By Mike Wahmann
I’ve been asked many times before what my process is for writing music? It has certainly varied and changed over the years, especially depending on who I’m working with in a particular project or band. Now, when I tell you what I do or my experience with it is…I’m not sitting here saying I’m this amazing prolific writer of music. I’m telling you what I’ve done through the years and what makes me happy to write music. When I first started playing music, just as anyone does…I wanted to “be like someone.” I’d learn songs from different bands and that’s how I learned guitar. Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam…I’d sit in front of a stereo and pluck out songs until my fingers couldn’t take it anymore.
I eventually found a group of dudes that wanted to play in a band. I was in 10th grade and we learned songs from Rage Against the Machine, Tool, the bands I mentioned before…And that’s what made us “a band” in our eyes. Shortly after our first show, which was our high school battle of the bands, we decided to venture into the world of songwriting. My first real experience was 4 other dudes and myself in a basement trying to “play something that wasn’t someone else's.” Everyone gave a little bit of their input and we finally created “a song.” A coherent series of sounds and lyrics that was not someone else’s…It was OURS! And that was the coolest thing to me. I began to realize that I could take all these songs I learned, take these chords and create my own progressions, or “order in which they are played.”
It was my first taste and not to say that I didn’t play a lot of cover songs thereafter, but I knew at that point that THIS is what I wanted to do. At the time, I was strictly a guitar player. So my next band, we continued on the path of creating our own original music. That band saw a little bit of success. “Success” is relative. It was more “success” than I had seen in my band prior, we were drawing people at shows on a consistent basis. So that to me, was success. Anyway, drawing people consistently meant that people knew the music we wrote. So much so that they were singing along to the songs! At that point, I knew even more that THIS is what I wanted to do.
I eventually landed in my next band which was an unexpected opportunity, I was asked to be the vocalist. Now, I‘m not a singer…But shout out to AJ Vekas, who’s still drumming and writing music with me to this day…He convinced me that I was. What started out as a fill-in situation turned into what would change my musical direction forever. I had become “a frontman.” I joined the band with a few songs lyrically written already. Which was great but the first time we finished an instrumental arrangement and everyone looked at me for where this song was headed was daunting. I was scared. What if the melody sucks? What do I write about? What am I even doing?
I quickly realized that I was finally able to say what I needed to say. It wasn’t going to be spoken about via guitar riff or chord progression. It was going to be my message and my words. I then got excited! But I learned quickling while writing that first song, that it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t know what kind of mental repercussions that would have. Taking everything that hurts and putting it to paper hurt but by the time I was done and it was formatted and organized properly, it was the most cathartic experience in my life. I loved it. I can share a story with everyone and maybe, just maybe…They would get a little bit of comfort from it. I knew that I needed this in my life from then on out.
I’ve tried to write superficially before. It showed. If I’m not passionate about something, or can relate to or can’t put myself in their shoes, I don’t think it comes out right. The next phase of my journey pushed me in many ways. I started writing with people who wanted more input in things. I enjoyed a lot of it, but I also became disheartened by some situations. I found myself pulling back more and more. I found band practice to be 4 people standing in a circle, looking at each other and waiting for the next big hit or unique sound to come from them. My “style” or approach was no longer “their thing” and the process became difficult. It was then that I started hearing songs. Not existing songs…new unwritten and unreleased songs.
This time contained a lot of hurt but it also was a time that I felt liberated. It was then that I knew I needed to figure out how to write but not have to rely on anyone else to “finish the parts.” I worked hard but finally found a way that I was able to write and record new songs, from beginning to end. It started as a demo capacity. Which was fine. Because the vision is what I wanted to hear. I eventually worked on mastering the mixing and recording process to be able to put out my own material. Regardless of if I had a drummer or bassist or keyboard player. I found freedom!
With that freedom, I knew I didn’t want to get stuck in my own way as it pertains to song approach, structure, melodies, progressions, etc. So I started writing with my buddies Gary Greterson and Rich Albergo but other genres outside of rock. Pop music, rap music, acoustic singer songwriter, ballads…I pushed. I pushed myself in every which way I could as a songwriter. I also found myself writing female top-40 pop but also listening to heavier and heavier music. It was a true musical renaissance in my personal life. Despite that, my love for writing and performing rock music was not lost. And I knew I needed to get back to my love of being in a band.
Now, when I get into a different band or project I truly try to make it different or unique from the last thing I did. As a “front person,” I didn’t want this project to just be an extension of my last project. I decided to get a bit more aggressive and I decided to bring another voice in. This is probably where you’ve all joined my musical journey. This is where I started Last Turn Off Broadway with Artie Aldorando. My goal with LTOB was to bring aggressive but upbeat music but include two distinct voices up front. Full disclosure, it was absolutely a move done out of spite…I was accused of not letting people get a chance to step up and sing in the past, so in true me fashion I said “fine, I’m adding another lead singer to this project!”
Writing as two lead singers was something even harder than writing a song for someone else. Most of the time when you’re writing for someone, they’re very happy to take the song, make minor adjustments and just move forward. But two people singing one song, it had to make sense. Things needed to sync up. It was something that I was actually able to do with Artie pretty quickly. We both opened up. We both were able to discuss these tough times and able to write about them. And we would do that either as someone who’s their backup or as a devil’s advocate opposition. Now, did things ALWAYS sync up? I’d be lying if I said yes. But, the percentage was quite good. It was a vibe, it worked real well for us and I’ll never take that for granted. Those few years were truly letting someone else live in your brain and you living in theirs for a little while.
There really is no wrong way to write a song besides not being genuine. If you’re not drawing from experience or passion or being able to relate to a situation, it’s going to come out wrong. Sometimes it starts with a riff, sometimes a chorus melody with no lyrics, maybe it’s just a single line…I still hear complete songs. I still hear things in the middle of the day, middle of the night, especially in completely inconvenient times. Which is why my voice notes app on my phone is my best friend. Ask any writer and they’ll say the same thing. But at the end of the day, no matter how you approach it, do it with honesty and authenticity. Because when it’s not, it’s obvious and won’t make for great material.