The Art of Beautiful Songwriting
By Aaron Binder
It’s tough to create a good pop-rock song. In fact, very few bands pull off writing a good pop-rock song properly. Since the Beatles popularized the style way back when there have been few challengers to the title of ‘Best Pop Act Ever’ and that is coming from someone that enjoys about 1/25th of their catalogue – this is just established fact. There has been a large amount of great pop-rock music written since then; The Cars, U2’s Joshua Tree album, Ben Folds. There are quite a few others but overall there have been far more failures than successes – and no, Huey Lewis doesn’t count, that was purely bland pop.
So what does it take to create a good pop-rock song? Most will tell you that it requires a team of producers dedicated to evolving a young artists sound, others will tell you it’s pure luck. There is a third option though, just writing damned intriguing music with interesting structure and lyrics that lasts generations without sounding dated. The day of musical pioneers ended decades ago, but being able to create something fresh can still be done.
The Ravishers are one of Portland, Oregon’s newest sensations and they are determined to win the hearts of pop-rock lovers everywhere. The art of songwriting has tapered off in the last few years it seems but The Ravishers are determined to do their part to bring it back. With the release of their first full-length album in April 2011, the band has managed to put out a collection of sultry, demure, and inviting songs that beg you to listen again and again and again and again. Rightfully so, the music contained on their self-titled release is hard to get out of your head. In the vein of The Zombies, Honeybus, and The Left Banke, Ravishers have created an album of beautiful melodies that are as timeless as they are engaging.
I had the chance to speak with front-man Dominic Castillo about the project, the album and the dynamic of a good song. Enjoy ya’ll.
Aaron: Alright, brother. So, well thanks to your PR agent for setting this up, man. It’s been a little difficult doing research on you because this is the first album with your new band.
Dominic: Yeah, yeah.
Aaron: So what kind of made you go this route as opposed to having your own band, or backing band?
Dominic: You know, it just… I’m not really a planner to tell you the truth, so there wasn’t a lot of conscious effort involved in like choosing why the band or this album came out the way it did. I’m always impressed with people who do that but I just kind of try to do what I do and this is the album that came out and the people that I did the album with so I… No plan as such.
Dominic: No. No. No.
Aaron: Well how do you feel about the album, I thought it turned out quite well to be honest with you. It has a lot of neat sounds on it. Are you pretty happy with it?
Dominic: Yeah, I am. Although I’m already, you know, I’ve already started demoing some new stuff, so… [laughs] I’m thinking about new songs. But yeah, I like how the album came out. I thought there’s some good stuff, the songwriting’s decent and the production’s pretty good so I feel good about it.
Aaron: Yeah, well you know, one of the things I really noticed about it is that the production is there and it was actually surprising to hear such good production on something that was a first album for a relatively new project of yours. How much work did you actually put in to the production side of things? Do you think it actually paid off quite well?
Dominic: I think so, you know, this album was probably close to three years in the making, honestly. So, like during that time I scrapped a bunch of the songs, started over. There were, initially there were 16 or 17 songs that we were going for, some of the rougher ones got cut. They just weren’t there.
Aaron: Yeah. So it’s almost like trial and error for the whole project?
Dominic: Yeah there’s a lot, there was a lot of do-overs and then some of the songs just kind of came together extremely easy like The Chase, you know. It was just we, I got some people, we went in the studio, we knocked it out pretty much live.
Aaron: Oh, wow.
Dominic: So, but and then others were kind of painstakingly pieced together over a couple years.
Aaron: That’s interesting. That actually ties in to one of the questions I did want to ask you. I was wondering if that song itself is actually done mostly live because it has that really raw 60’s right-off-the-floor sound to it.
Dominic: Yeah. Yeah with that tune, you know, sometimes you know, I’ll get in the studio or working in my home studio and I’ll do some of the writing in there, some of the arranging will come out during the recording process like okay let’s meet this right here this from this section and bring this sound in for the bridge or blah blah blah so… But on that song, it came about with just people in a room playing the song over and over again trying different things. So the arranging before we even push record was on everyone’s mind and so yeah it was in the studio it was a lot of fun actually because instead of like labouring over something for years it was fun just to knock it out and have it be done quickly, relatively painlessly.
