So many of my students have asked me how to write in an indie-rock style. Being as it’s my favorite style/sound of music (early 90s hip-hop taking a close second)… I’d like to think I know a bit about the science of writing indie stuff.
Now, for the record– indie is such a broad style of music. What type of indie are you looking to do? Shoegaze? Regular old indie rock? Slowcore? Power-pop? Singer/songwriter/bedroom pop? Whatever the style, here’s some quick power tips.
Tip #1 – Instrumentation
Clean electric guitars, acoustic guitar, overdriven or fuzzy guitars, older keyboards (or good, vintage synths like a Roland Juno-60, etc), real drums (drum machines are ok, too… though a little less ok, in certain circles), a pedalboard with lots of pedals (the more layered your guitar tone is, the more interesting sounds you can get), Wurlitzer electric piano, Rhodes electric piano, Hohner Pianet (or any virtual equivalent of the 3 just mentioned), toy piano…. just to name a few. Really, anything goes when you’re making indie rock.
Tip #2 – Lyrics
The more detailed/descriptive, the better. Or, on the flipside… the more poetic and mysterious, the better. Leave no literary or pop-culture stone unturned. “S.A.T words”. Some of the lyrical legends: Blake Schwarzenbach (see Jawbreaker / Jets To Brazil), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, etc), Elliott Smith, Morrissey (The Smiths), Hello Saferide (Sweden– absolute gods), The Beautiful South, Belle & Sebastian…..
“Upgrade your grey matter, cause one day it may matter.”
– Del the Funky Homosapien
Tip #3 – Spread your chords and melodies across several different instruments
If you listen to any indie stuff extensively… something you’ll often notice is how the instruments work collectively as a team, to play a chord or phrase/motif. On guitar, there might be one single-note melody or rhythm. Then the bass will come in, and be busier than the guitar. Or the keyboard might come in and do different notes than the guitar is doing…. but the key here, is sparse. Everything’s working collectively to keep your ears interested, without being predictable. This ties into Tip #4….
Tip #4 – More arpeggios, less chord strumming/pounding chords on piano
Ties right in to tip #3. Break up your motifs and phrases and keep things on different instruments. Think in textures and soundscapes, and less in predictable pop rhythms.
Tip #5 – Polyrhythms
Radiohead mastered this, especially with anything from OK Computer onward. Polyrhythm is where one instrument might be playing a repeated phrase or motif… and another instrument is playing something in “groups of odd numbers” usually. A famous example (that isn’t indie rock, but still amazing) is Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. The drums are in 4/4 time, but the rest of the verses aren’t. Here’s another cool example:
Say the bass player is playing straight quarter-notes on C. Really slowly. And the drummer is matching him perfectly, with a slow ride-based beat (ride cymbal hitting quarter notes). Then, the guitarist comes in, throwing the whole groove off, by playing a 5-note melody (C E G A G), played as straight 8th notes, back to back, without resting in between. Every 5 bars, the 5-note melody lines up on the downbeat (1) again. As shown below:
melody (as straight 8th notes):
C E G A G C E G | A G C E G A G C | E G A G C E G A | G C E G A G C E |
G A G C E G A G |
(on the downbeat again, here’s bar 6:) C E G A G C E G
Study polyrhythms, as they really make things amazing. Listen to the UK group Laika, specifically their albums “Wherever I Am, I Am What Is Missing”, “Good Looking Blues”, and “Sounds Of The Satellites”. Man, they fuckin’ NAIL it.
Tip #6 – Record whatever and however, even if you don’t know what you’re doing
Part of the indie charm is people recording themselves, not knowing exactly how to “professionally engineer” a record. Records don’t need to be professionally-engineered, at least at the present time. Some of the most disgusting-sounding recordings, from Jesus and Mary Chain’s first record Psychocandy (1985), to Dirty Beaches album Badlands (2011)…. the quality isn’t as important as the song/sound you’re going after.
Tip #7 – Study all the awesome shit.
You know the awesome shit: Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr., Matthew Sweet, Joy Division, Guided By Voices, Built To Spill, Pavement, Velvet Underground, Morphine, Codeine, Carissa’s Wierd (members of Band of Horses), Nirvana, Low, Nada Surf, Jawbox, Raveonettes, Tara Jane O’Neil, Magnetic Fields, Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine, Tom Waits, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (or better yet, The Birthday Party), American Football (yeah, people call ’em “twinkly emo” but I think it’s more in the indie rock vein), Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, just to name a very, very small few….
Tip #8 – Sing with attitude/edge, and ultimately, YOUR PERSONALITY. Don’t always go for perfection.
Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club comes to mind. Lou Reed. Daniel Johnston. Dirty Beaches. J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. Tegan and Sara.
Tip #9 – More chord changes that dictate where the vocal melody goes (and more key changes)
Elliott Smith. ‘Nuff said.
Tip #10 – Uncommon vocal harmonies
Ida (check out ALL of their albums, but Will You Find Me, first). Dada’s Puzzle and American Highway Flower. Tegan & Sara’s So Jealous and If It Was You
Tip #11 – Weird-ass beats
I think of the Azure Ray songs that Orenda Fink wrote most of (“We Are Mice”, “Rise”, etc). Almost everything by White Denim.
Tip #12 – Cut the vocal melisma
Melisma is defined as “vocal technique decoration.” Think Mariah Carey and most pop singers. Leave this to them. It’s great in that style… but I haven’t heard an indie rock song with it, where it works.
Tip #13 – Uke.
Yep. Can’t go wrong with it. This, or a tenor guitar (4-string). Love that shit. Did you know that Yamaha makes something called a Guitalele? They rule. Here’s me playing one and making up a song on the spot:
Tip #14 – Noise.
Noise is good. Don’t be afraid to be noisy (pedalboard knob twists, feedback, washes of texture underneath instruments… delay in odd places… too much reverb. Weird Gang Of Four-style choppy reverb mutes on guitar, you name it).