We spoke with Dan Wilson about keeping the imagination engaged, the spiritual properties of a great song, combating the dark forces of dumbness and pragmatism and why there is still no shortage of beauty in the world.
I write non-sequentially. I’m putting a song together like it’s a Lego model or something, rather than a timeline.
We asked Dan to describe what each of these musical symbols and elements of notation immediately remind him of.
The time between dinner and bedtime when you go out with your friends.
If you take five fingers and play the first five notes of the scale, it sounds major but it has the two and the four in it at the same time. That’s the essence of Joni Mitchell. All the notes are playing at once, almost. Here’s a crazy thing about the album Hejira — I feel like the whole thing is a duet between Jaco Pastorius’s bass and Joni’s voice, but Jaco only plays on a small number of songs. You feel like it’s this sort of duet album, but he’s only on a small number of things.
My parents and I watched the film about Jaco last year. My parents are too old to be fans of Joni’s or Jaco’s, but they were really moved by it. Jaco came out like the eternal, spontaneous, effervescent, charming, wicked young boy and just stayed that way his whole life. It didn’t age well. He could only self-actualize through his bass playing. He was always stirring the pot musically. Joni said he was a road hog, but it was beautiful to play with him anyway.
I’d like to start this conversation by observing the guts of a great pop song, what’s uncovered when you open up a great song on a surgery table. I once spent two days trying to figure out how the title song to That Thing You Do! worked, kind of banging my head against the floor. Can you explain your own approach to tension and release, to constructing a series of chords so there’s a sense of payoff?
I don’t really think of it as tension and release myself, but I know that people do. Because I’m not experiencing it in time when I’m writing it, I know people will feel those things while they’re listening. I write non-sequentially. I’m putting a song together like it’s a Lego model or something, rather than a timeline. I think, like every artist, part of me is one step removed from the experience that the listener is going to have, but at least I have my own memories of listening to other peoples’ music to guide me a bit.
But, say I’m working on a song and I want to keep it interesting, I think tension and release is one of the methods I might use to do so. Keeping a song interesting and making it fun for the listener’s imagination is a way to get the story and emotion across. If you listen to a Shakespeare play, it’s a continuous, buzzy, fuzzy stream of jokes and wit and wordplay, but the reason he’s putting that in there is to keep your imagination super-engaged while you’re following the broader story. Or possibly, he’s got a bigger story in the structure so he can just put puns throughout it, as an excuse to just be funny for two hours.
For me, tension and release would be a way to either tell a story more, or just keeping the listener’s imagination stimulated. I guess one way to do that is to create contrast and vividness, going from sparse emptiness to fullness, quiet to loud, loud to quiet. Going from simplicity to density in the chords. I think people call these things tension and release, but to honest, I don’t think I ever think about those terms when I’m writing a song.
That’s interesting. It kind of reminds me of some of the studio rules Brian Eno has written out for people he records, like “Thou shalt make music like an Italian cook, with simple and strong flavors.”
Eno also has this great principle that he used with U2, which is “Whenever possible, avoid the heroic.” I always liked that thought. Going straight for the “heroic” would almost be a weakness for that band. Finding a way to not do that would be a way to uncover more truth in the music, as opposed to presenting an impressive façade.
Definitely. I’m also really interested in how a great pop song can also infiltrate someone’s psychology in a real way. Specifically, I’ve heard possibly apocryphal tales about how Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” has brought more than one person out of a coma. Whether or not that’s true, would you say that possibility would be borne of positive association or real, innate musical power?
Morgan, I think you could probably guess that we are way outside my expertise right now. But, I would tend to go toward something a little more mystical. I think that in certain songs, almost regardless of a person’s history, there’s sort of a spiritual presence and vibe that is immediately recognizable. I think “Free Fallin’” begins its spiritual work on the listener within a few chords. I think you already know it’s going to be a great song within the first few seconds. I don’t think it’s necessarily doing its main work by becoming familiar over time and imprinted on your mind. I think it’s doing it by existing at kind of a higher plane than most other artwork. Its perfection is telegraphed right away.
