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Headlights Chapter Six: Never Doing That Again

Now, there were two core fundamentals I kept with me. I wanted it to be rock. I believed in that genre, it was the genre that inspired me to create music to begin with. And like I discovered years ago, I wanted to avoid verse chorus verse structures. To avoid the phrasing that usually came with the genre. But that was about it. Everything else was to be fresh.

To let go of the expectations we put on the music: How the guitars are played, how the drums should hit the crash on the beginning of each 4 bar phrase, how rock progressions usually bend like this. It was no longer about “rock music”. But, at the same time, I love fuzzy guitars and drums and bass. I like it heavy. It wasn’t about bringing it back, but it wasn't about leaving it behind either. This was about it being my music now. It was always about it being my music.

I think of some modern figures in popular music: Billie Eilish, Caroline Polacheck, Playboi Carti, SZA, Travis Scott, Taylor Swift and many more. These are individuals with their own names yet their music doesn’t feel “individual”. In essence (though wildly different sonically), they pack the same punch of nuance and flavor that my favorite rock artists did growing up. I would say the nature and writing of my work falls in line with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins. Though they bore the name of a “rock band”, they were the main director behind the sounds the groups helmed. They were sold alongside other similar groups on the labels they signed to, labels more interested in a trending genre, cause that was the only way to pursue the industry. But it's not about genre or the older industry packaging and delivery anymore. Nowadays I think an artist can get out there by proudly feeling like their own genre. Artists can and should make the music that they naturally love whether relevant or not, whether estabilshed in genre or sonic norms or not. The tools have been readily available for a while to make something happen, and the more niche the better chances of success. The purity of artists and their artistry is more in control and has more power than ever. Styles within the Rock conventions have not adapted to this.

In my friend group, and to most people, I was the “guy who liked rock music”. I figured my music would naturally embrace that persona and be framed in that context. To have my name reflect a niche era that has fallen long out of style. To shed the common, finer idiosyncrasies and packaging of rock music, yet wield the nature of it proudly. To take on a more individual approach. Finding my sound. Creating from genre is of the old industry.

What it comes down to for me is this: I think we take a lot for granted in music. A song has a chorus, pop music feels like this, alternative does this like the greats before it, if you like that you should look over here to do more of it. I think there’s a greater chance of artistic, financial and cultural success in the modern music industry as an artist that plays heavier rock or alternative music by challenging those established notions of music, not so much the sonic characteristics of it. I believe that is the way into the future while keeping what what true in the past. And I mean I want to feel difference: structurally, narratively. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but you can realize music is infinite. Music has always been about being yourself. The music should be about being yourself. To dig at the dialect the music usually speaks in is what I've wanted to do, put anything else in there. It's been about looking under the hood for me. Even when I would hear an artists reach "the bar" it would still feel like a whiff to me. A more individualistic approach to music is the future of the industry. I wanted to throw out the map, tear down some of these pillars and go out into the woods and kindle a fire from sticks, find something pure in what I loved that I felt kept getting buried by modernity and nostalgia. I felt that way in 2014. I felt that way in 2019 making that EP, and I feel more that way now with Never Doing That Again in 2023.


It was in the summer of 2020 I was watching Neon Genesis Evangelion at like 1AM when the original demo for “Never Doing That Again” came to me. Bouncing off of Songs for the Millennium, I strove to do the exact opposite: those songs were long, so I wanted to go short. Those songs were pretty even when heavier, I wanted to not be pretty. (The prettiness was prevalent even on The Thing and Fahrenheit, so this was a long time coming). I worked off of what I didn’t want. I began to utter “I’m never doing that again” to myself often. I made a list of what I thought my music should capture. I scoured my music collection, far and wide, and found music that captured the traits I wrote down. I listened. I would articulate exactly what the music I was listening to did and how it felt. I loved rock music and various subgenres around it, but I wanted to find music as niche as possible to pull from. I was listening to groups like Fluke, Underworld, Tricky and Fu Manchu. In the background, I started to watch Batman: The Animated Series at the time. I’d always mute it and put it on in the background while practicing. Something about the timeless, otherworldly look of the art style; the vintage radio-play styled delivery of the voice acting. It was distinct and wanted to achieve a specific thing. It set the vibe when I worked.

I chased anything that didn’t have a conventional flow to it. Club music and soundtrack music were the main things I listened to. The more industrial the better. Flying Lotus’ soundtrack for the Netflix anime Yasuke was always on. My love for soundtrack music especially became apparent, particularly video game soundtracks. In particular, I began to embrace my love for Final Fantasy music and view it as a genuine influence I would incorporate. I did always love that music, but I saw it was "different" and as something that couldn't work incorporated into my main work of music. But given where I wanted to go, and my "never doing that again, let's go somewhere different" ethic at the time, I realized pulling from something like that would only strengthen the sound. I loved the simplicity in it. Simple, yet effective became an important trait. Final Fantasy VII's soundtrack had a unique ethereal charm in it. It captured that industrial aesthetic I always loved. “Mako Reactor”, “Anxiety”, “Reunion” and “Judgement Day” were always favorite tracks of mine.

