Swinging Modern Sounds #37: The Age of Fine Arrangements


Cuddle Magic, in my opinion, is the band most likely to succeed, these days, if by succeed you mean getting a leg up, surpassing the modest touring-all-the-time-not-making-very-much-money-hustling-constantly model of the thing. Cuddle Magic is a very large collective-sized outfit that was begun at the New England Conservatory a few years ago by Ben Davis and Christopher McDonald, which outfit then quickly expanded to encompass a myriad of other players, an ebbing and flowing ensemble, all of them just as sharp, just as expert as the principals, the arrangements always being shockingly lovely, noteworthy for vibes, strings, wind instruments, toy pianos, exotic percussion, these instruments knotting their way in and out of songs, which, as in all great recordings, are at the center of things. The songs. That is, even though this band can play extraordinarily well, Cuddle Magic is really about songs, as should be the case in popular music, and though the compositions are elaborate, the songs never seem pretentious, precious, or mannered. Unlike Dirty Projectors, to name an obvious influence, Cuddle Magic never seems forbidding or intellectual for the sake of it. They love possibility in the popular song and are willing to go where new approaches are to be found. For example, I can’t think of a single guitar solo in a Cuddle Magic song. For example, there is no drum riser, and there are no large gongs at the back of the stage. There is no shredding, though these musicians could probably do so if they wanted. They are as tight as tropicalia, as rhythmically dexterous as prog, as melodically fascinating as jazz, but with a slightly baroque sense of counterpoint that reminds me, on occasion, of Meredith Monk, and, at other times of Steve Reich. They could easily be So Percussion, or Joni Mitchell, or the Bang on a Can All-Stars and they made their entire new album on analogue equipment. The boast is: no computer ever touched this album, Info Nympho. And Info Nympho sure does sound good on vinyl. As evidence of the fact that Cuddle Magic is on the verge of much larger success I adduce that fact that Info Nympho, its third album, is a marked improvement over the prior two, which I also liked. The first, eponymously titled, had some distinctly jazz flavor to it, that I for one felt was conservatorial, and the second, while excellent, did not quite have the overwhelming confidence that marks Info Nympho, a title which makes me want to interpret, which makes me want to say that the band, on this album, is compiling the musical world around them with a slightly manic energy, but now this process is somewhat less like it would be with an aspirant, and more like it would be with a seasoned and utterly reliable crew of long-time players, and according to the algorithms of such things this means: they are well on their way.

This turn of events, in which the band most likely to succeed is a conservatory-trained chamber ensemble which has no conventional front man, is remarkable to me, because it is so unlike what I imagined would attract me to the popular song in my youth. In my youth, it was understood that musical ability and expression were at opposite ends of a certain dialectic of contemporary music making, and you could rely on this set of truths for a long time—from, let’s say, The Stooges to Fever to Tell, or nearly forty years—and I for one never saw any particular reason to revise my opinion here, viz. that a minimum of ability was necessary to tell the truth. Nevertheless, something started to happen in the last ten years (and I believe I will have occasion to speak more of it in future posts), and, I imagine, it kind of started with Sufjan Stevens, or Sufjan Stevens and two contemporaneous bands who do not quite interest me—Arcade Fire and The National—each of whom have “orchestral” offspring. Suddenly, in the last ten years, it became a badge of honor to be able to play. And to arrange. What is most astonishing to this listener, in the case at hand, is that now the ability to play and the ability to write moving songs do not seem like they are obverses of one another. Take, for example, “Disgrace Note,” from Info Nympho, of which more is to be found below. In the age of Fine Arrangements, which is the age in which we find ourselves, in which Joanna Newsom can tour with an orchestra (in 2006) and somehow fail to elicit comparisons to the Moody Blues, excellence in timbre and texture and arrangement will somehow enhance expression. Such is the situation with the thoroughly excellent Cuddle Magic.

