Rock Solid Licks: Lessons From Another Stage

by guest blogger David Wyatt.

DavidWyatt_SolidGold40

The year was 1994. I was 21, heartbroken, and was lucky enough to meet a couple of other super-talented—also heartbroken musicians by the name of David Craig and Jasper Benson. We started like most of the musicians we knew: with a Tascam 4-track in someone’s living room and a handful of mediocre songs with a couple of promising gems. In those early days, there was no hint of what was to come.

 

After several months, we named ourselves “Solid Gold 40” and got a full band together. To me, this was nothing short of extraordinary because I really had no musical background other than listening to it. Never played in bands. Never took music lessons. And I had only really been seeing live music actively for 3-4 years maybe. But we just so happened to meet up in Austin, Texas where there were plenty of clubs and gigs and people had an appetite to play and listen. So for a few years, we just wrote songs and managed to get on some bills and earn our stripes.

 

At one point, when we were playing in coffee shops (no kidding, we had a puppet show open for us like on This Is Spinal Tap) we realized that our bassist didn’t own a bass or know the songs… so we were just as well off calling someone up from the audience. So we cleaned out the rhythm section and started looking for a new line-up. One day when auditioning bassists, one guy stopped and packed up after an hour of playing and said, “I’m just not ready to lead a band.” At the time, we thought that was hilarious and pretty ridiculous, but looking back I can recognize that we didn’t exactly have our act together.

 

Just about every band has one person that does most of the other stuff: booking, making posters, getting merch, ordering CDs, etc. As we started figuring out the things you were supposed to do to get people to know about your band, I became that guy. It wasn’t a conscious choice so much as I got something out of it and seemed to be motivated to see that it happened. But at the time, I didn’t consider myself the “leader” of the band. I was the guitarist (not even the good one) and I wrote songs. I certainly wasn’t in charge. I remember one time on tour when I brought up the idea that if we ever got signed, would I get a bigger cut or something, and a couple of bandmates were incredulous. To me, it made sense, but I guess they didn’t see it that way. In hindsight, I realize that they neither asked me to do all that stuff nor did they probably realize what  it involved. That was my issue. Still, it was about that time that I started to resent my role a little.

 

Being ‘that band member’ is not all posters and buttons. You spend your non practice time prepping song charts and figuring out how you book or promote a tour. Often you put a lot of money into it and a whole lot of steep-learning-curve time. If you are successful at it, then that is rewarding, but often others don’t seem to notice.

 

While we had some great songs, but out a record and a half, toured twice, and put on some epic shows… ultimately, Solid Gold 40 was a legend in our own minds. I say that with all the love and warmth in the world. Our accomplishments were local and personal, but they were big and mattered nonetheless. I still believe we had potential for other places, but it just wasn’t meant to be. We disbanded in 2001.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

Solid Gold 40. l-r Jasper Benson, Rebekah Whitehurst, David Craig, Philip White, David Wyatt.

 

In the decade and a half since, I’ve played in a few other bands and have found myself at odds with assuming the bandleader role. I don’t know if it is in an effort to get others to do their part or a reluctance to find myself resentful or even vulnerable in that “I went for it” sort of way. That said, even though I’m not a full-time band leader like my one-time bandmate Josh Robins (another band, another story, another time), I learned a lot from that experience—about myself and the way things work. I apply these lessons in my life, in my company, and even in fatherhood. Here are a few of the high points:

 

+ Just ask: A lot of things like booking or media coverage or partnering with bands or odd venues seem out of reach, but what you learn when you are trying to put a show or tour together is “all they can say is no”. When we released our cassette (insert old guy joke here) we had the idea to do a rooftop show like the Beatles and U2. We picked the top of the Barnes & Noble on the drag across from the UT campus and then we just asked if we could do it. They agreed and—while we got shut down by the cops after 6-7 songs—it was a great experience and led to our CD release on a party boat, which may have just been the best show we ever played. Years later, I still use that spirit of ‘why not’ to get things done.