My studies lead me to the music of the 50s and early 60s. People talk about how much The Beatles influenced and changed everything moving forward. Another way to really feel their impact is to look at what came before them: It was a completely different musical climate. I found myself entranced with the era. In college, I was listening to musicians play standards from this period and take them out west in their arrangements. I downshifted from that style so to speak, and went back and listened to a lot of those same songs I'd heard before but played as they were originally written. Songs like "Everytime We Say Goodbye" would come up, and hearing them in their original forms spoke to me as a songwriter.

The song structures I heard felt so simple compared to the verse-chorus-verse format. In composition, you can use letters to identify parts in song structure. One of these ways is called “ABA”. “A” section designates a part, primarily the main part of a song, while the “B” section represents the middle, or the secondary part of a song. A song that uses an “ABA” structure simply alternates back and forth. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” utilizes this structure well. Another variant that became very popular was “AABA”. This has been used in almost every major standard and beyond. Erroll Garner’s “Misty”, Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood”, Brenton Wood’s “Baby You Got It” to Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”; in almost every era and decade of music you’ll find AABA. However, once the 70s and 80s rolled around people really loved the feeling of a chorus and was implemented more often. From Earth Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star”, The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, Toto’s “Africa”, Madonna’s “Into the Groove”, and just about any song you hear that's trending nowadays.

In more modern contexts, most songs at large use a head on “verse chorus verse” approach. But to me that felt like too much; I wanted simplicity. I wanted it all the time. I wanted that sense of progression in a song that came from a moving chord progression and an articulate main melody. I wanted lots of motion in it. A passage with a set start and finish, rather than the sequencing of verses and choruses. Now, there were rock acts that would "hang out" in one spot in their songs. The Beatles did it often, I think of "For No One" or "She Said She Said" but they never really moved with it like I want the music to. "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Will" are songs of theirs where the compositions move the most in a AABA form. I always say "make it move, I want motion" if I'm working on something that doesn't bend the right way at first. It's with that approach the feeling of closure comes at the end. Completion, like getting to the final chorus after two verses and a bridge of some sort. But with simplicity it's a well rounded cycle. Most Rock I was into never had that sense of simplicity to it. Not at least wherever I looked. On the Ella and Louis record, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” best captured the conclusive feeling that those structures gave me. Other favorite performers from that era for me are Etta James, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, The Skyliners and a few others. It’s also worth mentioning some songs just are a simple passage that repeats itself. Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” is one passage that repeats two times.

My theories on song structure drawn out. Praise and deconstruction of verse-chorus format, chasing of single passages.

Most modern music, almost always, lead to a chorus. There are different variants, mostly ranging in how subtle one is with the approach, but in Rock that structure was usually the standard even outside of mainstream waves of the genre. If not for a conventional structure, things would get more "prog", different parts at the end thrown in, occasionally getting really long and winding. I never liked prog rock, truly, so that was to be avoided. Radiohead, however, took on more unconventional structures with later projects like Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief. Tracks like “You and Whose Army?” and “Scatterbrain” showcase these approaches well. Their seminal OK Computer featured some more subtle takes on verse chorus verse, as well as even a take on AABA on “Exit Music (For a Film)”. Being it was the alternative era, of course, they broke some rules and ends a bit different than AABA. "Exit Music" flows more like AABACA if you were to plot it out. Desiring deeper material to pull from, I found a VHS rip on YouTube of Thom Yorke doing a soundcheck in 1997 of their B-Side "Last Flowers". "Last Flowers" carries a favorite form of mine: ABABC. A variant on verse-chorus, The "A" section is a verse, the "B" section is subtle, and the final "C" part operates as a final chorus that rides out the song. It reveals itself like the "real chorus" that almost surprises you. You thought you already got the chorus, and then it only got better from there.

Further concepts. "Simple passages" breaks into subcategories: traditional motion, minimal motion or "drones".

I wanted to channel a blend of deliveries in my music. One of the shades to evoke was to take that emotionally expressive nature of the 90s music I loved, remove the choruses and capture the simplicity I heard in the 50s and early 60s forms. Naturally, those rules would get smudged along the way. I wrote a softer song called “It Doesn’t Matter Now” that was me implementing this idea, it was in the “Helix Mixes” batch of other things I did during the album that didn’t make the cut. There were softer tunes that came out in that period, despite my desire to avoid falling into over-sentimentality. With the forms I was using though, it would fit in nicely with the louder stuff. To shift from stoic and direct heaviness (with the simplicity still at play) to softer passages felt like a great contrast. Making those structures work in louder contexts is something I’m still working on. The title track on “Never Doing That Again” I think pulls it off to some degree. Simplicity became a major value to achieve in the music. ABA and AABA-esq phrasing was a big influence. The droning I heard in Lofi house mixes were inspiring. Music like that just hangs out in one spot, because it does something good enough that it can just stay there for a while. It was all about listening for the right structure. To come from a different context then what was expected for rock, to come from a specific place that felt personal.

