This interview was done on June 8th, 2013, and originally appeared on Common Chord Concert.
This is the first in an occasional series called “One Song.” In “One Song” I’ll ask a songwriter to talk about just one song—the songwriting process, the background, the challenges—pretty much anything about that one song.
The first artist in the series is Langhorne Slim. Langhorne was recently in Charlotte to perform at The Fillmore. I talked to him about two songs. This conversation will be in two parts, and the first part is about the song “The Way We Move,” the title track from the 2012 album with Ramseur Records.
The Way We Move
Mainstream audiences have embraced this album, and especially this song, more so than any of his previous work. This song has been featured in a commercial and in films.
I asked Langhorne what he thought made this album and song different from his previous releases and he surprised me with the answer. We tend to think that appealing to a larger audience means playing it safe, but he said that he wrote the songs in a way that enabled him to take risks.
LS: A lot of times I’ll write the melody on guitar. For this particular song I wrote the melody on piano. I’m not a good piano player, but on this record I tried to write more on piano because I don’t know what I’m doing. On guitar, not that I’m a great guitar player, but I know my moves. I know where I’m going. On piano it was so new to me that I was taking a lot more chances. In not knowing what I was doing I was taking a lot more chances.
Since he’s not a piano player he doesn’t have the sense of what’s “right” and “wrong” on piano.
LS: The only “right” to me was what sounded cool.
It was the main melody that came first, and it took a while for the lyrics to find their way to the melody.
LS: (The melody) kept going through my head and I had no words for it yet and then one day some of the words started to come together and it felt like it would be maybe a little more accessible to more people. It stuck in my head. I couldn’t get it out of my own head. I guess if it sticks in my crazy head it’ll stick in some other crazy people’s heads. I was gonna say I don’t set out to do it like that but I do set out to do it like that. I want the melodies I write and the words I write to connect with a lot of people so, yeah, I’m proud of that song that it’s been doing that.
It’s probably inevitable that some new listeners think that Langhorne is new to the music scene and are unaware of his body of work, which includes three previous CDs and two EPs.
LS: We’ve been around for about ten years doing it, so I met some people earlier, and they said, “Will we be hearing any other music from you?” Yeah, there’s already a lot of other music and there’ll be a lot more to come. So I hope that anyone who listened to that particular song would also listen to the other tunes.
The album The Way We Move has been described by some critics as a break-up album. Langhorne explained why that’s not entirely accurate.
LS: I wrote the songs for the record over a fairly long period of time. About two years or maybe even more. Some people think the album is a breakup album. It really isn’t. Some of the songs are break-up-y songs. Some of those break-up-y songs I was writing as I was in a relationship so I don’t know what that’s all about. But I think even my sad boo-hoo love songs aren’t like let’s go jump off of a bridge. They’re kind of…I like to think there’s strength even in the sadness. I don’t know that there’s joy in pain but they’re very close together. You can be very joyful one second and be in a lot of pain the next and vice versa. So I realize that going through life, I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of joy in my life and I have been through my own pain. I’d like to think that there’s strength in it, there’s an underlying strength in the sad stuff in my songs and hopefully in the happy stuff too.
This song is rich with imagery. The belly of the whale, the shooting stars, friends with crooked tails, the last supper… I asked about some of the imagery.
LS: My ex-girlfriend and I had these two cats, Edie and Lilly. As kittens, when we got them, Lilly had a crooked tail. Not that I loved one of the cats more but there’s something about…the word “imperfection” is a very imperfect word. There was something about it that I loved even more because it was unique and kind of badass. And I thought about myself and my friends as freaks, but beautiful freaks. And to embrace your inner beautiful freak, your inner crooked tail. And to be proud of that. Not to try to like what you think everyone likes and not trying to dress like everyone dresses. Not trying to fit in, but trying to find your own way. That, in my mind, is the way you really find your real friends, your real music, your real art, your real inner passions. So this little cat, when I looked at it, I’d think, that is such a cool little freak of a cat. So that’s why I wrote “All my friend got crooked tails, that’s the way I like it, that’s what I need.” Because I feel like that is what I need.
I asked about the line “At the last supper, make sure you get something to eat.”
