How do you write songs when there are no words to be said?
Featured image by Lepsy Films
Local band Test The Divide (TTD) has drawn inspiration from modern progressive metal giants in the international circuit to come up with its own intense sound. Though formed only in 2017, the band is highly sought after for various festivals in Singapore. It will release its debut album Silver on 3 August at the Esplanade Annexe Studio.
When you think of Test The Divide, you think about the distortion of guitars, musical technicalities that give professional musicians a run for their money, and the complex nature of their compositions. Sometimes, you will find each instrument running on its own beat, though they all come together for a complete experience.
Most of the six-person band’s music does not have lyrics, which means the band writes mostly instrumental music. So how does the band write music if it does not have lyrics as an anchor?
How long have you been involved with music?
Darren: I touched music after Secondary 4. I did not go through any “proper” way of learning my instrument until I was 23, when I went to pursue a music degree. I am learning new things about music every single day.
Tabitha: My mother was a musician, so I was surrounded by a lot of music as a child. But I only really started playing my first instrument, the guitar, when I was 13. It has been 14 years and I am still learning new things every day, which is great.
Thomas: I have been doing music since I was 5 — classical piano, violin and flute, which I was horrible at. Eventually I did classical guitar in 2005 for two to three years before moving to electric. I decided to take it seriously when I was in Secondary 3 in 2009.
Wei Lung: Secondary 1 when I joined my school’s symphonic band.
Dale: Secondary 2 when I first started learning the acoustic guitar. A year in, I tried electric guitar for the first time and was hooked. I had to get my hands on one. In the second year of my music degree at LASALLE, I decided to move from six- to seven-string guitars. It has been 15 years of guitar, and I am still learning so many new things about the instrument.
From when you first started to now, how has your approach towards music evolved?
Darren: I used to think that doing music as a serious hobby or job meant being flashy and going nuts with my skills on every song. But I have slowly come to realise that I should be impressive, rather than do impressive things all the time. Even the simplest single note can be the spice that makes the song amazing, rather than a flurry of notes at the wrong place and time.
Tabitha: I have learnt a lot of skills and compositional techniques, thanks to my lecturers at LASALLE, but I have begun to realise that quality relationships are far more important and influential in the process of creating authentic music.
Thomas: From when I first took guitar seriously, I have always been meticulous about my approach, and that has not changed much. But my goals have shifted. I used to just want to be the best guitarist, the fastest shredder (playing very fast basically, haha). But now that I have the technical skills, I have since been focusing on the “feel” of playing. The same three notes can be played and performed a million ways. Rather than playing as many notes as possible, I want to be able to do more with as few notes as possible.
Wei Lung: I studied and learned only from other musicians for the longest time. But in recent years, that has evolved to filmmakers, professional gamers, authors, psychologists, athletes and entrepreneurs, in that order. That came about when I had to do research outside of my field because there were questions that I could not answer by learning only from musicians. When I started doing so, it truly opened my mind to music being an art, a science, a state of mind, a sport and a business, all at once. I learned and experienced so much more than I ever could inside the field of music, which in turn affected and evolved my musical development.
Dale: I have always been a meticulous and detailed person, concerned about the “why” and the deeper truths behind our creativity and inspiration. In the early years of my playing, it was mostly about refining technical abilities and learning to improvise. Whereas in recent years, I have gravitated towards writing music with underlying literature and various layers with their own musical integrity.
The shift for me mostly started in LASALLE, where I did my BA in contemporary pop music. Being bombarded each week with questions such as ‘Does music need rhythm?’, ‘Is sound music?’ and the likes of that drastically changed my mindset and what I believed music to be. I also started to get deeply involved with mixing music that started from my demos to now Noivil studios.
Triggered – demo
Share with us your most comfortable approach towards songwriting.
Darren: In Test The Divide, we have Thomas and Dale who are the primary songwriters, giving us a riff or a song idea. Then Wei Lung, Tabitha and I add and expand upon what has been given to us, so that each instrument gives off our own special vibe that makes us who we are.