And I haven’t even mentioned the lyrics yet. Although the songs on Info Nympho are composed by various members (“Hoarders,” e.g., is by singer Kristin Slipp and deserves your fervent listening), especial mention must be made of the songs that Ben Davis writes with his brother (and lyricist) Tim Davis. Compositions by brothers are always interesting, and always feature, it seems to me, some special density of consciousness. The decision making with songs by brothers is always away from view, hard to parse, difficult to explain. In this case, the relationship between the brothers is even more interesting, because they are not full brothers, they are half-brothers, and are separated by nearly a decade, and because Tim Davis is a non-performing member of the band, though he did once make a very excellent video of Cuddle Magic (which is to be seen here, c.f., Scorsese’s long take from Goodfellas), and because Tim Davis is not just a lyricist for Cuddle Magic, but is a rather extraordinary art photographer, and videographer, and all around conceptual Renaissance person, and, if all of that is not enough, Tim Davis also used to write experimental poetry. Info Nympho relies at important moments on the density of Tim Davis’s lyrics. These lyrics find ways to adhere here to his brother’s crazy line lengths (there’s not a tetrameter in sight), but these lyrics are also often funny, and often inscrutable, and fall often into wordplay (as in the title), and allusion, instead of relying on, let’s say, confession, which one might more frequently associate with the contemporary song. This work, the work of brothers, is part of what makes this band unique, the trajectory of fraternal esteem, and so I felt like it might help explain why Cuddle Magic is most likely to succeed if I could somehow ensnare both brothers in a conversation, which proceeded by e-mail between the beginning and end of July 2012. I have left the eccentricities of punctuation and style intact. This is, in fact, how the Davises communicate.

(P.S. Info Nympho is available now on FYO Records. And the Cuddle Magic website is here.)


The Rumpus: You guys ready for some questions?

Ben: Yes.

Tim: Mmm hmmm

Rumpus: At what point, Ben, did you integrate Tim into the songwriting for Cuddle Magic? Were you already writing with the band? What was it about Tim’s lyrics that seemed essential to what you were doing?

Ben: Tim and I wrote songs together for almost as long as I can remember. Initially perhaps Tim would play piano and I would sing and make up the songs, melody and lyrics over Tim’s or our father Peter’s chord progressions. I don’t remember the exact process with great clarity but a lot of these early (maybe I was 5-10 years old) songs are actually well documented on cassette tapes converted to digital.  Some of the hit titles included “I’m the weirdest person in the world”, “Big Hair”, and “Blue Birds”.

Later I started writing songs on my own culminating with an album I came out with in high-school. Even then I remember asking help of my brother with lyrics for some songs for instance a fast melodic run in a song that ended up with the Tim Davis lyric, “met in the back of an ATM bank where the sunlight of heaven had lit up the mall” which was actually a J S Bach quote in the melody of my song, “if we fall”. It seemed at that point the roles had switched from Me improvising lyrics to Tim’s music to Tim writing lyrics to my music and melodies.

Then we started writing songs together starting with “Sandinista” from the first self titled inside out album (lyrics on the outside). This song kind of marks the beginning of Cuddle Magic, thus Tim was there from the very birthing of the band.

Rumpus: Tim, what’s your recollection of these early efforts? Can you remember titles and lyrics as well? And was lyric writing related to your early poetical efforts?

Tim: Interestingly, Ben and I, at age 3 and twenty, started learning music at the same time. So when he was three and four, I was just learning to tinker around on the piano and the banjo and guitar. I’d sit around plunking out chord progressions, and Ben would just absolutely fluidly make up melodies and lyrics on the spot. He could sing perfectly on key and make up perfect little tunes. I’ll never forget one early one that got recorded but then lost, “Frog man was a silly, He jumped higher than the ceiling”  [what a great off rhyme] “He jumped higher than this world. He went on the sun some day. He flied up to the moon, He flied up to Mars, Mars has two moons.”  Then he interrupted himself and spoke, “I’m not kidding Mars does have two moons.” And finished, in song, “And they both live in your head!”

So I was writing poetry, but it was very disjointed and experimental, and writing song lyrics seemed impossibly constraining at the time. Having Ben generate them naturally was like hitting a Comstock lode of lyrical playfulness. I don’t think I really appreciated how musical he was because he was so funny with words. But one day I took him to go inner tubing down a ski mountain (class alarm!) and we were listening to music in the car. I think it was Elvis Costello. When we got near the mountain he started getting a little perturbed, and said, “Tim, can you turn off the music so I can look?” I realized at that moment that music wasn’t some fun activity for him, but the essence of how he interacted with the world.

