Songwriter Interviews

Andrew Stockdale of Wolfmother

by Greg Prato

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If you think back to 2005, popular rock music was getting increasingly further away from the sound of real musicians playing together, live. But bubbling up from Down Under was Wolfmother, who provided some relief amidst all the studio-perfected (or perhaps more precisely, Pro Tools perfected) sounds, with their kickass self-titled release.

With an undeniable '60s/'70s sound and look, the album spawned such rock radio hits as "Woman" (which won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance), "Love Train," "Dimension," and "Joker & the Thief." And 10 years after its initial release, Wolfmother was reissued as an expanded double-disc set by the fine folks at Interscope/UMe. Wolfmother's singer/guitarist, Andrew Stockdale, spoke with us around this time about songwriting, his favorite singers, and the stories behind several of his top tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How do you write your best songs?

Andrew Stockdale: What I did back in the day, like when I first started, I'd have a drum kit in the room, electric guitar, and one microphone. I'd lay down ideas by myself - almost "prepare" the ideas. When you invite your friends along or musicians to come in the room, it's good to have a starting point, like something for them to do, so I prepared an intro, verse, chorus, and a vocal line, and then we'd arrange it together. That's how I've been doing it.

On Cosmic Egg [2009 Wolfmother album], that's what I did, too: I wrote 15 songs by myself, and then once I'd get together with the band, and we're going through those 15 songs, I might write another four or five. Just kind of go, "The record needs this. The set needs this." At the tail end of all this energy and creative flow, I just quickly grab some ideas.

"Joker & the Thief" was at the end of all that writing, and the same with "New Moon Rising," "Cosmic Egg," and "California Queen." They were at the tail end, after writing 15 songs. Once you've really got your rhythm going, the last four or five songs can sometimes be the best. I'm sure you'll find that from a lot of people. I think it's a tried and tested technique.

Songfacts: Do your best songs come the quickest?

Stockdale: I love that! [Laughs] Some songs, yeah. At the moment, with this new Wolfmother record, I'm writing a song a day, and I just walk in and I don't take any ideas in there - I just write it straight off the bat. Instantly.

Everything has to happen quickly: the drums are set up, the guitars are set up, the bass is set up. It's just that you want all that technological stuff to be secondary, and stay out of your way, because you've got to capture the excitement of the track and the intent, the expression, of who you are. The good vibes. You really want to capture the purest emotions coming through, and if you stuff around with mics and walking in and out of the session, and someone comes in, it all gets diluted down and all gets kind of lost. You've got to move quickly and create the best scenario where you can allow it all to happen.

Songfacts: Do you write primarily on guitar, or on other instruments, as well?

Stockdale: I bought a Fender Rhodes after the first Wolfmother record, and I wrote a song called "Far Away" which ended up being this massive hit in Europe.

You can write a hook on any instrument if you just make it three or four notes, and you repeat those notes and you add a cool beat and you put a vocal line over it. It's the same, whether it's rock n' roll or whatever the genre is. All those elements of the song need to be there to satisfy the listener's demand.

The Fender Rhodes is an electric piano which was quite a popular instrument to utilize in rock songs back in the 1970s. Invented by a chap named Harold Rhodes, the piano (which looks like a modern-day keyboard) was first manufactured by Mr. Rhodes himself, then Fender, and during the instrument's golden era (1965-1983) by CBS. Some classic rock tunes that feature a Rhodes include Queen's "You're My Best Friend," The Doors' "Riders on the Storm," Steely Dan's "Babylon Sisters," Styx's "Babe," and Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," among many others.
What I am good at is riffs. I'll pick up an electric guitar, pick up a bass, and I just have this gut instinct for riffs. I can't explain it, but it's a gut instinct, just really pure, from your being. When I'm playing riffs, I don't like anything fluffy, frilly, weak... there's nothing worse than a weak riff. A weak, flimsy, predictable riff. A riff has to sound familiar, but you've never heard it before. It's like an old friend that you've never met before. Like a kindred spirit that just appears, and you go, "Yeah! That's it, man! That sticks!"

