"The Alchemists" began life—I thought—as a breakup song. I had the first "Hey, sugartooth" refrain and a sense that it probably wanted a Breeders-y grunge sound and some key shifts, but little else. I remember playing through the progression once at a band rehearsal, maybe in 2018 or 2019. But it stalled out there, as a lot of song ideas do, and that was it.
I tend to let lyrics suggest melody, not the other way around, so the completion of the verses pushed the structure of the song. Thomas, by contrast, tends to operate in terms of chord progression, so the key shifting turned out to be His Thing when I shared the songs with the band. (For the record, that's G Em C D for the "sugartooth" refrains; Am C#m D E for the intervening verses, with a C D to take us back to G; and B F# E F# for the bridge, which—via another E—takes us to the final progression: A F#m D E, the "sugartooth" refrain taken up a whole step. On the left side of the notebook spread, you can see an earlier idea for a progression, from the first attempt at writing the song.)
This sparked one of the longer music-theory text chains I've ever had:
Explaining Chord Progression Using the Greatest Band of All Time
1. All pop songs consists of three major chords: the root chord, and two chords, each a perfect fifth in either direction. (The Midway, Liz + the Baguettes - A D E)
2. In a few rare cases, a mediant chord will substitute for its relative major chords. (Like, Liz + the Baguettes - A D/F#m E)
3. In even fewer, rarer cases, a related minor chord will be included as part of the progression, with four distinct parts rather than three (The Alchemists, Liz + the Baguettes - G Em C D / A C#m D E)
2 and 3 are both used to create and manipulate tension between the glorious even nature of those three major chords. Any smarty pants who breaks these rules (with a suspended chord or the like) is still using this technique, just with less respect for the law.
It wasn't until well after I'd put up all the Taos demos as The Quarantine Tapes (still available as a free download) that I realized how many songs echoed each other. I had known that ghosts and memories were themes, but there were a lot of others. And I had used the line "That was so long ago" twice, both times referring to lost chances.
Maybe one time, this song really could have been about a breakup and nothing more. But that was so long ago.