Aaron: Yeah. Well this is kind of interesting, you did include both styles of you know, the long laborious songwriting process that eventually became a finished product and the straight off the floor kind of stuff as well. It’s interesting you included both of those styles of writing into the album. Did you feel that kept it like really fresh for you?
Dominic: Well by the time, you know, The Chase was on of the songs we did later on. So yeah that time it did definitely helped my mindset out because I thought, oh man, I’m never going to get this damned album done and then just to knock out a song really quickly like that was good. You know, it’s nice to vary techniques. It does keep it fresh and keeps it fun, you know, so, who knows. There are pluses and minuses to doing it both ways.
Aaron: Yeah. Well…
Dominic: And sometimes it’s about discovering what technique will work best for that particular song, you know.
Aaron: Yeah. You know, one of the things I really did notice is that, in my opinion at least, the whole album, to me, sounds like a best of album from like a 60’s pop-rock band like The Zombies or even The Beatles to an extent, like, to me, each song had this individual pop to it. It had its own hook, it had its own chorus, its own melody, that you don’t often see a lot and they’re very punctuated for the most part, you know, what was the- And after hearing a few of the songs from your other projects, what was the prerogative or the decision to go in more of that direction with this particular album?
Dominic: You know, yeah, I wish I had an answer for you. I don’t really except that you know, people’s songwriting styles evolve or you know, sometimes devolve over time and I am a big fan of you know, kind of…written songs like don’t bore us, get to the chorus kind of thing where I make, you know, I’m terrified of like dead air. I need to get over that. Maybe the next album will be some extended jams or something, I don’t know. But that’s just kind of more actually my fear of there not being something happening. So I tend to write songs that, hey, we’re going to come in right on the verse or you know, there won’t be extended instrumental interludes often in most songs just because my mind will wander too much.
Aaron: Yeah, personally that’s a trend I’ve seen very recently, probably the last 7 or 8 years in rock, even pop music where there are less pauses, there are less interludes. It’s more like a balls-to-the-wall kind of thing. There’s always action all the time.
Aaron: To me this record really personified that quite well. So I mean, what do you think of your particular songwriting dynamic in regard to that? Is that something you probably are going to be developing in a different direction now that you’ve done it or is that something that you actually want to keep because you are a little scattery from what you’re telling me?
Dominic: Yeah. You know, I can put the example of both on the next record, I’ll try to, you know, I am what I am so songs will tend to be, you know. And one of my favourite albums is Elvis Costello’s Get Happy. It’s like 20 songs and they’re a lot of 2-minute songs. There’s something nice about having something that says, a song that says something in a minimum amount of time but, you know also, I also come from a jazz background and so I’ve, in different playing situations, in music situation I have played the 7-minute solo or whatever. So who knows? Maybe one day those two aspects will meet up. We’ll see.
Aaron: Well, I really liked Cruel Love and My Thoughts are Killers. I found both of those had enough of an influence from the jazz world to really stand out from the rest of the pack and that was really interesting to hear in such a pop-y style, I guess.
Aaron: So it was interesting how you really tried to mesh that in with a pop style.
Dominic: Yeah. My style uses some kind of interesting chords that don’t typically get used in pop music so hopefully I’ll do some more of that. I’ve really, I’m inspired by interesting chord progressions so I’ll hopefully have more interesting ones coming up.
Aaron: Well speaking of longer term, I mean this is the first album with this particular band but you feel as though you’ve hit a stride with this group?
Dominic: Yeah. Definitely. It’s, you know, I think, you know, Jonathan and I compliment each other well. He’s the guitarist in the band so we tend to do a lot of work together and because we kind of think differently on tunes we’re good sounding boards for each other. We can figure out, we’ll try things that we wouldn’t necessarily think of each of us on our own, so yeah, I think the band’s in a good place and that’s always one of the major hurdles in bands, you know, is getting people together, people on the same page.
