Interview with Chico Jones from Boss Battle and Ohm Recording Facility

Chico was the first friend I made when I moved to Austin in late 1999.  There was no craigslist then but we did meet online while I was still living in Dallas.   Chico was looking for a bass player and I was moving to Austin.  I joined his band Object as bass player as soon as I moved to town.  I didn’t last terribly long.  We found a drummer/bass player duo that really, really fit with Chico’s vision.  I moved to guitar but… I wasn’t right for it and I was eventually let go.  It was no big deal.  I knew I was too goof.  But I’d already made a serious connection with Chico.  I knew we’d be lifelong friends.

Chico was always into recording.  Back then, he’d record using a Yamaha all-in-one multi-track recorder that now sits next to the massive console at Ohm Recording Facility – presumably as a reminder of humble beginnings.

His recording engineering took off.  He quit his day job a few years ago to run the studio full time.  That slowed his own music writing/performing/releasing which has been great for other bands’ recordings but not so hot if you’re a fan of Chico’s songs.  I’ve always liked Chico’s music.  It’s like Soundgarden, Tool, Jesus Lizard and a 80s synth pop all rolled together with the energy and percussive thump of a rap show.

These days, his band is called Boss Battle.  Boss Battle has a new and much anticipated EP called Attack Time and hits the road for a western tour with Sky Acre next week.  Here’s an interview with Chico:

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pic by Erin Frazier

 

It’s been a long time (10 years?) since Robot Child With a God Complex came out.  You’ve changed the band name to Boss Battle and even got a new female vocalist.  What took so long?

It’s been 6 years.  The main reason it took so long is Ohm Recording Facility.  So everyone else’s recordings took precedence over our album–that won’t ever change.   I love engineering and producing and the studio is my job.  The next holdup was a lineup change.  But that proved to be something that has propelled Boss Battle forward with more momentum than the old band ever had.

How has the sound changed?  What’s new compared to six years ago?

The sound is a lot better now.  We know it and everyone that hears the EP or sees us live agrees.  Sonically,  I got more savvy managing all the analog synths while still keeping Ben’s drums huge.  On the vocal end, I stopped holding back or started to find my voice within the mess of sound–something clicked. Plus Erin can sing circles around me and most people I know.  Makes it easy to be better when someone is simply better.

But we also worked hard to write better songs.  Ben and I improvised over half of the structures on Robot Child.  But for Attack Time we wrote with more intention–and then I hacked and rearranged as usual.  And then Erin helped with a necessary finishing critique to make sure we didn’t fall short or get lazy.
There’s not another band in Austin (or maybe anywhere) that’s much like you.  What inspires your sound, lyrics and percussive energy?
When we ask people to define our sound objectively, they tell us we sort of sound like this or that.   We do try to quantify it in order to build good shows and to promote the band accurately.  But most people agree that we don’t sound like any band or genre in particular right now.  We understand that our sound is unique.  That is definitely something that has been important to me since I was a kid.  I have no idea why.  I don’t mean it was important for me to be different… I mean I always liked stuff that sounded a little weird–or a lot weird.
Plus, I have obsessively loved and devoured so many different styles of music throughout the years that it’s just all mixed up in there now.  And I’ve been aware for a while that I’m not really a fan of any genre or any band but that I am totally loyal to certain records or certain songs or certain moments in songs.  Maybe the music I have been writing lately is simply an attempt to string  some of those moments together.  But really I think I’m just trying to make songs that showcase those favorite moments.  It’s fun for me.  But I often say this, most of the structures start with Ben and I riffing or jamming loudly in a rehearsal room.  And I can barely play guitar or I hardly play it the way it should be played.  Piano was my first instrument.   So there’s the percussive energy you mentioned at the heart of all the best songs–it’s very physical and not very technical.

Attack Time was inspired by trying to evolve past Robot Child.  It’s part of 13 songs.  Like I said, it was important to push myself vocally and lyrically.  So the story telling got a bit more in depth.  Themes were more concise and less stream of consciousness.  I approached the vocals differently too.  I always wanted to hear one male and two female voices in our songs. So we did it on this album with Claire Puckett’s guest appearances.  We didn’t worry about it translating into live performance.  Erin and I trade off frequently on Attack Time and we weren’t afraid to put Claire right in front when necessary.

I experimented with more synths this time.  In the past,  I set some rules like this synth will cover the bass sounds etc.  but for Attack Time, just like the approach to vocal parts, no synth was allowed to reign any region too long.   Same goes for guitars .  I used about 5-10% of the guitar tones from Robot Child.  I really had a good time with the guitars.  This is not a guitar-based band.  But lots of people are giving good feedback on the guitar sounds.  Silicone diodes are amazing.

 

Speaking of vocals, how did Erin Frazier (your new singer) come to be in the band?

Erin is my person.  I love her.  That is the best part of the story.  But I definitely met her because of this record.  I was auditioning voices for the female vocal parts and my friend, Lisa (The Well), recommended that I contact Erin. Erin rocked songs. We had to spend a lot of time together as you often do while recording. But we found excuses to see each other outside of the studio too.  Eventually we could not be separated.

You’ve had a lot of roadblocks along the way with personnel and other issues.  There was a long period of very little activity by   How have you kept moving forward?
I think the most inactivity we had was when I started recording full time (before Boss Battle).  The hours are long.  And a lot of creativity is focused on the good bands that choose to work with me.  So I would just coast through rehearsals instead of writing new material.  And the old band just stopped trying to make things happen and seemed to be waiting for something to happen instead.  The difference now is that all three of us are busy outside of Boss Battle.  But we are working hard like any good band should.  We are not waiting for an opportunity.
You’ve been operating the Ohm Recording Facility over ten years and have sort of become to Austin what Steve Albini was to Chicago in the 90s.  What have been some of the highlights in that time?
I hope Steve Albini isn’t reading this.  I am definitely a fan of his work, his bands, his attitude.  My friends in The Gary and I joke about my five minutes of fame working on their record — Albini recorded and mixed it and I handled one overdub on it.  So my name is right there with his in the credits.  I have been operating in this space since 2004.  I really do enjoy recording and mixing and yes, producing.  Helping people write full songs or rearrange songs is very close to my heart–it’s the reason i learned to record.  To me and probably to most musicians the studio is part of the band experience.   You can sing a song in the shower or map it out in garage band or rock it on stage but most people will know your song in its recorded form.  And the studio production has a huge impact on that recording.  That’s probably why engineers like Albini try to stay out of the way.  That’s the artists’ music–not the engineer’s music.  So I definitely try hard to stay out of the way too. But if they want all my help–then yes I will add whatever it takes.  As for highlights, almost every session.  I know there are popular bands or better-skilled bands or more hip bands that can be used as calling cards.  But honestly, I don’t go to the studio everyday to be associated with those people.  My favorite highlights –just as i mentioned above–are often moments on a session vs the record itself.  And for a nerdy engineer it’s not interesting stuff like we spun a microphone around the room while the singer screamed naked and later slipped on his own diarrhea.  In contrast, it’s the memory when i plugged something in wrong and accidentally got this crazy bass sound that reminded me of a song from 1975.  it seems that the more time i spend in the studio, the more chances i have to try new things and make mistakes and piece the sonic puzzle together.  and all of that experience helps the next band even if they are a totally different style.  and it helps me figure out new ideas for Boss Battle’s music too.
What kind of music do you wish you could record more often?  (or is there’s any kind you’ve never done but would like to?)
I feel sorry for engineers who specialize in one genre of music.  I’m lucky because 1) I record lots of different genres, often back to back, and 2) I live in Austin so I also get to record local bands who mix genres together in gutsy and/or bizarre ways.  I honestly haven’t lusted to record a certain genre.  Maybe I should do that to be more business-minded.  Much of the studio time is spent with the band members.  If those people are good people then I’m happy–just like any other job environment.  Of course, I want popular bands and genres to frequent the studio.  But my favorite bands in the end are hard-working bands,  You can feel it.  They could be serious or jovial, super focused or scatter-brained in the studio.  But you can feel it.  They like being in a band.  They like writing and recording.  They like playing live, touring , doing whatever needs to be done to be a musician.  They don’t fake it. It’s inspiring.
You took a leap of faith a few years ago and went full time at Ohm.  What keeps you afloat?
Money.  Haha.  Seriously.  If I didn’t make money I would still write, record, perform music.  I would work a non-music job like I did for years.  In reality the studio is still a job.  It’s just a job that I really like.  But if I can’t pay my bills then the show must not go on.  That’s not a glamorous answer but it’s the truth.  I think that many of us are conditioned to measure success against a few lucky people in the industry.  No one is going to write about all the failed studios that close every year or all the bands who’s dreams never came true.  So for a lot of people it’s all or none.  It’s like saying that someone who enjoys cooking has to own a restaurant.  And if they don’t own a successful restaurant then somehow they failed.  That’s ridiculous.  I know that I’m a musician.  Music makes me happy even when my life seems upside down.  So I surround myself with it.  It’s not the dream of being successful that keeps me going.  It’s knowing what I love to do and finding time to do it. I can’t fail in that scenario.  But I might have to work a less than ideal job like most people in life. Boo hoo.
What do you hope to see in the future for Ohm and yourself as an engineer and producer?
Ohm is awesome: The space, the gear, the sounds you can get–it’s solid, and it keeps getting better.   I just want it to be busy all the time.  I want local bands to make good records with good engineers.  And I want those recordings to turn more attention to Austin.  I think Austin filmmakers are trying to do the same thing.  There are a lot of creative people here and they deserve work.  But it’s not really about records alone.  As I said before it’s about hard-working bands.  Bands make an impact by touring other cities and or countries.  That impact ripples back to Austin.  I can’t control a band’s work ethic.  But I have made good records with independent bands who are now signed.  I want more of that.  Making a record is easy.  Making a good record takes more than a studio.  And getting people to actually hear that record takes a lot of guts unless you are independently wealthy.  So unless I win the lottery, the only way I can control that hopeful future is trying harder myself as an engineer and producer and working musician…and attracting other no-bullshit engineers producers and musicians.
Why do you do what you do?
I enjoy it.  But something tells me I’m supposed to do it.  I have a lot of voices in my head.  And I feel like I’ve worn a lot of hats or lived a lot of different lives simultaneously along the way.  But there’s a bit more clarity around that part of my brain or psyche or whatever you believe in.  There are things that you know look good on your life’s resume by most people’s standards.  But there are things that resonate with you despite what anyone thinks.  I guess that’s your truth and your truth alone.  Maybe that’s stubbornness or stupidity–and I’ve convinced myself that this is what I should be doing with my time.   But it’s always there.  It’s there when everything is fucked.  it’s there when something else amazing is happening.  I can’t help myself.  That’s why I do it.

