“Finding Meaning in the Mundane”: An Interview with Pompeii’s Dean Stafford

I recently caught-up with Dean Stafford, lead vocalist & rhythm guitarist for the Austin-based band Pompeii, who have put out two extraordinary albums: “Assembly” and “Nothing Happens for a Reason”.  Though there are countless ways to categorize their music, I’d best describe it as Something you listen to in order to be inspired.  In other words, inspired to write or paint or build a bridge (literal or metaphorical) or call your long-lost father.  For a taste, check out their following songs on YouTube: “Ten Hundred Lights”, “Numbers,” “Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Roads”, “Relative is Relative”, “False Alarm”, and “Stories and Charts”. 

Now for an in-depth look into how Mr. Stafford develops melodies in the shower, tries hard to intentionally not rhyme, and is submissive to his own personal truths… 

Jonathan Greenhause: If you could be known for only 1 of your songs, which would it be? 

Dean Stafford:  This is an incredibly tough question to answer, since I see Pompeii as an “album” band. It’s hard to encompass our group as a whole, without the complete thought of an album from start to finish.

Right now, our new material will be what I want people to remember. Unfortunately, at the time of this interview, it will be at least another ten months before that happens.

If I HAVE to pick one song from the past two albums, I would choose “Relative is Relative”, because the ending of that song is one of the proudest pieces of music I’ve been involved in making. The way the strings are layered with the Mellotron (the same one used for “Space Oddity” / Ziggy Stardust tour!) and how everything dissolves and decays into what sounds like a narrow hallway never gets old (that sound was the actual tape running out on the machine). It’s hard not to take into account the actual experience we had making it, which was incredible.

If you were not musically talented, where would you have ended up?

I probably would have ended up in a nicer house with a nicer car that isn’t about to fall apart. Ha. Before Pompeii, I had an acting scholarship at St. Edward’s University, so it’s likely I would have continued acting or teaching. I love college and learning in general, so I wouldn’t mind ending up a professor somewhere. At the same time, I enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit of being in a band and have flirted with the idea of creating and owning my own business someday. I am also in the midst of a few PR internships. There are so many things I’d like to try. It’s hard to say though, since performance is such a large part of who I am.

What makes you write? When is the easiest time to write, & when is the hardest?

Whatever strikes a chord in me and makes me feel inspired – watching films, seeing a band I like, reading, hearing or seeing something that can touch on a universal truth in a way I never could. I have to feel compelled to write. It can’t be a chore. That’s why I make conscious decisions to seek inspiration.

Writing can also present itself to me subconsciously or when I’m not expecting it to. I’ll overhear a conversation at a restaurant that causes me to think of a lyric. I’ve had dreams of songs. Oddly enough, in the shower I’ve had entire melodies or phrases develop all at once. Early in the morning or late at night usually being the best time. Also, when I’m hungry for some reason.

When Pompeii jams, it’s a conscious decision to create. We meet with the expectation of making something and record everything that we see potential in. Later, I’ll go over those recordings at home and certain ideas will usually stick out more than others. I’ll strip the jams down to basic blocks on a guitar and find the mood. From there, the rough lyrics and melodies begin to take shape.

The hardest time for me to write is when I begin to doubt my abilities as an artist or when I’m too preoccupied with day to day responsibilities of life as an adult.

Lyrically, I’ve been a fan of realism and have tended to gravitate toward finding meaning in the mundane. I usually hold onto a bit of ambiguity and combine personal experience with a bit of fiction, so I can place it all under an umbrella of what I find to be some kind of universal truth. I think most people would find my lyrics melancholy, but I find them to be bittersweet. I may start a lyrical idea off as melancholy as a means for catharsis, but I try to end on a hopeful note. As of late, I’ve been making more of an effort to incorporate more imagery, so the words are as atmospheric as the sound.

Where does rhyme fit into your lyrics creation? How strictly do you adhere to it?

When I was younger I didn’t think about it very much. Around the time I was seventeen or eighteen, I met a girl who wasn’t a musician, but wrote a lot of prose and it was the first time I really paid attention to the fact that some of her words didn’t rhyme and that there was still a cohesive flow. After that, I began actively attempting not to rhyme. You can find the blend of rhyming and not rhyming (I’m sure there is a word for it, but I’m not savvy on literary terminology) in the Pompeii song, “Stories and Charts”:

“Your teeth carry marks,

Pictures, stories and charts

And biting that lip won’t hide a lot.”

Recently, I’ve found myself rhyming more in that I’m not trying as hard to intentionally NOT rhyme, if that makes any sense. In the end, sometimes simplicity is best and you want a simple rhyme scheme. Other times, rhyming can limit you and it’s important to branch out. I think a nice blend of the two makes for good writing.