I mean, that song is full of that fuzzy, buzzy Shakespearean wit. It just keeps your mind intrigued and interested throughout, you know, “The vampires move west down Ventura Boulevard.” All that sort of mystical stuff needs super-mundane San Fernando Valley geography. The super-deep issues of life are contrasted with a sort of guilty, devil-may-care sort of nihilistic release for the narrator. So, I think that song has worked its beautiful magic on lots of people without really having to be familiar or associated with good memories. But who knows?
To be a great artist, a person needs to be brutal to all other priorities. If they don’t naturally know how to be charming and beautiful to people, then they’re not going to have time to learn how.
Definitely. One thing I kept telling people after he died — and I was so shocked by that — is that it only takes a second to know that “Free Fallin’” is magic. The first chord is from heaven!
You caught me at a point where I’m really thinking about the nature of music. Last night, I attended a party in Manhattan where Mike Love was performing, and it was one of the most bizarre musical moments of my life. Because it’s this guy with a real thick sense of self-regard who’s nearly always painted as the villain, but then he and the band just knocked me out. It was the most authentic Beach Boys sound I’ve ever heard. I left with this mix of emotions that was just jarring. It actually led to a friendly back-and-forth with two strangers in the Uber home about the concept of “writer” vs. “performer.” As someone who’s written for yourself and others, what do you think about the limitations or abilities of each of those roles? Do you think some creative people are more adept at being the Brian Wilson in a situation, or the Mike Love?
I’m going to need to analyze your “Brian vs. Mike” thing a little bit more. To be a great artist, a person needs to be brutal to all other priorities. If they don’t naturally know how to be charming and beautiful to people, then they’re not going to have time to learn how. They have to do all the other things for their entire life, so they’re not be able to learn how to be nice. They’re either nice or they’re not. We can’t really expect our artists to be self-actualized or transcendently beautiful to other people, unless they already set out on that path. If you’re going to be an artist, you have to just brutally prioritize everything about your art, because the world is going to try and stop you from doing it. Circumstances are going to try and discourage you and people are going to try and train you out of being an artist. You have to be so crazy-focused.
I mean, who’s Mike Love now? Kanye West. Nobody tells heartwarming stories about Kanye West. He just came out a certain way and he’s been that way the whole time. Meanwhile, he’s getting more and more amazing as an artist. On the other hand, there are artists who are considerate and have integrity or a kind spirit. I don’t think Mike Love works hard to become mean, and I don’t think Brian Wilson works hard to be gentle and kind. They just are what they are.
Because being an artist is so megalomaniacal, you don’t really have the time to work on yourself that much. People become almost like caricatures of themselves over time. And then if someone is a famous jerk, but begins to sing and blows your mind, it feels like a miracle. But the fact is, they had to spend their entire life becoming a great singer. They didn’t have time to learn how not to be a jerk. I like to try to just forgive people for what they are, and think about what it takes to be an artist.
To bring up another form of art, I understand that you’ve worked in the field of calligraphy pretty extensively, too. This leads me back to a memory of my dad collecting old yearbooks from the turn of the century. He would kind of drill it into my mind that schoolchildren from 1908 would write beautiful calligraphic poetry in each other’s yearbooks, whereas schoolchildren now would probably write you a weed leaf with a Bic pen. That probably soured my view of humanity forever. Any thoughts on the role this art form has played in your life or in society at large?
It’s certainly a weird thing for me to have learned how to do. I love looking at calligraphy because of the grace and beauty of it, and how the curls and flourishes are more than what is necessary to communicate. They’re openly decorative; they’re beauty for their own sake, when you could just print the letters and get the message across. One wonderful thing about the Internet, that you may only have been able to imagine long ago, is that you can watch what it looks like when a great calligrapher makes their letters. Now, I can go online and watch Luca Barcellona or Seb Lester make their work, and you can actually watch the movement of their hand. It’s very beautiful to see.
I always wanted to learn how to do it, and there was a time when I was always visually creating before music took my life over. Over the course of maybe ten years, music crowded out visual art in my life. Then, in 2012 or so, I decided I wanted to get visual art back into my life and get that habit of visual expression back into my hands. I would occasionally make a drawing in my journal when I wanted to describe or remember something, but I didn’t have the courage to just begin drawing pictures right away. I thought that making calligraphy was a good way to get my hand active in making beautiful things and get my mind associating the visual with the tactile. It really, really worked and got me back into making drawings and illustrations. I use calligraphy as a cracked door back into the part of my mind that used to make pictures all the time.
