“My first guitar teacher made me work through a Beatles songbook,” says Foo Fighters’ lead guitarist Chris Shiflett. “That was great advice, because the songs were kind of easy, and I could see how all the chords worked together. I still think that studying an artist’s songbook is a great way for an aspiring writer to get a handle on chord theory and harmony.”
Paul Westerberg’s Schizoid Craftiness
In the process of playing and recording all the instruments in the cozy confines of his Minneapolis home studio, Paul Westerberg somehow split himself into two distinct personalities: His Westerberg persona produced the lyrical and yet blistering Come Feel Me Tremble [Vagrant], and his juke-joint alter ego Grandpaboy delivered the raucous, blues-soaked Dead Man Shake [Fat Possum].
So how did you manage to write two completely different albums?
For the most part, the blues is an avenue for me to express myself with the guitar. My other songs don’t really call for blues guitar solos, so Grandpaboy is a way to tap into that.
Has taking control of the recording process affected your songwriting approach in any way?
Absolutely. I used to have to write the song, rehearse it with the band, present it to the A& man for his approval, and then argue with him and the producer about the lyrics. Now there’s none of that. What comes from my gut goes straight to tape. That’s 100 times better.
Do you have a “Westerberg Method” of composing?
There’s no set plan, and, in fact, I still don’t quite know how I do it. Sometimes, if I have a neat melody and a little chord change, I’ll put it down with some “Na, na, na” lyrics, and then try to hang something onto the nonsense phrases. Those songs don’t necessarily fly as good as the ones where I hit the first chord and I’ve already got the first vocal line. When that happens, I just go from there—I don’t really construct those songs. I live by a couple of rules, and one of them is: It’s either simple or it’s impossible. A lot of people make songwriting look hard. I never liked that. I’m from the school where you try to make everything you do look easy. I think the challenge of songwriting is simply to use the same few chords and make them fresh again.
Your old ideas never seem tired to you?
Well, for chord structures, the older the better. I used to play more weird chords, but I’ve simplified my thing over the years. I mean, if you had a song like “Wild Thing” sitting around with no lyrics, I wouldn’t recommend that you throw it away!
Where do you tend to discover song ideas?
Actually, I recycle my songs a lot. I’ll write a song, forget that I wrote it, and then write a different song with the same chords. I guess you can either look at it as a unifying thread through your work or self-plagiarism. Sometimes, I’ll listen to a finished track, and if I’m in the mood—like, “Dammit, I feel like this, instead”—I’ll do something else entirely with the lyrics. I did that with “Knockin’ ’Em Back” [from Come Feel Me Tremble]. For eight years, that song was about a bathtub or something.
Do you write on a certain guitar?
No. For some reason, however, I always pick the crappiest guitar around. I have some really nice ones, but I gravitate to the ones that have all the buzzes and noises. It’s like having a closet full of elegant clothes, but you wear your jeans instead. So I’ll play my old Gibson ES-330—which makes more noise than music—and leave the Les Pauls sitting there.
Even when you’re recording?
Oh, yeah. I like a guitar that prevents me from wanking. I want to fight with a stingy guitar. I feel I’m a better player that way—if I have the facility to wank, I will.