Deer Scout and Told Slant on Mining the “Swamp of Horrible Feelings”

The two friends talk songwriting processes, Woodpecker, and more.

Dena Miller is a New York-based artist who performs as Deer Scout; Felix Walworth is a photographer and musician who performs as Told Slant. Deer Scout’s debut full-length, Woodpecker, is out tomorrow on Carpark Records, and to celebrate, the two friends caught up about it and more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Dena Miller: Told Slant is really special to me, and I would even say an influence on my music. It’s really nice to be able to sit down and talk.

Felix Walworth: [Laughs.] Thanks. It’s funny that you say that, because that wasn’t something that I knew, but when I was listening to “Cowboy,” I was thinking about a way that I recorded a lot of my records that feels similar in the instrumentation. The song is sort of picked around implicit chords. I don’t know how to put it exactly, but when I would record music, I would record the actual chord progressions out, and then I would play picked out parts around them, and then I would delete the chords.

Dena: That’s so cool. I’ve never done that before, but that seems like such a good idea to get that effect.

Felix: It had a bit of a throwing-shit-at-the-wall effect. I never knew what it was going to be like until it was there on the page. But listening to the guitar on [“Cowboy”] reminded me of that. 

Dena: That’s really cool that you say that, because the bassist on the album is a lot more of a music theory head than me. So I’m playing guitar parts where I don’t really know what notes I’m playing, I’m just kind of playing the thing that I’ve found sounds good. Ko [Takasugi-Czernowin], who plays bass on the album and knows about music composition, writes these bass parts that kind of change what the guitar chord is doing — like it puts a note that feels mischievous in there, and then it’s around the chord, but it isn’t the chord. And so there’s some kind of ambiguity that I don’t even understand on a theory level. 

Felix: Yeah, totally. I also don’t understand that shit at all. “Mischievous” is the kind of thing that I would use to describe a chord rather than, like, “E7 major.” I also was thinking about the way the bass functions, and it’s really holding it down in this steady way, and then your voice and your guitar sort of are lurching and spindly. I think it’s really cool. It’s a beautiful song.

Dena: Thank you so much. I think there’s something to be said for the accidental in a recording process — not totally knowing what you’re doing, or not having enough of an intention with the music theory where you’re just trying things out. That can feel really vulnerable. It’s even the same thing as leaving in wrong notes sometimes.

Felix: Totally. That’s that’s another thing — you don’t have wrong notes on your recording, but there are parts where the guitar becomes more scratchy as you slide to a note, and those are all in there as artifacts of, this is a real person playing an instrument in a specific moment. That guitar part could not be replicated ad infinitum.

Dena: I tend to really like that. I also really like when, in a recording, you can hear different people’s approaches. Maybe it takes knowing the people a little bit, but you have a lot of recordings where friends or collaborators of yours are on your songs, and hearing the organic personalities or approaches of different people who know each other — as opposed to a session musician or a MIDI part — in a room playing with each other, there’s something that feels really nice and important about that.

Felix: Yeah. That’s one of the special things about making music — even more so in a live band, but in an expert recording it can shine through, I think. Have you ever watched a jazz band play, and you’re watching these people, like, read each other’s minds, basically? 

Dena: It’s mind blowing.

Felix: It’s incredible. And I love it when that’s also happening with simpler music that I can actually relate to and understand better. Even if it’s just two people playing the same two chords back and forth, but they’re falling into a rhythm with each other that just feels like they are speaking their own language together on stage or in the recording.

Dena: Yeah, timing can be like that too. I have a song where the timing is different every time, and whenever I play it live, we have to just look at each other, and it’s that kind of thing. And the parts are very simple — it’s actually two instruments just playing the same part, and the reason there’s so much looking at each other is because they have to be exactly the same part at the same time. But there’s something about that that feels really fun.

Felix: Yeah, you’re getting into each other’s heads and trying to anticipate each other. I’ve been in a lot of bands that, for whatever reason, have a lot of tempo shifts mid-song. It’ll be like a guitar part that’s steadily slowing down, and I would have to match that with a drum part that was steadily slowing down. At first we’d really have to just be like, How slow are you going to get? But then it became this thing where I could have my eyes closed and we can feel the timing.

Dena: Do any of your songs do that? I feel like I associate that with your music.

