Do the work

On songwriting and creative discipline.

Do the work

I wanted to share the interview transcript below in which I talk about one thing that matters most to me right now in creativity, career and personal development. A stoic principle that reminds us we get one point for talking, nine points for doing. It’s a conviction that both galvanises the artist and also disarms the defensiveness that can arise through sharing an intimate side or ourselves.

Reflecting on feedback about his new material versus the old, Haruki Murakami described:

That girl on the train makes me think of a jazz musician whose name was Gene Quill. He was a sax player who was famous in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. And, like any other sax player in those days, he was very influenced by Charlie Parker. One night, he was playing at a jazz club in New York and, as he was leaving the bandstand, a young man came up to him and said, “Hey, all you’re doing is playing just like Charlie Parker.” Gene said, “What?” “All you’re doing is playing like Charlie Parker.” Gene held out his alto sax, his instrument, to the guy, and said, “Here. You play just like Charlie Parker!” I think there are three points to this anecdote: one, criticizing someone is easy; two, creating something original is very hard; three, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ve been doing it for forty years; it’s my job. I think I’m just a guy who’s doing what somebody’s got to do, like cleaning gutters or collecting taxes. So, if someone is hard on me, I will hold out my instrument and say, “Here, you play it!”

Do the work.

Or as my guitar teacher said to me: do the push-ups — the spadework. Make the time. Save the money. Learn the art. Fail, learn, repeat. And take solace that you’re living your practice.

Thanks to Waiuku College Head of Music, Ben Ruegg. If you prefer video, go here. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

[Ben Ruegg] The reason I’ve got Mat on the show is because of how interesting his music is to me as a music lover and I want to learn how he does it. Mat, what would we call the style of music of Domes and Magnalith?

[Mathew Bosher] I think it fits squarely into post-metal which is a broad enough category to allow for other sorts of influences. Domes references space rock and post-hardcore. Magnalith speaks to progressive metal — a recent review said it’s “short prog” and I like that because it covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

[BR] How did you get into music?

[MB] There’s a photo somewhere in the family archives of me as a baby sitting inside my dad’s empty acoustic guitar case — so, maybe it all started there. My first real exposure—other than recorder in primary school—was to the electric organ at about age eight or nine. A super-uncool instrument as you’re coming towards early teenage years but it gave me an orientation to harmony. Then at age 12 and 13, when Nirvana became extremely important to me, I decided that I needed to upgrade to guitar. I achieved a level of competence with that instrument such that I could do the stuff that I want and picked up singing along the way as a very natural extension of learning how to play the songs I loved.

In 2005, I started working with other musicians and had a first major release in 2008 with five recording projects all told. It also took me overseas. I was able to do some touring through Australasia, Japan and South Africa. So, it’s become such an integral part of my life and there have been times in recent years where I’ve had to focus on other things like work and family and noticed its absence. Starting Domes was a return to that and investing back in my creative self which instantly helped me feel more fulfilled, committed and resilient as a parent, a husband and an employee. I see it as just an important part of a life balance.

[BR] It’s really interesting you say that because when I left my previous job to become a music teacher, I focused on music and at the same time I wasn’t doing it, wasn’t in a band. Later on, I realised I liked writing music, I liked recording but I needed to play music and that’s such an important part of my life. I need it to feel fulfilled.

What school did you go to?

[MB] Senior College in sixth and seventh form then the University of Auckland to do a Bachelor of Arts which was an extension of the subjects I liked but also got me into organisational studies which led to a career in HR and recruitment. Those arts subjects and professions are about the human experience and so I find good synergy between knowing yourself through creative pursuits and helping others to realise their potential in the workplace.

[BR] There’s one Deepak Chopra book I’ve read many times called, “Creating Affluence,” and he talks about how a thought is basically created out of nothing. If you really think about it, when thoughts pop in your brain, where do they even come from? And songwriting is like that. So, I'm interested to hear about how people write music so that students can learn what others do and they can try to practice some of that. I really like your music because it challenges me as a listener and I want to know how you come up with those those crazy chord voicings, how you he make those decisions.