SHOULD

Be Compelling

I feel like a lot of original bands have backwards ideas of what audiences should and shouldn’t do. Either in our words or actions, we sometimes communicate things like –

Audiences should love our music and what we do enough to come to our shows, buy our merchandise, keep track of our activity and support what we do. They shouldn’t expect to hear us play tunes they like that we’re sick of or spend hours talking to them when we need to break down our gear.

Why should they, though?

Because we think we’re good? Because we put forth effort? Because we need/want their support to justify what we do?

Those answers aren’t very useful. Are we on stage to entertain/make art or are we up there simply seeking approval and validation? Lots of us are so involved in our thing that we can’t see when we’re the only ones who care.  Or that we’re essentially seeking unconditional love from strangers — asking people to get married on a first (often blind) date.

The word “should” implies some kind of moral imperative:  You should conserve resources so that there’s enough for everyone.  Or a danger: You should wear your seat belt or you could die in an accident.

There’re lots of things people should (or shouldn’t) do but don’t feel compelled to do (or not do). In spite of the overwhelming proof that quitting smoking, getting more sleep and eating more vegetables are all pretty good practices, most people slough them off until the consequences hurt enough to compel them to change.

This is why some people can be found tail-gaiting at 80 MPH a few miles up the road from a fatal accident.

I’ve never tried this but I’m betting that if you told your audience that they should come see you because they might die otherwise or because they’re morally obligated, you won’t see many more faces at your next show. (Then again, this could be terribly funny!)

Coming from you, “should” isn’t compelling. It sounds naggy, judgmental – even whiny. Should only works when people already feel so compelled by you or your work that they think they should. “We should go because it’ll be fun, there’ll be chicks/dudes there, they put on a great show and I don’t want to miss it.”

(It’s worth mentioning that relatively few music fans think, “I should go support these guys so they can keep making music I like.” It takes a relatively high level fan to think from the bands’ perspective.  The number of people that think being a musician = big bucks and fame is surprising and most of them will experience your shows very few times.)

Coming back to “Why should they,” a more useful question is, “Why don’t they?”

Hard to answer specifically but if you’re not playing to the audiences you want (or think you deserve), it’s got something to do with not reaching them – not being compelling enough to them.

Of course, you can do things to make yourself more compelling. You just have to know what your target audience wants and give it to them.

Ew.  That language sounds all marketing-y and not art-y.

But think about it.  Why do you like the music/musicians you like?

Musicians’ reasons are often musical, but most listeners latch on to non-musical stuff like the artist’s fashion, lifestyle or beauty before the music.

(And of course, let us not forget good old fashioned repeated exposure. How often does a song get stuck in your head so much that you finally decide you like it? That’s the power of heavy rotation!)

“Why don’t they?” makes it clear that artists (not audiences) are actually the subjects of more useful and specific should statements:

This band SHOULD do something interesting if they want me to pay attention. They should do more songs like that one everyone likes! They should have a light on their merchandise table if they wanted people to notice it. They should accept credit cards. They should make t-shirts in my size. They should be on facebook, youtube or whatever platform I like.

Boy… sounds like a lot of guess work for artists.  No wonder we think audiences should cut us some slack! We’re artists, not marketing experts… but this is the (new?) playing field and the “winners” are people who know how to make what they do attractive those who (might) like it.

I am not an expert on compelling others, but I think audiences want to experience something they can’t easily, often or ever hear/see anywhere else from anyone else.

They stand in front of you hoping to see and hear something exciting and compelling if not entertaining. Audiences vary in their taste but there seem to be a few generic things that work regardless of your style: (Even the absence of these things can be compelling!)

  • Wardrobe – Look like a band, feel like a band.  It totally works.  Most bands in street clothes are boring to watch – though it’s totally effective for jam and grunge bands.  (cargo shorts do NOT work in any context, people!)  Most of your audience thinks about what to wear to your show. You might do well to do the same. (total absence of wardrobe of any kind would probably be really compelling. I keep telling Phil we’d sell more tickets if he’d just play naked.)
  • Interaction – most audiences like the opportunity to at least clap after a song in approval. (there’s the validation we wanted!) If you’re a band with memorable, fun or powerful lyrics, maybe they’d like to sing along. Maybe all your interaction is before/after the show. Zero interaction can be totally effective in metal and at the symphony where audiences are dead serious.
  • Lighting – It’s amazing how a switching light colors can change our perceptions of our environment. Instant reset. Total absence of light is a tough sell – unless you’re the house band inside the House of Terror. (Personal note – contact House of Terror…)
  • Movement – Costs only sweat. Coordinated group moves can’t help but be visually engaging.

These things draw the eyes and, hopefully, the ears will follow.  They invite people to enjoy and welcome approval without requiring it.  (I’d love to hear more of these kinds of things if you think of them.)

I know. You want to be loved for your music, not your stage show. It’s kind of deflating to learn that how you look is often more important to an audience (especially one that’s never heard you) than how you sound. You don’t have to sacrifice dignity to win fans. But if you want people to come SEE your SHOW (implying visual perception), give them something worth watching. Show them why they should love your band – or at least give you a listen.

Bottom line – If there’s something you think your audience should be doing, there’s a good chance there’s something they think you should be doing to compel them and you have to make the first move. It rarely works the other way around.

(and as always – if you simply don’t care what the audience thinks, there’s nothing stopping you from doing what you do for you.  Totally valid.)

I QUIT

I haven’t posted anything in long time because I made the decision to quit my day job back in October and have needed time to orchestrate that feat.

I know… it’s crazy and comes in spite of my own blog entry on the topic of day jobs last year.

Before I write more on that topic, I want to announce that I’m going to start writing shorter, regular Friday posts to this blog because now I can!

