Archive for April, 2014

A few random band axioms

Twelve years I toiled in the D leagues of the Portland band scene. I may have gotten up to C level a time or two, but most of it was clearly in the D leagues. Farmers Markets, Private parties, and an occasional corporate event or business opening. I think the most I ever banked from a 3 hour gig was $100. Not bad by some standards. Money-wise that’s as good as some A-B league bands do. But clearly we were operating (intentionally) at the lower levels where mistakes are not a big deal. My goal was usually to get through the night with no quinker-dinkers and I got to the point where I could pull that off more often than not.

I was fortunate enough to ‘play up’ and got to work with some really good mentors who (thankfully) had patience. Along the way you learn some valuable lessons. Here are a few I thought I’d share, for whatever it’s worth.

The singer gets to pick the songs This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s often followed.

Travel light You can tell the smart guitar players because they aren’t packing around 500 lbs of shit to every gig. They keep it simple. I watched the best guitar player in Portland show up for a gig one time at Bridgeport Village with The Patrick Lamb Band. He was carrying about 3 things. His guitar on a shoulder strap, a small ( quality ) tube amp, and his pedal was in a bag along with a few cords. That’s it.

Myself, ability-wise about 15 steps down from him, had a habit of showing up for the Annual ZeeRocks corporate gig with my truck loaded to the brim with gear. Let me be the first to admit, the extra gear did not help. And it took an hour to assemble and I was exhausted when I was all done. Worse, I had to remember how to use it all during the gig…. to the point where I’d play the song wrong. You see that’s the point. If you can’t play the song right, then forget about all the other stuff. Priority 1 is learn the song and play it with no mistakes.

Keep the songs moving Some bands/duos do this exceptionally well. Nobody does it better than Tim Ellis and Jim Walker. They can string a medley of 20 songs together without ever stopping. It’s truly amazing. Too often I’ve run into a band member who see a microphone and seizes the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a stand up comic. It usually goes over like a lead balloon. Dude, you’re not funny. Another band member couldn’t stop fucking around with the PA and it drove me nuts. It’s like the entire gig was this 3 hour sound check. That messed with my mojo, but you do what you have to to get along. The point is, the listener wants to hear the next song, not your jokes, or a continuation of the sound check, or anything else.

Coming unprepared to practice is rude When one former band member announced that, “Yeah, I gotta go home and woodshed that one” for the 3rd practice in a row, I was ready to SCREAM. By contrast, nothing is better than coming to practice and cruising through new songs and having them sound pretty good the first time. Enough said.

Keep the gear simple ( see also, Travel light ). The more pedals and extra stuff you have to tweak, the more than can go wrong technically and throw your song off. I know this from personal experience. One of the worst flaws I had as a player for most of the time I played was having to tweak my pedals in the middle of a gig. Cardinal sin. All that stuff should be dialed in and operating it should be second nature during a gig. You can observe the good players doing this.

Put your best material in the middle of the set list. I finally learned to do this after realizing it was fallacy to think that you’re going to play a Farmer’s Market and there will be some sort of ‘grand finale’ that you will go out on. Fact is, most people show up to these sorts of events somewhere in the middle, so that’s where you want to put your best stuff.

Don’t take breaks right when you have some momentum going The set list is a guide, not the Bible. Be flexible. If your band has the mojo going and people are getting into it, keep playing. Just because the set list says set 1 is over and it’s time for a break doesn’t mean it’s the law.

Don’t spend a bunch of time in practice re-writing the arrangement Agree to either ‘do it like the record’ so that everyone has the same reference point coming in, or else document the arrangement and give it to everyone beforehand.

Don’t play too loud Better to have people asking you to turn it up than turn it down.

Be flexible with your band mates’ goals It isn’t he 1960’s anymore. Playing with another band is not a form a cheating. The pay is low, so naturally musicians who need the money are going to try to get as many paying gigs as they can. Sometimes the customer wants a duo. Other times they want a full 5 piece. The best musicians I know play in several different configurations… whatever the gig calls for. Give your band mates some room to breath in the area and try not to get your undies in a bunch when a band mate gets an opportunity to play with other musicians.

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Let’s not get all idealistic here

Keeping a band together can be a real challenge. Especially for us working stiffs who know good and well we need to keep our day jobs and try to do this as a semi-serious hobby or else risk starvation.

There’s the chore of finding others with similar musical tastes, ability, age proximity, and commitment levels. There’s dealing with personality types and communication styles that are different than yours. There’s aligning work and weekend schedules for practice and gigs and commuting distances. The bigger the band, the more of a challenge it becomes. A lot can go wrong on the road to becoming a paid band member, even if it’s just beer money.

But every now and then the planets align and you find a group of people where it comes together pretty well. Keeping that going however, is also hard work. Even if it looks good initially, the opportunity for a band-ending kerfuffle is right around every corner.

Let’s say you work up a couple of sets with a new group, it sounds pretty good and you think you might be about ready to take your show out to the local watering hole. You soon realize you need some demo tracks for potential customers. It’s nearly impossible to get a paying gig without giving a customer who is not familiar with your work something to listen to. The group gets together and decides the solution is to do some recording, put tracks up on Reverb Nation or SoundCloud and link to them from your band’s new Facebook page. How does one go about that?

Studio time is great but bring your wallet. Recording live in your garage probably isn’t going to yield a quality level you’ll be comfortable giving to a customer. The recording process takes time, patience, skill, technology, and smarts.

It’s the last one that eludes a lot of prospective bands in this writer’s opinion. It’s easy to become impatient and post a low quality recording because everyone just got burned out on the recording process and wants to move on. But smart bands know the quickest route to getting those tracks up is to record one instrument / voice at a time and mix until you’ve got what you want. Forget the live recording idea. Someone might go to jail before you reach consensus on enough tracks to release. It’s the story of the tortoise and the hare all over again, with different players.

The last band I was in had the debate about recording live vs. laying down tracks. This turned out to be a real fork in the road. I knew it was a huge mistake at the time but couldn’t convince my peers to layer and mix. One band member in particular was on this idealistic “No False Advertising” campaign and wouldn’t consider mixing tracks because “Then our customers will think they are going to hear one thing when they listen to mixed tracks, but will then be disappointed when they hear us live.” To that I say bullshit. If you can get pretty close, you’re golden and the customer won’t give a damn. They aren’t that stupid as to not know the difference between live sound and a recording.

I do sympathize with the position however if what we’re talking about is mixing in extra effects that we can’t reproduce, or screwing with the features of Pro Tools, or Garage Band (pick your tool) to where you are essentially in the role of song manufacturer vs. recording your musical abilities. That part I get and agree with. I think sometimes band members get so caught up in the bells and whistles of the tools that they forget to play the song.

Anyway, having said all of that, real fork in the road. There were only 3 of us, but the probability that we were all going to play (6) 3-4 minute songs from start to finish with no mistakes, with the right mix of voices to instruments and to the quality level that we wanted to release was next to zero. Take after take after take we struggled to keep our patience with each other and find some half ways decent. It damn near killed the band right then and there. We played the songs so many times we now hated the songs and didn’t want to play them again for 6 months.

Laying down tracks could have been done separately, in the comfort of our homes without the pressure of screwing up and having to start over when everyone else’s part was perfect. And it could have been done in one-third of the time and without the battle scars of trying to record live.

Next time someone says “Let’s record our demo tracks live”, don’t listen to them.

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