 

+ Fake it until you make it: I’ve never been a great musician. I’m a fair songwriter and a mediocre singer and guitarist. In fact, the driving force behind playing guitar was just to write songs. But then I found myself in a band and called on to do a solo, etc. I’m still a pretty average player, but I learned to do it with gusto and to have confidence. Turns out that can go a long way.

 

+ Give the crowd what they’re screaming for: Early on we had sea shanties and disco songs and noise bits. Those were all a part of the process of finding our best sound, but we discovered that the interest from the audiences and the clubs didn’t come until we got focused. That’s not to say one should sell out to succeed, but I believe there’s a wisdom in doing what’s clearly working for you. In my flower delivery job around the same time, I called it “go where the green lights take you” meaning the marketplace will tell you what it wants—even in art. See also: Louis Blacks’ “Advice for artists, inspired during the whirlwind of SXSW 2005” from The Austin Chronicle.

 

+ When you stand on tables, sometimes you bust your ass: I am a proponent of showmanship vs. shoe-gazing. Over the years, this has evolved from colorful costumes to running around the club antics. On one West coast tour, we ended up at our Oakland destination and they didn’t even seem to remember we were booked. WE had an audience of maybe 8 people, but weren’t going to let that stop us from melting their faces off. So, on the first song, I strapped on my double neck guitar and stepped onto a chair and empty table up front—whereupon it slid away and put me flat on my back like Charlie Brown with the football yanked away. I had the wind knocked out of me but I played my intro any way. It didn’t make it any less great. In fact, it made it moreso.

 

+ Hard work is it’s own reward: As I look back on those Solid Gold 40 days and the bands I’ve played in since, I realize that regardless of my aspirations or the complicated relationships or what come of it all, every bit of it was worth it. Being in Austin and toiling away at venues that don’t give a shit, it is easy to forget sometimes what a privilege it is to make music with talented people for audiences that want to hear your original ideas. Now, I’ve done a lot of crazy things in the name of rock and roll. I’ve played with bad asses I had no business sharing the stage with and a lot of it was pretty spectacular. I am reminded of a great scene from Man on the Moon, the 1999 movie about Dadaist comedian Andy Kaufman. I have no idea if this was based on something he said but when someone said that the fans weren’t going to get it, he replied “it’s not for them.” In the end, what you have is the experience and if you made it matter.

 

 

David Wyatt is a songwriter, performing musician, business owner, husband, father, and coffee enthusiast. He’s played in bands including Solid Gold 40, Stinky del Negro, Summer Breeze, Magnifico, and The Ron Titter Band. He dedicates this post to his wife Rachel, to Josh, and to his SG40 friends David Craig, Rebekah Whitehurst, Phillip White, and the late great Jasper Benson.

 

Thoughts on the Pro and Artist Mindsets

I had a long and good conversation with a drummer friend and sometimes band mate of mine that got me thinking about the difference between the artist mindset and professional musician mindset.

That’s not say that a pro can’t be an artist or vice versa. It’s also not to say that there’s a hard line between the two mindsets. You can certain have attributes of both. Heck, most of my accidental successes would never have gone anywhere if I hadn’t learned from the pro mindset!

The pro mindset says that we should minimize time (and risk) and maximize dollars earned. It doesn’t necessarily factor in things like personal fulfillment, taste or even quality. Lots of the language like that makes pros laugh. Things like “faith” and “artistic success” don’t pay their bills.

My first real memory of my artistic mindset directly clashing with someone’s pro mindset goes back to 2002. There’s a drummer in Austin who probably would’ve been a great drummer for The Invincible Czars but couldn’t get past the idea that we were willing to play for practically nothing. He was cool and good at his audition but if there was no money, there was no him, period. Not worth the risk.

A young ambitious band just starting out would never have played a first gig if we’d demanded a bunch of money. So we went with someone else.

Plus. I felt like he’d always have us by the balls. We were looking for someone to join the band. To share the risk. Someone who believed in what we were doing. More artsy language.

Three drummers and a year later, I’d changed my tune. I realized that if we wanted to play gigs and no drummer would join, all we had to do was pay someone  $50. Cool!  We’re booking gigs again! So I did that for a while.

