Len Kasper, the announcer for the Chicago Cubs, is a long-time Figgs fan. When Figgs bassist and solo artist Pete Donnelly was on tour in Chicago recently, Len and Pete got together to talk about songwriting.
LEN KASPER: Pete, thanks for chatting with me. I think I speak for all Figgs and Pete Donnelly fans when I say thank you for consistently writing meaningful, fresh, powerful, vulnerable lyrics and music over the past couple of decades. You have secured your place in rock history, and today we want to pull back the curtain on your songwriting process a bit.
Here’s where I’d like to start before asking about specific songs. It’s the classic “how to” question in many parts. How do you write songs and lyrics? Is there a notebook on the nightstand? Do you literally force yourself to sit down and crank out songs? Do you have a process?
PETE DONNELLY: Thanks Len. It’s my pleasure talking with you. Yeah, to all of this. I usually write with a guitar and notebook. I used to stay up any available nights and just write into oblivion… and then check out the ideas in waking hours to refine them. Now having kids, I don’t really have that luxury. I tend to write in spurts, and yeah I will force myself under necessity. I’ll force ideas until something natural comes, and it usually does… to my amazement. I used to panic thinking I will never write another song. Now I just trust that something will come. I keep notebooks around and do my best to write lyrics all the time. It’s good to have some supply of them around.
When I made the Face the Bird LP, I tried some more track-oriented writing. Where I’d get a mood going musically, I would just try to get into some stream of consciousness shit. I also took some old ideas and instrumental stuff I had, and used some of the chord changes and melodies with a now totally different perspective. I’m always trying to keep source material around. Something to grab and launch from.
LK: The Figgs like to play live songs from pretty much every record, which I love. Not only is the old stuff great, but it’s clearly different from stuff from, say, 2010. Do you find playing those early tunes invigorating and maybe a reminder of a more innocent time in your life?
PD: Ha! Yeah sure. Sometimes when playing our older songs, it feels as if I’m covering the tune. I don’t think about the inner workings of it as much as the general structure. Half the time, I can’t remember what I was playing anyway! But in the case of something like “Wasted Pretty,” or “Favorite Shirt,” there are bass lines that are integral to the songs, but I usually adapt them to what I think a more modern me would do. And yeah some of the lyrics are convoluted and hard to relate to, as well as the arrangements. But it’s fun having our catalog to pick from.
LK: We will get back to your early songwriting days, but, let’s dig into your more recent catalog a bit first. I want to start with one of my favorite live music moments ever. It was around 1999 or 2000 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee. You played a song I had not heard before. Normally, my first impression is generally formed by the music itself, but this lyric just hit me in the face like a solid right hook: “Oh my god I fell in again/Into that trench that I dug by hand.” That is one of most visceral lines I’ve ever heard in a song. Where in the world did that come from?
PD: It’s a Philly tune for sure… I had just moved from Rhode Island. I was living just outside of Philly and I would take the El to get into town. Trains are introspective, you know? With all the passing scenery. I was wrestling with relationship failure, and on those rides while rethinking events, I’d feel like an ass. “The Trench” is definitely that relationship hole you dig for yourself. And how you’re stuck coming to terms with your most despicable acts. The song “Public Transportation” is all imagery from those rides too.
LK: You recorded “The Trench” twice, once for an EP and then again for an LP. Curious as to why you did that.
PD: Well actually, it’s the same backing track. Mostly. I didn’t like the vocal I sang on the original version for the Badger EP, so I recut them and then we remixed it with new vocals for the Slow Charm LP. Some of the overdubs were lost in the later version: 12-string guitar, shakers, maybe some backgrounds. The Slow Charm record was recorded during the crossover into digital recording. We cut to tape but synched to Pro-Tools for extra tracks. It was a time full of recording growing pains, and when we went to mix in a different studio, sync was lost. So we just mixed without any of the digitally recorded overdubs. But it goes to show that most overdubs are superfluous.
LK: I once sent the song “Ravena” to a friend with this explanation: “This song sums up where I am in my life in terms simply of the musical vibe—it takes me to a good place.” The funny thing is, I had no idea what “Ravena” was. But the tempo, melody and lyrics just grabbed me. “Pimping up in Hudson H-U-D/A living legend no one’s heard of.” Ravena has to be a place, no? What’s so special about it?
PD: Ahh yeah, the lyrics crack me up! There are some inside stories going on there. My friend Fritz Schwarz recorded a recent LP for a 60’s-era rhythm and blues singer from Hudson named Bootsie. The record or the first song, I can’t remember, it’s called “Bootsie’s Pimping” and it’s a rap about Bootsie’s history in Hudson, New York. About how he was a singer and a pimp, and the chorus goes “Bootsie pimpin’ in H-U-D!” Like H-U-D is in the know for Hudson. Well I love this track so much, I sang it for months: “Bootsie pimpin’ in H-U-D!” It’s catchy as hell. So when I was writing “Ravena” I had these chords going, and the first thing I sang was “Pimpin up in Hudson H-U-D” and it stuck! I just went with the feel of mid-Hudson river towns and lyrical scenarios: being born from prostitutes, selling drugs on the corner as a family tradition… of sorts. I had a different line for the close-out, and Mike was unsatisfied with it. So I sang “Ravena doesn’t lie” instead. Ravena is another Hudson River town not far from Hudson. I figured the character migrated there.
LK: One thing I really like about the Figgs is that you guys seem to write about your experiences pretty explicitly. In “Simon Simone,” Mike references “the band” and in “Jumpin’ Again,” you sing about what appears to be quite the road trip: “Sold three records for a bottle of gin … Puked out the side of a moving van… We got seven hundred miles to be heaven sent.” I won’t even mention what happened to Mr. Hayes in the song. Did all this happen on one tour?
PD: Haha yeah. Sure, all this stuff is the regular story of being in a band. The song was made from some free-writing I did on this one Figgs tour with Mike Viola and Jake Brennen. Mike Moore was our sound guy/tour manager/companion. I can’t remember exactly all of the events and which tours I may have alluded too, but for sure the majority of this story is from this one particular tour. We weren’t 50 miles out of NYC before I was completely heaving out the window. I mean like from the depths of my bowels retching upwards and out my mouth. Horrible! We got to Buffalo and I felt better, and the promoter Marty always made these incredible dinners for bands. Well, somehow I could eat and that dinner kind of got me back on track, and for the rest of the tour I was good. Hayes did lose it from the other end on that same ride, in such a hysterical way that it’s hard to recount. Let’s just say we’re lucky that cell phones were around ’cause Hayes called for a complete set of clothes from a completely dark and nasty gas station bathroom. He needed everything including socks! Oh no… so sorry Pete. The drugs and drinking… yeah sure, but that’s never really what any of us were about. It’s just part of the scenery. A twisted dark and at times grueling scenery. But also an incredible one… like when five young guys show up from an Indian reservation from like four hours away, and it’s freezing out, and they’re psyched to be alive and at a Figgs show, and you’re like “Well alright!”
LK: All of your solo stuff would fit nicely on a Figgs record. However, I do notice a bit of a softer (Mike Gent’s line about his solo stuff as “soft roll” maybe applies) side and even a little more soulful sound. I assume your work in NRBQ has had an influence? Is there a distinction in your mind between a Figgs song vs. a “Pete” solo song?
PD: “Soft roll,” yeah I like that. Well, I’ve always written tons of the sensitive sort of songs. I used to feel, especially during the Capitol Record era, the need to puff up a lot more and try to make the songs more macho and punk or whatever. I mean the song “Blame It All Senseless” is really a midtempo swing thing. But it did make a cool hardcore song. I think I always just write as much as possible and certain songs will click with the Figgs. Or not. I do have an awareness about what I think will work with the Figgs, with Pete’s drumming and Mike’s guitar playing, but often there are surprises. I also have grown to like the idea that songs aren’t so stylistically specific. They live differently in different hands. I suppose when I make my solo records I’m just using whatever I have, and when Figgs are making records I’m doing the same.
Playing with NRBQ is unreal. It’s musically incredibly diverse and advanced and simple and joyous and sensitive. I mean everything I would always try to give to my own music, but it’s Terry Adams and the other guys and the level of accomplishment there is phenomenal. I’m still learning from it all the time. I just played with them recently by the way. It was a total blast.
LK: “The Only One” is such a sweet tune. It sure sounds personal: “I see you smiling in my mind/never letting go… I never want you to go far way, far from me… You penetrated every thought/In every kind of way.” Could this be about someone special in your life?
PD: Um… yes. For sure. I write plenty about personal experiences. Often it is somewhat accurate, but songwriting is funny. You can do whatever you want and truth is irrelevant. The only truth in music is how it feels to hear it. I will steal from my own life, those around me, what I see in the news or in books, movies, whatever. But yes, in this instance I used that undying need to know that the one you love loves you back. Even if they’ve had other probably good opportunities, yours is the way they should go. I was in Atlanta, I was enjoying some alone time in my hotel room. And being a dad, two things: I never get to watch TV, and it’s hard to find time to write. So perfect! I put on some bad movie, grabbed my bass — I didn’t have a guitar — and I remember trying to write a song my teenager would like. I just watched some teen sentimental movie, and I was in its throws, haha. And some of my wife’s formative years were in Atlanta, so I had those thoughts to work with.
LK: OK, back to the early days. I asked you to send your earliest example of songwriting and you chose “Happy,” which wasn’t technically your first song, but was the initial song released by the Figgs in 1992. For Figgs fans who haven’t heard it, it’s fast (of course!), frantic and loud. Lyrically, it’s pretty dark in spite of the title: “I know that it’s tears you cry/Would you say goodbye… Near remains of a last conviction/Together in the slaughtering booth.” If a young songwriter sent you this song today, what would be your review of it as a grizzled veteran of the business?
PD: Haha! Chill on the words buddy! Lots of words crammed in there. I didn’t yet know much about singing and how to write words to be sung. Man, I sound like a teenage over-dramatic self on this. I love the Figgs energy on this recording though. It’s unbelievable. It sounds so different to me now than it did then. I don’t remember thinking it was fast. Haha. But man, it’s immediate. I love that. It leaps out of the speakers like nothing else. If I heard this today, I would freak! I haven’t heard this kind of energy anywhere. Man, the Figgs make a sound only like themselves. And it’s badass!
LK: It’s no coincidence that “Happy” reminds me of early Replacements or Uncle Tupelo. You and Mike belong in Paul Westerberg/Jeff Tweedy territory as songwriters, and there’s an obvious common thread: very early on, a rough-around-the-edges, immediate (as you just said perfectly), literal and vulnerable delivery/sound. Then an increased depth with every record as the songwriting matures. And it’s all organic. You mentioned this earlier, and Mike has said this to me before, but you guys seem to just record songs as you write them. There is no major thought given to “We need to do this or that with the next record.” That complete lack of pretense is so rare. Again, it’s the Replacements. I really believe you guys picked up the torch that they dropped when they broke up in ’91. This can’t be the first time you’ve heard that comparison.
PD: Like Phish did for the Dead, hahaha! Well yeah we were certainly forming around the height of the Minneapolis bands: Husker Du, Replacements, Soul Asylum. All these bands were a huge influence on us, so it was only natural I suppose that we’d end up playing with Tommy Stinson and me in Soul Asylum down the line. It’s just part of the fabric of our sound I guess.
With the making of the records, each one is something you’ve just left behind. There’ll always be that thing of trying to then do something different. So the next one is contrived in some way. And we’ve tried all kinds of ways to make each record unique. However it goes, it’s always been a somewhat obsessive process of trying to reel in all the material that we’re writing. We’ll look for continuity. Try and see a batch of tunes that make a statement together… put it out. We record as much as possible but it’s rarely enough. When we get together, especially these days, we’ll constantly come up with stuff… the writing becomes like jamming. Sometimes I feel that we’re leaving the studio just when we’re really flowing. Like stopping a live set just as you’re warmed up.
LK: As a rock fan, what separates the greats from the wanna-be’s is the live performance. Anybody with a good studio and some cash can make a record sound good, but the proof is in the live show and that’s where the Figgs always deliver. Plugging in and just killing it with Mike and Pete never gets old, does it?
PD: Beautiful…no doubt. The live thing with these guys is pretty special. We’ve played a lot of shows… but so have tons of bands. I don’t know, I do take a lot for granted… our comfort level on stage. I can easily spot many a pitfall watching some bands. Sometimes l’m like “Oh yeah, I remember that,” then shudder haha. But honestly, I suffer over our live shows. When I watch or listen to our live performances I’m usually horrified. But then sometimes I’ll hear something and be like ‘Holy shit! I’m actually a part of that?’
As far as bands/artists making records, cool records, at home or in the studio, that’s a whole thing on its own. To make art is to make art. But yes, rocking hard and real good is about the best thing one can ever do.
LK: Music is an art, but it’s also a business. I’ve never known you to let the business stuff bother you too much. How have you remained relatively unscarred all these years by that side of it and stayed true to yourself?
PD: By not talking about it! Hahaha. No… of course we’re all tortured by the business of music. It stinks! You don’t do it ’cause it’s a business — well some people do — you do it ’cause you do it. If the music didn’t serve its one essential purpose for me then I would have tapped out long ago. The Figgs have always been a pretty smart band. At least as far as knowing how to stay active as a business and have it maintain itself. ‘Cause god knows any grown man wouldn’t keep a band! Haha. You know, we’ve all got families to manage, we’re lucky to have the band focused and functioning enough that it is… successful.
LK: Last questions and a couple of fun ones. What’s your favorite Figgs song? Favorite record? And why?
PD: Aw man, I don’t know. I know it’s just in good fun, but I am really excited with the record we are making now. You know? If I thought the music we made before was the best or my fave then I would just be going through the motions with this one.
Ahhh lame! Well, I love lots of Figgs. I’m taken more and more by our stuff. I actually like to hear it. Any of it. Every single tune gives you some reason to listen.