Name: David Long, Shane O'Neill
Interviewee: Shane O'Neill
Occupation: Singers, songwriters
Current release: David Long and Shane O'Neill's collaborative album Moll & Zeis is out now via Country Pylon.
If you enjoyed this interview with David Long and Shane O'Neill and would like to find out more about their work, visit their joint bandcamp store.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Being affected by some detail in something I see or hear. Sometimes it can emerge from the song itself, from a line I hear myself sing or play that attaches itself to a feeling. Generally it is something that I can’t fully comprehend or confuses me in some way.
On “Far From Home” I was told about a refugee from Afghanistan who burnt his mother's name on his arm as a tattoo (which was misunderstood as a cry for help) and who felt safer walking the roads rather than remain in care, that lonely image was the impulse. Dreams don’t really come into it for me, films or books can colour it, personal relationships the main ingredient, and politics inform but I can never use it directly. I don’t seem able to write a straightforward polemical piece.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
If I ever have a concrete clear visualisation of the finished work it tends to be trite and I end up abandoning it, or I finish it but don’t like it. Sometimes these ideas follow me around for months like a zombie carcass, I can't finish them and I can't get rid of them. As a counter balance to this I use chance a lot. I trust chance, it gives me comfort.
I have learnt to pay great attention to the mistakes that come out of trying to do something rather than get a photocopy of the idea in my head. But the balance still favours “planning” because invariably the chance element needs to be worked into place.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Not really, but there is a sort of determined mood that works best. Sometimes I can daydream away hours before jolting myself into action. Whereas if I start with a firm commitment, or better still, a strong desire, I can get somewhere in a very short time.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
No rituals, I am not organised enough for that. I would say it’s more the absence of distractions. Some other work I have to do can eat up the feeling of immediacy, closeness to what I’m trying to do. A distraction can leave me stranded from the feeling, and it’s best to come back to it later rather than wander around trying to reconnect.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first line of lyrics is, in a way, impossible. It can’t just be brought up, it has to arrive. I just hear myself doing it, same with the first notes. This can be on the back of weeks of trying though, so it can be conjured up over time.
Sometimes I do hear a riff, but I can never get it exact and it is always somehow different, if I’m lucky it’s better.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Nearly always after the music and they are never complete, there is always some work to do to finish them. Generally one lyric or phrase will stay the same, fixed to one piece of music, and the song is hung around that line. Sometimes the overall meaning of the song can change a lot because I misunderstand how the song pivots around that one lyric. Occasionally my allegiance to that one line can be the problem, and it’s only when I let it go that I find what I’m looking for.
Dave did the lyrics for “Earth Moves” all in one go, stream of consciousness, into the built in microphone on a Boss 4 track machine. That’s the take that is on the album, there is no other. I can’t do that.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
When lyrics are bad they are just a collection of words that can sound good, but don’t connect. They don’t really mean anything. In rock / pop music the sound or the melody can be taken to be more important than the actual words. In folk or blues where the melody can be derivative or formulaic, the actual words are more important. I love it when the meaning comes out after listening a few times, they are uncovered.
The lines that seemed at first not to make sense, hold the key to the real meaning. Like in the third verse of “Dreams Come”, where Dave sings a mix up of lines in the first two verses. “I’ve been dreaming of last night, please don’t you wake me, you’re dancing in the kitchen, laughing with the lights out, you’re drinking from my cup, it feels like the old days, I’m sleeping in your coat, dreams come and wear me out, please come and wear me out”.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Any way that I can get it to. High level detail work, that later on I can’t remember. A chance copy of some part that now sounds good doubled up. Deleting some part that was important initially but now doesn't work (very difficult to spot).
The big breakthrough for me was realising that ideas don’t necessarily come complete and even some “inspired” parts might need to be worked on, again and again. It always seemed that proper artists knew exactly what they’re doing and how to do it. Reading Eno’s biography, for instance, showed me that the determination to do something can be just as important as the artistic inspiration to do it.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I don’t have the ability to keep strict control on the process, I have to follow what feels right. I have more latitude with the music, where I can make certain things happen, take it from one level to another (up or down). But that is still subject to “the flow” that artists often talk about.
I can feel very strongly that I will be able to do something (say find a part), like a strong impulse, but I don’t know what exactly it is. I have to jump into the flow, hear myself play it, and then remember what it was. This can be the hardest part, trying to recreate the exact phrasing that came about naturally, hours of playing it until I have learnt it sufficiently to be able to play it in the track.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I collect them. In a way they are the most important because they’re so elusive and can’t just be thought up. They come from the initial ideas, they flow from them, so they can uniform and enlarge those ideas. Sometimes they grow to block my view of the overall track and I have to cull them. Even then I try to hold on to as many different aspects of them as I can, by combining or editing them into new parts. I found that being a little more decisive, committing one way or another (even if you have to later go back) is a better way to resolve differences in direction. Always subject to your gut feelings about it.
The track “Moll & Zeis” was done twice because of an alternative road, both versions are on the album. The older (Country mix) version starts the newer version, like it was tuned in from a radio station.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Being in the moment, connected to all sides of what you’re doing. You are sure of what you’re doing while at the same time, you’re not sure if you’re doing it right. You suspect that it’s enough, you can feel that it connects to you, but does it translate to someone else? Sort of suspended between these conflicting feelings but secretly thinking you have it right. Something like that.
If by spirituality you mean connected to some bigger actual force or outside overarching reality, I am personally positive there is no such thing. As in our song “You Are Always On Your Own”, even in love or with your family, “As the light fades, and the dream ends, there is only you”.
There is a common experience we can feel part of, but no overall purpose, we live in a Camus absurdist world.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
When we can’t go any further with it. When it is as good as we can get it, it’s finished. If it says what we want it to, and it has the feeling we’re trying to invoke, in the sense that is fully written, then it’s a matter of making it as clear and satisfying to us as we can manage. If we both like it and are happy, then we can let it go.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Letting it lie and evaluating it, all happen before it’s finished. It can be hard to really listen to your gut feeling (and not get paranoid for instance) and be fully satisfied that the song is actually finished. I would make a difference between the song and the recorded track.
At some point you know the song is finished, its complete, but maybe the recorded track can always be improved in some way and has to be let go.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
It’s everything and it’s overrated. I love the sound of "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen or "Wild Thing" by The Troggs, but you wouldn’t use those sounds any more. Shel Tamy or Martin Hannett made a big noise that maybe some trained engineers would have tried to clear up. The vibe of the sound is everything, if it feels right, then it is.
I don’t like “songwriters” who get hung up on real cellos and an exact piano sound to validate their songs, just make the noise. We do everything ourselves, in house, recording, mixing, mastering.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yeah I get that sometimes. Maybe it's the realisation that what has been burning you up for a month is not that important really, it’s just a sound. Like the sound of a tree falling in the forest, who hears? And if they do, so what? If you’re lucky you’re on something new anyway and it’s a relief to get the old one done.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
If being creative is the same as learning a mundane task, even to the point of perfection, then you’re doing it wrong.