Yesterday I introduced you to one of my favorite new bands: Los Angeles-based electropop outfit Shiny Toy Guns. I love them because they take songwriting seriously and they are doing their part to take a little of the cynicism out of the music industry.
Having grown up in rural Oklahoma, songwriters Jeremy Dawson and Chad Petree had nothing to do in their sleepy town except listen to music and then try making some of their own. Since they moved to L.A. and hooked up with singer Carah Faye and drummer Mikey Martin, they’ve gained a huge Internet following that has translated into a major record deal and a global fanbase.
And what’s all the fuss about? For once, it’s the songs. On tour in UK last week, Jeremy took a few minutes to chat on the phone with me about songcraft and also explain why we will be hearing from Shiny Toy Guns for years to come. Read the full Q&A after the jump.
The first album from Shiny Toy Guns is We Are Pilots, released by Universal, and available everywhere. If you missed the free tracks I posted yesterday, go check them out, and also be sure to stop by the STG website and MySpace page for tour dates and more.
What has fan reaction been like to the re-release of We Are Pilots?
Jeremy Dawson: The first release was a demo record, but it got leaked around the Internet. So now when fans hear the new album, they say, “I have this record. It doesn’t sound like you guys live.” That’s because what they have is a demo, made on an $800 Dell computer.
What made you decide to cut some of the electronic tracks on the demo from the new album?
We had to bring the record down to 11 tracks. The reason for that is when you come out of the gate with a new album and you’re a new band, you can’t go swarming forward with an 18-track double-disc thing. People can’t wrap their head around that. You have to make it simple and easy to understand or you lose people’s attention. We had to decide what was going to get the axe, be a B-side, or whatever.
We decided to let the purely electronic songs move to the wayside, so we would have more of a vision and a sound someone could look at and say “this is a marriage between a guitar and a synthesizer and this band is the offspring of that.” It’s all a part of the band growing. We want to keep the songs and release them later.
Growing up in rural Oklahoma, you’ve said you were able to write a lot of music because you had so few distractions. Do you find it harder to be productive now that you live in a big city?
[Los Angeles] was even more productive. The cost of living is so astronomical. There are no “job jobs”. All the skilled craftsmen jobs are taken up. There are 4 million starving actors looking for waiting jobs. So if you don’t come to LA with a magnetized charge for a career in music or something, then how are you going to pay your $2000/month rent? In 1999, it was either do or die. If we didn’t do something, it was back in the Uhaul. We worked much, much harder because we had to.
You’ve said you choose to use “equipment that exists today instead of relying on instruments or technology of previous decades of music” and that “progression is key.” With that in mind, do you anticipate your sound changing with the times? Five years from now what will it be?
We will continue bringing integrity to the table with songwriting, finding unique ways to structure a song, and utilizing male and female vocals. As years go by and the more countries we tour, the more people we meet, I see us being a truly global band, utilizing different instruments, and different things we pick up in different countries. After five years we’ll have a big span of things that stuck to us from countries like Japan and those in greater Europe.
You plan to endure through good songwriting as opposed to constant image changes. Are there other current bands that you think share your philosophy?
Muse, Keane, Coldplay… Green Day destroyed with their new record songwriting-wise. You can tell if a song is rich if you can sit down on acoustic guitar and sing it and play it, or on a piano and a mic. That’s the lens you can look through. We try to filter our songs like that, so we don’t just do a flash in the pan.
In a past interview, Chad said “We knew from the start the things that draw people magnetically and keep them there for decades were the melody and the lyrics. It’s not just about rhythm or a show of emotion, like aggression, fear or sadness.” Can you elaborate on that?
There is a simple, fundamental way to look at a band, the way they used to look at bands in the 60s: Someone says, “There’s a good song, let’s put that out.” I don’t think music should ever sway from that. There’s a place for everything: for screaming, hardcore German techno, for hip-hop, for classical, but I think that songwriting and vocals, melodies, are food and water for human beings. You can have all the different kinds of music and enjoy them, but the kind of music you share with your children, that reminds you of your girl or your boy: the melody and the lyrics are such a big deal. That is the whole goal of this band.
Do you and Chad co-write all the songs or each contribute individual songs?
We write alone and bring it to each other to review. We notarize it and send it back and forth. Or we switch and I go into the studio where he was or he goes into where I was. We re-save it with a different filename and dig into it with a completely different perspective. Then we burn that to CD and listen. That’s the general process, but every single song is a completely different variable.
Briefly describe your songwriting process. Lyrics or melody first?
I’ve only written one song that was a lyrics first, and that was “When They Came For Us.” Usually it starts with a melody, but we start everything at the exact same time. The melody is the first thing to pop over, and we work everything around that melody. We build from the concept, let it do its own thing, and if it doesn’t go anywhere, then the song stops. You have to let the song grow like a baby. You can’t force it to be a blonde baby or left-handed or right-handed.
How prolific are you? Do you have a big collection of songs waiting to be recorded?
We have a lot of material for album two. Not as much as we want. Our goal is to have 40-50 songs to pick from. We have 11 right now. It could be 2008 for the next album. When it comes out, it will be all new stuff: 19 tracks.
Has MySpace and the Internet helped you reach places you might not have otherwise?
Absolutely. We use MySpace differently than most bands. It’s an open portal of communications. We use the bulletin board to post flyers, and communicate directly to kids and fans globally. It was very vital when we did our four-and-a-half week Canadian tour. Promoters were not making the effort sometimes. We had to go out and find fans, like in Halifax. MySpace is a great “phone line,” and one of the reasons people in the UK know about us.
One piece of advice to a band trying to gain popularity on the Internet?
Tour. And write back to everything, no matter how annoying and boring it is. Or find someone to do it for you. Respond to emails for six hours a day.