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A Sceptic's Universe - the songwriting process

Discussion in 'Spiral Architect' started by lars k norberg, Nov 18, 2005.

  1. lars k norberg

    lars k norberg musician

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    Believe it or not, I’m working on an interview these days. Anyhow, doing that I stumbled upon some old interviews I’ve done. In one of them – on request - I rather thoroughly recapitulate the songwriting process of ASU (that is from my perspective of course). Under there’s an excerpt (slightly edited) from this interview for those of you who care to read. The interview was originally done with ‘Sea Of Tranquility Magazine’ in May 2000.
    -Lars

    The songwriting process

    Phase 1 (spring '95): Fountainhead
    The first song written for the album was "Fountainhead", and it was initially written for our participation on a compilation-album way back in '95. Fountainhead was written chronologically, and started out with the opening riff. That riff was actually just a finger-exercise I'd worked out on my bass, but when played fast (and on bass that riff is actually very easy to play fast) it sounded quite wild with its odd meter of 11/16. Anyway, I took it down to the rehearsal together with the following somewhat Death-sounding riff and suggested that we should try to jam on it. To my surprise the other guys really liked the riffs a lot, and this I will say was the breakthrough moment for the technical elements in Spiral Architect's music. The rest of the intro was written within a week or two, and many riffs were in and out before we settled for the album version. I may add that two of the riffs tested and discarded later found their home in "Spinning" and "Excessit".
    I'd provided all the riffs for the intro, and I was picturing the song to continue in the same vain - fast and furious. That was not to be though; at this time we were trying to compose everything together, almost voting in a democratic fashion about which riffs should be here, there, nowhere etc. Kaj came up with a riff that thoroughly brought the song down to earth, back to the 'steady pace metal'. However, from there the song just seemed to logically unveil itself. The inclusion of a clean section and a bass-solo was an experiment from our side, and it worked well for this song. Besides this I still find the way many of the riffs reappear in the closing section of the song to be really clever. The fun thing is that that particular section was arranged at the rehearsal in a very hurried fashion only days before entering the studio to record the song (the first time that is).
    Since we didn't have a singer at this stage, Kaj made the vocals as well as the lyrics for the song. The lyrics were based around Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead".
    Fountainhed is one of the easier songs on the album except for the drums in the intro. Asgeir really hates to play this one.

    Phase 2 (autumn '96): Spinning / Adaptability
    It wasn't before Oyvind joined the band a year later that the focus shifted over to writing songs for an album, and Spinning was the first song created in this new atmosphere. It was made from an older tune that we'd pretty much trashed, but which Oyvind – coming in with a fresh view on things - quite rightly pointed out had some really good parts. At the same time I was working on some ideas for a song which in my mind was going to be the song Fountainhead never became - intense throughout. The making of it had however come to a halt and the song wasn't going anywhere. The solution turned out to be combining the two; the 'body' of the thrashed song was brought back to life and intensified in order to match the other 'half-a-song' and within a couple of weeks Spinning was finished.
    Spinning was the first lyrics I ever wrote and they were intended to display kind of a nihilistic point of view. The lyrics were too short in order to get the point across in a satisfactory way though. Therefore I rewrote them almost entirely, but the new words kind of changed the vibe of the song and the rest of the band turned down these changes.
    Spinning is one of the most tech songs of the album, and many of the riffs are not very logical to play. On guitar the song demands a very clean and fast alternate picking technique and ditto position skipping, so Spinning was the obvious pick of song for auditioning guitarists. It's probably the hardest song on the bass too.

    Adaptability; I think this song occupied half of the rehearsal time for almost a year. The song was mainly built around riffs of Kaj's and was therefore his project, but his way of writing unfortunately didn't jell all that well with the rest of the band at this stage. Adaptability was continuously rewritten without (in my opinion) getting much better, and I think I have close to 10 versions of that song on tapes made at rehearsals. The song ended up being written in stages throughout the making of the album, and finally put together by the band in plenum in the very late stages of the writing process. Despite all the struggles we experienced with this one, I do however like the end result a lot.
    Adaptability is probably the straightest sounding song on the album. Many people say they're hearing some Cynic influences in it, which I guess is fair to say. It was also the only song Oyvind really struggled with. Most of the vocal-lines over the long guitar and vocal part in the middle were actually improvised on the spot when recording. The lyrics were written by Kaj in the studio and deals with language and the problems of communication.