That’s the great thing about the pro mindset – if your vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to anyone else, you can always pay them to make it worth their while!

But it’s also a curse.

It’s why you see some of the most skilled drummers in the world playing four-on-the-floor drum beats all night in pop and country bands – groups that play music people instantly love (cover bands are the best example) make more money… and in the case of drummers that music is usually very easy!

As soon as someone else offers that person more money, you either have to pay the higher price or find someone else. Suddenly you’re spending more time managing contract labor than making music.

Additionally, just because someone has a pro mindset doesn’t mean they have pro chops. There are plenty of mediocre bass players and drummers out there that are used to being paid $100 to play music they don’t even need to practice to play masterfully. If you want someone to play actual arrangements, the price goes up.  There’re plenty of much easier gigs out there that pay better than learning a whole set of arrangements. They’re happy to just play Mustang Sally night after night.

To pros, the best gigs earn them the most money per hour spent. Individual prep time, group rehearsals, travel time and actual performance time all  cut the value of the gig in their minds.

It’s hard to argue with that in our capitalist society.  If the pay for this gig will be the same whether we give a C- performance or an A+ performance, why give an A+ effort?

But artist are dreamers. We have to have faith that what we’re doing is good, worthy and worthwhile. We have to have faith that we can get there – wherever there is. We make the kind of stuff that gives the pros their jobs and we love what we do so much, we will give an A effort for C pay (or even F pay).

BUT — Pro mindset people can help us learn when shouldn’t!

That year of paying a drummer $50 a show made me permanently much, much picker about what shows to take and how I use group time.

My biggest successes were riskier and more difficult and the practical pro mindset said, “not worth it”.  The potential for C or F pay was high with both The Invincible Czars’ Nutcracker and silent film soundtracks. Building up an audience outside of Austin was very risky. Doing those things took time and sacrifice from me those who wanted to believe. Thank you to those of you who did and do.

Meanwhile, many of the pro-mindset players that were with me along the way are barely even in the music game anymore. I guess they finally figured out something that now renowned producer John Congleton told me nearly 20 years ago (and probably doesn’t remember) — if you’re in the music business to make money, you’re pretty stupid.

I want to end by saying that both mindsets are useful and if matched properly can keep your act on course both creatively and on the business side.  I’ve had more good than bad experiences with pros. Sometimes I had to learn things the hard way with pros who took advantage or just wanted to belittle me. Thank you to the benevolent pros who’ve been willing to do what they do for fair compensation and who did what any real pro does — help pass the torch by educating and giving opportunities instead of just taking my money and delivering a half-assed performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Czars Stars

We have this joke reward system that started on the last Invincible Czars Nosferatu tour. When someone (in or not in the band) does something remarkable or really helpful, they get a Czar Star.

At some point, actual, physical Czar Stars started showing up… and I’m not even the one doling them out!

But if I was, here’re some of the things that I think deserve Czars Stars. If you do these things for your band, you probably go un or under recognized by your band mates but not by me. (Some of these are really specific to the Czars and our upcoming tour. If you did these, thank you!)

1) Playing a near perfect show nearly every night.

2) Maintaining the web presence – web site, social media.

3) Making Facebook event pages for every show. (oh, did you check to see if someone else made one already? Damn. That was a waste of time.)

4) Booking the shows. (this could be a full time job on its own)

5) Contacting press, radio, other media ON TIME (this could be a full time job on its own)

6) Having artwork/photos made and properly formatted for various uses. (CDs, posters, web graphics, t-shirts, etc.) THIS IS HUGE and nearly everything else on this list depends upon it. Artwork and images go everywhere – web site, videos, merchandise, press lists, social media.

7) Video shooting and editing (if you’re not someone who already knows about this and you take it on, you get 5 additional stars)

8) Making a pre-show playlist

9) Finding lodging

10) Selling merchandise

11) Determining day to day scheduling (departure time, arrival time, dinner time, load in time, show time, strike time, sleep time, etc.)

12) Loading

13) Driving

14) Managing the Merchandise (inventory, storage, pricing, signage and display, payment options like credit card readers, online sales, finding the best places to have it made, etc. This is another huge time consuming job!)