[MB] Thanks. I guess it starts with having good role models and seeking out information both from music and also other creative arts; processing that through a system that you can then start to use design thinking to scale and repeat your songwriting craft. The guitar lends itself so well to that because it is massively expressive in rock and metal music. It has the potential to galvanise and focus a band around riffs but also colourful, melodious music. I’ve found a lot of fulfilment in that instrument but also went on more recently through lockdown to learn a bit of piano just to expand the palette.

I’ve experimented a lot. To begin with, alternative tunings fascinated me as a young player. That helped me to break out of all those sort of modes that you learn as a guitarist like the pentatonic and typical chord groupings such that you can feel quite trapped within what you know. You need to break out of that framework with something that might lead to a whole bunch of wrong notes but, actually, through that you discover more about theory and what your instrument can do for you. It leads to a path of much greater self-expression.

[BR] Who would be some role models—guitarists or bands—that you think may have influenced you or given you a little bit of a blueprint to how you could start to write music.

[MB] Soundgarden comes to mind. I’ve done a bunch of down-tuned stuff and I like the slackness of strings that comes with taking a standard setup and augmenting it. I don’t mind a bit of tonal or harmonic variance because that all suggests something sort of organic and wild to me. Although a lot of what we do in Domes is quite calculated, it does speak to those earliest influences that were experimental in not only the setup and performance of their instruments but in their song structures.

Compared to the familiar verse-chorus-verse, my own writing now is slightly more linear. Another way of putting that is: I’m looking for interesting moments and if i have to return to a motif, I want it to be augmented somehow so it was worthy of that return and not just because of a prescribed pop-type structure.

[BR] “Bonfire of the Vanities” is one that really resonated with me because that riff at the end becomes this behemoth. You hear it halfway through the track and you're like, “That's mean,” and then it disappears but then when it comes back, it don't let up. I love that.

Let's talk about Magnalith, “Intimacy’s End.” It’s not a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song. It’s more than that; there’s so much happening beneath the surface. Talk to us about that resulting structure.

[MB] I guess the next point around process—after taking alternative tunings and challenging your construct around music performance, theory or whatever—is productivity. Prior to Domes, productivity was so important to me in my professional life and if I were to have a hope of becoming creative again, it was going to have to be in short bursts of focused energy across the week. I did not have the time or interest—and actually didn’t find the output particularly successful—to wait around for inspiration to come and find me.

I subscribe to what a colleague and friend suggests: that creativity is craft and innovation is iteration. What I love about that is it puts a responsibility on the artist to create a process, system or framework which potentially use constraints to drive innovation and find an agile way of songwriting that is repeatable. I found myself with a job promotion, first child and no more than two hours a week free but this was one of the most productive and creative periods of my life. I focused on just getting as much music out as possible in that timeframe without judgment—writing, writing, writing—and going for a big number of riffs, ideas or partially done songs before I would, in any way, try to evaluate or structure them. Quickly, we had 50 ideas from which we were able to connect some of those ideas together to complete songs or expand on the kernel of one that we all liked. I found that the design approach just so efficient. I continue to do that.

[BR] To recap: you’re just making stuff up as much as you can without thinking about where it’s going to go. You're just throwing out ideas but then you come back and you kind of can figure out how that’s going to work; how this could work with that and then obviously you'll need to adjust it to match the key and so on.

[MB] Sure. I think the risk in characterising it in the way that I have is that it suggests quantity is going to lead to quality. I don't think it's necessarily a numbers game but it is qualitative. What I mean by that is: the experience of doing the work connects you with your subconscious. On reflection, the pattern recognition of your brain may suggest something really resonates with you or an idea gestates and, after your creative session, stuff bubbles up to you in curious circumstances.

[BR] That is the worst thing and that’s kind of why I started to use my phone more because when I would be driving home, I would hear that melody or that line that is missing from that song. Then I’d get home and think I'll remember because it’s so good and I’d forget it. So, I pull my voice recorder out and just hum as best as I can.

[MB] I think earliest instinct was just to play and record like that but what I found was that I never returned to that content. I was creating an archive that was actually a black hole and I didn’t have a really good means of capturing and sorting all of those ideas in a productive way. Today, I’ve got stage-gates, retrospectives or other practices that, depending on my energy on the day, allow me to delve into the content, find something with good resonance and iterate on it.