    Phase 3 ('97): Conjuring Collapse / Insect / Excessit
    When Oyvind joined Spiral Architect he brought along a bunch of riffs which he soon programmed on a sequencer, added drums and presented for the band in the shape of a three to four minute long piece. The original verses never sounded good when played by the band though, as well as some other parts. Hence new riffs were needed. Some quality riffs were found among some other stuff he’d programmed, so Conjuring Collapse is another example of different song-ideas turned into one. When finally having all the riffs it was just a matter of finding the arrangement that made the most sense. In that way, this song was almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Accordingly, the final arrangement of the song was worked out with pen and paper during a break in a rehearsal by Oyvind and myself.
    Conjuring Collapse is probably the hardest song to play all taken into consideration, and we have still to play it live. As with Adaptability I think this song sounds a bit different from the other material, I guess mainly because of the choice of harmony.

    Insect was basically my project and it was written with very specific goals in mind. I wanted to make a song brimmed with attitude, exploring the extremes from ultra-tech riffs to savagely primitive riffs to Spanish and Latin-inspired sections. I also wanted each section to have its own flavour of harmony; the synth-intro is built around flat five intervals, then the guitars continue and elaborate the synth-pattern over the bass which is laying down a rhythmic pattern using major seven intervals. The pre-verse is utilizing perfect fifths in the Phrygian mode, and the verses are mainly using minor third and sixth intervals. Then there is the chromatic sounding pre-chorus crunchy riff, and later in the song there's a riff made out of a Japanese pentatonic scale (2nd mode of Hirojoshi).
    The one idea that triggered the whole song is just a simple rhythmic idea: 4, 3, 2, 1 with the accents on each 'one'. This pulse starts of three different riffs in the song: The riff after the synth intro, the verses and the second riff after the main-solo. Other reoccurring ideas is the solo riff which is the same riff as the one after the synth intro (using flat five intervals instead of major sevens), the ending of the last verse where a rhythmic theme from the same intro-riff is put to use and of course the Latin inspired riff that occurs in three different ways: First with vocals, then with a synth/guitar solo-theme, and near the end with a guitar-solo.
    The theme of the lyrics was thought out early on and used as a reference when writing the song. The original idea was a ‘mind-trip’, picturing mankind as a virus infecting an organic cosmos. When it came to my attention that Iron Maiden were about to release a song called "Virus", I changed the metaphor to insects. It didn't ruin the concept as insects can be as devastating to their environment. The chorus is illustrating the steady machine-like movements and sudden unpredictable 'leaps' displayed by insects.
    It took almost a year to write this song, mainly because I wasn't really happy with the transition from the slow and heavy chorus over to the clean-guitar 'Latin-verse'. I can't recall actually what made it a problem, but I remember trying all kind of stuff before ending up with the initial idea – a clean cut break. From there the song was completed within a couple of weeks.
    Insect is neither the hardest nor the easiest song to play all taken in consideration.

    Excessit was written during the same era as both Conjuring and Insect. This song was Steinar's project, and the first riffs he made were the verse and then the following clean-guitar riff. The song had for a long time a very different intro though, and it wasn't before this was replaced with the heavy chord-riffs that now dominates the intro that the song really started to take shape. The clean-intro was added later I think. Anyhow, when repeated the new riffs in the intro also provided riffs for other parts of the song. The section that we spent the most time working on as a band was the rather long, mellow section halfway through the song. The final arrangement was pinned down during rehearsals.
    The song stands out from the rest of the material with its extensive use of chords on the guitars, and I've learned that it's a quite straining song to play on that instrument. It's a pretty easy song on the bass though, the bass-lines being logical and easy to execute, making this song the one I myself like the best to play.
    The lyrics were written by Steinar. Since he kept a lot of the words and phrases Oyvind had used when making the vocal-lines, they are both credited.