15) Contributing money to keep the bus moving.

16) Writing marketing language and descriptive language and knowing the difference between the two

17) Writing the music

18) Running Sound

19) Playing instruments (including electronics) you don’t normally

20) Providing transportation and maintaining it

21) Providing the practice space

22) Communicating with fans – in person or online

23) Making recordings and formatting them for various uses (CD, web, vinyl, whatever)

24) Dealing with any kind of legal issues (copyrights, insurance, etc.)

25) Accounting and Taxes

26) Cooking and cleaning

27) Getting your band out of any sticky situation

28) Remaining positive in the face of not so positive circumstances

I think it’s worth noting that simply stating a good idea isn’t on this list. Good ideas deserve recognition, no doubt, but they don’t really deserve a Czar Star until they become reality.

ex: let’s tour Europe, get our own sound/light person, make some merchandise everyone wants, break into college campus gigs, shoot a high quality video that’s fun to watch, play with an orchesrta, write a hit song, etc.

Those all sound good but realizing them takes way, WAY more time, effort and luck than just dreaming them up.

There are tons of idea-people out there who can make long, long lists of to do items but when it comes to actually executing those ideas, very few people actually make it happen.

You may never get a Czar Star because all that behind the scenes stuff doesn’t seem to matter to people who’ve never felt the pain of doing (or not doing) those things. It’s behind the scenes and if you’re doing it right, hardly anyone notices. You’re like the Navy SEAL of your band. You’re beyond Czar Stars.

Aging Hipsters

Hulk

Today I’m 10X as old as I was in this photo.

It’s been a while since I wrote.  The usual holiday melee came on the heels of a surprisingly successful silent film tour in October.  Getting time to collect my thoughts has been difficult.

 

But today, I’m 40.  Gotta put something up today.

 

I’ve spent the last year feeling like I’m already 40 and many years dreading it.  But as it approached, I’ve felt better and better about it.  Big thanks to Reed Burnam whose thoughts on 40 helped make that the case.  It took three years for those thoughts to settle in my brain, but I’m there.

 

It seems like losing relevance and fear of not measuring up are the big things that scare us about 40 – or any milestone age.   I’ve been thinking a lot about the first one.
For me, a fear of loss of relevance has long seemed ridiculous.  Who/what is relevant?  And to what?

 

It seems most peoples’ answers to both lies with the coveted teen-to-young-adult demographic and the zeitgeist surrounding them.
Throughout my life, I’ve heard adults (usually parents) say things like, “I don’t know what’s cool anymore.”   I have a specific memory of my Aunt Diane saying this and thinking – this is going to happen to me someday.

 

I finally had a brush with that about 5 years ago when I found myself managing high school aged interns at my day job.  During that period, I went from being the same age as their older siblings and cousins to being the same age as their parents.  We often listened to music and I realized I was way out of touch with what young people were listening to at the time.  Not a single one of them listened to rock music.  They liked more dance-pop and hip-hop/rap.  Drake and Rihanna were big with them. When I played Guns n Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” only one of them recognized it (thanks Guitar Hero!).  They thought what I listened to was mostly very, very weird and lots of times very old.  It is pretty weird actually… I mean, I listen to pretty off-the-wall stuff even among most people my age. I also I got on a Louis Armstrong kick on Pandora which seemed ancient to the interns.

 

My music taste wasn’t relevant to them. They had no context for it.

 

I thought – wow… I’m officially uncool.   Then I thought, “but I never have been.”   Not even when I was a late teen and young adult.  I still find Radiohead boring.  Nu-metal put me off metal for a long time.

 

But even writing myself off (or on?) as an outsider isn’t totally accurate.  Afterall, I “discovered” Faith No More and Nirvana the same way the interns discovered Drake and Rihanna — mass media.   In my case, MTV and the multiple rock radio stations in DFW that all played the same 14 songs over and over all day.