Rumpus: Do you think you each could talk a little about your father’s impact on this process? What his music—his gigs, his life as a musician—meant to you, and to the two of you together? Tim, maybe you want to go first?

Tim: OK. I’m in a motel in Erie, Pennsylvania. Perfect time to reflect on daddy-o. Ben and I are from different batches, so we’ll have differing feelings on this. I moved to Georgia with my mom when I was seven, so I never had the musical training Ben got. But I know my inner mirror reflects pop’s freedom and giddiness. When I was little he was playing in rock and pop bands. It was the early 70s and I see sweaty longhairs playing 12 strings in sunny fields. So I  have a template for a musical lifestyle, but no real support. But I’m still inspired by him — the easy joy music brings him. He whistles “How High The Moon” absentmindedly when he’s doing dishes.

Ben: I owe a lot about what I know about music to my dad; maybe more than I can remember. I do remember coming home from school sometime after I turned 9, and playing electric bass in guitar lessons for other older kids in his little teaching studio on the way to the bathroom in the first floor of 28 George street.  I don’t really remember learning the basics on guitar, but I remember I could play it.  Also he claims to have taught me ear-training while listening to the country station in the car when I was five years old. I probably could have, and still could take advantage of his massive knowledge more, but even just living with him and eventually gigging with him was enough to be inspired by him.

Rumpus: I’m asking about your dad, because I keep thinking, in this context, of the big Dylan interview that David Gates did (1997, I believe), when Time Out of Mind came out, and Gates asked Dylan if he and son Jakob used to sit around and play songs together. My recollection of the moment in the interview is that Dylan is, if not offended, at least sort of non-plussed, and says, in effect: “Of course, what do you think we’d do?” So I’m wondering if musical stuff is a currency in the family, and way of talking about the world, and, e.g., if you ever all three play together?

Tim: Tim here. Well, you’re talking to someone for whom, until recently, music has a painful pathological ache. Writing Cuddle Magic lyrics was really my first way back INTO a musical family, from which somewhere deep inside I felt isolated. For years I was pretty embarrassed at my lack of facility, almost like a prodigal son who’s returned from his wanderings to find out he no longer understands his native language, though he speaks perfect Turkish. So, no, we rarely played together, because I was (and anyone who knows me will be shocked at this) shy about it. For me, I was writing songs before I was really playing music with other people. It took the Hootenanny that my wife started at the local pub to get me out into the world.

Rumpus: Well, I want to hear about Ben’s recollections of the “musical family,” too, if there are any more, but I’m wondering, Tim, if you can just expand on Lisa’s hootenanny at the local pub, what this means, what you experienced there, how the transition took place.

Ben: He also always encouraged me to do musical things. I took violin lessons when I was two. I had piano lessons when I was five. I got a tiny electric bass when I was nine. These are ages when a father’s influence must be present in a way for these things to even take place. I definitely remember playing with my father as being a teacher student kind of relationship. When I was in high-school and interested in jazz, he would play tunes with me. He would play piano and I would play bass. I remember him stressing the importance or rhythm and playing simply in order to be good at supporting the other musicians especially as a bass player. I remember playing some of my first gigs with him. Playing at a contra-dance or a swing dance. And being surprised at how free he was and how he never had a set-list or counted off tunes. Just went into them. I remember always comparing different teacher’s comments to his. Like one teacher wanted me to play longer notes, whereas Peter liked shorter ones. I also remember being exposed to all sorts of bands he was in growing up, as I went to festivals, dances, shows, or witnessed rehearsals in-which he was involved.

Rumpus: This is all really moving to me. In my family, there was musical aspiration, but not very much talent, so there was always a lot of casting around for answers to questions. I remember trying to get my mother to teach me how to count fives and sixes once, and she just wasn’t any good at it. All right, Tim, can you talk about the hootenanny and the dawning of musical interests in your adulthood some?