    Phase 4 (winter '97-'98): Cloud Constructor / Moving Spirit / Occam's Razor
    Cloud Constructor was put together just weeks prior to the pre-production sessions with Neil Kernon. In spite of this I'd say it's the oldest song on the record. The song is made up of three parts; the first is called "Cloud of Unknowing" and the majority of the riffs to this part were made way back in '92. The vocals on the verses here are also the first lines Oyvind made for the band. The second part, "Being and Nothingness", was something I worked out on the bass a long time ago. The third part was a cool piece Oyvind had worked out on a sequencer. It utilizes a shuffle groove and was therefore aptly dubbed "Shuffled". It was added to the song to give it a fiery ending.
    This song gives the album a 'breather' half way through. The vocals that end part one makes this part probably my favourite moment on the entire album. It's by far the easiest song we have along with Moving Spirit, although there's some tricky stuff going on in Shuffled. The keyboard solo was actually played by Oyvind when composing the piece.
    The lyrics were written by Oyvind and myself. Oyvind wrote the verses, I made a couple of changes to these and added the lyrics to the last vocal-section.

    Moving Spirit was the last song to be written for the album, and it was the easiest one to make. It was written during a couple of weeks on both sides of Xmas '97. I wanted to make a song that tied up the album nicely. I thought it would be funny to make an almost anti-progressive song with contradicting lyrics; that is anti anti-progressive lyrics so to speak. The song sends out a double message, and the tension created by this is in my opinion as big a part of the song as the actual riffs.
    We use another and more heavy tuning for this one (the low E-string is tuned down to a D, which actually is a D flat as we already tune the guitars half a step lower than what's normal). Moving Spirit is as close to "groovy" as we'll ever get, and although the drums are trickier to execute than I guess they sound, we reckon this to be an easy song. The last lines of the vocals were one of the few things that weren’t figured out before entering the studio. I remember being there as they were improvised in the studio the very last day of the recording sessions in Texas.

    Occam's Razor is a midi-piece that we thought it would be cool to have Sean Malone playing stick on. We sent an ADAT express to his house and got it back a couple of days later with his stuff recorded and it was just what we wanted. The song was intended to function as a contrast to the other material. I think we succeeded in this without compromising the unity of the album as a whole.

    Summary:
    As you see the songwriting process has pretty much changed all the way throughout the writing of ”A Sceptic´s Universe”, and there's no one set way we write. In the first years of the band's existence we worked rather poorly and had problems completing songs. The solution for us turned out to be working on separate songs. Therefore now a typical Spiral Architect song starts and ends with one person, the others contributing with their parts and suggestions.
     
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  2. Dark Lord

    Dark Lord Reincarnation of Yourself

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    Well, i have to say that your most successful stage is Phase 3 (my opinion ofcourse)... and it so happens because my 3 favorite songs on "A Sceptic's Universe" lie within this phase in order of 3rd to 1st: 3) Conjuring Collapse, 2) Insect, 1) Excessit ... (if you care to know the reason why i like these 3 songs best, check out the thread "Poll: Favorite song on A Sceptic's Universe? " post #12). I see 1997 was a good year for you guys :D ... one question though... if you finished writing all the songs in early 1998, why did it take you two whole years to record and release the album??... i didn't know recording was that strenuous and long !!! :OP
     
  3. Etter

    Etter Member

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    funny to read that everyone has his own 'project' and the songs still sound like one band playing, very nice. If you got more stories like that :)
     
  4. Jason Washburn

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    Wow excellent reading ! and by the way Lars, you are a fucking beast on the bass.

    I too play bass but nothing like you, your the reason I go numb and drool when listening to SA. Just Amazing.:worship:
     
  5. Atheist

    Atheist Who'r u calling a Junior?

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    What are Conjuring Collapse lyrics about - that is the only one I really did not get?
     
  6. fragility

    fragility Member

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    Hahahaha! Ditto!