 

And just like me with Drake and Rihanna, people my parents’ age weren’t paying attention.  Nirvana went on to have an almost Beatles level of popularity and 15 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, my dad bought a copy of Nervermind when VH-1 included it on their list of the greatest albums of all time.  He listened to it and likes it… but In 1991, it was just another tape of kids’ music that seemed irrelevant to him.  He paid it no attention.

To my interns, I was just another “old” person at their job paying no attention to their interests.    Most of them came to appreciate my youthful spirit.  One of them was shocked when he learned I was 37 — and younger that Cee-Lo Green.  He guessed 25.  Bless him.

And there’s where the relativity of relevance is apparent.  25 seems almost a whole life away to a 15 year old.  37 is even harder to grasp for them.

Relevance is relative to the beholder’s context.  My aunt may not have known what was cool to her kids but this is a woman with hundreds of friends and connections.  Among her peers, she’s pretty cool.

 

Big media’s roll in our experiences and tastes does’t make them any more or less relevant to you or those around you.

Cool young adults may have become the pop culture taste makers but theirs is not the only experience.  The 5-7 year period of young adulthood is less than 10% of life expectancy.  The idea that 90% of our lives are somehow not relevant is absurd especially considering the achievements by people older (or younger!) than 18-23.

What’s “cool” changes as we age and gain more experience.  The first live show I ever saw as an Austin resident was a Thrill Jockey band from Chicago who I won’t name at Stubb’s.  I loved the guitarist!  I pulled the CD out for the first time in a very long a few years ago and… it was so boring to me.  There’s not a single melody on the album.  Just lots of cool rhythmic stuff and some solos.  Now it sounds to me like a musical cheese pizza – a good foundation served without any toppings.  Some people like cheese pizza. I sure did.

In spite of our evolving tastes, our desire to be forever young makes us jealous of young adults and lately the curmudgeonly use of  “hipster” as a derogatory term has come into everyday language.  To me, this seems like a modern day version of “young whipper snapper” and only confirms one’s status as a cranky old fart.

Most people I hear complaining about hipsters WERE hipsters… or ARE hipsters that’ve just aged out of young adulthood and feel left behind.  I think the best solution to that is simply to participate!

And that’s all that young people are really doing.  They’re presented with something and they participate.   It’s only those of us who’ve aged that think we have anything to lose by trying something new.  Silly.

Throughout my 20s,  I met lots of  people older than me that I referred to as aging hipsters before the term came to be a negative epithet.  They defy the stereotype of straight laced, white bread and seemingly boring adults I knew as a teenager.  They retain their youthful sense of adventure and willingness to try/learn new things without falling into the common traps of drug addiction or bad relationships.  They have few responsibilities but are not irresponsible.  Their path is far, far more appealing than that of the cranky old fart full of regrets. Many have been my best friends, band mates and colleagues. I’m happy today to have aged into their ranks!

 

 

My Own Fear of Success

It occurred to me that doing a series on development is kind of redundant.  I mean… this whole blog is about development.

This week I wrote about my own fear of success.  Skip it if you don’t like my entries that are more journal-like.
Fear of success seems absurd.  We’re all trying to succeed all the time, right?  Fear of failure seems logical.  We don’t want to fail.

I experienced fear of success on the most recent Invincible Czars tour and it didn’t seem absurd.  Here’s what happened.

I/we chose to write a score to the silent film Nosferatu after many requests and suggestions from people at our shows.  I was reticent even after acquiescing.  In my mind, Nosferatu is so very done in the world of silent film accompaniment.  Every little art house cinema in a town with a metal band, an community orchestra or an electronica act has had the idea to show Nosferatu at Halloween with live accompaniment.  There are tons of new scores for this movie out there.  Not only that, the original score has been found and a DVD of the movie featuring it is available now.

But, once I decided to do it, I delved in.

Of course, we decided to do it for Halloween and I spent six months of daily work writing, refining and recording the music, finding venues and dealing with booking and promoting and creating all the materials to do so (flyers, post cards, marketing language, video previews, a band photo) and the merchandise.  I didn’t have to do this all alone but I knew I was the lynch pin with all this stuff coming together.

