A little bit of intellectual shit, diversity and wit
Interview by Graham Rae.
Like every teenager, I was a popcult music-head when I was growing up, and, without even initially knowing it, I was learning writing tics and tricks of the trademarket from listening to lyrics over and over. I was a singer/lyricist in a went-nowhere punk band or two and copying how other artists wrote their songs taught me a lot about rhythm and rhyme and meter and verse construction. If I liked the way a certain lyricist’s words sat together in a song, I would analyze the words in question to see what made them tick and talk to me. I admit, I still have a soft spot for a good phrase or stanza or (per)verse in a song shout-sung blue-blooded loud and proud, and can tell when the lyricist in question is having fun playing with and laying down words.
Which is where Randy Fitzsimmons of Swedish punks The Hives comes in. Ever since I first heard them in 2001, I could tell that the lyrics were of a higher, different caliber than you normally see on the punk scene. Which isn’t really saying much, of course, because a lot of punk lyrics are just plain codified scream-at-society, where’s-the-revolution garage band garbage, but I just liked the feel of lines like ‘Do what I want cause I can and if I don’t – because I wanna’ or ‘There’s no deadbeat regime rider inside of me’ or the whole of the words to ‘Dead Quote Olympics.’ I could provide a lot of other exemplary examples but, well, you will get the idea, and I would advise you to look up the net, find their lyrics there and see for yourself just what I am talking about.
I was never able to fully truly understand just exactly what the hell the band’s lyrical secret agent provocateur agenda was, apart from a lot of use of alliteration and puns and semantics antics and dry clever humor and writing some occasionally dense and impenetrable (to me) stuff (‘B is For Brutus’). But I just liked it a lot, y’know? And on the newest Hives sonic smorgasbord The Black And White Album I got a massive wordkick out of songs like ‘Square One Here I Come,’ about being unemployed and hopeless (reminded me of being unemployed back in Falkirk for many a moon) and ‘Return The Favour,’ about escaping a shitty small town existential-scream existence.
You often read interviews in the media with band members, but crafting lyrics seems rarely to be discussed in depth. So I thought I’d contact Randy Fitzsimmons (thanks to Nicholas for setting this email interview up for me) just to say what he had to say about writing exciting lines or phrases or verses. Some of you may be aware there has been some controversy about the very existence of this offstage-svengali-sixth-member of The Hives. A few years back the student indie-spindustry popaganda rag NME broke a story that the lyricist was actually guitarist Nicholas Arson, a ‘revelation’ which pissed the band off, being flatly denied. I don’t know the truth of the matter and, frankly, don’t care. In the band’s world it’s not a matter of the Hives and the Hive-nots. Somebody wrote the lyrics, and that somebody is interviewed here. Okay? Okay. So let’s move right on aye essay pee…
3:AM: How long have you been writing?
RF: Feels like forever.
3:AM: What started you writing and what was the first song you wrote?
RF: Think I just started writing stuff down whenever I felt clever or something that sounded good popped into my head.
3:AM: Do you play any instruments or sing?
RF: Not anymore, no.
3:AM: Any favorite (non-musical) writers or poets?
RF: Uh don’t know. I like Churchill quotes. If he actually came up with them I don’t know.
3:AM: Do you write anything else apart from lyrics? Poems, short stories, articles, whatever?
RF: Not really. Like I said mostly just stuff that pops into my head. What I after that use it for always remains to be seen.
3:AM: Who are your favorite lyricists and why? Were/are you the kind of person who always paid/pays attention to the words as well as the music?
RF: There are so many I like ranging from whatever I picked up from Shakespeare to Eddie Murphy. I always like the words as well as the music yes, the two are always married together.
3:AM: Any lyric or song you wish you’d written?
RF: ‘Mongoloid’ by Devo perhaps or ‘Sexnolltvå’ by Swedish punk band KSMB. Ah, what the hell, too many to mention.
3:AM: Do you think song lyrics are underrated as an art form?
RF: Sometimes yes and other times overrated.
3:AM: How did you get involved with The Hives?
RF: I saw potential in them and had a vision.
3:AM: Do you have anything to say about the whole boring ‘Randy Fitzsimmons is a pseudonym’ controversy?
RF: Not really. There are two kinds of people as I see it: Those who read News of The World (English tabloid rag – Graham) and those who don’t.
3:AM: The band seems to have a good sense of humor. Do you like humor in lyrics?
RF: I do actually and the boys can never help themselves being funny or cracking jokes so it is just their personality as a group that we see somewhat unveiled.
3:AM: How many lyrics have you written for the band?
RF: Hard to say. I’ve been involved in most of them from day one, so… but a definite number I have not.
3:AM: You write in Americanized English. Do you do this for the American market or is this just a natural unconscious consequence of growing up on American electronic culture and listening to American songs?