The other half of the analysis I like to conduct is the sheer musicality of it all. As important as structure is, it's only a component. Style, character, attitude, influence, the sonics of it. It all matters. The things you can't put into words. I liked industrial and alternative rock. I don't want to sound like The Beatles or go synthwave. I don't want to produce my work in certain ways; I want production that's dry with the clarity of a commercial record. There is an era and genre in mind, and to pull the right things and leave the right things was the balance to find. And quite frankly that simply comes down to preference. I like what I like. And I want to make what I personally want to hear. With that, another important value to me was to always remain accessible. I don't see that as a weakness. I like pop music, I like stuff in the top 40. I like the charisma, the sociability. There's a natural sex appeal to it. I think it's respectable when done right like every other kind of music. I didn't want to polarize or alienate, experiment for the sake of experimenting (there's a place for that, but I didn't want to do that). I wanted my music to be fun to listen to, easy to listen to. Accessibility and integrity can coexist. Someone's getting pissed off somewhere about something being accessible, but they'll get over it.

As a guitar player, I didn't want to solo. I wanted to be rhythmic and warm all the time. Loose, fuzzy desert rock riffs on a neck pickup tone. Sterile clean tones that capture more intricate textures and layering. Occasionally, I allow brushstrokes of melody to come in. To channel the nature of Nobuo Uematsu’s melodies heard on a Final Fantasy soundtrack. I also began to embrace my love for the MIDI synths I heard on those soundtracks as well. Playstation 1/Playstation 2 era soundtracks evoke a very specific attitude that I wanted to channel. The soundtracks to Metal Gear Solid 1 and Resident Evil 2 are fine examples. On top of focusing the guitar playing to a more specific style, I would frequently sit down with synths and try to model the sounds I was going for aesthetically.

Vocally, I wanted to write parts that blended in with the other instruments. I wanted the vocal parts to feel like a hi hat pattern rather than something that’s front and center. I am good at forming a package as a musician. I’m good at forming a bunch of parts that work, rather than offering a single take that punches if that makes sense. I wanted to be as subtle and simple as possible vocally. I was listening to a lot of industrial music where the vocalists lazily yell through a passage. Not screaming, not screeching, there’s a somber, almost talking tone to it but it feels aggressive enough to command the track. On top of that, I was listening to dance music where singers would do that type of spoken word delivery that rhythmically accents the beat going on. It stems from rapping, but it doesn’t quite feel like rapping. I always thought of Madonna's "Vogue" first when thinking about it. It’s more accentuated, danceable. I would always just call it “voguing” cause of that song. Beyonce’s Renaissance came out when I was working on the album, and she did that vocal style a lot on there and did it really well. I loved the vibe to that delivery; it was fun, aggressive and so distinct when done right. I wanted to thread a vocal style I was hearing between Tricky, Billie Eilish’s darker droning, the uttered passages in Underworld, the shouting in industrial and the more danceable passages heard in Madonna, Tove Lo and Rina Sawayama. Some of that is on “Sliding” for the first time, I get it down a bit better later on in “Don’t Know, Don’t Care” and “Deceptive”. Implementing simple melodies and these subtler passages unlocked a new level in the music I was making.

It was a period of discovery, rediscovery, unlearning and getting back in touch with the things I truly loved. I started the “Stranger’s Log” as a way to talk about what I was working on and other things on my mind, maybe make my website more personal and active. The "Stranger" theme I kept pulling from, from "Stranger's Song" on Songs for the Millennium to the blog name, was based on my admiration for anonymity. I think in modern times, when anyone can go viral in an instant, I think remaining anonymous is a gift. Strangers can easily become stars, I suppose. On here, I was very transparent about where I was in my personal life at that time (this is the period leading up to “Sliding Sideways, Sometimes”). I became obsessive about a lot of things. This period was rough. I felt worthless. I hated my own music. No one wanted to talk to me about music and lot of relationships in my life felt very disingenuous. My reputation was terrible. But developing the musical ideas I had was the only thing that kept me going.

“Sliding Sideways, Sometimes” was the first experiment to come out of that period. It was angry. The song did everything it needed to do for me. The only prerequisites I had were to not be verse chorus verse and not feel pretty. It said “We’re here now and it's very different.” Part of it was this mentality of “You want a joke? I’ll give you a fucking joke.” I wasn't afraid to really push the sound out of bounds. I wanted that different thing. "Sliding" is a pretty cool track. It was a prototype in some ways of that sound I was coming into. I knew at the time that it was the growing pains I had to get through but that was fine; the sound was developing properly. That was the victory to me. The song definitely worked well and the video I made was fun, too. Moving forward, I wanted to inject more “fun” into the sound that Sliding didn’t have. Never Doing That Again was on the horizon and I drove ahead right at it at full speed.

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