There were a bunch of little successes throughout that process.  We made a surprisingly good recording that was done BEFORE the shows for once.  We also had killer (ha!) artwork and a tour of nothing but silent movie performances — no rock shows to connect the dots.  That was a big success.  I’d dreamt of one day doing this and it actually happened!

On the non-music side, I spent many, many hours and days working on our van (Van Halen) this summer.  It continued falling apart all the way through the end of the tour.  It’s amazing that it we made it anywhere but all those hours paid off.  I was able to keep it moving, albeit slowly at times, throughout the tour.

In fact, our engine started misfiring again (after six weeks of smooth sailing) only 3 hours into  the tour and we stumbled into Huntsville, TX.  At the time I thought, “This day is just a sign of what was to come… ugh.”
Based on the past, we’d made  the same amount of merchandise we usually make for a tour – not much.   We made a few posters for the first time hoping we’d sell half of them.

We were pleasantly surprised to play for a full house that night and I was shocked that we very nearly sold out of all our t-shirts, sold most of our posters and about half our CDs.  We still had 17 more shows to go!  gadzooks!  We scrambled to get more of everything made and were barely keeping up with demand for the whole rest of the tour.
(Thank you to anyone reading this who bought a t-shirt and let us mail them to you later!)

That day did turn out to be a sign of what was to come but not in the way I’d expected.  People were telling their friends and family in other towns to come see us when we were passing through other places.  The media actually picked up on it and we were the recommended thing to do that week in nearly every town we played.    We beat our record for single-day merchandise sales on this tour!

But I couldn’t get positive about it.  Everyone was revelling in our success after a sold out Tuesday night in Pensacola, when I launched into this negative spiral that must surely have confused and confounded my bandmates.  The next day, it occurred to me that I was complaining about our success.

Now that’s absurd.

But my fear wasn’t going away.  I decided to write down everything that had me feeling scared about a tour that, for once, was doing better than just breaking even on costs.  Those fears included:

  • This string of full houses is going to end and then everyone’s going to be disappointed and morale will be even worse than if we’d had mediocre shows all along.  Just as the others praised me for lucking into these successes, they’ll all turn on me as soon as we have an off night.
  • Now the bar’s set higher.  Not only does our old standard for a “good” night of merchandise sales suddenly look paltry, but everyone’s going to expect it to be this to be the new norm.  When it gets back to the old norm, I’ll be the one to blame.
  • This is a lucky one-time success.  It’s great that we’re riding this wave for now but I don’t think I can recreate this again and again.
  • What if this is as good as it gets and I’ve peaked?  Is it all down hill from here?
  • I like doing the silent movies but it’s not all that we do.  We may be building an audience but it’s just for one aspect of what we do.  This movie is the draw, not us. The artwork is better than the music.  We’ll never see these faces again.
  • I’m not even challenging myself out here.  My parts are so easy, I don’t even need to warm up to play them.  Am I growing as a player or just plateauing with this?
  • The van’s going to die out here and all our resources will be pooled into fixing it just to keep moving.  No one will be happy to see their cut of the income go to a van rental company even if we keep on having good attendance.

(Out of all of those, the last one is the only one I should’ve been worried about.)

After I wrote all that stuff down, I realized that I was scared of success.  What a weird place to be.  Failure, by contrast, didn’t scare me.  I’ve dealth with that a lot before and feel confident I can deal with it again.  Hell,  I already had plan B and plan C ready go.  So ready to go in fact it was almost as if I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to put them in action.

This success seemed to me like beating a level of space invaders where the reward is a chance to keep playing the game but now the space invaders are moving faster… and you’re not!   There’s an instant where you’re still in disbelief that you cleared that last level as a whole new and more difficult set of space invaders bears down on you.  (This reminds me of my own entry about Proving It.)

Six months of work resulted in 18 amazing shows in 17 days.  Coming off that is… not brutal but it’s the most difficult “Now What?” I’ve faced in a long, long time.  So now I guess get to play space invaders some more.  Good thing I like the game.

 

Bill – One Year Later

This week I’m taking a break from my series on development to reflect on where I am 1 year after the death of my friend and longtime band mate Bill Petersen.

