It might be hard to grasp exactly who Keith Buckley is and what he does at first, but it all comes into focus as you begin to dig into his life and work. Buckley is the front man of the band Every Time I Die, which he formed with his brother in upstate New York back in 1998. Since their humble beginnings in the underground world of punk and hardcore, the band has gone on to establish itself as a leader within the genre—constantly progressing and evolving their sound. While best known for their distinct fast and furious brand of music, it should be said that Buckley’s lyrical prowess, presence, and personality has been a cornerstone of their success.
If you go to an Every Time I Die gig, you’ll find a venue full of fans hanging on his every word; passionately screaming the lyrics of every verse and every chorus right back at him. This is a testament to his ability as a writer—you don’t evoke that type of response by writing empty words. Despite his hilarious Twitter feed and writing one-off shorts for Comedy Central, he’s perhaps at his best when writing about the discord found in the monotony of everyday life.
His debut novel Scale, a semi-autobiographical tale being published via Rare Bird Books, follows the path of a struggling musician as he does his best to navigate life’s trials and tribulations. Throughout the novel, you’ll follow a journey of self-discovery and dysfunction, but above all, you’ll find an earnest portrait of a man struggling between the contrasts of mind and heart.
We spoke with Buckley ahead of the book’s December release about his writing process, life on the road with his band, and stepping out on his own as a novelist. An excerpt from the novel is below:
When I got involved in the music scene playing open mic nights at small bars, I found it liberating to have my innately self- destructive tendencies heralded. There was no greater feeling in the world than discovering a place where secret shame was greeted enthusiastically and dysfunctions were praised. Eventually, as I began to travel more, I was so free that I found myself growing bored with the things most men deemed exquisite and I was forced to step up by crawling further down.
But If I was alive, why not feel like it? My senses exploded every minute of every night for those first few years of touring. There was not a drink, drug, fight, or woman that I would turn down if offered, no shameful deed that I would not deny if questioned, no insult that I would suffer, no regrets that I could carry and for a while it seemed that I was not only willing to die for my music, but secretly trying to. I was an unabashed pleasure-monger through and through, a hunter that took the stage pursing a different kill through dangerous new terrain each night, and Frank only fueled that fire. Life was so good back then that I almost took relief in knowing I would be dead long before I was incapable of living it. I had a maniacal ambition, and was both brazenly unaware of others and entirely full of my self. These key qualities, plus a few enablers on each shoulder, made for a condition of nature that weeded out the weaker human beings who were trapped here on earth because they could not squint into the piercing radiance of inebriation and music like I so easily could. The ones who instead turned away to look clearly upon nothing extraordinary.
TYLER W: Although you’ve had a successful career in music, I have to imagine it was somewhat daunting to step out on your own with Scale. When did you first realize you wanted to write a novel and what did that process look like?
KEITH BUCKLEY: I was around 14 years old when I realized I wanted to write a novel, which was obviously long before I had any idea what that even entailed, but this was also the same year I tried to dig a hole in the fields by my parents’ house big enough to move my bedroom furniture into. I’ve been naïve pretty much my whole life. I know that I’ve always loved reading and admired the writer’s ability to connect with people from a distance. It seemed like a miracle that someone could move someone else without ever touching. I wanted to possess that miraculous ability. It was supernatural to me. I began to love music when I was a kid for the exact same reason, but lyricists had the advantage of the dimension of sound so that ultimately became my purpose. While I still love “singing,” the truth is that my involvement in music sprung from my desire to master words.
Did you find not being restricted to the length of a song challenging or exciting? What did you find to be some of the biggest differences between the two?
Writing lyrics is like doing a crossword puzzle in that the parameters are set for you and there really only is one “right” answer, which is whatever most perfectly aligns with who you are—at least in the style of music my band plays. I could take liberties with cadence or melody but because the process is regulated by time, it’s exciting in the sense that you feel rewarded by completing the puzzle.
“…I REALIZED THAT I HAD PUT DOWN A BRUSH AND PICKED UP A CHISEL.”
It’s wonderful to know you finished something that captures a moment. But writing a poem, a story, or a book is timeless. It is never complete. You have to learn to listen to your gut when it tells you that the sentence or the paragraph, or the chapter or the story, is over but it’s never done. It lives in every moment, which makes it ever-changing.
How do you feel you worked to evolve your craft as a writer when you began to write for this new medium?
