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Douglas Keith | Interview - Live And Die In Music

A day after I wrote a review of Douglas Keith’s new album “Pony”, I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview him. I got to ask questions about his new album and some more general questions about his approach to songwriting and his influences. In the interview, he describes how the album came together and what it was like collaborating with other musicians on it. Keith also discusses some of his earliest musical memories and how he learnt to play the guitar and the effect it has had on his music. Here it is anyway, my interview with Douglas Keith:

LADIM:How does the song writing process work for you? Do you usually start off with a musical idea or do you like to have a theme lyrically before starting?

DK:I usually start off with a musical idea and then add lyrics to that. I tend to write the lyrics very early in the process so while I do start first with the basics of the music, the lyrics and vocals will then drive the overall feel of the song in terms of the final arrangement.

LADIM:When it comes to playing as part of group or playing on your own, is there one you prefer? Or is it more a matter of there being differences between the two and both of them having different qualities that make them unique ?

DK:It’s definitely the latter. They’re both such different experiences that it’s hard to compare the two. There are songs that I much prefer to play with a band and then there are definitely songs that I prefer to play solo. I think no matter what I’ll always try and do both. They feed off each other in my mind.

LADIM:You describe Elizabeth Cotton as one of your biggest influences. What is it about her that you take away with you?Is it something from her style of song writing and what she writes about or is it from a purely musical standpoint?

DK:The main person who taught me how to play guitar was a guy named Dana Klipp and he had actually played with Elizabeth Cotten when her hands just couldn’t do what she needed them to do to perform. He turned me on to her songs and music. What I really take from her is the tone of her acoustic guitar, there’s a gentle evenness to her playing that I have always strived for. She also tended to shy away from putting a bridge in her songs, they are very much verse, chorus, verse, chorus or even a drone and I definitely follow that path quite a bit. I love a good bridge in a song, but it really has to be perfect and necessary to move the song forward, otherwise there’s no point to it.

LADIM:Collaboration seems to play a big part on this record, all of the musicians you brought on board seem to play a role in shaping the sound of the record. Did some of the songs change drastically after you had worked things out with them or were there just some minor adjustments that changed how the songs panned out?

DK:The way I tend to work is that I will fully demo a song on my own with guitar, bass drums, keys, vocals and whatever else and then give that demo to the people I’m going to record with and let them extrapolate from there. In other words, I like to give people a map, but not necessarily tell them where we’re going, you know? I love seeing how other people approach a song of mine, it can sometimes reveal things you had no way of seeing before. So some of the songs had minor tweaks and adjustments or parts, but two of the songs, Black Metal Black and The Bone in Your Hand, changed dramatically from my original vision to what you hear on the record based on ideas from Brad Cook & Zeke Hutchins. Black Metal Black had originally been envisioned as this kind of dark brooding thing, but then when we went to record it, we fell into this kind of upbeat Tom Petty/Traveling Wilbury’s kind of vibe that I really liked. I felt like it needed just a twist of good psychedelia so I reached out to Adam Granduciel from The War on Drugs to see if he’d be up for adding something to it. He sent back this awesome slinky guitar part that winds its way through the song. That one was changed quite a bit from the original vision based on collaborating with the people I recorded with. For The Bone in Your Hand, Zeke and Brad went in and just started wailing right from the onset which I hadn’t thought of previously and I just loved it. It pushed the tone of the song in a whole direction for me.

LADIM:You appear to have drawn from a lot of different influences and a wide range of styles. When you write do you like to have a certain amount of variety in your songs or does it come more organically with the songs ultimately dictating the style?

DK:It really happens organically. I love a lot of different styles of music and I’m a bit of a scatterbrain. There will be weeks where all I listen to is Neil Young or late era Bob Dylan or something, but then other weeks where all I listen to is Fugazi and Husker Du and then other weeks where it’s just reggae all the time, so those things find their way through into my songs for sure. I tend to write songs and let them go where they need to go. I don’t think about needing a mellow song or a heavier song upfront. I do write a lot of songs and fully demo them prior to making a record. I think for this record, I wrote and demoed 20 or so songs and then I built a record out of those songs. In that process of paring down what songs make an album and stand as a unit, I do think about the flow of the record and try to keep it moving in a coherent sense. We ended up recording ten songs, but then I cut one because I couldn’t fit it in anywhere that made sense. I wrote another song that compliments the one that didn’t make the record, so maybe I’ll release it as a seven inch or something later this year.

LADIM:As much as you are a songwriter there seems to be a constant thread throughout that these songs are really stories and that the music serves as an accompaniment to the stories. Is that the way you see it or does the music and story go hand in hand in terms of the importance both of them have?

DK:The music and story definitely go hand in hand for me. They feed off of each other. Like I was saying before, I like to let a song go where it needs to go. People keep saying that there are really two halves to the song Pure Gold in the 70’s and while I understand where they’re coming from, I don’t necessarily see it like that. In my mind, you couldn’t end that song without the bashing chaotic loud second part. Without that, the statement of the first part is left without a response or closure. My very first demo of the song had another verse and bridge, but they confused things too much, it was much clearer to me as this raging solo and huge drums. They said more than any lyrics could have in my mind.

LADIM: When writing do you always draw from your own personal experiences or do you sometimes think a particular topic would be as interesting to write about and go from there?

DK:I do always draw from my own personal experiences, but in that, I often take a step back and view things from another point to get to where I need to go. This record is really personal, but in that, I would approach things from a few different perspectives to find the way to get across what I needed to get out.

LADIM:In relation to the name of the album name “Pony”, you liken it to the way you write songs. Do you feel you in fact write better when on the road than if you had lots of time to think things over and put everything together?

DK:I tend to start a song while at home with some time on my hands, but then tend to arrange a song on tour, while riding in the van. You can get a lot done in the back of a van these days in terms of arranging drums, keys, and that sort of thing. Then I come home from tour and finish it with what I think it needs.

LADIM:Finally, you seem to incorporate some elements of humour into your songs, whether it be “Long Shot” or the aptly titled “The Weather is Fucking Awful”. Is this personal preference because you like to write songs with some sort of comical edge or is it merely just a result of jamming the songs out and feeling that that is what suits the song best?

DK:I don’t necessarily start out trying to add humor to a song, but there are some things in this world that you just have to laugh at. The undercurrent and premise of Long Shot is that crazy insecure and awkward feeling you have when you are way into someone and you hope that they are into you. I don’t care how confident you are, everyone has that fear of just blowing it when you really like someone. I tend to find those awkward moments where you’re crazy nervous and scared but trying to act so casual and cool really funny. I think everyone has been there at some point in their life. You have to be able to look back and laugh at yourself.