RF: The latter.
3:AM: What would you say major Hives lyrical themes are?
RF: Me vs. you/he/she/it or them/they.
3:AM: Ever written lyrics with anybody else? For anybody else?
RF: No comment.
3:AM: Any lyric you’re particularly proud of?
RF: ‘Automatic Schmuck’ and ‘Outsmarted’ (the name of this interview comes from a fine line in this song – Graham) have rhyme structures that satisfy me and ‘Outsmarted’ also has a nice roll to what the vowels are in each line.
3:AM: Do any of the other band members have input into the lyrics? Do they ever ask you to write a song about a certain subject?
RF: We mostly work together once someone has had an idea.
3:AM: Do you write in English or Swedish first, then translate? Ever want to do just all-Swedish lyrics?
RF: Always English.
3:AM: Do you ever write lyrics thinking about how Pelle will sing them?
RF: Yeah, most of the time.
3:AM: What constitutes a good lyric to you?
RF: Fun words or clever content, beautiful words or ragged type stuff. Anything that gets you kind of. Simplicity like ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk or ‘Mr Suit’ by Wire.
3:AM: Do you draw inspiration from the lyrics of other musical genres except from punk ones?
RF: Yeah, from all kinds of places.
3:AM: Some of your lyrics (ie ‘B is For Brutus’) are somewhat oblique. Do you like writing words that are difficult to understand, or even maybe impenetrable?
RF: Depends. Sometimes they seem to do the job of what I’m trying to say. Somewhat in the same way that a picture is said to say more than a thousand words a tricky word can sometimes pinpoint a whole verse of a song and the rest can be shit like ‘hell yeah!’ and other interjections.
3:AM: Do you think a lyricist has an average shelf life before they lose their ability to write good words?
3:AM: What do you think precipitates their fall into obsolescence?
RF: The idea that one’s writing cannot get better than it was before.
3:AM: Do you think the music industry in general appreciates a good lyric? Is it getting better or worse wordwork-wise as the years go on?
RF: Hard to say. Music industry appreciates good money before anything else. Don’t think many record companies push the good lyrics aspect so much in the meeting room with artists. Fun shit going on with lyrics though. A lot of good hip hop guys as well as bands who are inspired by new slang and stuff.
3:AM: Ever go to write a lyric but think you’d better not because it won’t fit in with the presubscribed punk ethic and esthetic?
RF: No. I write whatever I want. Perhaps it can’t all be used with The Hives but the writing just has to flow. No need to hold it in.
3:AM: What is your interpretation or idea of a perfect punk lyric?
RF: Could be a really long and poetically good one like ‘Sexnolltvå’ with KSMB or a short and snappy one that just goes “Oi Oi Oi!”
3:AM: Ever censor yourself, or have the band or record label censor you?
RF: Yeah, we all censor each other. Not where we take out bad words or anything, but rather parts that suck.
3:AM: You don’t use many expletives. Any reason for this?
RF: Foul language, you mean? Guess not. “Shit” is ok to say, right?
3:AM: How long does it take you to write a lyric? Does it come quick, or do you labor over it?
RF: A bit of both. Sometimes the idea comes fast and then you have to go with it but then it can sometimes be a hell of a struggle to finish it, timewise anything from 40 seconds to a year.
3:AM: How do you think being Swedish shows through in the words?
RF: I never said I was Swedish…
3:AM: What would you consider the Swedish mindset to be, and do they have an appreciation of good words?
RF: Hard to pinpoint. When having spent so much time here I don’t think about it in those terms but the Swedes they do love good words. They have many fine poets and they are recognized in their country for their works.
3:AM: How do you think your lyrics have evolved as you have matured?
RF: I don’t know. I guess you become more perceptive of your own ability and your own style for better or worse. For better cause you can develop it and avoid the same pitfalls and for worse cause you might see through your own trick and get tired of it. I wanna write simple lyrics and sometimes I feel like I fall short of that.
3:AM: If you were to have one of your own, or somebody else’s, lyrics on your tombstone (if, of course you don’t get cremated), what would it be?
RF: Just my name, please. Nothing fancy.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Graham Rae was born in Falkirk in Scotland and now lives in the deceptively quiet Chicago suburbs. He has been published for 20 years in a good number of horror fanzines (Deep Red, Viscera View), movie magazines (American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique) and literary websites (Laura Hird, Reality Studio). He has a beautiful wife and kid and has had many strange adventures, including jokingly challenging Peter Lord of The Rings Jackson to a fight, being a zombie in a George A Romero movie. Buy him a beer sometime and he’ll tell you a tell-tale tall tale or two or three. He has a short story in the 2009 Smiths-song-titles-based Serpent’s Tail collection Paint A Vulgar Picture, and is just finishing his first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 19th, 2008.