LS: I think when I came up with that I just thought it sounded kind of cool. But at whatever our own last supper might be, yeah. Make sure you get something to eat. It doesn’t have to be literally a Jesus reference or a food reference. I know a lot of songwriters say this and it can get frustrating or annoying, but it is kind of nice for it to be up to the listener to come up with their own meaning. And sometimes, to be very honest with you, I have no idea what I mean. There are songs that I wrote when I was fifteen that I listen to now and now I know what I meant. But I don’t know what the heck I was talking about then.
So I told Langhorne my interpretation of the “last supper” line: Even if this is the last thing you do you should be getting enjoyment from it.
LS: Yeah. Or when your back is up against the wall don’t fall down. Go for it. Go for what you need to go for.
In the first part of the interview Langhorne talked about how his writing process for this album was different from previous ones. Instead of writing on guitar, he wrote on piano, an instrument that was pretty new to him. The piano part is central to “Fire” but it’s also more prevalent throughout the entire album than it was on previous albums. I asked Langhorne if this had anything to do with him writing the songs on piano.
LS: That’s not the reason. The influence of me writing on piano is just what we talked about before, me trying to be inspired by doing something different. I think that the band sounds a lot different on this record because for the first time it’s this band on a record. So there’s David Moore who plays banjo and piano. This is the first record that he’s ever done with us. And then Jeff Ratner, our bass player. When we had done the “Be Set Free” record, he came as almost a studio musician. Not really, we wanted him to be in the band, but I don’t know if he had done any shows at that point. He really came in to fill our dear friend Paul (Defiglia), who had left the band, to fill his shoes, not to fill his shoes, but to play bass in our band.
So we weren’t a road-tested band of brothers at that point. Malachi (DeLorenzo), the drummer, and I have been together about 10 years so he and I were. But a lot of those songs (from “Be Set Free”) were written or at least finished in the studio. Jeff was learning in the studio, which is fine, but in this particular case (“The Way We Move”) we were a band for, I don’t know, two years, on the road, eight, nine months out of the year, as these four individuals, playing these songs every night, learning each other’s musical language so to speak.
So by the time we got into Old Soul Studio we were way more ready to make a record than I’d ever been before. And having that bond with them, and this guy Kenny Siegal who we recorded it with, I’d personally never felt as inspired and comfortable in a recording environment and I just never had a band of dudes that were that badass and ready. I wasn’t showing anybody parts. They knew their parts. And then just the adding of David has changed our sound and brought a lot more. The piano’s a lot more prevalent, banjo obviously more prevalent, just cause that’s what the man plays and he plays it real well.
I talked about David Moore’s style on piano, which is pretty intense. He hits the keys hard. I asked if he walks away from shows with bruised fingers.
LS: Well, he does bleed a lot when he plays the banjo. Now he’s got some preventative measure. Apparently there was a picture at what’s probably our favorite festival in the world that we play, it’s called Pickathon, in Portland, it’s amazing. And there’s a picture of him from a few years ago where his fingers just kind of exploded and it’s gross but it’s also punk rock as hell and awesome. And the head of the banjo is covered with blood. And someone had posted it on some big picture website (Reddit) recently and it kind of exploded so he had a famous bloody hand and banjo picture for like a day.
I asked if when he wrote “Fire” if he had in mind how it would end up being arranged. It’s piano-driven, with very little guitar. It has a honky-tonk feel with a sort of call-and-response between the other instruments and the drums at the end of the chorus.
LS: No. Some of that I had in mind. I thought it would be a harder, more guitar-driven tune. It almost came out as bluesy, swampy kind of. It came out like a soulful, bluesy kind of tune. And I had thought…I was in my head referencing more of a Pixies song, believe it or not. The way it came out it’s hard to imagine but, I was hearing more like “Where Is My Mind?” the Pixies tune. Kind of maybe ripping that off a little bit.
But yeah, that’s the cool thing about playing with other people too, and just what happens in the studio is that often times it doesn’t come out the way you had envisioned it. It’s a fortunate and lucky thing when you have people where it doesn’t come out the way you envisioned it, but you really dig the way it does. You’re happy that it went to where it went.
I mentioned that I had first seen him play “Fire” at the U.S. Whitewater Center, and then recognized it when he started playing it at The Visulite and videoed it.
LS: I wonder if you saw some sort of evolution of it because it used to be more guitar-oriented. I’d start out on guitar. Now I put the guitar down.
I was curious so I searched for a video of “Fire” from the Whitewater Center July 3rd, 2011. Check it out, and then watch the one I shot at The Visulite March 7th, 2012, and see how the song changed in eight months of touring.