So what changed my mind? I guess I determined quitting my job to be the next big risk I needed to take.

I spent the better part of 2014 feeling pretty stuck…

As an individual musician:

I’m not nearly as in-demand as many of my colleagues. I’m rarely asked to do anything outside of my own bands.  No one needs another electric guitarist with mediocre reading skills that’s good at playing metal, punk and grunge. That’s not useful in the day to day world of broke musicians playing “money gigs” (that term is laughable in most cases) in restaurants, at weddings and other wall paper gigs.

I also haven’t done a good job of making the arts world aware that I can compose. I’m not on the composers-to-call-list with Graham, Peter or Justin. Most arts people know me as a goofball that heads “that Tchaikovsky Christmas band”.

I began to see that my sense of stagnation was mainly because, in spite of talking a big game about taking risks, I’ve most often favored practicality over big risks. It’s easier to just float in a relative safe zone where I don’t really have to make money playing music (and am therefore free to do what I want) but also have not committed to a full time day job (and therefore have no money to do what I want).

More on my job in a sec.

 

As a band leader:

Would you rather play a single wedding for $300 or spend a week on the road with The Invincible Czars playing silent movies and rock clubs to possibly empty rooms for the same amount?

Tough sell and a big reason we haven’t had a dedicated drummer since Fall 2012.  It’s hard for The Invincible Czars’s gigs to compete with the better offers my band mates get constantly — and yet,  we cannot grow when we’re at the mercy of the next “better” gig.

I want to add a special recognition here to Phil and Leila who’ve stuck with me for a long time (ten years for Phil!) in spite of the fact that they both are constantly offered “better” gigs.  Thank you, both!

I knew that growing would require more time from everyone.  I tried to relieve the others of time consuming responsibilities which ostensibly fell back on me.  I felt constant pressure to maximize everyone’s time and yet I started to feel like time was even more scrutinized  I felt like it didn’t matter if we sounded good in rehearsal – it only mattered that we ended on time (even though no one arrived on time because they were coming from another gig or session).

This was very, very disheartening.

 

In my day job:  I’d been at the same part-time day job at an Austin property management company 12 years with 3 year break to work at Austin Music Foundation (total of 15 years).   I had turned down all offers to move up in the working world because I knew that’d seriously cut into my music and creative time. In my last couple of months, I learned that I was the lowest paid employee at my job in spite of having more seniority than almost all the hourly employees and many of the salaried ones. Everyone else had committed to working full time or taken on some bigger responsibility.

(It was a symbiotic relationship, though. I was pretty much free to take time off for gigs and I’m very grateful to my supervisor, Gina, for always working with me on that!)

However, I was just treading water in the day job pool. My prime time hours were dedicated to the activity I cared about least in my life. The more music I was doing, the less flexible the job seemed.   My hours got to be pretty open-ended: The company grew rapidly in 2014 and I was there extra hours if it was busy enough. My time was terribly fractured – I even gave up teaching lessons which would’ve paid me more!   Plus, I was spending more and more time in traffic getting to and from the office.

While my music career has never grown quickly, I sensed that if I’d soon be treading water in the music pool, too, if kept this up — and only at the benefit of a job I didn’t really care about.

I started looking at wanted ads but that was dismal. My my best case scenario would essentially be a time-consuming, lateral jump. Why bother? I started feeling indignant and bitter. I dreaded going to work.

I was really angry with myself on all fronts…

 

 

 

Then, last spring, I had a majorly positive breakthrough that changed my perspective on my own life for the better:  I accepted what I am and began focusing on my strengths and dropping activities that wouldn’t allow that (like playing wall paper gigs or being a part-time property management lackey.)

This made me aware that years of setting myself up to take a big, risky leap had basically made me totally free to do it whenever I wanted – I’d simply been too scared to try. Doing so would require additional sacrifice but would be totally worth it.

It now seemed necessary and totally possible. I began slowly planning my escape from my old life and saving every penny I could.

 

 

Months passed, and while visiting my family in August, I told them that I was thinking of quitting my job and just going for it in with music. They were surprisingly supportive but I was still scared.

Then Bill died.

Big wake up call. The future me on my present path sent a haunting image back in time:  I was lying on my death bed regretting my failure to pursue my dreams because other people thought it was foolish or impractical.

I thought, “Now’s the time – while I’m in good health and still relatively young.”

I gave my job about a 4 month notice. My only regret now –  I wish I would’ve quit a month earlier! Now in week 6 of being day job free, it’s astounding to me that I held on as long as I possibly could even at the detriment of what I claim is my most important work.

And that’s the the most surprising thing to reveal itself to me through this process — most people won’t make big decisions unless/until they have to… including me.

None of family, friends and even co-workers’ thought this was crazy.  The main sentiment I heard: “I wish I was passionate enough about something to even know what to do with myself if I quit my job!”

For most people, the burden and risk of determining the best course and then navigating is far less appealing than latching on to rich people (who can afford the risk) who will pay others to realize their dreams.

Speaking of that, upon hearing I was leaving, the owner of my old company said, “Time to finally grow up.” Many would’ve felt insulted but I think that he accurately summed up where I was. Most – not all – of his employees are done growing professionally. I’m only just really embarking.

In preparing, I saved a bunch of money, read a lot about people quitting their day jobs and found a few very flexible non-music odd jobs I can do to earn money here and there.   I figure that it’ll take me several months to figure out what I’m doing but… even if I totally fail, I know it was time for me to stop spending most of my day driving to/from and working an unfulfilling day job.

Onward!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Hedquist – Different is Good

Ben is far too important a figure in my musical and personal history to have a short entry so this will, once again, be a LONG post.  For those who never knew Ben, you might still enjoy the look into my earliest days of leading a band!

Sadly, a lot of my photos of Ben are lost so there aren’t many visuals here.

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Me, Daniel Snow, Ben and Jeremy Hunsaker at Katy Svendsen’s house in what must’ve been the summer of 1990 because I still have braces in this photo and those didn’t make it to high school with me… thank goodness.  Note that Jeremy has “HOT” sunburned onto his chest.  I had the Van Halen VH but it wore off before this photo.

 

MUSIC BEN SHARED THAT IMPACTED ME THE MOST:

Metallica, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Black Flag, Anthrax, Fugazi, Weird Al Yankovic, Primus, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Butthole Surfers, Nirvana.

Just as much as music, though, Ben introduced me to skateboarding.

 

WHEN WE PLAYED TOGETHER:

1991 – 1993.  Ben was the first person I really played music with that wasn’t an adult/instructor*.

 

HOW WE MET:

Ben moved to Cleburne (south of Ft. Worth – I lived there from 1983 – 1995 age 7-19) when we were both in 6th grade in 1988. I rarely saw Ben at school, though, because we didn’t have a single class together until high school and even then it was only PE and Art.

We actually met in church.  I was practically the only Mormon boy my age for the 7 years prior to that in Cleburne so I was overjoyed when Ben moved to town.

We didn’t know it then but we were both sort of on the Jack Mormon path. Neither of us seemed to be preparing to serve as missionaries and religious matters only butted into our fun when adult church members or our parents were around. Otherwise, we were listening to punk and metal, skateboarding and talking about girls. We also did a lot of camping in our Boy Scout Troop (598).

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Troop 598 at Philmont in 1992. Back row left to right – Haven Snow, TJ, Ben, me, Daniel Taylor, Daniel Snow, Ryan Hedquist, Jason Hansen, Brad Wallace.  Front row left to right – Jeremy Hunsaker, Tony Dinsdale., Tony’s dad, our Philmont guides, Ben’s dad, Michael Hatch, Alan Dinsdale. I lost two contacts out there and spent most of the time hiking with only one. It was character building for a guy who’s nearly blind without corrective lenses.

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BEN:

I learned a lot of good non-musical stuff from Ben – like surviving in nature. I was cured of being a wussy for life when Troop 598 went on an intense trek at Philmont in 1992.

The big thing I took away from our time together was that different is good. Although it took me YEARS to truly apply this lesson to my life.

