Hybrid Moments interviews Chris “Cmar” Martin of Hostage Calm and discusses his approach to songwriting, influences, and whether the best writing is from sudden inspiration or a deliberate process.
Photo by Laurelin Matulis
I first met Cmar in January 2009 when a band I was playing in opened for Hostage Calm and Make Do and Mend at the Legion of Doom house in Columbus, OH. At the time, Hostage Calm was playing a unique and progressive take on youth crew hardcore with politically focused lyrics. They blew me away with their speed, precision, and interesting guitar parts. Not content to rest with their sound, Hostage Calm turned a 180 and surprised everyone with the release of their self-titled record in 2010 that featured more traditional songwriting, but with a wildly diverse range of styles including latin-beats, Springsteen-style anthems, and a more personal take on the liberated worldview they had previously expressed.
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Where does quality songwriting come from? Is it just from sudden inspiration or is it a process? Is it science or art?
While the answer is obviously some combination, I think the “science” gets overlooked.
I think we’ve romanticized this concept of creativity being completely spontaneous, but I would beg to differ. I think there’s something to be said for creative people doing things with great intent.
When making melodic or harmonic choices, you’re at least predominantly pulling from a repertoire of different chord voicings and movements. Whether this is from formal training or just what you’ve picked up, you’ve accumulated a working knowledge of how notes move. The size and scope of your repertoire determines your range of options, and while you may stumble across glory here and there, that is not the driving force of songwriting in my opinion. I’m personally very deliberate – choosing to communicate a certain feeling through certain note choices, certain inversions in the bass or guitar, or certain key changes at certain times.
What premium do you put on the literal meaning in your songwriting? Do you intend a song to mean one certain thing?
I want my work to project a range of meaning, a spectrum. So for me, writing is not about generating a song that has a singular interpretation lyrically or sonically. But it’s also not about careless, vague ponderings. It’s about considering the range of interpretation you would want to find in a song, and then deliberately articulating yourself in a way that projects this range of meaning. A seasoned writer can convey the scope and breadth of meaning, and by shedding the false choice of “explicit vs. vague,” you can start to capture the enormity of feeling and meaning.
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From one of your major influences, can you discuss one or more things that you pull from them that influences your own songwriting?
Let’s take Bruce Springsteen. He took the social depth of late 60s rock and folk music, and mixed with it the pure, enchanted magic of 50s and early 60s rock’n’roll.
I think what I take from [Bruce Springsteen] is the ability to blend the social realism with the simple and sometimes neanderthal-nature of rock music.
Whether it’s rock, punk, hardcore, etc., there’s always something sort of ignorant and cretinous about it to me. I think Bruce uses that cretinism to make the songs drive harder, but not to keep rock’n’roll thoughtless. I would always find myself listening to the Beach Boys or some early Rolling Stones and think, “These are such phenomenal songs, but the lyrics are painfully meaningless.” I think the Boss helped merge wisdom with the muscularity of rock’n’roll to create a true force.
What is a favorite song of yours and what makes it great?
One of my favorite songs is “Danny Boy.” The song at this point has been so canonized and widely known that a lot of people may not recognize the brilliance in this song. So many facets of this song make it a true classic, from the arrangement to the song’s storyline.
However, I want to focus on the range of the lead melody. Working in conjunction with the changes in dynamics, this song utilizes a very broad vocal range. If in the key of D Major for instance, the song hits its lowest note at B and its highest note, more than an octave and a half above it, at F#. This is a vocal range of a perfect 12th [Editor – or an octave plus a 5th]. You will note how the song takes a huge emotional leap from the soft and low opening lines into the rising, “so come ye back” lyric. The vocalist is now operating in a higher octave and more explosive part of his or her range. The song climaxes in each suite (my word choice) during one of my favorite moves in songwriting: leaping from the fifth below (A) to the third above (F#), as seen in the line, “and I’ll be here.” By delivering these lower notes before the highest note in the song, it only highlights the enormity of this high F#. For those more versed in music theory, you’ll notice that this dramatic jump is merely just an inversion of the other two notes that make the tonic triad (my word choice). The expressive power of the 3rd and 5th are well documented, but they’re ability to deliver a song’s iconic peak has gone overlooked. Songs like Taps [Editor – the bugle song played at funerals and on the 4th of July] and the Star Spangled Banner (“o’er the ramparts”) feature this broad jump from the 5th to the 3rd.
If songwriting is a toolbox, what is a go-to tool for you?
I’m gonna keep most of my tricks in my backpocket, but I’ll give you a simple one that will get you thinking outside of the box for many young songwriters. A classic choice to step out of key while making something timeless would be to play the IV chord, then turn that major chord into a minor, then arrive on the I chord. In the key of C, that would be F Major, F minor, and then C [Editor – This is also known as the IV minor chord, which will be covered in depth in a later post]. In these three chords, you will see the descending chromatic movement of A-Ab-G, which is fundamental to the greatness of this move. This chord progression is hidden in some Hostage Calm work by making the chord inversions or arrangement across instruments deliver this feeling with more subtlety. However, it’s a classic move that I encourages you to think outside the key and try something more daring.
Let’s talk about the writing of the Hostage Calm song, “War on a Feeling,” from your self-titled 2010 record on Run for Cover Records. What were your goals with it? What you were thinking when you wrote it? How did it develop as you were writing?
“War On a Feeling” was a unique situation because I had decided that self-titled record was so insanely technical and dense that we had established our songwriting prowess to the point where I felt comfortable tracking three chord, I-IV-V style song. I’ve always had a very insulting view of songs that had a simple chord structure: I felt that these songs didn’t push themselves to find unexplored ground. Not the number of chords, but the lack of substance typically exhibited with a I-IV-V song.
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But, I have always been a believer in leading with a melody, and using the rest of the writing to support a main idea. The melodies of everything on S/T and Please Remain Calm preceded the chords and arrangement. In the case of “War on a Feeling,” I had written a melody that I thought was so magical and timeless, and the chords that naturally arose to support the melody was I-IV-V. I fought it for a while, but I realized I was robbing the song of its natural greatness. This was around the time when I was learning that creating something simple was actually one of the tallest orders in any creative endeavor, and I think this song foreshadowed our band’s ability to write more anthemic songs while still maintaining our music flare. I was starting to understand that there’s a difference between the form of simplicity that is the limit of genius and the form of simplicity that is the height of genius.
As for the lyrics, I wrote them while living and working in Guatemala. I think the song is one of the denser, more academically poetic songs in the Hostage Calm songbook, but the chorus brings a succinct, anthemic simplicity. The song speaks to the loneliness of youth and sanity in vapid, hostile Bush America. The song is fueled by my struggle between wanting to do the right thing, and not always knowing what the right thing is. I labored over the idea of this song for months, but one day it just came to me in a computer lab in Xela, Guatemala. I emailed it to the band, and the rest is history.
Any final advice to songwriters?
Understand movement. Understand that when you move from one chord to another, you’re actually moving through multiple different harmonic lines. Even moving through the classic open G campfire chord to an A chord, you’re making six different motion choices within this chord change (each of the six strings on the guitar). Once you gain a contrapuntal understanding of motion in music, you can free yourself from modern music’s most boring conventions and start to truly express something beautiful.
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