Tim: So here I am, a man for whom music is all wrapped up in an absent, divorced Dad; a poet who hasn’t been at all satisfied with what poetry is for in his culture. Along comes this much younger brother who is busy being as pure a musician as there is, and I start writing words for the melodies just leeching out of him. I am able to strap my writing into a vehicle that is driving down a long clear lovely road, and am able to feel in touch with being a musician. Meanwhile, I go see Vic Chesnutt, and am utterly blown away by how sly and aching a song can be at once; how smart and how real. The Greeks thought the soul lived in the phrenos, the diaphragm, and we westerners are always debating between the head and the heart. With Vic I knew immediately to split the difference: it’s in the throat. So for years I wrote for Ben’s throat from mine, taking placeholder lyrics and mashing them with Vic-y humor, flatulence and sorrow.

On my 40th birthday, Lisa [Sanditz, Tim’s wife] organized a hootenanny at the Black Swan, the local pub here in Tivoli. My father was there, and a roomful of local musical types. I was paralyzed with fear (and birthday heartburn) and refused to play. But thanks to John Rosenthal, a terrific local musician and the quiet Sunday night bartender, we kept going, playing every week. And the more I played and sang, the more physical the idea of songwriting became. I started writing ditties for the hootenanny crew, including a chronicle of locals called “Carpenter to the Stars.” so once I found I had a public voice, I found my private one. I started writing tons of songs, shuttling between piano and guitar when things got hard, and trying to be Vic Chesnutt in my throat.

Rumpus: Well, that is a very beautiful pair of paragraphs. Before we come back to specific songs, which I want to do (songs from Info Nympho), I want to ask Ben a little about the formation of Cuddle Magic. So Ben, can you recreate a little bit the way in which Cuddle Magic came about?

Ben: Cuddle Magic came about when me and Christopher [McDonald] started playing songs together in various configurations….

Some interesting people were on the scene, including Columbian percussionist Toupac, and Australian singer Sophia Brous, and inspiring midwestern table player Mike Pfaff.  There are some early recordings of some of the first “Cuddle Magic” songs with some of these and other fine musicians.

Then a few quick shuffles were made and we were recording “Sandinista” and “Lonely Red” in a practice room, including last minute addition of Alec Spiegelman coming down to record with us, stepping out from a Balkan brass band rehearsal he was in upstairs. After recording these songs it was obvious that we needed to record the rest of the “Cuddle Magic” self titled record together.

This line up has also morphed over the next two albums but has more or less stayed relatively consistent.

Cuddle magic’s existence was to build upon “sandinista” and other such songs, as the basis for its existence.  “Sandinista” was a co-write with my brother, and musically it represents a certain relationship between simplicity and complexity, something complicated masked by something simple. So Tim’s lyrics are inherent in the existence of Cuddle Magic. So to answer your question of how soon, I would say immediately.

I was always so impressed with Tim’s ability to write clever lyrics that sounded good — to any melody I could come up with!

Sandinista was a very exciting time for us.

As far as the difference between what I was doing before…  Cuddle Magic’s sound, having to do with my specific collaborators, inspired me to develop material better than I had before.

Rumpus: Can we talk about a couple of specific songs? Maybe “Sandinista” is a good place to start? I’d like to hear exactly how the composition works, and how the collaboration is part thereof. So Ben, what did you have first? Melody? Or guitar part? Or are they identical?

Ben: I remember working on “Regular Unleaded” [from the band’s first album, Cuddle Magic] with Tim. We had an A and a B section, which I was trying to make the same length although they were in different time signatures. The A section was 8 measures of 7, the B section 7 measures of 4. There was this crooked piano groove with a sustained melodic pad on top of it, and I left Tim to work on the lyrics in a chapel with a piano. I wandered off to a swingset and while swinging, came up with the melody for the chorus. I jumped off the swings and ran back to the church and Tim had finished the lyrics.