[BR] When you're creating an idea, do you send that to somebody else to add something to or see if they can hear it in another way that may help you progress further?

[MB] In Domes, definitely. We worked in a pre-COVID-19 remote scenario as our bass player lives in Australia. In a regular sort of ritual like a band practice, you might spend 80% of the time rehearsing and then in the last few minutes before pack-down, you play with an idea for 10 minutes and hope that over weeks or months it turns into the next song. It's a horribly inefficient way to try and extract the best musical insight and response from your band.

It just so happened that our circumstances of being distributed across different countries and also being really busy in our lives outside of music meant that we had to come up with a method that was asynchronous and online. We created more of a manageable ideas bucket and a regular cadence of reviewing that; everyone had a equal opportunity in a democratic process of voting on ideas to surface the ones that we wanted to work on so that we focused on actually making something of them. Within a year, we had done all of that groundwork that you might do over multiple years as a new band. We came together twice in-person before we went into the studio to record the six songs that ended up making the EP.

The merit of that whole process was that we were able to fit it in our lives and so it became something that we did seriously, with a huge amount of satisfaction; we were really focused and we worked quickly. That’s what I've carried forward in Magnalith but I've been doing it more in isolation with just my own point of of reference.

[BR] You write all the music — the bass, the drums but you're not performing the drums?

[MB] For Magnalith, I wrote all the parts and just used an offensively basic automated drummer in Logic to share with an actual drummer: “This is what I’m hearing but please use your talent, skill and experience to make this legit.” I’m going to focus on what I can reliably do and I engage the skills of talented people to support me to realise the greater project. I trust them in their work. I think a huge part of that is the relationship that I have with producer Dave Holmes who I’ve worked with for many years. Super-accomplished musician as a guitarist, performer and in theory knowledge. He has a great facility for hearing what i'm trying to achieve and augmenting it; challenging and encouraging me in a way that I feel safe. My point in describing him and other musicians who I surround myself with is trusting them to do their best work and giving them kind of the freedom and the framework to experiment, fail, learn and repeat has been rewarding and made the music better.

[BR] Autonomy, when you give it to somebody and they really embrace it, is a powerful thing — especially for musicians. Before we go: favourite album and three reasons why?

[MB] You know, I've stopped doing favourites because I find it all very temporal. I’m not trying to dodge the question — I think a lot about this stuff. What songs would you play at your funeral that would be a statement of the totality of your life? I can give you what I’m listening to right now and I hope that’s useful.

I think it’s really important to listen to music that’s adjacent to what you do because it challenges you to extend what you already know about your existing domain. So, at the moment, it’s more classical or new classical, abstract and ambient. Ryuichi Sakamoto is really compelling to me; Philip Glass, Ólafur Arnalds — more soundtrack and experiential than perhaps prescriptive rock and and metal. A song like, “Intimacy's End,” absolutely owes a lot to the Philip Glass soundtrack, “Tales from the Loop.” Simple but compelling motifs that wind their way through a cinematic experience which somehow has grafted itself onto me. So, there are a lot of albums that I love and couldn’t do without but if you ask me tomorrow, I might list a bunch of other musicians.

[BR] The last thing: three bits of advice you can give students and songwriters from your toolkit which you believe are invaluable. What are three things that students can use to help them become better songwriters or even to learn how to listen better?

[MB] I’ll simplify it just to three words. That is, “do the work.” Whenever I talk to musicians who are critical of other performers or writers, I think, “Yeah but what are you doing? Do the work.” Whenever I receive criticism about my music sounding comparable to other musicians, I think, “Yeah but it’s also the case that someone’s got to do the work and it’s tough but I’m out here trying to iterate and make that interesting for myself and and others.” To eat my own dog food, as it were, I wished for a long time that I had chosen piano and was more musical and expressive. I thought, “That will never happen until I do the work and so I'm going to sit in discomfort with the frustration of knowing how to play something on another instrument but having to learn really rudimentary skills, to struggle with the basics to get to a place where I've got some modest facility with piano.” That extremely frustrating experience has been so rewarding because the growth curve once you get started is massive and suddenly it unlocks a whole other level of self-expression in songwriting. So, yeah, do the work.

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Until next time,


This post was originally published in the Rothko Records newsletter.