the theme of escape in various forms.

Going through the lyrics, I really latched onto every line about Casey (anything to do with a waitress, diner, most of the title track’s lyrics) and going to Mexico — and these were probably what made me feel like there was a story threaded throughout the lyrics, what made me want to dig deeper and feel like it was possible to write a screenplay based on the album in the first place.

How did you feel when this was done enough to share for public consumption? What’s the response been like? 

I went through a lot of stages of loving and loathing this project over the past few years. I wanted to move past it and start working on new things, but I also just couldn’t let the thing go. So finally, it reached a point where I felt I absolutely couldn’t work on it anymore without getting outside feedback. I was too close to it and needed a fresh perspective. It felt like it was 90% finished and the last 10% couldn’t be accomplished without feedback (and feedback from strangers, people who don’t care about my feelings).

In that sense, posting this online and getting a response has been incredibly helpful (and cathartic). I’ve gotten a full range of responses, ranging from one guy who went through each song on OTIP and wrote about how he felt the screenplay connects to it, to a girl who told me the entire thing is extremely sexist. I’m nearly ready to work on my next (and potentially final) batch of edits using all of the comments and criticism I’ve gotten so far, which I’m pretty stoked about.

I’m amazed at how attached some people are to the project and I think that speaks volumes for just how meaningful OTIP is for so many people, which in and of itself is a heartwarming experience — to connect with people around a shared appreciation of art and to also feel like my work is having the sort of impact that inspired me to start this in the first place. Even people who have something negative to say, we can still find common ground with how much we love this album and usually something constructive can come from that. No one has just been like “this sucks, quit” and left it at that. Which is encouraging.

Anything else about what you learned as writer/listener?

I learned I really, really like vibrato in punk songs. I learned I love writing dialogue but hate writing action and descriptions. I learned to let go of my babies and cut scenes or jokes that don’t add to the screenplay even though I think they’re amazing. I learned Menzingers fans are super helpful and willing to go out of their way to connect with total strangers. I learned a lot of completing a project is just sitting down routinely and doing work. Even if it’s a little bit each day, that’s still progress. And recently I learned how to make small adjustments to make sure that women readers/audience members don’t feel demonized. All valuable lessons, I’d say.

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1/26/17

A little bit of pre-work cleaning yesterday had me moving around my stacks of vinyl in order to vacuum underneath the stereo, which led to a detour of sorting through the collection. I came across Billy Joel’s Turnstiles, which was among the first albums I played on CD as a kid. It was one of a handful of discs that my uncle gave my family after we got our first CD player, probably somewhere around 1994 or 1995.

Playing around with the 5-disc Sony changer — especially when I wasn’t supposed to —was one of my favorite escapes. I sat by the big, cloth-covered standing speakers in our basement and (regrettably) picked at the fibers, trying to hear every little sound at the same time. Turntstiles worked its way around The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, plus the soundtrack to “The Lion King,” the first disc I picked out myself. I was a pretty young kid but Joel’s solid voice, big choruses and fancy piano work struck me, so here I was this first grader glomming onto songs about, at their heart, existential crises.

Years later, I find so much more meaning in these songs, not just their pop sensibilities. With “Summer, Highland Falls,” a song I could recite word for word in front of crowd even after not playing it in many years, older and wiser ears will hear a lot more in this song than a child or even a college kid will.  I think it’s one of his strongest lyrical showings, right up there with “Vienna” and “Piano Man,” rife with lessons and imagery. As you get older, you learn to live with the choices, challenges and regrets you’ve accumulated over the years. You learn to respond to what’s in front of you.  It might leave you devastated, but other times, you might find yourself happy beyond your wildest dreams. Trouble is, nothing stays the same long enough to live in either extreme, and so you learn how to accept the reality in front of you no matter what it looks like. You learn to keep moving forward.

“They say that these are not the best of times
But they’re the only times I’ve ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Now I have seen that sad surrender in my lover’s eyes
And I can only stand apart and sympathize
For we are always what our situations hand us
It’s either sadness or euphoria”

~Summer, Highland Falls
Billy Joel, Turnstiles

1/22/17

fullsizerender

You know that feeling when you’re nearing the end of a book, and you start to read less and less of it because you don’t want it to be over yet? That’s where I am with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” It’s 500+ pages of honest reflections, poignant insights and touching memories from one of the most legendary rock heroes, and the tale of his rise to his vaunted status as told by the man himself does not disappoint.

There’s a lot to learn about Springsteen’s life and upbringing here. How his childhood affected his life, for better or for worse, is a reoccurring theme throughout each of the brief, segmented chapters. He is humble, even when admitting the size of his own ego, which I think is a respectable thing to admit and speaks volumes to the self-awareness he has cultivated — often a difficult, but necessary, thing for creative people to do. He talks about his struggles with depression in an honest and forthcoming way, as a memoir demands, but he doesn’t ever seem to wade into “poor me” status; rather, his struggles are just one part of the journey. But some of the passages that really excite me are the ones that reflect on songwriting.

