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Saturday, June 14, 2014

We're In A Band

The following is the second installment of the DIY Trilogy I'm working on, regarding all the bands I know who are trying to build something big for themselves and each other across the US.  The first part is here.

Also, if you're reading this within a month or two of its posting, the band I talk to throughout the article is probably playing somewhere near you, unless you live in the deep, racist South.


The old lady next door has never really liked me. I’ve known her since I was fourteen, and while she’s now senile enough that she doesn’t always remember disliking me, she’s still pretty consistently scared of me. And maybe that fear is well founded.

On this particular Friday morning, there’s what appears to be half a diesel school bus on monster truck tires parked in my driveway, dwarfing my rickety little mid-90s Honda. Behind it are gathered three tall, tattooed, shirtless men with varying lengths of unkempt hair and beards. She’d be glaring at them through parted blinds regardless, but on this occasion, a sparse dusting of confusion taints her superficial xenophobic terror.

It’s hard to look intimidating when you’re doing yoga.

The three members of Albuquerque’s party staple, YOU, need the stretch. They just slept on my couch and floor and are about to spend a week or so in their massive yellow music tank. Their drummer and I look on, leaning on my car and passing back and forth what my neighbor can only assume is a cigarette. She notices me noticing her and darts away from the window as I chuckle and examine the Instrumental Battlecruiser next to me.

“You know, what you guys really need here,” I start, waving in the general direction of their huge spare tire, “Is a little bumper sticker that says, ‘We’re in a band’.”

Grinning and rising and stretching and breathing out, bass player Alec Wilkes repeats, “‘We’re in a band…’ Yeah, it’s amazing how many sketchy situations that phrase has completely defused.” He waves his hand in the air, using the force on nobody in particular, “Oh, yeah… It’s ok… We’re in a band.”

As anyone in a band will tell you, it’s a dubious badge of honor; a distinction that elicits immediate assumptions in anyone you talk to. The fact that you’re in a band will often become your defining descriptor for people who don’t know you very well. Often the people who know you only through your music will allow their relationship with those songs to completely overshadow and define any other form of relationship you could otherwise have had, had you met under different circumstances.

There are also, of course, the many rumors, myths and wives tales of the nefarious deeds and exploits rock and roll musicians engage in when the amplifiers stop blaring and the feedback fades away.

Only most of those are true. And while the most famous thing about Led Zeppelin will probably forever be what they may or may not have done to a drugged-out groupie (and a rapidly asphyxiating fish), the fact of the matter is that the actual, firsthand experience of being in a band is far weirder and infinitely more personal.

School Daze

I was once a music student.

More specifically, I was once a college student, enrolled in a contemporary music program, who had a great amount of interest in things like tone, microphone placement, music theory, acoustics, and instrumentation, but couldn’t be bothered to practice playing his instrument due to his equal interest in college’s many distractions. In the years that followed my inevitable exodus from the academic pursuit of art, I played with a number of musicians who were entirely self-taught – some more effectively than others – and often marveled at the ways some of them had just somehow figured out many of the things I had learned from lectures and books. These concepts, ideas and theories that I had been aware of for years were only then becoming available to me as practical tools, as I had only then begun connecting them in practical ways to my playing. In some ways, I was finally being born as an “adult” musician. Had that happened a few years earlier, I may have been able to take better advantage of the unique type of pupation music school – particularly the program built and until recently run by Steve Paxton at Santa Fe University of Art and Design – offers.

I talked to Matt Ruder, a student in this reincarnation of the Contemporary Music Program I left at the College of Santa Fe, shortly before its implosion. He plays guitar in two of the more notable acts to come out of the school since its reopening: the gypsy jazz quintet, The Laser Cats, and his progressive jazz fusion project, Ruder and The Shockwaves (who just released their debut EP). He feels, as I did, that the CMP’s small, intimate, densely concentrated pool of talent fosters a camaraderie that isn’t so common at more well known, rigidly structured schools.