As far as the thing about schoolchildren from 100 years ago, I think that people were smarter before. They had to be, in a way. If you think about how many times people heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony during the time of Beethoven, it was once. One time. And it became a famous work of art, even though people listened to it one time in their life. You couldn’t take it home, listen to it 100 times, get to know it and realize how great it was. People had to be so on-their-toes that they could hear Beethoven’s Fifth one time, get the whole impression, take it in and that was that. Now, technology allows us to take it in a bit of a time, go buy some eggs, come back, listen to the second movement, answer a phone call — we can be sort of scattered, less present and less intelligent because our computers and music reproduction devices are taking up the slack for us.
That’s the same with beautiful handwriting and poetry by little children 100 years ago. It’s such a funny thought. My handwriting has gone to hell. I can make really nice calligraphy, but my handwriting is terrible.
There are forces in our world that would like to remove the search for meaning, the big questions, beauty, impracticality and decoration.
I’d like to zoom out to the role of creating anything, in general. I just remembered this quote from Frank Zappa — “Without music to decorate it, life is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” While this might be a little reductive — he doesn’t mention getting married, becoming a parent, taking a long walk on the beach or anything else that makes life nice. Regardless, would you generally agree or disagree with this thought?
I think I know what he’s getting at. I think I get it. There are forces in our world that would like to remove the search for meaning, the big questions, beauty, impracticality and decoration. These forces would like to remove all of that and just focus on the ups and downs of profit motive, politics and the raw competition for dominance. Someone like Frank Zappa, who was trying so hard in his weird way to increase the amount of beauty in the world, probably came against the anti-beauty, ultra-pragmatic forces more than most people. He was probably very aware of that struggle. There are people who would like to reduce others’ lives to paying bills, getting to work on time, living and dying.
The President of the United States didn’t invite the 2017 Nobel Prize winners to the White House and doesn’t use correct grammar or spelling. It’s almost like we’re getting to this collective point where dumbness and wrongness isn’t just okay, it’s encouraged and preferred. With that precedent, what’s stopping everyone else from letting their intelligence and abilities wither?
I think it’s an actual assault. Anyone who wants to value beauty is under assault by this kind of ultra-pragmatic, ruthless, competitive ethic. I don’t think it’s an accident, because I don’t think these people are dumb. They’re really smart and funny and they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
Why did we get to this point, though? Why are we focused on shrieking online about the NFL instead of writing beautiful poetry for each other?
I say this not as a corrective to you, but I just want to mention that there is no shortage of beauty in the world. There’s no shortage of aesthetic effort, focus and attention. I think our attention spans are under assault by our computers, but I love my computer. I get a lot of great things out of it. So I’m living the transformation where my attention span is being assaulted and destroyed by my computer, and yet I’m discovering beautiful literature and ideas and mathematical phenomena with the computer and the Internet.
This transformation has its comforts and its ugly side, and there are dark anti-beauty, anti-aesthetic forces in the world that are pretty powerful right now. It’s uncomfortable and weird and we’re going through a very intense period where our brains are being rewired by our computers. It may not be for the best, but I’m not going to come to any conclusions quite yet.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: November 28, 2017
Total questions: 9 + 9
Word count: 2666
Reading time: Ten minutes
Major: Joni Mitchell
AC/DC, aesthetic, Antonin Dvorak, arpeggio, bar, beauty, Brian Wilson, calligraphy, clef, competition, computer, Dan Wilson, dominance, dumbness, Frank Zappa, guitar, interval, Jaco Pastorius, Joni Mitchell, Kanye West, Lego, Luca Barcellona, Ludwig van Beethoven, major, Manhattan, Mike Love, mode, Neil Young, New York City, Nobel Prize, pitch, power pop, pragmatism, release, scale, Seb Lester, Semisonic, songwriting, tension, The Beach Boys, The Wonders, Tom Petty, transformation, William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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