I still miss him of course but I also feel  lingering guilt.  Not because I had anything to do with his death but because I could’ve been a better friend.

This may seem tangential but stay with me:

All the victim blaming stuff in the media lately has made me realize how ingrained it is in me and everyone.  When something bad happens to me, I almost immediately ask myself, “how could I have prevented this?” In fact, just writing the words “when something bad happens to me,” makes me cringe a little.  My inner editor wants to change that line to, “when I make a mistake” or some other language that makes me responsible for everything I experience.

But the truth is that there billions of other people in this world and many more forces in the universe at play all the time.  To think that we are 100% responsible for our paths is arrogant, in my opinion. And writing that today is relieving in some ways.

Bill had a lot of stuff going on that lead him to an early death.  Sure, some of those factors were his own doing – in 10 years of knowing him, I never knew him to do much of anything physically strenuous even close to what you might call “exercise”.  In the time we lived together near St. Ed’s University in Austin, I witnessed a lot of beer drinking and TV watching.  Bill knew he had some medical issues that eventually led to his heart condition but he chose to just live his life the way he wanted.  It was really easy, after he died, to say that he hastened his own heart failure and it was really easy when it was happening to essentially blame him for not taking better care of himself (which I still think he should’ve done!)

But Bill didn’t choose to have the heart condition.  He was born with it.  I guess he could’ve chosen to work a day job that didn’t provide him any health insurance but even if he’d had medical insurance at the time of his first heart attack (pre-Obamacare), the cost of his treatment would have still put him in debt for life.  Plus he probably would’ve had to have  some job that would’ve prevented him from playing music or doing what he loved.

There were lots of ways he could’ve probably lengthened his life.  But what was the price?  Was it worth it? Just barely, to him. Bill LOVED salty food and beer.   After his first heart attack, he lived 5 more years that were spent fighting the temptations of all that he felt was worth living for!

I mean… he couldn’t eat pizza.  That’s just unthinkable to me.

Last night Hen3ry Q Vines said to me, “Joggers and non-smokers die every day.”  HA!  So, even the people who do all the “right” things eventually die.  What choices could they have made to lengthen their lives and at what cost?  I suppose they should’ve had the foresight to be born in a future where their consciousness could live on forever by some technological means I can’t even imagine.  It’s their own fault.  It was a bad choice to be born now.

That sounds silly but I think that’s the message many people get from our society – if you’d just made better choices, all of this could’ve been avoided. I guess that’s true when it comes to things like dropping out of school or spending all your money on weed instead of paying the rent. But it doesn’t apply to things we don’t actually choose — like someone else’s actions or biological realities. She would’ve made so much more money had she only been born male…

Each of has only our own experiences and resources at hand to guide us.  Some of us are lucky enough to be born into lives that are rich with those things.

Most aren’t.  Does that mean that the less privileged are unworthy of help?

Apparently so.  Americans are so obsessed with “the best” in our modern day Social Darwinist climate.  If it’s not the absolute best, it may as well be dead last and not bothering to foster.  Anything short of #1 is not worth helping.

That seems so backwards to me.  We only seem to want to help those who are already winning.  So the only way to deserve or earn help is to not need it?  Sounds like the entertainment business… or just about any business in the US.

(What’s mind boggling is that those “winners” are often only winning BECAUSE of the help they get but don’t acknowledge – like corporations that lobby for lower taxes and regulations as they bank on public funds/infrastructure, claim public resources for their own and then create their own self-serving regulations that keep anyone else from having a piece of the pie ever. Even more mind boggling is how we seem to buy into it hoping to be struck by the lightning bold of luck so we can become just like them!)

There’s truth to the idea that we all make our own choices and must live with them but it’s not as if we all have an entire spectrum of options ranging from the best to the worst.  If we did, who would ever choose anything but the best?!

Because of that, “the best” is relative and in our only-the-best-will-do world, “the best” eventually just becomes lowest common denominator – odorless, colorless and easy for everyone to digest.  If variety is the spice of life, then most Americans choose to eat mayonnaise sandwiches.  They’re “the best”.