How does the interplay between word & sound affect you?  Are the words always accompanied by music?

There’s always some kind of musicality to the words. Even the words that are written mentally, while driving in my car or while I’m in the shower-the words that come spontaneously out of nowhere that have no pre-determined chord progression create rhythm and melody on their own, but I’m the only one hearing it, because it’s in my head. Even words that are on paper that were never set to music read with their own musicality and flow. I could pick up a poetry book and be able to put music to it.

For me, personally, it’s easier to start with the music and then build the words within that framework.

What do you see as being the limits of music?

Well, music is relegated to your ears, so obviously touch, taste, smell and sight are all limits of music. What’s interesting though is music’s ability to create a mood that can embody what something feels, tastes, smells and looks like.

Aside from that, I would say there are no limits; perhaps because I find it’s a good mindset to be in if you’re trying to be creative.

What do you see as YOUR limits? What are you lacking as musicians?

I work pretty intensely in bursts of inspiration, but could stand to be more consistent. That’s where the fight between music being a chore and the feeling of being compelled to make something great collide with each other. Money is a resource that can hold us back a lot, but plenty of musicians have done without it for years, so it’s not a completely valid excuse. The business end of things often distracts me. I was never meant to be an accountant or lawyer, but suddenly, I’m spending much of my time learning about those subjects. It would be nice to be more organized and have other people help with business, so I can spend more time writing.

What do you see as your roles as artists? What do you strive to accomplish with your music?

Honestly, I don’t know. I started playing music, because it was just something that clicked and that I loved. I wanted to be in a band, because it was fun and I wanted to make people feel the same way I did at my first concert when I was younger. As I grew older and started going to shows, I enjoyed the community and local culture music created. It wasn’t until later that I began treating it like an art form. All I strive to accomplish is to make something that surprises and inspires myself and to do it to the best of my ability. Maybe it’s a desire to create something that’s larger than life and that will outlive me. I strive to be submissive to my own personal truths and seek genuineness and sincerity in my writing.

Do you write more with your heart or your head?

Initially, it has to come from my heart. If I begin from my head, it usually seems contrived or forced. At the root of a good song is a mood. You can’t analyze a mood too much. You have to be human and feel it first. There is definitely a time and place for the analytical side. It just comes later and (as with anything) it’s important to find a healthy balance between the two.

Regarding the songs that don’t make it to your albums, why don’t they?

I don’t know if I should feel embarrassed or not, but every song we’ve written ended up on the past two albums. It would be nice to be in a position to be discriminatory, but the reality is that we were and have always been slow writers. We had a lack of time and a lot of pressure, so there are songs we wish we could have omitted or re-worked. That is not to say that we don’t have plenty of ideas. We have hours of demos. The difference is they are only jams and not completed songs. Our third album will probably be the first time we’ll have the choice to use or not use a song. That is largely due in part to the fact that we have taken four years to release it.

Usually, we know right from the get go if an idea is worth pursuing or not. Usually, the songs that require the most attention from us are the ones that end up being the most mediocre, whereas, the songs that we write in a matter of days tend to write themselves and flow in a way that becomes our greatest material.

Do you have a target audience when you write or do you sort of write into the void?

I suppose, in that we write what we want to hear, which often times would be the same demographic, we ourselves fall under. Certainly, no one in Pompeii walks into a writing session with a suit and tie on and presents a power point presentation of what demographic we’re being marketed to. At the same time, I think the thought is floating around somewhere in the back of the mind as to who our heroes are and who we would like to model ourselves after.

Is poetry a part of your daily life?

I’m certainly not against it, but I don’t spend a lot of time reading poetry. I pay more attention to lyrics within the context of being a musician, because that’s what influenced me from a young age. Usually, the only time I read poetry is when I’m being forced to (i.e. taking a Literature class). I certainly always gain something from reading poetry and never regret it. I think I’m just lazy and I’ll be the first to admit it’s a subject I could stand to be less ignorant in. I do believe reading, in general, is crucial to development as a writer.

Where do you see yourselves in 23 years?

Not a clue. I’m really bad at the future-probably to a fault; I live my life pretty impulsively. I tend to think year to year, instead of decade to decade. Hopefully, I’m doing what I love—whatever that may be.

[Feature image from PompeiiMusic.com & DeVoePhoto.com.]

Jonathan Greenhause is the author of a chapbook, Sebastian’s Relativity (published by Anobium Books), and his poems have appeared in The Believer, Fjords, New Delta Review, Water~Stone Review, and others.

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