In 2010 on St. Patrick’s day, my friend, Patrick Sansone (of Wilco), took me to watch Liam Hayes perform at Lincoln Hall in Chicago. We were introduced after the show. I had no idea at the time how expansive Liam’s career in music had been, or what a prolific songwriter he was. Later, he would hand me a pile of burned CDs with over 100 home demos of unrecorded songs, which started a musical collaboration between us. The albums that Liam has released under the moniker Plush are legendary. Liam has been a good friend to me throughout the years, and I was excited to sit down and talk with him about his approach to record making and songwriting.
How do you write a song?
But you have...
Sure, but I don’t try to write songs. A song starts to percolate. It might start with an impression or a feeling, or I might even hear it playing in my mind in different settings. I often hear music in dreams. At times, I’ve been able to take melodies from dreams and find a way to put them into a song.
You can’t just sit down at an instrument and write a song?
It happens occasionally, but it’s rare. I’m often coming at it from more of a passive place. If I sit down with an instrument and I’m not feeling like I have something that I’m trying to express, then usually nothing happens. I need to start with something, a section or a fragment, and that fragment needs to have something compelling about it.
Do you write your songs in sections?
Most of the time, yes. Songs are like puzzles. I might only have part of the puzzle solved, so I keep coming back to the part that’s working and I try to find another part that fits with that. I might have a good chorus, but no verse. I have to attempt to solve a musical puzzle, and I’m not always successful at that. I probably have more unfinished fragments sitting around than finished ones. It’s important to understand that, while you’re writing, it’s not all going to work. The section that you were initially inspired by has to be followed by a section that feels equally meaningful.
You’re focusing on the emotional aspects of the song more than the structural aspects?
Well, I focus on both, but you can’t just drop anything into a song, because it generally won’t work. That’s one of the hardest parts about songwriting. It’s similar to filmmaking or storytelling. You have to find a beginning, a middle, and an end. It all has to work together on an emotional level. A song might work on a structural level, but if you get hung up on making the parts hang together technically, and there’s no emotional center, then it’s usually not very captivating. That’s where forgettable or bad songs come from. If you look at magic as an analogy, there are different techniques that people use to do illusions, and some are more convincing than others. Songwriting is like a form of magic. It’s an illusion. It’s about using a technique to craft an illusion that makes someone feel something. Sure, it has to work structurally, but it also needs to be more than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, what do you take away from it after you’ve heard it? What’s the point?
When did you first start recording your songs?
As a teenager, I would record onto this stereo cassette deck and then I learned to multitrack with two cassette decks. I would play one deck back while recording onto the second. I didn’t go into a real recording studio until I was 21. I was friends with someone who owned a studio, and they let me come in and do some demos. Going into a real studio was so exciting for me. It started an obsession.
Was Plush’s “Found A Little Baby”
seven-inch your first proper studio recording?
Yeah, I recorded five or six songs, but I only released that single from the sessions. I actually had more songs that I could have recorded to make it all into a full-length album, but the studio was so expensive.
Plush’s first album, More You Becomes You, came out in 1998 but it sounds like it’s from outer space compared to everything that was going on at that time.
I didn’t personally relate to a lot of what was happening with mainstream music in the 1990s, but I also felt that there was something exciting in the air. People were excited. I would listen to this proto-alternative radio station, and I was wondering where all of these bands were coming from. Occasionally one would have something about it that I liked or that I felt I could...