Joe Sampson: "You can say the stupidest shit, but if the melody's right, then it works."
Quote/Unquote is our periodic feature in which we hunt down some awesome lyrics, examine the best lines and then get the story behind the song. This week, we unearthed a few gems from Joe Sampson from "Kill Our Friends."
For a certain type of music fan, most any song can be interpreted as a soundtrack directly commenting on your life -- at that exact moment. The lyrics are speaking directly to you and your situation with a spooky amount of accuracy and wisdom. The song is about you, even if it isn't, even if the songwriter was thinking of something completely different at the time, or thinking of nothing specific at all, least of all you and your problems.
The music of Joe Sampson -- with it's emotional depth and lyrical ambiguity -- especially lends itself to this sort of reflection, particularly the title track to his solo debut, Kill Our Friends, a song seemingly about rejection and social disappointment, yet, as the songwriter reveals, was about nothing in particular.
Well it's partially what you read
You just didn't read it right
Kill our friends tonight
Bury 'em outta sight
Well it's one more night that just didn't pay off right
Oh kill our friends tonight
Bury 'em outta sight
Here we have the ideal song to walk home to. Comfortably rolling out a pair of headphones, it's the perfect mixture of vengeance and soul, the perfect score for a long stroll home from the bar, after a night that "just didn't pay off right." It's a song that speaks of expectations, of anticipations created hours earlier when the evening was young and full of possibility.
You can't help but imagine a lover sending mixed messages, conversations that leave you unsettled, wondering if you "just didn't read it right." Unsympathetic friends have grown distant. Confusion and self-loathing lead you to go home early, unannounced, and bitterly walk home alone, when hours earlier you were certain that was the last place you'd end up. Time to put in "Kill Our Friends" and smile knowingly.
For Joe Sampson, however, the process of songwriting is much less dramatic. "The number one thing is cadence," he reveals. "I'm not a storyteller. Not one of my songs are stories. I think about cadence, the consonants of the words." Focused more on phonetics than theme, Sampson has ironically created a canvas for all types of stories to be splashed onto. Without having any ultra-specific idea in mind when he writes the songs, they have a unique ability to be mutated by the listener into his/her own personal autobiography.
"A song like 'Kill Our Friends' is a hybrid of different ideas coming at once," says Sampson. "They're like lines from different sections of a book. And you just have to figure out what they mean. The line 'kill our friends' comes from waiting for this flake friend of mine to show up. This guy had flaked on me over and over again, and I thought 'kill our friends.' It's metaphorical, obviously. But then the song goes onto the chorus:
I don't know what you meant
When you said that love should vent
"That part is a whole different thing. It's something from deep down, somewhere else. I think I just mumbled it out, and it seemed to fit. But I wrote it in the same sitting as 'kill our friends,' so, subconsciously, it might have some connection, I don't know."
You often hear the best songwriters talk about their craft this way. When pressed to define his lyrics, Lou Reed used to say, "Just because I wrote it doesn't mean I know what it's about," while Thom York of Radiohead used to dismiss his lyrics as "gibberish."
Joe Sampson seems to look at his songs as foreign objects, trying to discern the lyrics along with the listener. "Roger Green seems to decipher my lyrics better than anybody," Sampson notes. "He'll tell me where I was, what girl I was hanging with at the time of the song, and tell me what I was thinking. He'll tell me a song is about this or that, and I'll be like, 'Yeah, I guess you're right.'"
So, ultimately, a song like "Kill Our Friends" could be about walking home alone after a night of rejection. Or it could be about a flaky friend. Or it could be about something deeper, beyond the comprehension of even its composer. "That's the art of melody making," Sampson concludes. "You can say the stupidest shit, but if the melody's right, then it works. As a songwriter I don't sit down and write lyrics, I just mumble them out and try to remember them."
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