This method of songwriting started with “Content/Contempt” [from Picture] I was studying tabla Tihais at the New England Conservatory and felt challenged to write songs that didn’t have traditional verse/ chorus/ bridge forms. So I bought a bunch of graph paper and started thinking about numbers. I came up with 10, 11, and 12. I thought those would be good numbers to have displacement and resolve within one pop song length. I started looking for the lowest common denominator. If the whole song had 660 beats, then 10 would go into that 66 times, 11 would go into it 60 times, and 12 would go into it 55 times. Before I had any melodic or harmonic content, I started thinking of ways to break up these 60 beats. Finally, I came up with 20 twelves, 20 elevens, and 20 tens. Three sections. This I turned into a piano part. Then dividing equally into the 60 elevens, I made up a melody in 11. It would start at the beginning of the song in the first section polyrhythmically against the 12. Because the first section was 240 beats long and not divisible by 11, the melody starting second section was out of phase. From there the whole composition was a balancing act of rhythmic complexities. I tried to make the song sound simple and beautiful despite its complex origins.

Rumpus: That’s the kind of answer I knew I was going to get eventually. And am excited to get. So, Tim, can you remember coming up with “Regular Unleaded” or “Content/Contempt” and what kinds of challenges do you face coming up with these incredibly unusual rhythms? I guess, considering your poetry was not in meter, this kind of lyric differs from what you were used to writing.

Tim: Cuddle Magic came along at a time of transition for me. I had spent a decade in New York as a downtown poet, writing in experimental forms and working in publishing. I began photographing — seriously taking pictures — in the New Directions office where I was an editor. I began to feel overwhelmed by how directly and thoroughly a photograph could communicate. Poetry had always been a set of anguishing exercises for me, a tightrope walk. Photography felt like sliding down a slope, gravitational and vivid, meditative and real. You make a photograph all at once, and when successful it’s as easy as swallowing. Writing is very very hard, with pitfalls all along the way. So when Ben and I started writing songs together, and I was given these strict rhythmic forms, it was a form of release. That movie about Temple Grandin taught me something about the process of writing in pre-set forms. The cows, even led to slaughter, are comfortable when penned in, constrained. Writing songs, which communicate directly to the emotions like photographs, in predetermined forms, helped me write with more ease, with more communicativeness and more directness. On the other hand, I new that the tone of my poetry — ironic, flatulent, goofy, punny — would make unexpected and strong song lyric writing. Again, I loved Vic Chesnutt, who wrote lines in songs like “Christian charity is a doily over my death boner.” So I wrote “Sandinista,” which is really a love song for my wife, Lisa Sanditz, but pretends to be about a hot terrorist: “Floating down a stream of love named/ for insurgent dames/ on the scent/ of the least resistance.”

Songwriting has helped me keep being a poet in a world where I long to actually communicate. Here’s the whole song:

You make me glad that I met ya
Adorable beast,  yeah

Hands and feet,  yeah
And all the bits in between,  yeah

Floating down a stream of love named
for insurgent dames
on the scent
of the least resistance

giddier than a drunk priest, yeah
And just a bit bleaker

You’re a guerilla
with a hot terrorist’s keester

I am just a hand grenade that
dangles while you dance
through the rain
of a fierce Nor’ easter

On the beach, ya
You caught a fish but released her

Watching you polish your piece, yeah
is like being kissed, yeah

Rumpus: Tim, so do you think, now, in terms of writing lyrics FOR Cuddle Magic, that is, to help Ben express what he’s already trying to express with the music, or are the themes your own to pursue? And if they are your own to pursue, how do you think about what constitutes a Cuddle Magic song for you?

Tim: I write the lyrics to Cuddle Magic songs with all the vectors I think any songwriter does. Sometimes Ben’s melody will come to me at a moment of content-richness. For example, we sat down to write together Christmas morning a few years ago, and I immediately got a call saying that Vic Chesnutt had successfully committed suicide. I felt totally paralyzed for a few hours, but then wrote “Disgrace Note,” all about suicides.

