San Francisco based post-hardcore trio Black Map have recently dropped their sophomore album In Droves, via EOne. To celebrate, we had a chat with bassist/vocalist Ben Flanagan about his lyrics, writing process and inspirations.
MOSH: How does the lyric writing process begin for you – Does the music come first, or the lyrics? Do you collect fragments and ideas when inspiration strikes?
BF: The music always comes first. I’m not someone who writes poems or lyrics without some musical inspiration.
It really is a process of living with the music for a period of the time and trying to figure out in a sense what the song wants to be about. I really try to feel what type of subject matter/phrasing etc. will serve the song.
MOSH: Is this process always straightforward for you? Have you ever struggled with writer’s block?
BF: I’ve absolutely struggled with it. I really sit with the song and kind of wait for inspiration to strike and sometimes that takes a long time. Some songs come together in minutes, others take months.
MOSH: Do you go back to lyrics you have previously written and edit or refine them? Do you collaborate or share lyrics with other band members and take their feedback on board?
BF: I’m constantly refining. I usually record drafts at my home studio and listen back. Even if I believe in what I’m saying, and I think that the prose is strong or clever or interesting, I may have issues with my phrasing and want to switch out certain words based on how they actually sound once I hear them within the song. Sometimes I will do five to ten drafts before I get it to the the other guys. As far as their input, they have very rarely told me that they haven’t liked my lyrics. Mark [Engles, Guitar] in particular is very involved in the studio when I am tracking vocals, and often suggests slight augmentations to my phrasing which is really helpful. Sometimes as the lyricist and vocalist you can be too close to it and not really see when there are changes that would benefit the song.
MOSH: Are there any bands or artists that have inspired you lyrically? Do you try and emulate any other lyricists in particular?
BF: Blake Schawzenbach of Jawbreaker/Jets to Brazil is probably my favorite lyricist. His wordplay and cleverness were always met with equal parts poignancy and truth, and his words and music have always really spoken to me. Mike Burkett of NOFX is also up there. I don’t know why his lyrics are not the subject of more praise, honestly. At his best he is as clever as it gets and also has incredible range as one song can be political, the next fatuous or scatological, and the next really heartfelt. I have a ton of respect for him as well. J. Robbins of Jawbox/Burning Airlines is also someone I have always admired lyrically, particularly on the two Burning Airlines records. Absolutely brilliant wordplay and feeling.
MOSH: Do you draw lyrical inspiration from outside of music?
BF: Absolutely. More from literature than visual art or film I suppose. The song ‘Chinaski’ on our first record [2014’s …And We Explode] is directly inspired by Charles Bukowski. I think some of my dreamier lyrics on the new record are probably inspired by Murakami a bit. I’m sure some Vonnegut, Paul Auster, Steven King, David Foster Wallace have all worked their influence in there somehow.
MOSH: Is there a specific space where you get ‘in the zone’, or can you write anywhere at any time?
BF: I wish I knew that space. I wish I had a pub or a cafe or a room in my house where I knew I could always churn out some gold, but it’s just not the case. I do think that a lot of my better stuff in the last couple of years has come from long rides in the van across the country. or the buses in Europe. I think somehow I am more prone to write when we are traveling. There is so much down time on tour and I am generally feeling creative because we are playing everyday and I usually have half written songs that need to be sussed out.
MOSH: Do you choose to publish your lyrics or keep them personal? Is it important that fans be able to access lyrical content?
BF: I have no problem publishing my lyrics and we have had them in the liner notes of our last two records. Nothing is a secret, and even if the lyrics are out there in the world, there can still be some ambiguity or mystery about the exact meaning of certain songs.
MOSH: Can you remember when you began writing lyrics? Was it a conscious choice, or something you drifted into?
BF: As soon as I started playing guitar when I was about 11, I knew of course that if you wanted to write songs you had to have some words to go along with them. I was quite bad at the beginning. I had no idea what I wanted to write about and I know that the prose was shit. At the start I really just looked to other people I was listening to, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Jesus Lizard, REM, and just tried to emulate them. I really just needed words to go along with these little three chord songs I was writing, but nothing about it felt natural in any way. I kept struggling through it for years, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 20’s that I think I really started to find my voice.
MOSH: What is your favourite lyric and why?
BF: I don’t particularly have one that sticks out above all the others. J Robbins in Burning Airlines has some of my favorites. The whole first first verse of ‘Outside the Aviary’ is pure brilliance:
“Outside of the aviary tonight/I married the madness is her eyes/A ceremony with a serried edge is the price to fly in a cage of wire.” The imagery is so powerful, and it’s such a creative way to talk about a relationship. That one really sticks out to me.
MOSH: What is your favourite lyric that you have written?
BF: I’m not quite sure of the answer to that one. We have a song on the new record called ‘Dead Ringer’ that I am very proud of. The song is essentially about trying to be present in the moment.. The chorus line is “When the light is more forgiving/I’m a dead ringer for the living/I try to meet you more alive.”
I love how the lyrics in ‘Run Rabbit Run’ turned out as well: “Distrust the masses/Distrust your partner/Kill your spirit with violent doubt.”
MOSH: Is there anything you actively try and avoid when writing lyrics? Any topics or themes you think are overdone?
BF: I don’t think that particular subjects are overdone. I think that the way people write about certain subjects are overdone. That Burning Airlines lyric I mentioned earlier seems to be about an amorous relationship gone awry, which of course is the subject of millions of songs. The way he writes about it, however, is so refreshing and creative. I think any subject can potentially be made into something interesting.
MOSH: Does your knowledge of your vocal delivery have any impact on how you write lyrics? Do you write to fit a vocal style, or fit the delivery to the lyrics?
BF: It’s not really something I think about. Just something that happens. Each song asks for something different lyrically. I am definitely cognisant of having my delivery not be too repetitive and switching things up within each song, at least in terms of having the choruses differ in feeling from the verses. The most important part of all of this is having something substantive and meaningful to say but delivering that message in way that benefits the song.