Ever Tried Songwriting Rules and Consistent Underlying Band Themes or Concepts?

THX1123

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Yeah, this is a long one. Just jog on if you are a TL;DR-type.

Have you ever formed a band, or been in a band that created underlying concepts or rules for what you do? If not, how would you react if the idea was presented to you? Is this something not everyone can do?

I was reading the book included with my Pylon box set (I love Pylon). I found it interesting that they created a sort of guiding concept for the band’s first batch of songs and 1st album, right from the beginning. They decided the band name, lyrics, and overall feeling would all try to reflect the idea of “safety.” Not just ideas of being “safe,” but more literal ideas like occupational safety, consciously avoiding dangerous things, and driving safety.

Reading a book about the band Wire revealed similar conceptual agreements in the band from its beginning. No solos, no cliches, no stretching out ends of songs. Always try to expand and explore the art and ideas of what the band is, and what it does. Always include the idea that the project was as much about art and experimentation as music.

I know AC/DC have a clear idea of what a good AC/DC song is. They do what they do, and they stay squarely in that concept. I think it is pretty clear that there are AC/DC rules. There are no country or funk AC/DC songs, or reggae breaks in AC/DC songs.

I have attempted this in my last 3 bands. Every time the other guys just looked at me like I was speaking another language. The first try was only half-hearted. It was a surfy/garage band called The Three Fives. The drummer had gigged in the late 60s as a teenager in “real” 60's garage bands. He was in his early 70s. They weren’t interested in concepts or rules, but we got a good gigging band going and recorded an album’s worth of stuff. I purposefully wrote in the surf/garage realm as that was to the drummer’s strength.

The second try was when my high school band re-united. The other 2 guys hadn’t played in decades. They wanted to gig, but we knew it would be a long path to that. I suggested the band could be whatever we wanted it to be – focus on writing and recording originals, making videos for YouTube, or even a subversive online media and music project of some kind. Do we do 75% covers and shoot for gigging? The concept we agreed upon was beer and friendship, which is pretty cool, but hardly ambitious. It slowly fizzled out. Turns out they liked the idea of being a band more than actually doing it. When the recent global troubles hit the band just evaporated into 18 months of excuses and missed rehearsals.

The third try was with my last band. All three of us had known each other for decades, and been playing in original bands for decades. I suggested we find an agreed idea of what the band was going to be from the beginning for once, and incorporate some ideas and rules into the whole process. Not exactly restrictive rules, but rules that guide the songwriting. What would the band (Acme Anvil Corporation) sound like? What would make "us" sound like us? What are our strengths? Should we play to our strengths, or purposefully try to get out of the comfort zone and do something different? Should we make a plan for what we will do, how our stuff will look, and how we will sound, and then follow it?

The rules I suggested weren’t all that seriously restrictive. Should we try to make every song have a killer bridge? Or maybe have no bridges? No songs that sound too much like classic rock songs? If we drift in that direction do we need to stop and re-evaluate? Or do we shoot for the familiarity of classic rock trio structures? No original songs brought in from prior bands? Or, conversely, do we re-imagine those songs collaboratively to fit what we will do? All songs under 3:00? No songs over 5:00? Consistent themes throughout band name, logo, and album title? The drummer and I sing harmony, so how about avoiding vanilla 3rds and 5ths whenever possible? Or do we just go that way with “regular” harmonies all the time?

Yeah, well this got some puzzled looks, that same looks I’ve seen before. They said they’d think about it, but I was barking up the wrong tree again. We did write a lot of music and recorded most of it, 2 albums and an EP. I think much of it is pretty good, but there’s no real consistency. Some songs are classic rock-ish, others are weird, others are more skeletal, some are more post-punk-like. The Acme Anvil Corp stuff is all out there on YouTube and Spotify etc if anyone wants to check it out, I'm not writing this post to promote it.

The bottom line is that I can’t define what AAC sounds like, really. I guess that’s not a bad thing...but of all the bands I've been in since the 90s this last one had the most capable and experienced musicians that were truly capable of consciously making something coherent and focused. Instead we kinda just threw a fistful of darts at the dartboard, again.

Do you think projects can be stronger if all can agree on some basic ideas from the beginning?
 

Wildcard_35

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I agree that a vibe is necessary for a band to be more than just four dudes who enjoy drinking beer and making racket. And by that, I mean figuring out a genre (or creating your own, like "Latin hot tub jazz" or whatever) a voice for how the songs are approached, what the band looks like on stage, etc. While it might not be necessary to be a "beer drinking dad band" it is necessary if you want to have the public take you seriously and play gigs and try to get somewhere with it.
 

Charlie Bernstein

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I've tried pulling together a blues band a few times, but around here, it's all a bunch of Vaughnabees who think "Wonderful Tonight" is blues.

But I'm in a duo with a friend who has such a pure Americana sound — think John Prine/John Eddy/Jimmy Buffet/Reckless Kelly/Chris Singleton — that even when we play a Temptations or Bukka White or Carole King tune, it sounds Americana.

