In this series I interview the musicians who lent their talents to the Picket Line soundtrack, many of them comics enthusiasts and story-tellers in their own rights. Eric Michener of Denton, Texas makes music and also draws comics. His band Fishboy contributed a track to the Picket Line soundtrack, a song called Dinosaur-In-Law. I met up with him over the quaint medium of G-Chat to discuss tablet drawing, alliterative song titles, and psychic songwriting.
B: For the Easel Ain’t Easy reader who hasn’t yet heard your music, how would you describe your sound to them?
Eric: I drew a comic about this! This is what I would say.
B: Oh yeah, I remember that comic. It also addresses my next question of musical influences.
Eric: I usually just say “wordy and catchy rock songs.” I have a lot of story songs too, but I’m not exclusive to those.
B: When I have to describe my work to people, I really try to gauge their level of comics comprehension. Like, should I say, “graphic novel,” or “sequential art,” or “It’s like Charlie Brown, you know… Cartoons.” Do you find yourself measuring up your questioner before you respond?
Eric: I always assume the questioner has no clue. I have a fear of name-dropping a band they haven’t heard of and sounding like an elitist.
B: People probably appreciate that, even if they do know all the obscure bands. It’s refreshing to clear away all of the name-dropping and just focus on the actual artist, and what you do.
So, since it’s come up anyway, I do have some questions about your comic. You’ve been drawing that for over a year now, is that right?
Eric: I drew pretty much one for everyday for about a year straight. Then around February, I started prepping everything for the album and stopped having time to do so many. So it’s a bit less frequent now, but the early repetition was really just to help me learn how to draw on a tablet, and, well, learn how to draw better in general really.
B: It’s great exercise. And it’s a really unique way to keep your fans updated. I’m curious, beyond that, if the practice of drawing your comic has influenced your music (or vice versa).
Eric: It’s helped me get over trying to perfect something right off the bat. And to just finish drafts of things. And then go back and do a better draft and so on and so forth. Before, with songwriting, I wouldn’t ever finish writing a song until it was perfect, but then it would take me months to get something done. Now I tell myself I have to finish a draft in a day, and even if the lyrics or structure isn’t perfect, it’s off to a start.
B: And drawing with new tools and new technology probably makes perfection even harder to attain, but in a good way, like you’ve described.
Eric: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always had pretty basic skills when it comes to drawing, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and learn a tablet while I improved a little with drawing in general.
B: Do you ever think about printing your Yo! Fishboy! comics in a book?
Eric: I’d like to do a “Best Of So Far…” type of thing, if it’s affordable. I was actually going to ask you about printing since I know you’ve had some recent experience with it.
B: Ha, I’m in the middle of a snafu with my printer today. But yeah, I fully support it, and there are affordable ways to do it. We’ll talk.
B: Your songs tend to tell stories about very eccentric characters, and in fact whole albums – Classic Creeps, for example – read as larger narratives. The Classic Creeps vinyl even came with a comic detailing the stories told/sung therein. What draws you to this kind of writing, as opposed to the typical pop themes like luv and breakups and so forth?
Eric: Well, early on when I started writing songs (like at 15 or whatever) I quickly realized how many “relationship” songs were out there. So to try and be unique I decided that type of song writing wasn’t for me, which resulted in a lot of songs with abstract lyrics, and a couple of more interesting story-type songs. I spent all of 2006 writing Albatross which is a start-to-finish, first-person, narrative rock opera, and that really launched my love for writing story songs. I graduated with a film degree in 2007 and started treating my albums as if they were mini-movies, writing them as if they were screenplays and what not. I looked around and realized that every big rock opera or musical was in a style of music I didn’t really like, and none of the soundtracks stood on their own. When you listen to the soundtrack you have to have seen the show or movie, or read the script to even know what was happening. So I decided to write something that was all contained within the lyrics, which was Albatross. But I wrote all of those songs in order, without knowing ahead of time where the story would take me, and it took forever! So when it came time to write Classic Creeps, I came up with this very constrictive pattern for songwriting that gave me several starting points, while also forcing me to get creative.
Sooo, that was a long ramble.
B: No, it’s good, it’s interesting. Can you say more about your constrictive writing pattern? Or is that a trade secret?
Eric: Nah, it’s not a secret. So with Classic Creeps I got really into outlining everything before I picked up the guitar. And the idea behind that was to take the anthology style of writing that’s been done in books and movies for at least fifty years, and apply that to songwriting. So the first song/character would be connected to the second song/character, who would be connected to the third song/character and so on. That was inspired by side B of Abbey Road, where Mean Mr. Mustard is connected to Polythene Pam, and then we hear a song about Polythene Pam. I thought it would a great idea to hear a whole album like that. But that wasn’t the only restriction I put on myself. I also forced myself to make every character’s name start with the letter A, and then have all of the character names and songs in alphabetical order. Also, I wanted the songs to flow seamlessly so that all the album sounds like one big song (Abbey Road style). When I put all those restrictions on what I have to write, the creativity kind of bursts out like a pinched water hose. After I get the first song finished, I have the name of the next character, the general idea of his or her situation, how they are related, and the kind of song that needs to happen in order for the album to keep flowing seamlessly, at which point it’s almost like filling in the blanks. The really tough part comes when I decide to scrap a song, and then have to write something new that fits in between two existing songs, but that only happened once or twice.
B: I think it’s a success though, because listening to the record, it doesn’t feel formulaic, even though there was clearly a lot of thought that went into it, to arrive at a finished product like you described with Creeps.
Eric: Thanks. I would have done a couple things differently looking back on it, but that just means the next one will be better.
B: Totally! Ok, just a couple more questions if that’s okay.
B: Your song “Dinosaur-In-Law” was written specifically for Picket Line, and seems to hit so many nails right on the head, yet you hadn’t even read the book yet. Are you a psychic?
B: Really, how were you able to come up with a song with so much heart, based on just a few prompts?
Eric: Well, we talked about it some. I knew [Rex] looked like a dinosaur, and he was an okay guy, and he was a father-in-law. That’s it! I was also hoping to give it to my father-in-law for Father’s Day but Carleen [my wife] said we had to buy him a “real present.”
B: Speaking of Carleen, she lends some vocals to this song too, which are awesome. Has she helped out with songs in that way before?
Eric: We recorded a Christmas album in 2005 that’s really good! It’s kind of been a secret, only known to close friends. But she has given up music for the most part, and I usually have to beg. She was in bands for a long time and just decided it wasn’t for her because she’s too shy.
B: Will it be a breech of her shyness to include this part in the interview?
Eric: No not at all.
B: It’s funny though, because there’s no way you could have known this, but her voice could totally be the voice of Liz if this were, say, an animated film. It’s perfect.
Eric: Awesome! Bonus trivia fact, though: I was originally going to use audio from a youtube video of someone reviewing the Jurassic Park movies. I’m glad I bailed on that idea. Actually, I think I played that version to Carleen and she told me it was dumb, and then I told her to say a few words.
B: Jurassic Park does happen to be one of my favorite movies, so you would have probably done okay by me, but I do love Carleen’s part.
Eric: That’s why I included the phrase “Dino DNA!”
B: Oh man, now I really want to go watch that movie.