And there's a degree of authenticity to it. You can't overthink it, you can't be like a musical virtuoso, you can't be pretentious, you can't be overly intelligent about it. You've got to transcend all of that control, like you're in personal control.

People talk about "mojo" or "vibe" or "juju" - you have to try to get all these elements together, where it's just free and flowing and you're in a sweet spot, and you've got to stay in that sweet spot as long as you can.

Songfacts: Lyrically, was there an actual person that inspired the song "Woman"?

Stockdale: I lived in Sydney, and when I came up with those lyrics for "Woman," I was 27. And look, I should say my girlfriend, shouldn't I? [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, it was because of my girlfriend!

I think it was an overall impression of living in this beautiful city in the harbor.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the song "Far Away"?

Stockdale: We don't really play that song anymore, because I feel like it's a bit cheesy. I feel uncomfortable about it, but they really love it in Europe.

That's just about when you're away from home, when you're on the other side of the world, and just trying to let people know at home that you're thinking of them and everything's cool and life is going on whilst you're away and having experiences. But hopefully, your bond and connection will still be there when you get home.

Songfacts: "Back Round"?

Stockdale: We played that one yesterday - we hadn't played that one in six years.

We'd done almost 400 shows in three years, so I hadn't been away that much. That was my first experience being a touring musician, and coming and going every two weeks: I'd be home for two weeks, then I'd be gone.

I guess that's similar to "Far Away." When I was on the road with Wolfmother, I never saw any of our film clips on TV or heard us on the radio, because I wasn't there. I never saw the rollout for the campaign posters and everything, because I wasn't there. I'd literally get home one day before playing in front of 10,000 people, and it just builds up and builds up, and we were just chipping away, working at it, and it just went massive.

I kind of wish I could slow it down, so I could see it. I want to hear the songs on the radio. But a lot of it is like, letting go, being an onlooker or being in the audience. You're the artist, you're creating it. You're doing it, so you don't get to see what the whole thing looks like as it pans out. I think maybe "Back Round" is a little bit about that experience of all these things going on, but not actually seeing it.

Some people have good intentions to help you, and sometimes there's a little bit of not-so-good intentions going on here and there. I guess you've just got to stay optimistic and maybe that's what the song is about: that whole experience of being caught in the middle.

Songfacts: "Heavy Weight"?

Stockdale: With "Woman" and a lot of these songs, I just say things. Like "Heavy Weight" - just the weight of all the crap in life. It's a bit more of a depressive, melancholy perspective: the heavy weight of responsibility and accountability.

I don't want to be negative - it's not my job to make people feel like shit. [Laughs] I don't want to do that. Sometimes, when you talk about your problems, other people can relate to you. It's sort of like a social faux pas in some ways to open up and be real. But I guess that song is just opening up and being a bit real. Add in the riffs and the heaviness, and in some ways, people can relate to that.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite singers?

Stockdale: Favorite singers? I like Ozzy Osbourne. I think he's got a great vocal style - one of the classic rock n' roll voices. I like the way he approaches melodies - that kind of question/answer blues vocal line. It seems very natural to him.

Iggy Pop, I love his voice - that kind of authentic, growling swagger. I guess a good voice has an element of effortlessness to it, and he's got that. Maybe even Chuck Berry. His voice is a nasally and percussive voice.

I love John Lennon's voice. The song "Gimme Some Truth," he can really be a voice of an angel or the most scathing hardass dude around. I like the dichotomy of a voice. Axl Rose has that, too: the voice of an angel and then the voice of some hellish creature. I think when you can hear both good and bad being conflicted in one voice, it captures people's attention. If you have a little angelic voice, people think you're a fake, complete phony dude. But if you're overbearingly horrible and over-singing in a real sick, repulsive voice, it turns people away. You need that spectrum of emotions.

You listen to John Lennon sing, you're set. Listen to four or five of his songs, and you can hear a beautiful ballad like "Julia," and then you can hear "Gimme Some Truth." He's the ultimate all-around rock n' roll voice

October 5, 2015.
For more, visit wolfmother.com.

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