Disgrace Note

I can’t write a song
with Vic Chesnutt gone, no

The sun won’t stay down
Albert Ayler’s drowned, oh

Go screw God again
Richard Brautigan’s gone

Let it trouble you
D.F.W’s dun got gone

Donny Hathaway,
Margaux Hemingway  Stole themselves away

Walter Benjamin
sucking down morphine

Nikki Bacharach
in a plastic bag

Phil Loeb never rose
from his overdose

One shot to the head
Killed George Eastman dead picture it

Mary Margaret Ray
And then Spalding Gray, Stole themselves away

Breece DJ Pancake
never will awake

Darkness before noon
filled Arthur Koestler’s room

Are these choruses
Diane Arbus’s?

I can’t write a song
with Vic Chesnutt gone, way long gone
with no note of disgrace
the Late great Johnny Ace, Stole himself away

At other times, I feel the need to bring irony, wordplay, or humor, to a sonic world that is very complex, but gorgeous, sweet, and sincere. It’s almost an effort to make sure Cuddle Magic doesn’t sound like “Cuddle Magic.” So, for example, “The Packaging,” played for me by Ben while I was in a swimming pool, was about falling in love with product mascots.

The Packaging

When I met you I thought I had
maybe seen you around here
But there were no coincidences
that our two lives could spare

I asked about your upbringing
and barreled through your C.V.
But when your overcoat slipped off
You couldn’t it keep it from me

Argo Corn Starch® Indian
I feel I know you better than
most of the real life women that I’ve
met on this side of the packaging

There are some prejudices that
persist throughout my whole life
And one that I can’t seem to shake
is that bald guys look alike

But once while mopping up the floor
I almost lost my bearings
A rakish face looked out at me
with one seductive earring

I don’t want to make a scene
I have strong feelings, Mr. Clean
I melt like ice cream when you stare out
from your throne there on the packaging

Things are mostly things to me but
every once in a while
An object rears its ugly rear
and stands out in the pile

The hundredth bottle on the wall
might prove to be quite numbing
but one real shapely jug can make
a dead man keep on coming

Oh, Mrs. Butterworth shame on you
Leaving me sitting in sticky goo
Whenever I get my hands on you
I become one with the packaging

Sometimes a concept I have been working out in other realms meet up perfectly with something Ben is scratching at. That’s how it worked for “One Useful Song,” in which I tried to imagine the empirical uses for a song. I had written a poem called “One Useful Poem”:

One Useful Poem

Hey you fat fuck why not
recite this poem in semaphore
about 500 times?
One vigorous aerobic reading, w/ dumbbells
will burn off half a tub of slaw
Do it daily and you’ll look pithy

Once you’ve iced, transcribe this poem
around Grover Cleveland’s portrait oval on the
thousand dollar bill
and post it to Darfur
(Cleveland himself, BTW, at sixteen
had a job transcribing the blind
hymnnalist, Francis Jane “Fanny” Crosby’s poems
so you’re in good company)

OK. This poem kills fascists.

And it’s cellulose so it
absorbs gerbil whiz.
Fold it in your breast pocket
on the off chance its thickness
might divert stray
shrapnel off the Inferior vena cava

Poetry is the opposite of bureaucracy
so reading this reduces big government.

You might have a long boring experience
in a terminal or power outage
It might be nice to have a poem on a piece of paper
lying around. All flights are cancelled.
Even backup generators damaged in the blast.
You want to sit and listen to some hard earned silence.
Luckily, poetry, Maurice Blanchot diagnosed,
“protects against revelation.”

Revelation condom: Walt Whitman. Revelation
diaphragm: Emily Dickinson.
Poetry is prophylactic
also for your ears.
Don’t tell me you haven’t hated having
“Do You be-LIEVE in Life after Love?”
stuck in your head after passing a
supermarket or boutique.
This poem is scientifically formulated to be
Cher’s almost-posthumous comeback
ditty’s exact antidote.
So if you live within range of satellite radio
always have it onhand.

“Horned owls have one ear that opens up and one
that opens down.”
That’s Marianne Moore in “The Student,” her
attempt to tangle up poetry and fact.
Ms. Moore quoted Dewey in her diary:
“Surely there is no more significant question…than…the reconciliation of the attitudes of practical science and contemplative aesthetic appreciation.”
She then wrote, “Swordfish are different from
gars.” But why bother?
This poem, printed in an unread magazine or
small press chapbook
and stored in boxes in my basement
is as factual as anything you can name.
As practical as ballast.
I wonder if walls weren’t the first facts.
Build one with this.