We were not popular. We wore glasses and were members of a church that our little Bible Belt town called a cult. I actually lost a few friends and quit a soccer team because of this. Of course, money could trump that – the most popular girl in our class was also a Mormon but she was also very sweet, pretty and (most importantly) rich. Ben and I were called freaks, art fags, skaters, losers, etc.

(Side Note: At least we didn’t receive the worst possible label you could receive in conservative Cleburne — “devil worshipper”.   Everyone seemed obsessed with the idea that there were devil worshippers in the forest… or down by the lake at night… or on the east side of town**. Scary house on your street? Devil worshippers DEFINITELY lived there. Hilariously, Ben was often the first one in our group of friends to invoke devil worshippers in any given conversation.)

Being different wasn’t new for me. It just wasn’t good. I’d been the class nerd for my entire elementary school career  and was still living with the delusion that I could be one of the cool kids. Ben didn’t suffer from the fear and self-esteem issues I had as a pre-teen and teen-ager. To Ben, “different” was interesting and therefore almost automatically good. His curiosity for what was happening around us woke me up and I came to accept myself more and stopped trying to fit in with people who were never going to like me – and who I didn’t even like anyway. Thank you, Ben, for helping me take the first steps to dispel my “logic” of self-hatred.

Ben was the person who got me away from top 40 radio and MTV. We stayed up late (probably 11 PM) one weekend in 1989 and listened to most of Metallica’s …And Justice For All on Ben’s bootlegged(?) cassette in my dad’s stereo with the volume set to a whisper while my family was asleep. I remember lying on the carpet of the living room next to Ben with our heads right next to the speaker and him laughing something like, “If you smile while listening to this, it just makes you feel evil!” I didn’t listen to commercial radio much after that night… I’d been bitten by a heavy metal vampire and turned into one myself.

Then we saw Faith No More on MTV.

This changed everything. I didn’t know what to think – I was still subconsciously in the “different is bad” mindset and Faith No More was unlike anything I’d seen or heard. Metallica was scary but this was… silly and… surreal and… hard to pigeonhole.

Ben loved them immediately.

Thank goodness for peer pressure. Once I knew Ben liked them, I embraced the music. “Epic” was the anthem of our summer in 1990. Then it was Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese and then of course Nirvana’s Nevermind and later The Butthole Surfers’ Independent Worm Saloon***. We’d listen to the albums over and over in his parents Chevy Suburban which we called “The Bantha”. In fact, I didn’t own a copy of …Seas of Cheese until I was in my 30s because Ben wore me out on it over the course of three years. From there I branched out on my own and got into NoMeansNo, Dead Kennedys, Mudhoney and Godflesh – bands I mostly listened to on my own.

In 1991, I bought an electric guitar (rather, my Dad did and I mowed lawns to pay if off). Ben and I started a band together that was later named Shemp. At first, it was just Ben on a hilarious headstock-heavy imitation BC Rich bass and me on guitar. I remember choosing Ben to be the bass player based simply on the fact that he was my best friend. He’d never played bass or guitar.

The idea of tuning our instruments to the same pitches hadn’t occurred to us. We just tuned individually to whatever our lowest strings happened to be that day and then played riffs we made up. Ben went and played with an older kid one time and I remember being jealous. However, when he came back to play with me the next time, he had learned that we needed to tune to the same notes as each other and there were even such things as electric tuners. We sounded a lot better after that.

One day, Ben had an idea for a riff that was in a weird time signature. At the time, we barely knew what a time signature was let alone that you could break out from standard four-four time.  I couldn’t follow what he was doing. Deep down, different was still bad and scary and I dismissed the riff as “not even real”. I felt foolish saying it even then. Ironically, by the time I was 20, most of my music was purposely in odd meters.

I played my first ever rock show in Shemp at The Esquire – the oldest movie theater in Cleburne – with Ben on bass, Jeff Williams on vocals and Haven Snow playing drums. A band of older guys had apparently heard of us and asked us to open for them. We thought it was because they had heard us and thought we were ok, but looking back on it, their real motivation was probably based on the hope that we’d draw all our high school aged classmates.

The Esquire all boarded up. It didn’t look like this when we played there but it wasn’t in much better shape. I saw a lot of movies there in 80s including Return of the Jedi in 1983 with my Uncle Keith. I remember everyone in the theater stood up and clapped when Darth Vader turned on the emperor.

We did. Something like 100 kids showed up that night. Amazing! It was the first time we’d played anywhere other than our bedrooms or garages. I played out of a real tube amp (thanks to the guitarist in the other band) instead of my 5-watt tiny practice amp with an 8” speaker.  It was about as good a first show as any 15 year-old self-taught kid living in the 5th most boring city in Texas could’ve hoped for. The guy running sound (and probably promoting the show) videotaped it and wanted something like $50 for the tape – a fortune to a teenager in 1992. Somehow, we got the tape for free later. I wish I knew where it wound up!

We played The Esquire three more times and our draw decreased exponentially each time. The last show we played there was horrible. Ben was grounded (as usual) so our friend Aaron Johnson agreed to learn our songs and do the show. Little did I know that this first experience with a stand-in player was foreshadowing many more. At the show, it was obvious that Aaron wasn’t really prepared. When he got nervous or forgot parts, he’d just go into noise. Haven didn’t know what to do so he’d go into what we called a grindcore drum beat (the term “blast beat” either didn’t exist or wasn’t known to us).

Now… keep in mind, this was 20 years ago. Blast beats were pretty extreme then and we were young and not that good and couldn’t pull that off at all. This lasted about three songs before the sound man and headlining act (a Stevie Ray Vaughn wanna-be trio called Torrid Rain) angrily struck our gear as we played and moved it out on the street.

That was Shemp’s last show in public.

Soon after that, we discovered Mad Hatter’s, an all-ages club and vegetarian eatery in Ft. Worth. The Toadies and Brutal Juice had already developed followings by the time I was old enough to drive and we’d go up from Cleburne to hear local bands play live. I dreamt of us playing there but we never did – I was the oldest in the band and we were collectively far too young and far too distant to make something like that happen without adult help****. Plus, I don’t think the other guys’ parents would have let them. (Kudos to my folks for letting me have the freedom to make my own choices even at the age of 16!)

In the spring of 1993, our clique of friends heard that The Dwarves were unbelievably playing an all-ages show at Trees in Dallas with Flipper. A group of about 12 of us made the terrifying and exhilarating trek into the then 2nd biggest city in Texas in Corey Stone’s station wagon (known as “Woo, the Wagon!”).   The opening act, Ed Hall, blew me away and eventually became my favorite band in the state. I remember that a mosh pit had taken shape and when I looked into that scary circle, I saw Ben in his usual knit beanie riding on top of it. Flipper was boring.

We were all amped for The Dwarves when the Dallas Police showed up (on bikes) and kicked everyone out of the club that was under 17. I was actually old enough to stay but no one else was and Corey was my ride home. (I did finally see the Dwarves about 10 years later in Austin.)

All this time, we kept playing music in Haven’s bedroom or my parent’s garage. Looking back, it’s amazing that we made it happen at all. Most of the time the band existed, I was the only one that could drive. In fact, writing this blog made me get out the Shemp tapes for the first time in well over a decade. We weren’t bad! In fact, I’m very proud of how good we sounded for a group of 14-17 year-olds making original songs with no real guidance. I’m even prouder to say that most of the riffs and many of the lyrics were mine – rudimentary as they were. I’m very grateful to all three of those guys for following me into that venture.

I felt like we were gaining momentum and getting pretty good when it all came to an end that summer of 1993. My three best friends (Ben, Haven and Jeremy Hunsaker) all moved out of state.   By the time I moved to college in Denton in the fall of 1994, I’d lost favor with the rest of the old clique – to the point of hostility with some of them. I didn’t have the same connection with anyone else that I did with Ben. Plus, Ben was much more popular in our circle of friends than I was. His curiosity and willingness to try new things took him down some of their paths that I wasn’t willing to travel and the younger guys probably saw me as a judgmental stick in the mud (especially on the topic of drugs which I suspected but didn’t want to believe was happening in our circle).

My family left Texas six months later in 1995 and things went mostly downhill from there for a couple of years. I had a car stolen. I dropped out of college and worked an utterly depressing couple of jobs as a screen printer and kept playing in bands that went nowhere. Ben had a pretty rough time of it, too, in his new home of Kennwick, WA (coincidentally the town from which my family had moved to Texas).