Felix: All the tempo shifts in mine are not as finessed as what I just described. Because I record everything to myself, and usually what I do is I start with guitars and I don’t use a click track, so the guitars are just playing at whatever tempo I recorded them at. And then I play drums over that, bass over that. 

Dena: You record guitars that set the tempo, and then you play drums over that?

Felix: I do. It’s pretty psycho.

Dena: That is pretty psycho. [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t play drums, and I didn’t even have a drummer in my band when I was making my album, but the drums were the thing that happened last — I called in a friend to play drums, and it was really difficult for that person to be the last the last element on the record because that’s, I think, not usually how it goes.

Felix: Yeah, I’ve done that for other people and I find it to be very difficult. But I also prefer it to the click. The click is just so restrictive.

Dena: I know, the click takes the soul out of everything.

Felix: You can hear the click once it’s gone.

Dena: Yeah, I’m anti-click, anti-ghost of the click.

Felix: But it’s easier for me when it’s me recording everything, because I have my own sense of time and I know, Oh, you’re going to really slow down on the delivery of this chord, or you’re going to try to emphasize here. But I think the main reason that I like to do that is because I like to interact with things, and I find that if you put drums down first, they can’t be reactive at all. Because if the drums are just straight ahead and [played to] no music, are the drums emphasizing a lyric, or are they emphasizing a guitar part? They don’t have time to say what they want to say about the other parts. And it’s the instrument I’m most comfortable with, so I like to use them that way.

Dena: Drums are the instrument I’m the least comfortable with, so it’s really hard for me in arranging or in working with drummers to have the drums get put down first, because I’m always the least sure about what they should be doing. Do you have a favorite memory from the recording process, or a thing that you were the most excited about from the recording process of your last album [Point The Flashlight and Walk]?

Felix: So my favorite songs that I have are the ones that are written in, like, an hour in one sitting and then straight to the computer, recorded immediately.

Dena: Totally. The more certainty — that’s great if you can capture that.

Felix: They’re always better. I have some songs on my last record that I labored over for years, and I’m happy with the way they turned out, but they’re not concise in that way, and when I listen to them, I can feel the uncertainty within them.

Dena: I feel like at least your lyrics to me are so concise, and so certain and direct and just saying what they want to say. I can’t think of a song in any of your music where I’m like, This seems a little like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. I feel like it always knows what it wants to be.

Felix: [Laughs.] That’s great. At least it projects confidence. A specific moment that felt really good along those lines was, there’s a song on my record called “Whirlpool” that was very much just sort of vomited out. I happened to be upstate with all of my recording gear, and I went straight to the computer, recorded a demo of it, and the demo ended up just being something that I embellished for the record. So the whole ordeal of the song was a day’s worth of thoughts and main choices. There were other things that made me take a long time about it, like, Should I add this little ditty over here, or this little flourish? But those are not the important things.

Dena: Yeah, like the heart of it all came together.

Felix: Yeah, the rhythm, the feeling, the vocal performance, the lyrics. And I feel like those things are most apparent in the lyrics. You’re not afraid to write around a specific idea and stick with it — “Cowboy” is like that. You don’t stray from what the song is about, there are no auxiliary lines, or a verse that I would listen to and be like, verse three really feels like it was written six months later with a different idea in mind

Dena: That song was all written in one sitting.

Felix: And it fucking rocks!

Dena: [Laughs.] What are other songs of yours that were written like that? Because for me, most songs are bit-by-bit, but then there are a couple that are like, you just have it all in one day and you’re like, This is done

Felix: And you know it. The craziest feeling about songs like that is you write it and you’re like, I fucking nailed it. I got it. It doesn’t need work. And the other ones, you’re like, I could do a little better, I think. I don’t have the right word… verse two, big question mark.

Dena: Yeah, I have some songs where I’ll hand a friend or a band mate the lyrics and be like, “Can you go through this with a red pen and x out the things that you don’t like?” I mean, it’s not this literal — that sounds really nitpicky. But you know, you’ll agonize over little things, and then sometimes a song just is what it is and it’s about what it’s about, and it’s done.

Felix: Yeah. That’s so joyous. It’s not painful to write those songs, even if they’re difficult songs to write because they deal with difficulty or conflict or something. That process is so in the spirit of fun.