“We know each other [and each other’s styles], and everybody has really, really different musical backgrounds. So you can actually spend time and hang out with a person who grew up only playing bluegrass, or jazz, or metal.”

Being surrounded by so many exemplary musicians who are at the same time close friends provides a unique sort of motivation, “Maybe it’s just because I’m from Texas, but I have a really competitive spirit, so if I see our friends doing really good, it’s kind of like, ‘Better step up our game’. But that friendly competition is nice, and [the instruments are] different enough that I don’t feel like shit when Sam (Armstrong Zickerfoose, banjo player in Laser Cats) takes an amazing solo. We’ve grown a lot from playing together so much; we know each other’s tendencies and feed off one another. We’ll trade solos or do a thing for like a bar or two that only we in the band can notice, and then we’ll all laugh.”

It’s the isolated, focused practice – “woodshedding”, in our slang – that makes musicians a bit crazy. The music is very much a language. The conversations begin to develop and build on one another into a rapport – a sort of telepathy, even – that can’t really be compared to any other connection available on the spectrum of human interactions. Ruder recounts a road trip to Arizona, “Everyone was asleep but me and Sam, and we saw this shooting star, and we looked at each other and we both just said, ‘STAAAAAR BROTHERS…’ and started laughing.”

Music school is a big group woodshed, where, much like a group shower, you’re all forced to mingle and socialize during what would otherwise be a private (out back in the woodshed by yourself) experience, infecting each other with all manner of stylistic and conceptual ideas until you each find your own voice in the din. “It’s monastic, almost. There’s so little to do [in Santa Fe] besides just go up in the mountains and practice.”

Sex, Drugs, and Facebook

More often than not the voice you end up finding as your own turns out to be a sort of collage of the voices around you. What you find out – years after the drama in your little college bubble culture has dissipated and you’ve spent years working on different projects with different bands and different levels of commitment – is that the biggest fans your band has are the bands around it. Nobody takes your music as seriously as you do and nobody ever will. The only people who come close are the ones that are influenced by your music, and, before anyone else, that’s always the bands your friends are in.

It’s a month after the scene in my driveway, and the boys in YOU are back from their biggest tour to date. “We were just hitting our stride,” drummer Eric Lisausky recounts, laughing, “Like, we were all shitting at the same time… And we were driving home.”

I’m sitting in the living room of the Albuquerque house he shares with guitarist Austin Morrell, and the three of us are talking about the future of music, Yes blaring on the turntable in the background, lest we forget our roots.

Morrell looks back, “My first tour was with [my old band], Gusher. It was definitely an exciting, fun experience, but it was also a bit disappointing. We had been playing in Albuquerque for about a year by that time, and it finally got to the point where we had a lot of people coming out and we had a reputation for playing these crazy shows… And then we’d go to these towns where nobody’s ever heard of us, and we’re playing these spots where there’s nobody there… It was humbling.”

It’s the wall every band faces when they leave their “home turf”. You put in all the time and effort it took to get your friends, neighbors, and relatives to support you, and now you’re faced with the Cliffs of Insanity that are represented by an entire planet worth of strangers with no reason to like you. This is the point at which most garage bands reach the limit of their determination. The necessary self-promotion involved in just booking a multi-state tour is anathema to many a sensitive artist, and combined with the tension of a road trip punctuated by unsuccessful, poorly attended shows, it can be more than enough to make a group question their resolve.

But as Morrell explains, there is a light beyond the horror storm, but you have to be prepared to look outside the lines. “From there on out it was about trying to attack that problem from different perspectives: ‘How do we get people to hear about us?’, ‘How do we get in the right places so the shows are good even if they haven’t heard us?’ It takes different strategies because the end goal through all this is to play a bunch of music for a bunch of happy people.” He laughs, hitting the center of the issue on the head, “Building relationships with people is actually the most important thing. No matter what all your pictures look like and what your music sounds like – Fuck what your music sounds like!”