“One Useful Song” was much less angry, less doctrinal about why a work of art fails to be useful:

If  you were/ waiting for a plane/ stuck in terminal B with nothing but your palm to read/ you could sing this song to me/ instead of staring at the TV
Let’s say you/ got lost while camping/ it might be tempting to panic out there all alone/ but CDs reflect the sun/ use this one to Mayday home

How could this song be more/ than musical decor, or sonic petits four/ Could it have some real use/ like a foolproof excuse/ or bulletproof glass at the liquor store?

This song could/ contain some secret code/ which the powers that be don’t know informs our operatives/ that it is unsafe to give/ your real name if taken captive
If you have/ Jingle bells in your mind/ this song could neutralize/ that toxic little melody/ it’s kind of a remedy/ for the corporate licensing fee

How could this song be more/ than musical decor, or sonic petits four/ Could it have some real use/ like a foolproof excuse/ or bulletproof glass at the liquor store?

Rumpus: Ben, I was going to ask about “Disgrace Note,” which may well be my favorite song on the new album, and I was wondering if you could describe what your reaction is upon getting a lyric like Tim’s—so challenging, so heartrending. Do you feel it completed the song you had in mind, or took the song in another direction entirely?

Ben: “Disgrace Note” was written much like “Content/Contempt” — phrasing first… and then melody/chords/arrangement after.

I had the entire song (arrangement, drumbeat and all) when I brought it to Tim. I had some other more incomplete seeds of songs with me too. It was during that few days that we had planned on writing songs together that Tim learned about Vic’s suicide. It was kind of a no brainer that the song should deal with the issue for Tim and soon we had, “I can’t write a song with Vic Chesnutt gone no”. from there Tim brought up a huge list of names of suicide victims on Wiki.

I remember being so satisfied by the emotional strength of the lyrics of “Disgrace Note,” which sometimes can get lost in the genius of Tim’s wittiness in other songs. This song had both.

Rumpus: What do you think the songwriting means to you guys as brothers? And what does it mean for the band?

Ben: Well, songwriting is about creating a little world for a few minutes that music can live in. Sculpting that time into a shape that flows forward in a certain way until it is over. It is the taking of separate parts, the lyrical ideas, the emotional idea, the sounds, the rhythms, the forms, the melodies, and putting them all together into one thing.

It’s about the process, and how you get to the end point as much as the end point itself.

Rumpus: Tim?

Tim: I’ve never collaborated with anyone before. Photographers a are pretty solitary lot, drifting through the world like big gaping open mouthed whales. So the opportunity to work with someone else is genuinely thrilling. The fact I genuinely trust and admire that collaborator is even better. And that he’s my brother is cream on the cream. But there’s more. I love Cuddle Magic, the band. I could easily imagine working on these songs and then finding them in embarrassing treatments by idiots. But the songs go into this crazy musical mixing chamber and come out just played so goddamn well. I just got to have a bunch of Cuddle Magicians on my record, and they each brought so many good ideas and so much pure musicianship. It was pure and perfect. Alec and Cole wrote and played the horn arrangements, Kristen worked on the backing vocals. They’re like a roving band of musical hobos who happen to be trained geniuses.

Ben: Songwriting with my brother is such an amazing thing because it allows me to share in the making of creative projects with my brother. He has always been an inspiring person to be around, and has an adventurous spirit! I remember when we went camping long ago in the everglades, he convinced me to sneak into a campground late at night. Artistically I think he is very brave and takes risks that some other people wouldn’t take, lyrically going where he isn’t supposed to go. And in the same way that I try to make complex musical ideas ‘work’ by making them sound simple, I think he is able to make complicated ideas fit abstractly into the tight puzzle that is the rhythmic schemes of my songs.

It’s a relationship I cherish greatly. I think not that many people get to share with their family such an intimate and important aspect of their life. I’m excited about what the future has in store for us. Can’t wait to build more on the templates we have been developing for collaboration!

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →