Q&A: Kevin Bacon and Michael Bacon of the Bacon Brothers on Fleetwood Mac, "El Blurto," and their 16th anniversary
Before their sold-out performances at Rams Head on Stage Friday and Saturday, the Bacon Brothers spoke with contributor Benjamin Opipari about Fleetwood Mac, writing without electricity, and how acting influences songwriting. "Footloose" was not mentioned once.
Kevin Bacon is most well known as an actor, and his brother Michael as a composer - he's scored twelve feature films and hundreds of hours of prime time television. But they are also respected songwriters who’ve toured the country for sixteen years and put out six albums as the Bacon Brothers, whose music was described by the New Yorker as “sharply executed rock that has a blue-collar, rootsy edge."
The brothers take their songwriting seriously. But their other careers do influence their creative process: songwriting for them does not exist in a vacuum.
Midnight Sun: How do you compose your lyrics: pen and paper, or computer? Kevin: Pen and paper for me. I just don’t type very well. If a lyric is coming, it’s got to get down, and it’s got to get down fast. I need to be able to scratch it out or make easy changes. It’s a big mess, which is how I like it. My handwriting is horrible, but there’s something, ironically, that looks too organized when lyrics are on computer.
How disciplined are you as a writer? Kevin: I ‘m not disciplined at all. I wait for the song to come to me. Right now I’m experiencing writer’s block and it’s a weird feeling to just stare at my guitar. I pick it up and play, but I end up playing someone else’s songs or one of our old songs. I definitely do not have the discipline to say, “Every morning I’m going to spend two hours writing.”Michael: Since I’m a composer, my whole day is spent working with music. Picking up a guitar and going into songwriting mode when I am done with that is kind of hard, but I find if I am away from my office or studio, I can be very productive. We have a camp up in the Adirondacks with no electricity, and I find that it’s one of the most fertile places for me as far as songwriting, because there isn’t much to do. Kevin and I have written a lot of songs up there.
MS: Michael, how does your career as a composer influence your songwriting? Michael: Even though theoretically being a composer and being a songwriter are the same thing, in my brain they are completely different. When I am in my composing mode, I go into my studio and turn that part of my brain on like a faucet. And when I finish, I turn it off. But with songwriting, that process is much more elusive. I describe it as art that lies between poetry and compositional technique, but is neither.
MS: How is songwriting different from composition and poetry? Michael: What makes it different than being a composer or a poet is that it’s an amalgam of the words and the music. And it’s hard to figure what makes great songs great. The example I always give is Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” The chorus is just perfect, especially where they sing the line “Don’t stop thinking’ about tomorrow.” The lyrics and melodic beat fall into this infectious world that people can’t resist. Unfortunately, even though I understand it, I can’t duplicate it. Songwriters have a much more difficult struggle than composers do. It’s also dependent on moods that are equally elusive. You sit around for two days strumming your guitar and get nothing. Then you get an idea in the middle of the night, and that turns into a song. I’ve been doing it for close to 40 years, and it’s still a mystery to me.
MS: Obviously, Kevin, you are an actor. How does that influence your songwriting? Kevin: If you’re acting and playing a part, you’re often emotionally connected to what it is to be an actor or the part you are playing, and that can inspire something that you want to say in a song. And you may be having some kind of experience physically that you want to explore through songwriting.
MS: When you sit down to write, do you start with a topic, or do you let the music guide what the song is going to be about? Kevin: I’ve read about people who have some lick or chord progression that stands alone, and it takes them a while to figure what they lyrics are going to be. Or about people who have bundles of lyrics lying around. But that’s never really happened for me. I may get some kind of lyrical idea that I jot down, but pretty quickly I start to play the guitar around it to figure it out. That’s not to say that the melody stays that way; I may throw it out and start again. But for me the lyrics and music tend to come simultaneously. It’s not a separate process.
MS: Jack Tempchin, a songwriter for the Eagles, told me once that he and Glenn Frey would sit down with a guitar and just start spewing nonsense words and syllables until real words finally formed. They even called that voice “El Blurto.” Do you ever start with gibberish? Michael: In my other life as a composer, I do a similar thing. Right now I am working on a documentary about Gloria Steinem, and the melody reflects the rhythm of her name.. It’s a way to get started when it comes to creating a melody. I love the name “Stella McCartney.” It’s a beautiful name the way it rolls off the tongue. A couple of years ago I wrote a cello concerto and used that as the basis for the rhythmic and melodic structure of the main motif of the cello part.
MS: When it comes to songwriting, do you have any literary inspirations? Michael: I get more response from song lyrics than poetry, but I got into Robert Lowell’s poetry when I did a film about him. I admire when people can write one line, and to write it any other way would mean stretching that idea into a novel. He was the only poet I connected with the way I would a James Taylor song or Joni Mitchell song.
MS: How have you matured as songwriters over the years? Michael: Before we put the band together, we though we should get into a room and write a song for some purpose, for someone else to record or maybe for some popular trend. I was a staff songwriter for Combine Music Publishing in Nashville for seven years. I’d sit around with a groups of friends, with a Yamaha piano and a tape recorder and crank out songs. Usually we started with a title. We’d flesh out a title and make it into something. Then Monday morning we’d go in and see who was recording, like Kenny Rogers might be looking for a country pop up tempo song. If you had that song, another guy would take it and make a tape and send it off to the producer.
MS: And how does that inform your process today? Michael: I did not have a lot of success with that model. Kevin and I didn’t have a lot of success that way either. It’s not for lack of trying, but we started to channel the more personal songs that we were writing on the side when we were trying to write something more commercial. We realized that our strength was in writing about our own life experiences. Most of our songs are snapshots of something in our lives, of something personal that happened. We do that now, instead of working off a cool title or some rhyme that we heard.The Bacon Brothers will perform at Rams Head on Stage Friday and Saturday. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. both nights of the show.
Ben Opipari interviews writers and songwriters on his blog, Songwriters on Process. He has written for the Washington Post and academic journals. He last interviewed Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band for this blog. Erik Maza edited this post.Photo: Bacon Brothers Facebook