Everyone here’s seen Some Kind of Monster right? No? If not, there’s a scene where Lars’ dad comes to the studio, listens to a totally meandering, echo-chamber song made during the St. Anger days, then straight ends his son’s life with the single greatest roast of all time: delete that.
But I was thinking the other day, while working on an improvisation article for another website, that delete that is actually a tremendously useful tool for an artist to have in their back pocket.
Knowing when to stop with an idea that isn’t going anywhere is important. I tend to fall on the side of the argument that says the best musical ideas are the ones that happen spontaneously, as a gut reaction to something a player has either heard from their bandmate, or felt compelled to write while working by themselves. But that’s not always true: great music is also belabored over. What’s critical is to know when and how to belabor over something, and when to try and zoom out to get a better perspective.
So let’s talk about Torben. He’s invited by his son to listen to new music from Metallica, and he’s presented a wildly uncharacteristic piece by the band. Metallica never shied away from trying something new, but that something new was always within their wheelhouse of strengths. That wheelhouse, in essence, was a rock band. Metallica’s great experiments came when they tested the boundaries of what the “rock band” does, through writing 8-minute songs, playing with different tones and textures, and mixing together all of their favorite rock/metal influences to see what happens.
The song Torben listened to was a meandering, crooning, atmospheric crock of bullshit. It was Metallica trying to do something, sure, but that something seemed to not really come from a focused place. Of course, the band was going through tough times at this point (and obviously were literally in therapy, as chronicled in Some Kind of Monster), and I defend to the death the idea that sometimes you need to let out an immature, silly expression. But letting something out and releasing music that’s going to stand as a representation of your band and your brand are two different things. Raw emotion in music is important, but you have to be careful that what you’re doing is something you’re comfortable with. In the case of the atmospheric, dragging Metallica tune, well, that band was effectively crawling around in the dark, searching for meaning in pain.
Sometimes that “crawling around” philosophy works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Torben sensed that it wasn’t working from the start – and you can tell that by his body language and facial expressions even before he utters delete that. He knew that the song wasn’t an honest representation of his Lars’s music and feelings, and he didn’t hesitate to let his son know that.
It’s pretty easy to create something. It’s much harder to create something great; and I don’t mean something that’s commercially successful, but something that you can stand back and feel good about, grow with, and feel comfortable that you’re expressing something true to yourself at a certain point in your life. The old adage that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration is usually right, but part of that perspiration is knowing when to stop when something isn’t working. True, sometimes the perspiration is continuing on when something doesn’t work just yet, but one of the hardest things for an ego-driven musician to come to terms with is when they came up with a shitty idea.
The great jazz saxophonist Warne Marsh used to say that he knew whether an improvised solo was going to be great within the first three notes. Check out his solo starting at 2:37 of the above recording of “The Song is You” with Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, one of the all-time great solos. That’s not to say that he had done all of the work by the time he played those first three notes, but that he knew when he’d found a melody that he could work from and develop.
You can’t force out great music – you have to feel it and believe it. When you do feel and believe in what you’re doing, well, that’s when you need to put in the perspiration to bring your raw idea to its true form. When you don’t, well, that’s why it’s so useful to learn when to delete it. Move on to the next idea. You can come up with more – I know you can!