I have often wondered what our young adult lives would be like if Ben had been able to stay. Mostly, I think we would’ve weathered those difficult “bad decision-making” years between the ages of 18-21 better if we’d still had each other to lean on. When I asked Ben about this on the phone recently he agreed saying, “We would’ve still been a band.”

With almost all of my close, early friendships severed and my family gone, I had only my girlfriend/future ex- wife left and struggled to find others I really connected with musically and personally for years (with Jeff Brown as the exception).   Shemp was a band for about 3 years. In the three years after it, I was in five different bands, always feeling like none were quite right.

It’s amazing how much of an impact the mere 6 years we were in the same town had on me. Thank you, Ben for showing me the real value of being different — even when you had to pay full price to do so.

 

 

 

*I started playing guitar at age 8 with crappy child’s sized Harmony acoustic guitar that never seemed to really be in tune even when my instructors tuned it for me. I kept the thing until I was well into my twenties and finally donated to Goodwill or something.   I took lessons at Vikki Lynn’s Music Center and had little to no appreciation for the country songs and children’s tunes like “Pop Goes the Weasel” that they taught me. I’d wanted to play guitar because I liked The Beatles and Van Halen and saw no correlation at age 8. I did like “Ghost Riders” which was the first guitar riff I ever learned but I didn’t like the acoustic guitar and associated it with what we called “ropers”. I have to give Vikki credit, though, for teaching me the open guitar chords which I never forgot!

** Side Note on the east side of Cleburne – it really was scary. Cleburne is major railroad stop and I heard many times over the years (from adults!) that most of the drugs that came into the US through Texas made a stop in Cleburne. Years later, Chris Barger, a boy whose grandparents lived in my neighborhood, was actually shot dead in the street in east Cleburne during a bad drug deal when he was 19 and I was 18. I must admit I wasn’t very sad. In junior high, he’d written in white shoe polish “Josh Sux Dick” on the sidewalk in front of our house where I waited for the bus daily. My dad was so enraged when I couldn’t scrub it out that I was made to live with it for what was probably only a few weeks but seemed like years to my 13 year old brain. Still… Chris’ death was chilling and shocking.

***Ben had also gotten a promo copy of the first Radiohead album which was NOT adopted by our group. I still can’t get into Radiohead in spite of the fact that they have basically been adopted as THE band of the 00’s.

**** Today’s “Schools of Rock” type music lesson places boggle my mind. Kids even as young as 11 or 12 are taught to play rock music… and it’s parent-approved! It’s hard to imagine that if something like that existed in 1992 that it would’ve had much success or acceptance… especially in Cleburne

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POWER – The Burden of Being the Decision Maker.

When you’re the band leader, you often have more power than you realize – even if you’re a reluctant one.

I don’t think I generally seek power and yet I often find myself burdened with it.

In my life, I have sought knowledge, understanding and for things (not necessarily me) to be right or the best they can be. In this way, I share something with conservative Christians – I know that perfection is not possible, but I aim for it knowing that doing so will keep my standards high and probably bring about the best possible outcome.

That has helped me stumble into power in spite of my ineptitude in the basic concepts of punctuality, organization and time/work load management.

So how did a bungling, reluctant everyman like me wind up a band leader? I guess just because I cared.

I had an idea that mattered enough to me (no matter how foolish it was/is) to put myself in very uncomfortable situations with high chances for failure over and over. Leading others wasn’t a desire as much as a necessity if I wanted to go further than I or most others I knew had gone before. I was tired of being in bands that lost steam once the newness wore off. I have always made music that lies somewhere pretty left of mainstream interests so I knew I’d be walking the path alone at first.   As others joined me, I was the most experienced one on the path – so I was the default trail boss.

(Many were smart enough to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing and stopped following. I envy them. I wish I could stop following me, too, but I seem to always be in close proximity to myself and so I’m resigned to the fact that I’m stuck with me forever.)

After lots of turnover and time, I realized I needed to make better choices and lead better if I wanted to keep the same obstacles (turn over, quality issues, etc.) from showing up in my path again and again.

Eventually, I found myself leading a group of people who hadn’t been there from the start and didn’t know some of the pitfalls, successes, red flags, lingo, etc. that I’d experienced. Nor did they really have an appreciation for how much time and effort it had taken to get there because I’d always done it all.  Day 1 for several of them was my day 2000. It was up to me to make a change for the better and it wasn’t going to be fun.

So in 2009, I made a bit of a power grab. I say “bit” because I already had the position of power, I just had to finally assert it and learn to use it.  I started by trying to get the group to make some big picture decisions (where are we going? What do we want to be?) and ended with me simply grabbing the reins when I realized we didn’t agree and weren’t going to. To be more accurate, it was that none of us (not even I) had a clear vision and the naysayers were poopoo-ing every idea.

Like most power grabs, it was messy. I didn’t know what I was doing and I mishandled it at first. The process dragged out over the course of three different drummers and two bass players. I piss(ed) a lot of people off and question(ed) myself at every turn. Grabbing the reins didn’t make anyone (at the time) suddenly believe that I knew what I was doing nor did it make them want to follow me any more fervently than they had. The position of power didn’t make me a leader – only a ruler. No one bought it – not even me.

Years later, I read The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. In it, John Maxwell defines leadership as “Influence. Nothing More. Nothing Less.”

Without that language, though, I realized that my influence on my own band wasn’t very strong.   Even I had lost faith in myself as the leader. I just seemed like a desperate, bitter guy walking on eggshells to maintain control of a sinking ship. I needed to change that.

So I took action to increase my sphere of influence. I started acting like the leader. At first, this was laughable. Then it got annoying and frustrating. People started leaving.  (This still happens)

BUT – As various people got off the bus, others got on and immediately recognized me as the leader and simply followed – not because I was the default leader but because I adopted the language and practices of a real leader… and frankly because they hadn’t been there to see me stumble into that state.

Power sometimes gets construed as a bad thing – power hungry politicians! But if power is influence, then all of us exercise power all the time. If you have power, it means you can influence others. Sure, you can be given a position of power, but you won’t actually wield the power until you’ve won hearts and minds. Money, threats, controlling resources and making promises, etc. can all persuade people to do your will, but there’s nothing quite like gaining a real understanding of people to win influence with them.

A close friend of mine worked for Perot Systems while Ross Perot was still in charge. Mr. Perot came into that office (which was one of many) and seemed to know every employee’s name and something about them. When Ross Jr. inherited all of his father’s power, he didn’t have the same influence (how could he?) and apparently things changed quite a bit.

When it comes to joint creative endeavors like bands, you don’t want people who just show up because there’s a paycheck and some potential for more. The people who really follow are the ones who are influenced by other things like personal achievement, friendship/relationships, knowledge, experience, etc. They care! The only way I have found to win lasting influence over people is to win their trust by being the real thing.

I try to be that daily.

But make no mistake – everyone has their limit. It’s taxing to follow someone that’s so enthusiastic about their ideas (no matter how foolish they are) that they are willing put themselves AND OTHERS in very uncomfortable situations with high chances for failure over and over.

Even the people that are just working a job because it’s a steady paycheck will start looking for other opportunities when things seem stale, too hard or the chance for success seems slim. There’s a thin line between keeping it fresh and uncomfortable change.

When I no longer seem to be on the path that someone wants to follow – they stop following – no matter how dedicated they may have been up to that point.

I’ve even lost the trust of some people along the way because of inconsistency or mistakes. That’s when what they once saw as dedication and enthusiasm in me become stubbornness and conceit in their eyes.

I can go from saint to villain seemingly overnight in the eyes of those who follow. To me, that’s the biggest burden of power – when those I come to care about seem to stop caring about me or what we’ve done together. It hurts but I’m happy to say that I’ve remained friends (sometimes close friends) with people who’ve left the fold and I thank them all for their time…  even when we left on bad terms.

Who do you know that wields power well? Let me know in the comments.

BILL PETERSEN – Do it Right or Don’t Bother

Bill and me at a dress rehearsal for Invincible Czars' first  Olde Fashioned Indoor Picnic.

Bill and me at a dress rehearsal for Invincible Czars’ first Olde Fashioned Indoor Picnic.