Referring to the booking of their upcoming tour, a gargantuan jaunt around the United States, Lisausky goes into further detail. “People we kinda knew… we played there and they played here… or maybe they slept over at someone’s house [on tour]. And now the drummer of one [of those bands] is setting our San Francisco show up. I met a dude on Facebook who’s now a close friend, even though we’ve only physically hung out for like… a day.”

They regale me with anecdote after anecdote about people they’ve met only a handful of times, with whom they are now close enough for them to be instrumental (no pun intended) in booking this nationwide tour. The old joke, ten years ago when social media was still just “for kids”, was that “I’ve got 600 friends on Myspace, but I don’t actually know any of those people.” A decade later, the reality for an aspiring musician with the right kind of eyes is, “I’ve got 600 FRIENDS… They’re on Facebook, and we’re friends enough that they’ll help me book and promote shows in cities I’ve never been to.”

“Even with booking agents,” Lisausky reasserts, “Trying to get on these opening slots with bigger bands. You end up on the phone with, say, Neutral Milk Hotel’s booking agent… Legitimately… all you’ve gotta do is email people.”

Caveat Emptor: Carpe Diem

There are humor websites where it’s considered trite and outdated to mention how fucked the major label music industry is as the main punch line in a joke. To anyone in touch with the current pulse of music, the only thing left that’s clear is that “the heart of rock and roll”, if it’s still beating, is doing so in about a thousand different places, at a million different tempos. And the trend is only a further decentralization.

At the last Record Store Day, April 20, 2014, Jack White set a world record (Ha! More puns, I kill me!), delivering a vinyl record from the recording to the final printed, packaged product (the inserts and liner notes were all photos from the live show at which it was recorded) in under 4 hours. He pulled the whole thing off with his record label, Third Man Records, which, while it probably got jump-started with some of those fat Warner Bros royalty checks, is operated entirely by White and (drum roll) his friends.

That’s the point, you see. We may not all have that White Stripes money, but if you’re an aspiring musician, the means to a grassroots groundswell are more and more within your grasp, regardless of your current pay grade.

There is, as always, a catch. During our conversation, Matt Ruder coined a phrase, summing it up, “If you’re not gonna work, it’s not gonna work for you.”

The difference between Jack White and every other Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, hackjob rockstar that spirals into a drug oblivion when the major label stops baby-sitting their investment, is that that motherfucker never stopped looking for the edge as far as what is going to get his art into the biggest number of interested hands at any given moment. And whether you’re a garage band with an unlistenable 4-song EP or a multi-platinum recording artist with Grammies on the mantle, that will never stop being the name of the game.

The game itself, on the other hand, will not stop changing. While this is bad news for executives of the multinational corporations whose market share in rock and roll has all but vanished, it’s great news for music fans, who have more and more chances to give their money straight to the bands. And as more and more music fans realize this, a whole new music industry is being born right before our eyes.

And the biggest element of this new independent business model is ironically (or maybe logically) still the tried and true live show. “I’ve listened to live recordings as long as I’ve listened to recorded music,” Austin Morrell points out, “It’s way more important to be good live than to have impressive recordings or whatever… Nobody ever listens to your album, y’know? And the people who really get to like you are seeing you live. And you have to focus on that.”

Being in a band is a strange thing that can never be understood unless you’ve done it. It’s like being married, but the sex is replaced with a daily musical communion that can be far more personal in many ways. You’ll never have a soulmate quite like the other guy in your rhythm section.

So call over your friends, clear out the garage, dust off that broken drum kit, warm up the decades old tubes in your dad’s Marshall, and piss off your neighbors for a few months. Because the era of the shitty neighborhood band nobody’s ever heard of is nigh.

It could be your band. It could be my band. But it’s more likely to be both our bands together. Hit me up on Facebook. We’ll book a show.