Dena: Yeah. I feel like sometimes, I’ll write a song that doesn’t really make sense to me, or I don’t see the connections between the things, but it’ll all end up in the same song. And then someone else who knows me really well will listen to it and will feel like it’s cohesive, and will sometimes tell me what it’s about in a way that I didn’t know that it was about that, but they’re right. It’s like waking up and telling someone you had a dream that doesn’t make any sense, and then they look at you and they’re like, “No, this is just about that other thing.” And you’re like, “Oh!”

Felix: Totally. 

Dena: It’s funny because there are definitely some times where it feels like you’re at the helm of the ship, and you are writing something to communicate something and you’re doing that in an intentional way. And then there’s some times where you’re in the back of the ship, like sloshing around, and then somebody’s going to explain what it means to you later. [Laughs.] 

Felix: Yeah, you’re tied to the anchor dragging across the bottom of the ocean.

Dena: Do you write songs in a methodical way? Do you sit down like, I’m going to write a song, or do the songs write themselves?

Felix: I try both. Again, it’s the really belabored ones that I’ll have to sit down and be like, It’s songwriting time, and I’ll get a couple of words in. But the ones that feel best are just bursts of random inspiration. I mean, you have to create the circumstances for bursts of random inspiration, and sometimes that looks like opening your schedule to time that is for songwriting. You can’t just rely on bolts from the blue all the time. Which is sad, because when I was younger I feel like I could. But that was also when I wrote, you know…

Dena: Yeah, your songwriting has gotten better as a result of, probably, some consideration and process.

Felix: Yeah, my editor is a little stronger. My internal editor is blocking certain bolts from the blue.

Dena: Having more of an internal editor makes it harder to just spit out the thing, totally. But that can be good too, because it means the eventual product is maybe better. I definitely don’t have a good process. I’ve never tried to be methodical about it, and I just write songs extremely slowly. I had enough songs for a first album, but if someone told me, “You need to make another album in a year,” it’d be really hard for me to come up with that kind of material.

But it’s something a lot of my friends have more of a practice around. When I’m done focusing on this album that’s about to be released, I really want to, like what you were saying, create the circumstances. Not so much like, OK, I’m going to sit down with a notebook at this hour, but an intentionality. Because sometimes you get a bolt, and it’s just a refrain or a verse or something, but it’s not a song, and you do need to give it some attention, to sit down and treat it like it’s a good thing. If you’re being your own harshest critic, you could go for so long with that little segment in your phone notes and just be like, Oh, that’s something that came out of my brain once. 

Felix: But you’re not fostering it.

Dena: Yeah, because you’re sort of sick of your own thoughts in your own head, so you’ll let it just kind of die instead of turning it into a song. And that’s something I want to get better at, because once in a while, something I really had in my head or in my voice memo app for a really long time will feel like nothing, and then even a year later I’ll be like, Oh, it’s actually totally a song. And then I’ll finish it. But it’s good to have a little bit of structure around that so it’s not just random.

Felix: When I was younger, I had this sort of hard rule — which I now think is silly, but I enjoyed the experiment of it at the time — that if the song isn’t stuck in my head, then it’s not good. And I apply this specifically to my own songwriting practice, not for other people’s music. But the idea was that, if I have an idea, if I’m inspired, and I forget that idea by the end of the day, it was a forgettable idea.

Dena: That’s so superstitious, but I kind of agree with it. Most of the time, the really good ones are the ones that stick with you.

Felix: Yeah, whether it’s because they’re catchy or because they’re strange or have some kind of idiosyncrasy that makes you want to mull them over. It definitely doesn’t serve me anymore. Maybe my memory’s worse or something, but I can’t rely on that to write a bunch of songs — I have to be more forgiving to some ideas and treat them more gently. Part of that means, if I have a lyric that I’m really interested in, actually writing it down and not trusting myself to be fixated on it for weeks and months.

Dena: Well, I think as you get older, you just get less interested in your own thoughts.

Felix: Yeah, you said that earlier and I really agree with that.

Dena: I mean, maybe that also is part of getting older and being more aware of other people in the world around you, and being less kind of in your own head. I also think maybe it has to do with, for me, the things that get stuck in my head are really emotional. If an idea for a song keeps replaying in my head, it might be because I’m attached to the emotion that it’s coming from. And I think maybe as you get older, you exist in just a less emotions-forward way. 