 

About two weeks ago, I had the idea to write a post about each person I’ve played music with over the years and what I learned from each one.  I made a list.  There are 50+ people on it.

Before I could do a single entry, Bill Petersen, The Invincible Czars’ long time keyboardist and possibly my best friend in Austin died last Thursday.  I’ve been in a fog of daily sorrow since then.

Bill has to be in the top 5 most influential people I’ve played with.  Maybe the top 1.  We were fast friends and remained tight through thick and thin – musically and otherwise.  Bill was truly like my brother.  We were always in touch, even if we were annoyed with each other.  We dressed the same.  We liked the same music and movies.  We even lived together for a little over two years after my divorce.    I was so lucky he had room in his life for a guy 10 years younger than him learning the lessons he already had.

Bill and I had an instant spark of intense friendship.  I liked him a lot immediately.  I’ve only had that with a few other people in my life. (I married the only girl on that short list so far!)  For that reason, this will NOT be as short a post as the ones that will follow for other people…

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Bill at “The Thing” gas station somewhere on the western Arizona state line on I-10.

 

MUSIC BILL SHARED THAT IMPACTED ME MOST:  70s era Scorpions, Brave Combo, Buck Owens (much of the other stuff we listened to we both already liked!)

WHEN WE PLAYED TOGETHER: July 2004 – December 31, 2012 and then on and off until October 9, 2014.

HOW WE MET: 

Bill answered and Austin Chronicle musicians wanted ad back before Craigslist made such things obsolete.  He auditioned for the Invincible Czars in July 2004 at my house on Whispering Oaks with his Roland Juno 6 (aka The Poland) and after a single warm up gig at Room 710 (where we decided to drop accordion for good!), he went on the band’s first real tour two weeks later.  Two nights in, Adam introduced him as “Willie Poland” in Albuquerque and Willie remained active until Jan 2013 when I asked him to take a break to focus on his health.  Bill always kept the show going – even after his first heart attack in March 2009!  He was back behind the keys a month later playing with us.  He also logged more hours behind the wheel of our van (Van Halen) than anyone else.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BILL:

It’s hard to pinpoint the MAIN thing I learned from Bill because I learned so much from him – The show must go on.  Be on time!  Age doesn’t matter.  Who cares what your parents think?  If it sounds good, it is good.

And so on.

the classic Invincible Czars line up somewhere between Santa Cruz and San Diego (I know... that's a big stretch!) in 2007 on the road with Estradasphere.

the classic all-boys Invincible Czars line up somewhere between Santa Cruz and San Diego (I know… that’s a big stretch!) in 2007 on the road with Estradasphere.  Left to Right: Tommy Holton, Rick “Minga” Redman, me, Adam Kahan, Phil Davidson and Willie Poland.

Age was hardly ever a factor in Bill’s consideration of what he or anyone wanted to do or should do and he lived the way he wanted with no regrets.   He didn’t have kids.  He didn’t have a restrictive day job.  Those things would’ve kept him from pursuing the lifestyle he wanted.   Though I’m more of a workaholic, I’m basically on the same path and it was good know someone else a little further down.

Those were all great things, but I think the main thing Bill wanted me to learn was that if you can’t do something well, don’t bother.

He lived that way professionally and personally.  Unlike most of the people I know, Bill truly loved his day job working on high end home theater, lighting and stereo systems.  He didn’t phone it in by day so he could rock and night.

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Invincible Czars (Adam Kahan, me, Bill, Tom Bowman and Rick Redman) in Kaysville, UT 2004. I’d only known Bill about a week and a half but we were already best friends. After this shot, we got into that van and drove it to Reno where it blew a head gasket outside of town. We left it there.

In spite of what appeared to be a messy bachelor pad, Bill kept the important things that he needed daily well-organized and in order.  I wish I’d picked this up from him!  When I went through his stuff last week, I found all his Invincible Czars sheet music in neatly labelled binders – even stuff we hadn’t played in many, many years!

If he cared about something, Bill was a measure twice and cut once kind of guy.   He let the less important stuff fall by the wayside.  He knew nothing was permanent (including himself) and there was no point wasting energy and time on details that didn’t matter.

Bill at the Houston Wortham Center

Bill at the Houston Wortham Center

He often said that his clients would pay top dollar (even two or three times as much) to upgrade their systems from 97% amazing to 100%.  That’s great for rich people with disposable income but the rest of us can’t afford to make everything in our lives at 100%.  We must prioritize.  That was an extremely valuable sub-lesson for me.

It frustrated Bill when others didn’t live by the same mantra or adhere to his standard of quality.  He would fly into a fury with incompetent or unhelpful sound engineers at our shows.   He would grill event planners over details that they should have worked out weeks ahead.

 

I was usually mortified.  These were often the very same people I’d had to sell on hosting our band in the first place and I didn’t want them angry with us.  Ultimately, Bill was right to be annoyed.  Although he was surly with them, these people probably learned some good lessons by having to deal with an angry keyboard player who often knew more about their sound system, stage, acoustics, lighting, electrical wiring and event planning than anyone in their organization.  Most of the time these were one-time gigs anyway so I shouldn’t have been so fearful.

Sometimes I was the one getting grilled!

I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I would book a high paying show.  Then Bill would ask me for details I hadn’t thought of – is there parking?  Do they have lights?  What if it rains? What time do we have to leave?  load?  How’re the tires on the van?

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Colorful photoshoot by my dad in 2011. Bill, Dave, Leila, Hen3ry, Phil and me.

This often got heated.  It was true that I was new to this realm and just as ignorant as some of the aforementioned event planners, but he rarely acknowledged that I’d just scored us a paycheck sometimes as much as 3000% what we’d make on a Saturday in Austin at a club.

As I did more and more of these bookings,  I stopped feeling overly grateful for gigs and adopted Bill’s first question as my own — “We could be doing ANYTHING else with our time.  Why this?”

Eventually, I had the answers Bill wanted and his grilling became minimal.  I thank him for helping me learn that lesson – hard as it was.

Invincible Czars with John Aielli at the old Studio 1A at KUT 90.5 FM.

Invincible Czars with John Aielli at the old Studio 1A at KUT 90.5 FM.  Clockwise from bottom left: Phil, Hen3ry, John A., Leila, Bill, me, Dave Irish (all the way from Ireland).

Bill sometimes was frustrated with himself.  His attention to quality set a standard he struggled to meet himself within our band after his first heart attack.  As his health affected his abilities and endurance, he continued playing with us even though it was so hard to do it well.  I thank him for doing so, even though I often thought he hated being there.  I’m glad we continued to communicate musically.

I also learned the young bull/old bull joke from Bill:

A young bull and an old bull are sitting on top of a hill looking down on a field of grazing cows.  The young bull says, “Let’s run down there and @#$% a cow!”

The old bull says, “No.  Let’s walk down there and @#$% them all.

 

Bill Petersen just about to rock in Ft. Worth.  Note Star Trek pin.

Fi’in to rock in Ft. Worth… er… Denton?   Note the Star Trek Federation pin on his vest.

Bill was the old bull for sure.  He didn’t write a ton of music, but everything he finished was a gem.  Bill didn’t want to run down the hill for nothing and I just wanted to get there before all the cows wandered off.  He needed me to drag him down there and I needed him to keep me from burning out before we got there.

This is my favorite piece by Bill and one of my favorites The Invincible Czars or I have ever played. It is actually my arrangement of a cue Bill wrote for our first silent movie soundtrack so I was happy to be part of the creation process.  We played it at his memorial:

I wish Bill had made it with me to the point that I’d become the band leader I should’ve been for him.   I know my trials and errors burned out a lot of people and I thanked him at one point for staying on the path with me.

I was using his computer the morning after his passing and was surprised that one of his tabbed bookmarks was this very blog.  I thought he just ignored my musings here.  I hope he saw that I was learning the lessons he’d try to teach me all along.

I’m so lucky that I got to tell Bill how I felt about him.  After his first heart attack, I had five years to show I cared.  I feel like I could’ve and should’ve done more, but overall, I think we had a great run and I feel fortunate that the incident that could’ve halved our time together didn’t.