Aaron: But making sure it’s not too close together, of course.
Aaron: That’s always a good dynamic to have with two strong-minded individuals, the difference in style but the ability to work together, of course. So it’s great to hear that you guys seem to have that going on.
Dominic: Yeah, yeah.
Aaron: So what do you bring to the table as opposed to him? Like you said your background is jazz. Where does the difference lie in your song writing styles?
Dominic: Well you know, okay, well I write the, I can direct all the songs for where the band comes in, we bounce around a lot of arrangement ideas and that’s where we kind of are each other’s foils and stuff. And Jonathan also comes from like a jazz background too. He’s just a different guy, you know. So we can come up with lots of different ideas and of course today with technology being like it is, you can try them all out, you know.
Aaron: Yeah. [laughs]
Dominic: That’s why albums can take, you know, three years or whatever.
Aaron: Yeah. Well hopefully the next one doesn’t.
Dominic: Yeah. No. It’ll be done within a year.
Aaron: That’s pretty quick. So you guys feel you know where the band is going more toward as a solidified sound?
Dominic: Yeah this album, yeah. The album is written and it’s mostly demoed. So I shouldn’t be so excited about it when I just released this one but I am.
Aaron: Well, that’s kind of cool. Are you guys planning on doing any touring with this album?
Dominic: Yeah, we definitely are. We’re booking right now and we’re going to be doing some west coast in the summer and then farther out probably in the early fall.
Aaron: That’s cool. I also want to ask you about the Portland influence.
Aaron: So being up in Canada we have Broken Social Scene up here, we’ve got, you know, Metric and it’s all coming out of the same area. Portland to me seems to be the American version of Toronto right now. You’ve got all these hot bands down there. You’ve got many different genres, you know, it doesn’t really matter who you’re talking about they’re probably from Portland right now and I don’t know if that’s something you’ve noticed but do you feel as though that has an influence on the way you write music and the way you go about working with your band?
Dominic: You know, I think so. It might not be conscious, but there’s just so many wonderful musicians here that, unlike other places I’ve been it’s really easy to get different people involved in your project and stuff and get a variety of viewpoints and so I think that seems to be innate here. I haven’t seen it to the degree, I came from California and I didn’t experience it there to the same degree. It’s just so many musicians or cool people in it for the music, you know.
Aaron: Yeah. Well that’s a beautiful thing. I spoke with Casey Neil last year who was one of the greatest song writers I’ve ever heard and you know, this is a guy that loves the city he’s in and I see that a lot in the bands and even in the people in the music industry I talk to in Portland and it just seems like it’s such a positive influence on everybody.
Dominic: I think so. Yeah, it really is great here, but you know. I think I was the last Californian they actually allowed to move up here. So the doors are closed.
Aaron: [laughs] It’s a moratorium now.
Dominic: Yeah. No one else can come.
Aaron: Well I’m glad you’re there, man. So, that’s kind of all I wanted to ask you today, Dominic. There’s always the question of what can we expect on the next album but you can’t really enter that with any kind of solidity I’m assuming at this point, since you’re only half done.
Dominic: Yeah. Yeah, no. But time will tell.
Aaron: Actually let me ask you this. What can people expect out of a live show with The Ravishers?
Dominic: Oh well, they can expect almost always a black sport coat and tie from Jonathan. That’s his kind of gig apparel. They can expect a little bit of taunting and teasing from me and really we really like to bang out the songs, have a lot of fun. Sometimes we will try some things different than the album and sometimes we’ll be really true to the album version. Just depends on the song and the night.
Aaron: Yeah. Well that’s cool. So you change it up every time almost?
Dominic: Yeah. We try to.
Aaron: And can people expect a piano?
Dominic: Yeah, most of the time. Every once in a while we will go without the piano but a lot of times we’re with piano.
Aaron: I think that’s pretty awesome.
Dominic: Yeah, yeah. Piano is good.
Aaron: So thanks for chatting today man.
Dominic: Yeah. Sure thing.