Before I actually sat down to start putting Scale together I thought, “I can take on the task of writing a novel because I have been writing lyrics for 20 years,” and as soon as I got underway I realized that I had put down a brush and picked up a chisel. It was night and day. The only things I think I carried from writing lyrics into this new terrain that had any substantial value was an appreciation for what’s beautiful and an acceptance of those things that are not.
In the two or so years of just editing, this book has taken on entirely new shapes. I thought it was sufficient when I turned in the manuscript but I look back now and realize that if it had been published as it was, you would be reading about my missing persons in the news. I’m still evolving. I don’t think anything I ever do will be seen as “definitive” of who I am.
“[SCALE] IS A GLIMPSE INTO THE VAULT THAT HAS BEEN AT THE HEART OF MY LYRICS WHETHER I HAD KNOWN IT OR NOT.”
You spend the majority of the year traveling as a full-time musician. When do you manage time to write?
It is really hard to find time to write on tour, particularly when there are Facebook feeds that need refreshing and emptiness to be stared blankly into. Luckily, I can usually get a good few hours in before doors, but sadly when those are opened and the show starts, I am forced to focus all my attention on free alcohol and playing music for my excitable peers. It’s rough, but I’ve managed.
Was it always your intention to break into the world of literature or was it a natural progression from your work with Every Time I Die?
I think great lyricists have always existed in the world of literature, they just don’t usually seem to be acknowledged as thriving there. Bob Dylan is the obvious exception but there are so many others that have written just as beautifully as he—infinitely better than I—and they’ve gone almost entirely unnoticed. I have no desire to disavow the music community and shift phases into a new world of literature, I just want to write as well as I can for those that appreciate it.
How do you think fans of the band will react to your book?
If they have been paying attention to Every Time I Die, I think they’ll see it as a very natural progression. It’s a glimpse into the vault that has been at the heart of my lyrics whether I had known it or not. Pretty much a long song but without all the pretenses and trickery. It’s more honest than anything I’ve ever written.
I’m very curious as to how you go about the lyrical writing process for your music. I’ve noticed some of your songs tend to rely on repetition to further enunciate certain points to the listener. Is that writing style a conscious decision or does it just happen naturally?
I wish I had a more revealing blueprint to offer, but honestly 95% of writing lyrics for me is just waiting. Clearing my head and waiting. Eventually, something will present itself and I’ll latch on and just pull until the whole thing collapses in a pile in front of me. Then I start sorting through it and putting it in order. The parts that you’re referring to—the repetitious parts—are my identity coming through and saying “Don’t gloss over this. This is an important part of the message as I see it.”
There are certain lyrics that I owe to something greater than myself. They come from a place that I cannot account for. I’m in no way saying they’re great lyrics, but I know that they are not written here. And sometimes, when I find that one of those lines comes to me, I want to make sure it comes across and sticks to the listener. It’s a personal bias as to what I think is more important than other things. It’s like me highlighting a part of it with a neon marker.
Continuing on this topic, do you have to get into a different mindset when you’re doing your non-lyrical writing? Or do you feel like you approach both music and literature from the same angle?
As odd as it sounds, writing lyrics is the only time I don’t think. I have very little judgment, very little fear. They are peak moments. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it for so long that it becomes involuntary, or maybe its because I know that the people who will read it and hear it are so open to new things that I can play around and not be ostracized for experimenting with expression. Non-lyrical writing is the exact opposite of that. I’m floating aimlessly in a horrible, unfamiliar space. It is a fearful, nauseating war and I don’t know why that is, but I fucking love it.
You’ve also broken into some new territory as a writer for Comedy Central. How did that opportunity come to be?
After graduating with a bachelors degree in English from the University of Buffalo, I decided to look like a comedian named Jon LaJoie [from FX’s The League]. For a few years we were both hounded on social media to at least acknowledge our similarities and finally he reached out to me in private asking if I’d be interested in writing a skit in which we traded lives. While that never came to fruition, I did have some serendipitous encounters with people at Comedy Central who were open to some other ideas I had. It was a very long string of odd events that got me there, most of which were based less on my abilities and more on my genetics. I owe my parents royalties.
As a writer, how do you keep your creative teeth sharp?
I host a different poetry slam every weeknight and read as many YouTube comments as possible first thing in the morning.
No, I just tweet a lot.
You can pre-order ‘Scale’ ahead of its December release via Rare Bird Books now.