Sometimes we didn’t communicate well.  We hardly argued, engaging more often in cold wars of tense silence in our apartment.  A truce was always celebrated, though, with an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  I cared about him very much.

Bill decorated a frame for this photo for me on my birthday a few years ago.  It's a picture of us on his birthday at Ruta Maya.  I think it was in 2010 just a few months after I'd moved out of the nearby apartment that we shared for two years.

Bill decorated a frame for this photo for me on my birthday a few years ago. It’s a picture of us on his birthday at Ruta Maya where Leila was playing with Mistress Stephanie. I think it was in 2010 just a few months after I’d moved out of the nearby apartment that we shared for two years.  He was trying out his hippie Halloween costume (Bill’s birthday is 10/30) with a real-hair wig.

When Bill joined The Invincible Czars, his brother Mike told him that he was joining a whole new family.  Mike was right!   I’m so glad that Bill’s family recognized our band as such an important part of Bill’s life.  In going through his things, everything has an Invincible Czars sticker on it.  It was Adam who always said, “Proud to be (a Czar)”, but I think Bill might’ve been the proudest of all of us.  I’m so happy that something I began had such a place of importance in his life and that those close to him thought so, too.  I thank them for including our band in the services for their son/brother/partner.

The last time I saw Bill was about 6 days before he died.  I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to give him a big hug and linger there a minute.  I’m so glad I did.

Rest in peace, Sweet Willie Poland.  I hope to see you again.

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Bill somewhere in SoCal in 2007 taken by Tommy Holton.  We once saw a guy we refer to as the “Asian version of Bill” in a restaurant in LA once after a gig at the Steve Allen Theater and this photo always reminds me of it – although I think it was a completely different trip!  This is how I remember Bill – always laughing.  Always enjoying.  I love you, Bill.

Start Promoting Earlier

START PROMOTING EARLIER

I’ve been talking with some folks who are just starting down the path of band leadership lately and it’s reminding me of all kinds of little tips I wish I’d known in my early days.  I’ve said this blog is a journal but more and more, I’m trying to be helpful instead of just cathartic.

One thing I wish I’d been better about in my early days is promoting my event/release earlier.  Not just planning it earlier, but specifically promoting it earlier.  (Often those became the same thing in the end anyway)

When The Invincible Czars started playing bigger non-club shows, the gigs were often booked much farther in advance.  Even as much as 6+ months.  That was a big leap from clubs that were usually 3 months ahead at most.

Prior to that, I always wanted to make sure our show was good so I’d focus on having the show ready and then do the promotion last.  All of the sudden it was two weeks before the show and I hadn’t even made a poster, written a press release or done anything to make anyone aware.

Working WAY ahead with these bigger event planners required me to have enough faith that the band/show would be ready in time* to allocate MORE time to preparing my promotional materials early. Of  course, often they were doing the promotion and they wanted high res photos, posters and graphics in all sizes, start and stop times, bios, etc, etc, 6 weeks ahead.

This was really helpful because then all that crap was done way ahead of time and off my mind.  It also had the profound effect of making me think about what outcome I wanted to try to achieve from the show.  Was this to be a big promotional splash or a show where we hoped to really sell tickets or merchandise or… what?  Once I was forced to establish that, I could communicate and plan it better.

Then I was able to really focus on the performance (mostly) unfettered for the last couple of weeks, which also worked out for the best because I could hit an un-distracted stride musically.  It was around this time that I noticed that theater companies operate the same way!  They do a concentrated burst of group rehearsals 2-3 weeks before the shows and spend all their time prior to that creating, planning, developing and promoting the thing.  They essentially promote their vision and then work like hell to realize it.

Do it like that and your performances and promotion will be better.  It seems unintuitive but it works.

 

*having so much lead time helped calm my nerves on that end but sometimes I was committing to things that were scary.  “uh… I guess we can have an entire brand-new silent movie score ready in 2 months right around the same time we’re doing a 2 hour holiday show in a different city… “

It’s All in Advertising – Why No One Knows About Your Last Album/Event

One of the coolest posters anyone ever made for us. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the posters up until THE DAY OF THE SHOW. The promoter knew about the show and poured hours in to screen printing these posters. We knew about the show and spent hours practicing for and driving to it… No one else knew about the show. We played the to bartender.

How many times have you spent hours, days even months finishing a project only to realize at the actual event or release that no one else had/has a clue?

In March, I bought a 3-year old album by one of my favorite well-known Austin bands thinking it was the album they’re just about to release!  When I mentioned this, one of the band members said to another, “I told you that no one knew about this when it came out!”

This is a clear case of thinking, “I know all about this thing, therefore everyone else must/should, too.”

It sounds silly that anyone would truly make that assumption – and yet humans operate unconsciously under it ALL THE TIME.

As creators, we’re conditioned not to be annoying and not to shamelessly self-promote by other artists (“Don’t be a sell-out”), the industry (“Don’t call us, we’ll call you”) and even fans (“Too many notifications – unsubscribe”).

But…. if you want people to know about what you’re doing, you’ve GOT to tell them somehow – and not just once.  Your work is on your mind all the time but it’s not on anyone else’s mind much at all unless you tell them… and remind them… multiple times.

(This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt – “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”)

Just like you, everyone’s got their own life.   Getting others to know/care about your project is tough.  It’s the reason that huge marketing companies and college courses have been developed.  It’s the reason for heavy rotation and why you see the same commercials over and over on TV.

Balancing between reminding and nagging takes strategy and time!  Ever notice how big festivals announce their line ups WAY in advance?  Or how bigger new releases are reviewed BEFORE the they’re out?  It’s not accidental.  They know that it takes lots of reminders and if they space out their promotion, they will seem interesting at best and novel at worst… but not annoying.

In my high school days in the pre-internet world, I remember being very excited to talk to the bands I liked about the non-musical side of things.  At an Ed Hall show in 1994, Gary Chester got talking with me about various bands’ levels of success.   “It’s all in advertising,” he said.

That bugged me as a young man.  I didn’t like idea that he-who-has-enough-money-to-pay-for-commercials wins.

Advertising isn’t the naughty word that we in the creative class seem to think it is, though.  At it’s core, advertising is simply letting people know about what you do.  Even notorious anti-advertisers Fugazi had to do that.

None of us would know about our favorite bands, movies, events or other activities and products without some form of advertising.

Tweeting, social media, sending a newsletter, alerting the press and making a poster are all forms of advertising.   Even word of mouth.  In fact, it’s the best form of advertising according to many marketing experts… and the only form acceptable to your inner Fugazi.

Even playing shows is advertising!  If word spreads about your band because you played great shows, then that’s your advertising.  (side note:  when I think about it, how is standing on a stage demanding attention/money any more valiant or shameless than tweeting about the show or buying print/radio/tv advertising for that matter?  I guess it just seems less corporate…?)

The most successful artists, musicians, etc. are really, REALLY good at getting the word out about what they’re doing and making others care about them and their work.  They’re good at creating a buzz.

Some creative folks think self-generated buzz isn’t legitimate.  Poppycock.  If you tell no one about your ground breaking screenplay, recipe for crab cakes or life changing book, how can you expect to receive the accolades you deserve?

Self-promotion is the first step to generating buzz.  The only reason big time artists don’t appear to self-promote is because someone else is doing it for them.  If you don’t have that luxury, who will promote what you do?  Only you.

And plenty of buzzworthy stuff gets passed over – especially in a saturated town like Austin in the age of instant everything.  If consistently attempting to generate interest never creates a buzz, it will at least create awareness, which almost always outlasts buzz.  Coca-Cola isn’t exactly buzzing but they’re still making commercials (and drinks, too).  Some things that don’t buzz at first turn out to be very successful later.  The Princess Bride.

I know, I know – you want your work to be judged only on artistic merit and your talent.

Talent is absolutely the ultimate reason anyone is there to experience your work… but it’s a given.  If you’re not talented, why are you on stage… or the radio… or in the paper?  For that reason all the other non-artistic factors like presentation, location, timing and competition play a role in how and even if you’ll be judged.

There’s another naughty word in the creative community.  If you don’t like being judged, don’t advertise what you do and enjoy simply making your art – but don’t complain or be surprised when you’re the only one that knows/cares it.