    Thanks for that post, that it is really one of the most interesting things I've read in a while :)
     
  7. Metis

    Metis New Metal Member

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    Its great to read an in depth interpretation from one of the musicians perspectives, thanks for the read :)
     
  8. Occam's Razor

    Occam's Razor Andreas - LotFP

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    It is really exceptional that musicians let listeners have such a close look into their cards...this is not the rule - even musicians that do not have a fraction to offer of what SA has are picky about their "secrets" - Thanks Lars, this makes things clear and at the same time does not disenchant the music - it only makes it more dear to me on a personal level, if that does not sound cheesy here...:worship:
     
  9. lars k norberg

    lars k norberg musician

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    I see your point, but I think this is not strange at all. That’s because although different songs are assigned to one person, it’s all very much a team effort. Confused? Well, first off all I must again stress that each person contributes with his own parts. That really should not be underestimated in our case. Secondly – I say that everyone contributes with suggestions. Well, at the time we were rehearsing like five hours 3-4 times a week: That makes up for a lot of suggestions..! And that’s also why we chose to credit the band with the arrangements.

    I think this explains why ‘it all’ sounds like the same band. The ‘each having his project’-deal on the other hand, explains why the songs in themselves have such an individual feel to them. I think this is the great thing about this band – the way we work allows for visions and ideas to be realized and not prematurely abandoned. Thus it’s really not about taking turns in being ‘dictator and slaves’, but creating a creative environment for everyone to express themselves without loosing sight of the song.
     
  10. lars k norberg

    lars k norberg musician

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    The “secret” of SA is not revealed above. The personalities that make up the band are what really make SA being what it is, and that can neither be adequately explained nor copied. Having said that I must admit that I was a bit hesitant about posting this information, so I’m glad for all the positive response I’ve received in this thread.
     
  11. Occam's Razor

    Occam's Razor Andreas - LotFP

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    It is true what you said about the personality thing. But then again, others might not want to reveal their chops because there is no actual personality behind all the virtuosity - I mean, how many "mean fiddlers" are out there, and how many of them achieve to find their own voice?

    a funny aside: I read about Mr Les Paul that in his early days, he played with a black veil thrown over his left hand and guitar neck so that musicians in the audience were unable to see what he does on the fretboard...
     
  12. lars k norberg

    lars k norberg musician

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    Well, with regards to any secrets there may be, I think making tabs is the ultimate give away.
     
  13. Occam's Razor

    Occam's Razor Andreas - LotFP

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  14. Dark Lord

    Dark Lord Reincarnation of Yourself

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    and we can't be more appreciative of the decision you guys made to release the tabs to us... though a little late... it's already been 5 years :D
     
  15. Asgeir Mickelson

    Asgeir Mickelson Alpha male

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    The first riff on Conjuring Collapse is the only riff we made on the rehearsal. I remember trying out a drum beat to check if it was possible to play both hi-hat and ride at the same time in order to get a kind of "two beats on top of each other"-effect. HH/ride are not supposed to interact but function alone with snare/bass drum alone. While I tried this Steinar just started playing something and voila!

    We have played the song live - at least we did in Atlanta.

    The lyric is about mankind making up stuff to believe in and then after many years they realize it's really nothing. If you believe in God you might as well believe in Santa Claus - they're both obviousely made up. I'm sure that in a couple of hundred years the religions will be looked at as what they are: Old fairy tales (or old twisted stories with like 5% truth left). The title means something like "making magic that are bound to fail".

    - Asgeir
     
  16. Atheist

    Atheist Who'r u calling a Junior?

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    Now I get it. Thank you.
     
  17. Wolfenstein

    Wolfenstein Hardcore objectivist

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  18. Jaen

    Jaen Member

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    hehe, the flying spaghetti monster is the shit...
     
  19. Atheist

    Atheist Who'r u calling a Junior?

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    I want one FSM t-shirt!
     
  20. timecrash

    timecrash bassist

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    The music in "A Sceptic's Universe" is overwhelmingly fascinating for me...I can't keep it away from me especially nowadays, while on the bus, at home or any other place. You've done a great job in explaining the songwriting process Lars, its good to know how such masterpieces are created. It's also inspiring for new bands (like mine) to see that not only we're having troubles and long writing sessions but masters like you also spend lots of time on composing...
    anyway , well done...
    (ps: by the way, can I learn what kind of a bass guitar you have used in the album Lars?Thanks...)
     

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