Tabitha: Traditionally, I first write everything out physically or digitally. But organically playing and figuring it out through improvisation is something I would like to work towards.
Thomas: I have always been focused on the “movement” of the song. Not just the note choices, but even physically on the fretboard, so that it is fun to play. Like a skateboarder chaining his tricks together. The “flow”, so to speak, but more in a blend of techniques, melody and how it looks, rather than just technique alone. It is very much more a collaborative effort within a band like TTD. My approach is still there, but being open to other opinions from different backgrounds really gets a song to places I could not do myself.
Wei Lung: What Darren said. But there is a demo where I came up with a simple 8-bar guitar riff, a drum groove and passed it to the band, and they developed it into a minute-and-a-half demo. I then took that and composed even more sections before taking it back to the band.
Dale: I usually start with a melody, chord or a concept that I deeply feel about. Following which, I tend to expand on it musically. I am always trying new things, whether it is a new instrument, technique or musical idea or theory. I am always trying to have fun with ideas and not let my own technical abilities hinder the creation process. After all, with enough practice and proper transcribing, you can play anything you want.
What is one most misunderstood perception of songwriting?
Darren: That songwriting is throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it is cooked. No, you actually have to taste it.
Tabitha: THAT IT IS EASY. Also, that it will ever be perfect.
Thomas: There are too many and most of them contradict one another. That it is really hard, or it is too easy, you need theory, or you need “feel”. I really think the most misunderstood thing is that there is a method to the madness at all. The effectiveness of one’s songwriting capability is simply attributed to one’s ability to translate that madness.
Wei Lung: That artists must be inspired to write. Sure, we can get a moment of inspiration for a part of a song, but that’s basically it. The rest is up to you to grind it out to finish the song, and then to finish the album. A quote from Neil Gaiman: “The process of writing can be magical… Mostly it’s a process of putting one word after another.”
Dale: “I will write when I feel inspired.” This could not be further from the truth for me. I have written while feeling completely uninspired and the music inspired me in turn. Inspiration is not a fleeting random wind. It is a choice to take in everything around you and warping its perspective as you see fit. Sure, there will be times where you feel inspired and you write, but those times are few and far between. It is not even guaranteed that you will like the song after listening to it the day after.
How do you gain inspiration?
Darren: Listening to The Final Countdown and think positive thoughts to myself before I start doing anything for the day.
Tabitha: Actively experiencing new things.
Thomas: It is a state of mind, regardless whether it appears in the moment or being able to prepare yourself to be in that said state. Some people get there in silence, some in noise. I have gotten song ideas from either, and from everything in between, so I really cannot say.
Wei Lung: Same as Tabitha. I play games, watch movies, cook a new dish, read a new book, listen to new music, old music. Watch a TED talk. Most of my inspiration comes from outside music, really. I once wrote a song after reading a Neil Gaiman short story titled Sweeper of Dreams. And I have also been wanting to write a series of sci-fi songs to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I have a demo of Ender’s Theme on my YouTube channel that nobody knows about.
Dale: As I have mentioned earlier, inspiration is all around us. We just need to adapt to take it in. Everything we use, eat and make is a creation in itself. What is there not to be inspired by, other than our own uninspired mindset?
What is one key towards honing your songwriting skills?
Darren: Listening to different genres of music, gradually branching out your taste to a wider spectrum of music than before. I believe that exposure to different types of music helps with the appreciation of different kinds of songwriting.
Tabitha: Transcribing (music) is of vital importance.
Thomas: Do it as often as possible. You need to treat your brain like a muscle, and the more you utilise the neurons to connect your experience and opinions to an instrument or a score, the faster you get at it, then the more intricate it can become. And the better your self-expression realises itself.
Wei Lung: Aside from practice and experience, you have to invite people to critique you so that you will get points of view you can never think of on your own. You might not agree with their opinions, but now and then, you might actually stumble on someone telling you something and then you go: “Hey… that makes sense.”
Dale: Songwriting is a practice-based skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the easier it gets.