Springsteen songs are iconic, in a way that’s hard to untangle the man from the work. Reading “Born to Run” makes clear how much heart and soul, feeling and thought was poured into these songs, and not just the hits. Every album came from a specific story or theme Springsteen wanted to portray, partly stemming from reactions to his own life circumstances as much as the world around him. His thoughts about attention to detail, as quoted in the above photograph, speak to this in a very honest way. Good songwriting, as I have said, is good writing, and good writing translates across mediums. Strong characters. Small details. An economy of language. This is all bedrock. You think about the songs that have been loved for so many decades by fans of all generations, and there’s a timelessness to them. No retreat, baby, no surrender. When I read about what it took for Springsteen to create these songs, it’s inspiring to know how hard he worked, and also how much he cared about what he making. One can’t cross the finish line without a real drive to do so.

I told myself I wasn’t going to go on a Springsteen catalog binge until after I finished the book, but yesterday I couldn’t help myself. I snuck a few listens of “Chapter and Verse,” just to satisfy my palette, and kept coming back to “The Rising,” a song I associate with post-9/11 America, the feelings of that tragic time and the attempt to come together as a nation. Its messages still ring true today — especially today, in fact — and it is proof the themes an artist touches on at one point in their career may come back again and again, giving that song new life and new associations. This endurance is a key ingredient in songwriting that is as celebrated and beloved as Springsteen’s work, it’s something any of the greats have. But so much music is put out into the world that just a few people might hear, or ever remember, is that work worth less than songs that are globally famous, cemented into history and have brought so much emotion and feeling to the fore? It’s easy to say “yes,” but I can’t say for certain; it all tells a story, it all connects back to someone’s idea. But it makes me think about how rare great work really is, and how dedicated one must be to achieve it, an objective that unifies musicians and creators of all kinds. Everyone is just trying to tell a story, to connect, to be remembered.

1/18/17

News of an upcoming Mutemath album has me on pins and needles, in a good way. This band is such a force to be reckoned with, bringing a bold, brassy and proggy sound to alt-rock. Lately they’ve gone into this really electronic/sample-sounding space and while at first I was hesitant, I’ve come to embrace the atmosphere. Overall, it’s still an ensemble effort with every player giving their all and playing their strengths — Darren King continues to hold down intricate grooves and Paul Meany’s introspection is at a peak. Mute Math songs have always had a self-empowerment, self-reflective bent to them; often they wonder about ways to get by, or how to transform an ordinary life into one that’s extraordinary. It’s why they’re one of my go-to bands when I need a little motivation.

Last year’s teaser of a single, “Changes,” wound up leading off a bunch of remixes and reinventions to songs from 2015’s Vitals, an album I’ve really come to love for its smooth confidence and sophisticated parts. But the remixes were good, too, and “Changes” is novel and noteworthy in its own right. Is there any rock band who is as good as playing around with delay, echoing effects, back-up snaps and ringing, resonant bell tones? The latest batch of Mutemath songs are a little bit 70s, a little bit 80s, and a little bit now, always wrapped up with a hook or two. The prominent piano line harkens back to their earlier work — and so does the overall theme and message, about being stuck in a place while seeking more on the other side. Their latest press release pledges yet another evolution in their sound on their fifth studio LP, and I’m really looking forward to it, and in the nearer term, pouring over their catalog all day and letting their bright, bold sounds add some color to a grey day.

“I can hear pallid choirs sing
From their headstone hymnals now
I’m just suffering from changes
Locked outside for good
Paper cut by turning pages
Sitting under dust cause
I’m not understood…”

~Changes
Mute Math, Changes

1/12/17

In the moments where my mind has been wandering this week, I wind up facing a bizarre and beautiful question: do I spend several hundred dollars to see U2 on The Joshua Tree 2017 tour?

There’s a few layers to unpack here before answering. First of all, can I afford to spend a small fortune on concert tickets? By all accounts of human earnings and needs, sure, as I have a full-time job, a modicum of savings, and that devilish extension of the self known as credit. But looking at my mountain of student debt and other, perhaps more pressing, living expenses, the expenditure seems rather frivolous.

Facing the reality of those logistics, the next question is how much do I want to see this show? SO VERY MUCH is the immediate answer, because how could one not want to see this tour, especially anyone who fancies themselves a student of modern rock history as I do? How many reams of papers, gallons of ink and infinite key presses have been devoted to this masterpiece over the years? More than anyone could count, and more than enough to prove its merit. No one who knows modern music is unaware of U2’s existence and by extension The Joshua Tree as their breakthrough LP of 1987.

I will pause here, though, to come clean before there are any misconceptions: I am not a huge U2 fan. But I am not not a U2 fan, in fact “With or Without You” was one of the first covers I sought to master. “How to Dismantle” was a pivotal teenage record, too, and I once sang “One” at a hotel beach party. Still, there are definitely bigger U2 fans than me, and part of me would feel maybe a little insecure if I attended and knew less than my fellow audience members, like I was wrongfully taking someone else’s spot. Imposter syndrome does not bode well as a precursor to a great concert experience.

