Dead Letter Office
The Chords

dead Letter Office is a column of letters written by Todd Hutlock to a friend named Jimmy, who may or may not exist. The column details real-life experiences regarding work, life, and how Hutlock's obsession with music runs them both.


Hey big guy, how’s tricks?

Life has been cool here of late. I’m starting to get some of the long-term project shit in my life dealt with, and it has given me a small sense of, well, not really accomplishment, but at least progress.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing. With the major life issues starting to work themselves out, I have a semi-trivial matter that I thought you might be able to help me with.

As you might recall, after I stopped playing in Nozzle and then DJing petered out, I haven’t really had much of a creative musical outlet. And so, since then, I have found myself turning more to simple guitar playing. I have played on and off for years now, and it tends to come to me in fits and starts. I’ll go a few weeks and play every night for hours, then all at once, I just stop and don’t pick it up again for a few months.

But the problem is, I’m not stopping because I have gotten it out of my system -- actually, just the opposite is true. I stop playing because I get frustrated as hell with my lack of progress. Let me explain...

Back when I was still in college, spending my summers in Oberlin managing the radio station, the days were long and empty. Every single summer I was there as a student, I was single. I made my own office hours, and as such, wasn’t exactly an early riser or especially motivated. In short, there was a whole hell of a lot of free time to fill.

And so, I used to spend evenings holed up in the station’s production studio recording tracks on the reel-to-reel decks. I would create my own tape loops through some haphazard splicing skills and creative use of plungers, pens, and mic stands to run them the proper length. I would collage noises from our enormous sound effects library. And then, I would add some heavily treated guitars and very occasionally, vocals. Some of it was pretty abstract, some of it was pretty melodic, and all of it was compressed and distorted as hell. Hey, what can I say? I was bored, so I experimented.

Anyway, somewhere around this time, I wrote a chord progression and a vocal melody and I recorded several different versions of the thing. I never named it or even wrote it down, but whenever I picked up the guitar, sure enough, after a few minutes, my fingers would instinctively head towards those familiar places.

I wrote some words to go with it that I wasn’t super crazy about and, generally dissatisfied with the results, I shelved it and moved back into looping backwards treated piano tracks and slow-motion train noises.

Sure enough, a few months later, I picked up the guitar again, and the familiar chords came out again. And again, I didn’t know what to do with them. I tried to write some new words this time, reflecting a bit more of what was going on in my life at that time (I have no memory what, though), and became just as frustrated as I was before and I put the damn thing away. I was starting to get tired of the thing.

This process repeated itself every few months, for roughly the next dozen years. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So a few months ago, I picked up the guitar in an effort to write something confused and forlorn and yet hopeful about love. And damn it, those fucking same chords came flying out. I was even trying to write a new progression, and the stupid thing just keeps coming back like a bad penny. It is now officially haunting me. I can’t forget it, and I can’t do anything worthy with it, and now I don’t know what to do.

I mean, I don’t have many ideas for tunes. I don’t remember who first said it, but I’ve heard some famous songwriter or other say that the songs just come to him out of the ether, that they are all out there in the universe and you just have to open your mind and let them float on down to you. Unfortunately, every single time I’ve tried this technique, I end up writing something that I think is totally brilliant, only to realize minutes later that I’ve actually been playing something by Neil Young. Grrr...

I want to move on, you know? I need to tell this thing, “Hey, kid, it’s been a little slice of heaven, but you know we can’t ever be together.” I need to break up with it. Either that or just finally get it right and marry the fucker.

But I know this is now bigger than the both of us. I need to put some words down, record it, and get it out of my head. Maybe I’ll never write another thing. Maybe the reason this keeps happening is because I’ve only got the one song in me, ya know? And if that’s true, fine—but let’s get on with it.

So any tips you might have on how to cure my little writer’s block would be greatly appreciated. Strap on the capo and try writing in a different key perhaps? Move to piano? Get back to the noise loops? I’ll try anything to get this where it is meant to go. My song and I both deserve to be happy.

Your man in the Midwest,

By: Todd Hutlock
Published on: 2005-07-11
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