We both write a lot of originals, and I just use things I've written that more or less fit the duo's style, and keep the rest on the rack. Our guitar styles keep the vibe from straying.

Think about how the Dead always sound (for better or for worse) exactly like the Dead, whether they're playing Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, the Beatles, or Warren Zevon. Their only rules seemed to be: Don't tell me what to do, and I won't tell you what to do.

Same goes for the Stones, Nina Simone, and lots of others.

So I think it's mostly about how in-synch the players are. The "rules" aren't the real issue. I'm just not in synch with Wonderbread blues guys who have a weird idea of what the blues sound is about, but I'm fine with my Americana friend, because I get the sound he's got in his head and proceed accordingly.

Personally, I'm more fussy about costume rules that repertoire rules. It's just plain embarassing to be seen on stage with guys in tee-shirts and baseball hats. Come on, guys, have a little class!
 

THX1123

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This might work better if there’s one songwriter in the band, the band is focused on doing his songs, and he can write to whatever focus he wants.
It would sure be easier to do with one songwriter, that's for sure.
 

ndcaster

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if the band is trying to define itself (it might not be trying to), sure why not

the Dogme95 film people did it


lots of art movements had manifestoes to guide them and give them definition

you can get dirty looks from strict bluegrassers if you play a dominant seventh ...
 

THX1123

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I've tried pulling together a blues band a few times, but around here, it's all a bunch of Vaughnabees who think "Wonderful Tonight" is blues.

But I'm in a duo with a friend who has such a pure Americana sound — think John Prine/John Eddy/Jimmy Buffet/Reckless Kelly/Chris Singleton — that even when we play a Temptations or Bukka White or Carole King tune, it sounds Americana.

We both write a lot of originals, and I just use things I've written that more or less fit the duo's style, and keep the rest on the rack. Our guitar styles keep the vibe from straying.

Think about how the Dead always sound (for better or for worse) exactly like the Dead, whether they're playing Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, the Beatles, or Warren Zevon. Their only rules seemed to be: Don't tell me what to do, and I won't tell you what to do.

Same goes for the Stones, Nina Simone, and lots of others.

So I think it's mostly about how in-synch the players are. The "rules" aren't the real issue. I'm just not in synch with Wonderbread blues guys who have a weird idea of what the blues sound is about, but I'm fine with my Americana friend, because I get the sound he's got in his head and proceed accordingly.

Personally, I'm more fussy about costume rules that repertoire rules. It's just plain embarassing to be seen on stage with guys in tee-shirts and baseball hats. Come on, guys, have a little class!
Interesting. I think when you play stuff based on a traditional form of music many of the rules are pre-existing and implied. They say culture is what you know, but don't think about. Making a conscious decision to avoid, or embrace conventions is a way I thought maybe a band project could find and make something different.

Blues has rules. If you stray or go too far from those rules it isn't Blues anymore, is it? Country music used to have rules also, before it appropriated rock and hip hop's conventions. Those rules used to be music played with common instruments about common folks for common folks. Americana has largely taken that set of rules, but a core aspect of Americana is that it is based in traditional American art forms, no?

I had a trio in the 90's called Big Jim that had a rudimentary theme/concept. I played bass. We called it the "20-Minutemen Violent Psychedelia" concept. We tried to play like The Minutemen but we didn't play 45 second -1:30 songs. We also sought to find the feeling of the first Pink Floyd album. We were a jam band. We found our sound by jamming a lot and letting songs emerge from those jams. As a result many of the songs had a common sound to them.

Big Jim did a parody of a moderately slow blues song where we went E - A# - C. The words were all quotes from the movie Happy Gilmore. Give that chord sequence a try in a blues style. People hated it. It was actually kind of hard to play well at first. Once the guitar player got the solo together it was pretty cool, for us, but we broke too many rules for anyone else besides us to enjoy it. It was violently psychedelic though.

The Stones did explore and expand what they do, but I would suggest they are a blues band at the center of it all. That band is driven by two personalities that work very well together. I bet they have to agree on whether something is a Stones song, or not. Aside from the psychedelic experiences the Stones stuff is often rooted in the blues/R&B that they started by trying to play at the beginning.

I also agree that the last thing this world needs is another semi-skilled middle-aged middle-class white blues band.

I think some jam bands (like the Dead) sound like themselves because of the chemistry they have between the members in terms of finding roles and spaces for each other. They discovered their own sound and rules by playing together, listening to each other, and having virtuosic players with truly identifiable voices. Listening to each other is the key. I would suggest their rules developed organically and took a lot of playing and listening. How often did the Dead play a 3 minute song live that wasn't an old cover song? Maybe the #1 rule for The Dead is that whatever we play sounds like what we have defined as sounding like The Dead? The seeds of many of their songs are grown from traditional American music, and I always assert that they are an very American band at the core.
 