Then again, maybe going to a see legendary tour would catapult my modest fandom into super-fandom, sparking a relationship that would lead to much more back catalog listening. Live performances, after all, is one of the best way to get hooked on a band/album/genre.

The other day, I was discussing whether to buy tickets with my significant other, who knows more about U2 than I do and considers The Joshua Tree front-loaded. But it’s possibly the biggest contender for best front-loaded album, as the triple threat of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” is perhaps the best possible ordered trio of songs ever. Especially concluding with that riff at the latter’s four-minute mark leading into the tambourine outro. Chills, every time! In the concert context, this weighs in the favor of going, because I think hearing those songs played loud in an stadium, in their proper order, would be akin to a religious experience. The rest of the album is smooth, sexy, impressive, too, with resonant tracks like “Running to Stand Still, “Trip Through Your Wires” and “In God’s Country.” It’s as near perfect a listening experience as an album can provide, making it one of the best choices for a live run.

After the tour’s announcement, multiple news outlets/critics/industry watches commented on the cultural relevance of this particular album touring at this particular moment. The takes have been many, some have been rather thoughtful http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/7654338/u2-joshua-tree-tour-live-2017-more-than-nostalgia?utm_source=twitter and given this a meaning beyond music. Speaking just in terms of the music, though, this album will be talked about for as long as rock music and rock stars are, and the eternal bragging rights are arguably worth the cost of a year’s worth of car insurance. Right?

Then again, when I think about the many shows that come through LA, I could spend what it cost for one or two U2 tickets on a show a week at The Echo, The Troubadour, The Fonda and other small venues I’ve come to love for the next several months. More bang for the buck, so to speak.

But still all of this is just conjecture, just words. I mulled this over for more than 48 hours without actually putting on the record. So I pulled up track two, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” turned the dial up and let The Edge’s perfect, precise tones wash over me. Every other line seemed to shock me right at the heart. Only to be with you…What I’m looking for…Bleed into one….Yes I’m still running. The feeling this song evokes in me and obviously countless other listeners is exemplary of U2’s power and prevalence.

Maybe I don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a concert to emphasize that. Maybe I can just put on headphones tonight and walk through the LA rain. Or maybe I can seek the live experience in the name of discovery, in the name of risk-taking, in the name of feeling fully without regret. Either way, I think I — and all who love this album — will be left richer for it.

“I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes, I’m still running

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Of my shame, you know I believe it

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for…”

~I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
U2, The Joshua Tree

1/5/17

Happy New Year! I’m honestly optimistic about this one. I think it’s been awhile since I felt that way at the outset, but I’m going with it, looking ahead with curiosity to all the unknown the universe has in store. Throughout all the twists and turns that inevitably will arise, though, finding new music is still my constant joy. There’s something comforting about that, knowing that no matter what this year brings, at the end I’ll be left with a bunch of new music that moved me. 2016 will be tough to top on this front, as I was exposed to many different artists through reviewing opportunities and new communities, plus some of my longtime favorites like Jimmy Eat World and The Hotelier dropped incredible releases. But looking ahead at the calendar, I see plenty of highlights — here’s 10 albums I’m looking forward to (hopefully) listening to this year. I’ll revisit this in about 360 days to see where this wind up compared to my final favorites.

  1. The Menzingers: If “Lookers” and “Bad Catholics” are any indication, After the Party  will be an incredibly fun, punchy record — and perhaps the most poignant yet.
  2. Japandroids: “Near To The Wild Heart of Life” is quickly making its mark as a life anthem, as all Japandroids songs rightly deserve. I imagine this album will rock.
  3. Muna: Discovering this super-fun, super-edgy pop vocalist group was a great boon to my workout routine, and their latest single “I Know A Place” is a real earworm.
  4. Taylor Swift: Can she top 1989? I don’t know. Probably. I won’t pretend I’m not excited to see what direction she heads in , or to have more songs to practice guitar.
  5. Haim: Days Are Gone has held up incredibly well as an impressive debut, and I’m ready to be wowed with a follow-up imbued by their roaring success.
  6. Ryan Adams: My love for the folk-rock troubadour only grows, even as he fashions himself into something of a retro-bluesy, Pettyesque figure. Especially then, even.
  7. The Wonder Years: They’ve just announced they’re writing new stuff, so a 2017 release is possible/likely/high on my list of life-markers.
  8. The xx: Something tells me  the ambient, angsty chill pop of The xx will be perfect for LA’s rainy season, and perfectly sexy/cool.
  9. The Killers: Sure, they’ll never again make Hot Fuss. But who says they have to? Give me that desert-inspired do-or-die attitude and trademark soaring choruses any day.
  10. Ed Sheeran: I loved X. I still love X.  Sheeran has an undenying sweetness,  and a sensitivity that transfers beyond his gorgeous ballads. More please!

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