My Meeting with a Real, Live Booking Agent

An exercise in flexibility that paid off: The wind gusts blew our instruments off the stands – not to mention the sheet music!  The hosts forgot the video monitor, DVD player and projector stand and chose to project the movie on a wall etched with script.  Gonzalo (drums) watched the movie’s reflection on his turned-off cell phone.   It was just not well planned.  In spite of all that, this was totally unique thing for the people in attendance and we earned 10x as much as we’d make on a good night in a club.

OK, OK, OK… another long post that I started over a year ago.

I had the opportunity to meet with a booking agent from Chicago on Thursday of SxSW 2013 to ask him questions related to some of the topics on this blog.

Possibly one of the biggest mysteries to musicians is how to find representation.  As a musician who briefly had it and an ex-employee at Austin Music Foundation, I’ve been asked about it a lot.  The truth is that agents and representation are about as big a mystery to me as anyone who asks me.

Why?

Well, maybe because there are so few agents in Austin.  Of those few, most book the kind of music that does well in our region – country, Americana, roots rock, folk, singer-songwriters & blues bands.  Austin doesn’t seem to have anything even close to a Billions Corporation.  Even Austin’s more popular indie bands either self-book or have representation outside the city/state:

  • The Sword, Octopus Project – The Agency Group
  • Bright Light Social Hour – Paradigm Agency
  • Quiet Company, Ghostland Observatory – self
  • Black Joe Lewis – Constant Artists (also Spoon, Okkervil River, Explosions in the Sky)

I have met Austin agents like Nancy Fly and Davis McLarty and they’re totally awesome and helpful – but they don’t have the connections to plug any of the bands listed above into the proper channels.  Imagine Octopus at a honky tonk in the hill country.  Probably not a packed house.  (then again…)

For a brief while, The Invincible Czars shared a booking agent with John Pointer and Rattletree Marimba.  She relieved me of a lot of booking pressure but we still faced the same challenges of communicating and selling what the Invincible Czars do.  At least 50% of our bookings (and most of our higher paid ones) under her representation came through the same old connections I already had established.  She just took over dealing with them.  BUT — She didn’t have to run the band, create the music, perform, practice or promote so she could get more done than I did quicker than I did.  For that reason alone, I’d take her back in a heartbeat!  I haven’t found anyone else locally or otherwise I’d trust to take her place.  I haven’t looked much either

That’s partly because I don’t believe there is someone who WILL represent us.  There are plenty of music business pros who really do have a wide array of tastes but simply don’t know how to make money off of them all.  Two or three times a year, an agent might make $400-600 (on the very high end) on us.  Not exactly rent money for the year.  An agent would need 20 more bands at our level and live in his/her car just to survive.

(SIDE NOTE: don’t be fooled into thinking you’re behind the curve by the multitude of out-of-town bands with representation that you meet at SxSW.  Most of those bands won’t exist by next SxSW and their “agents” will have either moved on to other, younger bands with pretty girl bass players that can’t tune OR moved on to selling used cars.)

All this brings me to my meeting with the agent from Chicago during SxSW 2013.  Our discussion was enlightening and vanquished some of the misconceptions and negativity I have felt about seeking a booking agent in the past.

Like what?

Well, he echoed one thing I’ve heard over and over – if he’s not passionate about a group, it just won’t work.  As self-represented artists, passion is often all that keeps us going in the face of constant rejection.  How long could you withstand the barrage of “NOs” if you were representing some band you didn’t really think was all that hot?

(flip side – I can also see how it’d be easy to keep booking a band you weren’t passionate about if the act was super easy to book and was earning money.)

For this agent, a band’s VISION is more important to him than their financial bottom line.  I understood that to mean that if the band doesn’t know where they’re going or there’s a big disagreement between the band and him about where they should go, there’s not much he can do to help them and no point in him being part of their team.  An example – an act that insists on playing too often in the same market or a band that is unwilling to take financial risks like spending the money/time to branch into new territory (his words).

Speaking of financial risks, when I asked him how many acts on his roster make their livings from music, he said maybe 20% but that it was hard for him to know because he isn’t their manager.  Some acts sell a lot of stuff or might license their music.  He doesn’t ever see or know about any of that.  (That said, I know that MOST acts aren’t banking on licensing or selling recorded music these days.  I’d be surprised if his 20% estimate is too far off.)

Possibly the most inspiring thing to me about this meeting was when I asked what factors separated his top earners from his bottom earners.  In other words, what do the acts with the most earnings/bookings have that the acts with less don’t?   Was it time?  Commercial viability?  A trust fund? His answer was two-fold:

First, the acts that, as he put it, can’t be imitated have a real leg up.  If no one else can do what you do or you’re the best at it, there’re some serious opportunities there – assuming there’s demand for what you do!  This resonated with me.  If you’re just another singer songwriter with a good singing voice and songs about love… well… compare that to something like Dan Deacon!  Who else does what he does?  (Remember my post that mentioned GG Allin?)

Second, the acts that are the most versatile and flexible have more avenues to pursue.  Think about your band.  Do you only play loudly?  Quietly?  Do you only play one kind of music?  Do you only play originals?  Only covers?  Do you only play one kind of venue?  Does everyone in the band have to be present for the show to go on?  Do you only appeal to one very small demographic unique to your region?  Can any little problem bring the show to a halt?  If yes, then you’re not very versatile.

WARNING – Antecdote:

In June 2010, The Invincible Czars didn’t have a permanent drummer — but in a three week period we played a Beatles hoot night fundraiser in Austin (20 minutes of re-arranged Beatles songs), a silent movie in Houston (75 minute soundtrack music live w/ movie), a “Christmas in June” show in Tulsa (60-70 minutes of all Nutcracker/Holiday music) and opened for my childhood heroes Brutal Juice in Austin (rock set of originals) —– each with a different drummer.  We only pulled it off because we were flexible and organized.

The result – one of the highest paid and most fun (if stressful) months for the band to date!  If we hadn’t been able to switch gears like that, we would’ve just played one or maybe two of those gigs… and probably not the highest paying ones (Houston and Tulsa)!

Speaking of money, this agent’s own earnings are modest.  He is married and his wife earns a higher income.  I asked if he’d be able to live on his own if she wasn’t there.  He thought for a second and I suggested, “Maybe if you lived in your car?”  We both laughed.    That… sort of surprised me… This guy has a couple acts on his roster that are pretty known and have been around a while.   He represents 40 bands.  That’s a lot but if only 20% of them are earning their livings from music and most of those aren’t doing so solely through his bookings then I can see how money would get tight:

Imagine you book a band that earns $10K a year in performance fees.  That’s $1500 (15%) on the high end for the year.  That’s maybe enough to pay one month’s super-cheap mortgage in a place like Chicago.   You’d need 12 more bands that won’t break up and can earn the same or more just to pay for housing for a year.

Now you need more to pay for groceries and other living expenses.

Booking agents are just humans with a passion for music – just like artists.   Many love it enough to live on peanuts – just like artists.  Many are supported by their spouse – just like artists.   For anyone who’s ever approached an agent, this might be why they seem dismissive.  If you don’t appear to be going anywhere and/or don’t appear to be earning any money – why should they come on board?

Remember, you’re the bus, not them.

I was encouraged by this agent’s focus on his bands’ vision for growth rather than their current financial status.  That’s a forward thinker and someone who WANTS to believe – exactly what you want in someone who represents you —- but in order for them to believe, an artist must give them something in which to believe.

How many/what kind of shows did you play last year?   What was the attendance like? How much did you earn?  Do you have some idea of where you’re going or is your plan simply a series of random acts of improvement (thanks, Claire)?  Can you stand in front of an audience and wow them?  Do you have any photos, video or reviews of yourself doing so?

Wrapping up this long an long overdue post – I know it’s the same Catch 22 you hear over and over but if you represent yourself so well that you don’t need representation, they will be more interested.  That’s what each of the bands I listed up top did!

If you prove that you CAN succeed with no help, someone will be much more likely to help you succeed again.  You don’t have to turn yourself into a surefire bet, but you need to at least be a good one before anyone’s going to lay their money, time or reputation on your number and spin the roulette wheel.

(Many thanks to the anonymous booking agent from Chicago who could’ve spent his time talking to anyone else at SxSW 2013.)