THX1123

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if the band is trying to define itself (it might not be trying to), sure why not

the Dogme95 film people did it


lots of art movements had manifestoes to guide them and give them definition

you can get dirty looks from strict bluegrassers if you play a dominant seventh ...
That's cool. The Surrealists and Dada movements had similar manifestos. I believe the Situationist International movement did also, including establishing a date for its own end.
 

rodger

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Since I am a one man band recording-wise (all instruments and all vocals), I strive for a Crosby Stills Nash and Young feel. An album's worth of various acoustic and electric guitars, straight ahead rockers, fingerpicked acoustic with vocals, 60's pop and everything in between. Hard to get an identity that way.

Hey, it worked for CSNY.
 

drmordo

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My band is a concept 'band'. My cousin and I play all the instruments, and it is long distance as we have generally lived on opposite sides of the country.

The overall band concept is that we are scientists who discover time travel. The albums are about the adventures we have.

Musical concept: we started off trying to sound like The Beatles. We gradually included other 60s/70s bands in the mix.

Instrumental 'concept': Generally speaking, I play the drums and bass and keys, my cousin plays the guitars and adds effects. We have friends who chip in from time to time.

We've been doing it for around 15 years, but we may be winding down as he got married and has other things on his mind these days.

The 23rd Century
 

archtop_fjk

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I suppose your songwriting and performance “rule” could be to stay within a specific genre (blues, traditional country, bebop jazz…) and make sure all songs do not stray from that. You can establish an “identity” that way and make yourself appealing to a segment of the listening public.

Or you could say there are no “rules” - just good songs!

Personally I like to try a variety of things, from tender acoustic ballads to hard rocking songs with a beat. I would never want to constrain my songwriting or performance except that I’m mostly a guitar player.

I’ve written and recorded my own original music, which is mostly derivative from my hero’s (Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Segovia). But never have I collaborated with other songwriters and so can’t offer any perspective on group composition. Perhaps others can relate their experiences…
 

THX1123

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My band is a concept 'band'. My cousin and I play all the instruments, and it is long distance as we have generally lived on opposite sides of the country.

The overall band concept is that we are scientists who discover time travel. The albums are about the adventures we have.

Musical concept: we started off trying to sound like The Beatles. We gradually included other 60s/70s bands in the mix.

Instrumental 'concept': Generally speaking, I play the drums and bass and keys, my cousin plays the guitars and adds effects. We have friends who chip in from time to time.

We've been doing it for around 15 years, but we may be winding down as he got married and has other things on his mind these days.

The 23rd Century
I want to hear it
 

THX1123

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I suppose your songwriting and performance “rule” could be to stay within a specific genre (blues, traditional country, bebop jazz…) and make sure all songs do not stray from that. You can establish an “identity” that way and make yourself appealing to a segment of the listening public.

Or you could say there are no “rules” - just good songs!

Personally I like to try a variety of things, from tender acoustic ballads to hard rocking songs with a beat. I would never want to constrain my songwriting or performance except that I’m mostly a guitar player.

I’ve written and recorded my own original music, which is mostly derivative from my hero’s (Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Segovia). But never have I collaborated with other songwriters and so can’t offer any perspective on group composition. Perhaps others can relate their experiences…
This ended up being the basis for Acme Anvil Corp. Just "good songs."

I guess I've just wanted to try something more puzzling, or pre-defined, if that makes sense.
 

Dostradamas

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Makes sense to me.

Many great bands had a plan and executed it well.
Many bands are created organically from a group of musicians that form bonds and understandings by playing together.

Hard to say what the best approach would be.
I imagine the group of individuals would bear most of the weight of that choice.

I would adore a band I could join with the ability to agree on a set of rules/conditions/parameters,whatever that we utilized as the base and boundaries of all creation.

Alternately a group of people that are close by and friendly I can enjoy playing with are plenty good for me.

Currently I feel like I am ready for a rhythm section to write with.
Drums or bass or both and build from there.

Been the bass player in a couple established bands and got to start a couple as a bass player with some strong writing guitarists.

Haven't played a bass in 5+ years with any seriousness but the electric guitar has become a regular emotional outlet the last 2 years.

I am ready to start making some songs with people again.

Either way you do it, good people are key for success.

I keep thinking I would love to start a cover band with a limit of 1975-1985 for material.
I grock your manspeak
 

Toast

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I'd say to start playing material, regardless of its origin, and then just start talking about it (likes/dislikes/possibilities/new directions . . .) . See if you can gel with your band mates and then start talking about concepts and stylistic directions. Disclaimer: I've never played with a band seriously.
 

Nogoodnamesleft

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The Raveonettes first record has an interesting concept. Sune Rose Wagner had three rules. If I remember them right it was 1) all songs in the key of B flat minor, 2) no more than 3 chords per song, and 3) no ride cymbals.

It turned out amazing! I think the second record was all in B flat major.

I know for me the best thing I ever recorded was on a four track with a cheap acoustic guitar, an old analog synthesizer, and a rented drum machine in the very early 90s. A lot of records were made with limitations that we no longer have with the modern DAW. When synthesizers were the price of a car, a guitarist was generally committed to a particular amp for years at a time, pedal options were far more limited, and recording meant going to a studio that had a certain arsenal of equipment, things had a style or a sound that was influenced by what was at hand.
 




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