Felix: Yeah, where you kind of have to learn some of those skills to not be just in a swamp of horrible feelings all the time.

Dena: Yeah. But in the way that lyrics are in that swamp, you need to have a little bit of a swamp.

Felix: You have to maintain your access to the swamp.

Dena: [Laughs.] You have to make concerted trips back into the swamp every once in a while, because there are things to pay attention to there. 

Felix: The most efficient miner of the swamp probably lives in the swamp, but it’s also really hard to live in the swamp. 

Dena: Yeah, you can’t be Shrek.

Felix: Yeah, exactly. You have to be to be a person in the world. You have your home outside of the swamp, and you go into it every once in a while with your bucket.

There’s a line in [“Cowboy”] — I’m trying to remember it exactly. “You’re all that I have, so I don’t care if you’re kind.”

Dena: “You’re all I got now/I don’t care if you’re kind.”

Felix: Beautiful. So good. Did you write it and you were like, [snaps] “I got it.”

Dena: I actually don’t even think about that as one of the best lines in the song. Like in my head, that one’s kind of a throwaway line.

Felix: Oh, my god, it’s so good. 

Dena: Thank you, that’s so sweet. That one just feels so literal — it feels so direct to me. But then, when I was talking about your songwriting style, I was like, “The directness is really cool.” That’s what’s so hard.

Felix: I feel like directness and metaphor or other sort of poetic tools are playing with dynamics in this way where they need to be in conversation with each other. Like I love directness when it comes out of the fog of poem, or opacity. I feel like in this song, you’re sort of playing with a really extended metaphor, and then you have a line like that, that just sort of strikes through it. It’s like, what a sad thing to realize.

Dena: That’s really cool. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Thank you. 

Felix: It’s a dynamic, like a loud chorus and a quiet verse or something.

Dena: There also feels like something parallel to figuring out what your dreams are about or what your emotions are, what your internal thoughts are about — there’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of like the messy soup or the abstract metaphor, and then there are moments of clarity within that. 

Felix: Do you have any questions that you’re obsessed with? Like if Deer Scout had a question, what is the question?

Dena: If I had to be so literal, it would be like, how do you know for sure? So much of what I’m parsing through when I’m writing a song is a lack of certainty. I really don’t tolerate a lack of certainty well. I have the kind of personality where I really want to know. And so I think if it had to be a central question, it would just be like, how do you know when you know? Do you have something like that?

Felix: I think it’s, what is the self without its constituent parts? Environmental, relational — all of these things that sort of build you into who you are, when those things fall away, who are you? I think a lot of it’s around the anxiety of who I am in a vacuum, or in some kind of core space. And at the same time, I don’t really subscribe to the idea of a true self.

Dena: Yeah, well, that makes that question a lot more complicated.

Felix: Yeah, there’s no authentic truth that I’m sort of searching for, but there’s the acknowledgement that I’m this sort of assemblage of experiences and relationships and loves, and the vulnerability of that, that all of my parts exist in a disparate way.

I had one more question. It’s a big question.

Dena: Go for it.

Felix: Why do you write songs?

Dena: That’s so hard! There’s a quick answer, that my parents are musicians. I grew up around it. I rebelled from it or pushed it away for a while, and then I became a little bit more of an adult myself, and it was just part of me because it’s what I grew up around. What motivates me to do it is usually having a feeling that I don’t understand, and trying to understand the feeling. 

What about you?

Felix: Why I write songs? I don’t know. 

Dena: [Laughs.] That’s what I said! What motivates you in the moment?

Felix: I think in the moment, it’s the idea of translating something like it’s a rune or something. Having enough faith in my perspective about something that it is worth translating my feelings into words and being proud of that thing. 

Dena: I feel very similarly to that. 

Felix: And the nice thing, also, about this process is that regardless of whether you’re a good translator, everyone is a translator. And so you can write a song that is doing a terrible job of conveying the feelings that you’re trying to convey, and it will definitely convey something to somebody.

Dena: Yeah, it’s like a midway point in translation, because the final step of the translation is someone listening to it and it meaning something to them. 

(Photo Credit: left, Felix Walworth; right, Amalia Soto)

Deer Scout is Dena Miller, a New York-based artist. Her debut LP, Woodpecker, is out April 8, 2022 on Carpark Records.

(Photo Credit: Felix Walworth)