Over the past decade, recording technology has become cheap and accessible to the point where anyone with a basement and a little bit of self-taught know-how can put together and disseminate a decent sounding album; all it takes to break through is talent, a working Internet connection and a little bit of luck. No surprise, then, is the recent rise of solitary songwriters who make their name by hunkering down in crude home-recording spaces to craft demos, single tracks or entire albums that they then set adrift online to be judged as worthy or unworthy of buzz. Actually forming a band and getting signed to a record label have, for many, become afterthoughts.
A prime example of the DIY self-starter is Beach Fossils frontman Dustin Payseur, who wrote and recorded his group’s 2010 debut album by himself in his bedroom. Beach Fossils caught on with fans and critics, but after enduring an exhausting touring schedule, a tepidly received EP and a rotating cast of bandmates, Payseur found himself in a new headspace when it came time to write its follow-up. The story of his bedroom recording had already been told, and now he was assured that whatever he wrote would be heard far beyond the walls of his Brooklyn apartment. A few weeks before his sophomore effort Clash the Truth’s release, I spoke with Payseur about his writing process.
CHANGING THINGS UP
Swathed in sun-drenched reverb, Beach Fossils was a hazy, washed-out album that extolled the pleasures of green grass and blue skies through springy bass lines and simple lyricism. The content matched the form in terms of Payseur’s lo-fi recording approach, and as a result the album was a success that helped put both Beach Fossils and then-nascent label Captured Tracks on the map.
Despite retaining some of the hallmarks of the band’s sound—namely the bouncing bass lines and Payseur’s blasé singing style—Clash the Truth is in many ways the antithesis of Beach Fossils’ debut. Its lyrics are complex and harder to penetrate; tonally it is dark and aggressive; the production is crisper. Part of the change came out of Payseur’s conscious desire to make something different, but mostly it was just a reaction to the natural sea change within his own life.
“I don’t think the idea to do something different was something I was actively thinking about,” he says. “You’re getting into a different place, you’re getting into a different state of mind, you’re feeling different things. A year is really short but it’s also really long and there are major changes that happen throughout a year. It’s always going to be a really different thing.”
Payseur compares it to looking through an old journal, noting how when you read something you wrote in the past it almost seems like it was written by somebody else. It represents a person that, in many ways, no longer exists. This is true for all of us, but when there are individual recordings to point to, it makes the awareness of change all the more acute. In Payseur’s case, this is especially true when looking back at his 2011 EP, What a Pleasure.
“When I did the EP it was kind of me reacting against myself,” he says. “We had gone on tour and we had been playing these shows every night that were so incredibly energetic. It was almost starting to burn me out after a little while. I just felt really exhausted and I wanted to make an album that was the most mellow thing I could think of, and so I made it really relaxed. A lot of those songs I could have executed in a better way if my head was in a better place at that time.”
As he approached his second full-length LP, Payseur was able to appreciate the energy of those live shows but from a distance and with renewed vigor. Urgency, maybe the last word one would associate with Beach Fossils, is how he describes the essence of what he was going for with Clash the Truth. “That’s what [Clash the Truth] is,” he says. “I wanted this album to be something that captured the energy of the live show, that feeling.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN
It took Payseur about a year and a half to write Clash the Truth. It was a long process, full of experimentation, trial and error and the occasional bouts of writer’s block that are unavoidable when writing by oneself. To cope, Payseur kept insertional bits of poetry up around his workspace and would take walks around New York to clear his head and gain a different perpective. He also relied on the bass, which he became his favorite instrument throughout the writing process.
“I wrote something like 70 songs for this album,” he says. “I feel like most of those were more like exercises than they felt like songs I should release. I would take my favorite parts of those songs—because there’d probably be only one part of a song that I would like but I couldn’t throw it away—and I would just end up putting that into a song. It would be a guitar or a bass line, something very simple or just the mood of a song in general.”
It’s not a very romantic idea of the artist at work. As listeners we hear the finished product minus all the scaffolding and like to imagine that it was created all at once as the result of some sort of divine fit of creative inspiration. For Payseur, though, it’s more about getting into a focused groove and letting things come out of his subconscious as they may, however messy they might appear at first. “For the most part the songs I ended up using and the parts I ended up using came from when I was in this more meditative zone,” he says. “When hours pass and you don’t even realize it. Whenever that happens you know you’ve done something that was truly you. You get lost in the moment and realize you haven’t eaten all day.”
“I think if you sit down and think that every song you write had to be something you shout out to the world that would be a huge mistake,” he continues. “You have to keep in mind that nobody’s going to hear anything if you don’t share it with them and then you can have the freedom to do whatever you want and you’re not thinking about other people. You’re just writing for yourself, then in the need you can throw it together however you like.”
INTO THE STUDIO
When writing and recording by yourself, everything is under your control, and wanting this control is part of the reason many songwriters prefer to work alone. There comes a time, though, when the allure of working in a studio and with a producer become irresistible. For how charming it might be to say that you’ve done it all by yourself, having someone to give direction to and kindle your ideas can be invaluable.
“Being on Captured Tracks, all my friends around me started going into studios, and I’m hearing what they’re getting out of it,” says Payseur. “They’d show me [their music] in the demo phase when they self-recorded and I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a big difference. That’s pretty cool.’ I was kind of against going into the studio but when my friends showed me the stuff they were doing I wanted to try it out.”
To produce, Payseur brought in Ben Greenberg of The Men, who had done a lot of punk-oriented production that Payseur respected. Not surprisingly, he and Payseur connected immediately, and Payseur credits Greenberg with bringing forth the urgency and immediacy that Paysuer had initially envisioned would define Clash the Truth.
“Ben was pushing us to play harder and play louder and to do things that we wouldn’t normally do on record that we do live. If I’m in my room recording myself I’m going to be sitting there tracking things over and over again, whereas with Ben I would make mistakes and we’d go and listen to it and he’d be like, ‘No, that sounds pretty cool, let’s just keep it.’ The whole album was just done in a few takes. Most of the songs we did the drums and the bass together and we’d only do it once or twice. Same with guitars. We kept everything we could on the first take.”
Though the making of Clash the Truth took place on a far larger scale and over a longer period of time than Beach Fossils or What a Pleasure, the album’s heart and soul came from the same place as everything Payseur has written: out of his personal life and from behind the desk in his bedroom. For songwriters like Payseur, the personal life and the writing process are inextricably linked in a sort of symbiotic relationship. It’s not difficult, of course, to imagine how what’s transpiring in one’s own life invigorates the art being created, but there’s also the therapeutic and cleansing effect the work has on the life. This is true for all music, but for the lone creator it’s inherent on a more profound level. Expressing oneself through music is often the only way to evolve as a person.
“I felt like as soon as I walked out of the studio, like the day we finished the album, something in me felt completely different,” remembers Payseur. “Even to me, this album feels now like something that is so done. I mean, I wouldn’t even record this album again if I were to go into the studio right now; it would be a completely different thing. I guess it’s just like getting that out of you and that release and once you’re finished it’s like, all right, I’m ready for the next thing.”
As Clash the Truth’s release date approaches, Payseur has no idea what this next thing will be. As with all of his music, though, he’ll just have to find out when he gets there.