Bill never ate mayonnaise sandwiches.  Not until the end, anyway, when the cost of all that spice caught up with him and he had to start making choices his body could afford.

He lived how he wanted.  He paid the price but I think he was glad to.

I wish I’d been more understanding.  At one point, his health and attitude became so bad that I finally made him take a 6 month hiatus.  He did NOT like that.  I felt bad even at the time, but he felt awful, acted like he couldn’t stand rehearsing or gigging and wasn’t playing well.  He didn’t talk to me much in those 6 months and you know… he never really came back full time.  I felt somewhat justified (but not happily so) when, at the end of the 6 months, he had a cardiac “event” that made him realized he really did need to focus on his health.  That was about 16 months before his death.  I’m really glad that there was time for him to be annoyed with me and then for us to grow closer again before he passed.

I guess what makes me feel so damn bad is that I was just another person telling him he needed to give up something he loved so he could go on living – and even worse so that I could go on doing the thing he loved without having to drag him along (his own words).   One more person giving him mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread as if eating enough of them would ever make the salty sirloin dinners that made life worth living an option again… all the while indulging in those delights right in front of him.  Sometimes literally.

I wish I had found a better way to be more inclusive and kept him more active in our band.  I wish I’d played to his strengths rather than writing off his surliness as unwillingness to grow or change for the better when if fact it was because maintaining his existing abilities had become so hard for him.   I wish that when he was gruff with me, I could’ve seen the bigger picture – that his anger and impatience weren’t because of me, just directed at me because I was the guy in charge.

I mostly wish his last meal in OCT 9, 2014 would’ve included a salty ribeye and a whole twelve pack of India Pale Ale.

 

The Whole Flight Matters (Not Just Take-Offs and Landings)

Recently, I went through the most frightening turbulence on a plane I’ve ever experienced. At one point the plane must’ve dropped several hundred feet for what seemed like a long time but was probably just a few seconds.  It left me shaken and, in the moment, very aware of how helpless I was as we fell through the air in a winged steel tube.  I wasn’t the only one scared.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a collective gasp/moan/swear from an entire plane full of passengers.  At that moment, I thought to myself, “I’m never flying again… if I even get out off of this plane!”  After the whole thing happened, the captain came over the intercom to apologize for not seeing the signs of turbulence and avoiding the hot air we’d passed through.  That eased my mind, at least, that the plane still had wings and we’d probably get to San Francisco.
Pilots practice taking off and landing a lot because those are the places that have the highest chance for an accident — so they want to get them right every time.  I can see how it’d be easy to (almost literally) go on auto-pilot once the plane’s at cruising altitude and for some little mistake to have a big repercussion like the one we experienced.

Bands are the same way.  You always hear that as long as the band members start and end together, most people won’t notice other mistakes.  That’s pretty true — you’ve always got the end of the flight to redeem yourselves with a good landing!  However, unlike planes, if you keep taking off badly and flying rough, no one will be in the room to see the landing.

Of course, bad landings are no good either.  Last year, I saw a very tight Austin metal band with killer musicianship.  Everything about them was precise.  They were (are) very impressive…. but at the end of every song their drummer would immediately start messing around on his kit.  This is really common and annoying as hell in rehearsal situations but I’d never seen such behavior at a show before.  It had the effect of making the show seem too casual.  It also made it unclear where the songs began and actually ended.  It made for a less effective presentation of their otherwise really well worked out songs.
A couple months ago, I saw the same band and they’d cut the drum interludes.  Their show was as professional and fun to watch as any Austin band I’ve seen at any level.  They were really good.  (Worth noting – they did all this having lost their incredible lead guitarist.)
All of that is good reason to practice your take offs and landings.  But fixing that problem was pretty easy.  Someone probably simply told the drummer to stop practicing his booduhluhkahs on stage and he stopped.  Done.

So, yes, taking off and landing is important.
But just because you get off the ground and touch back down doesn’t mean you won’t hit turbulence!  Taking off and landing helps get your passengers there, but if the rest of the flight sucks, you won’t see them on your plane again.  (That was my last flight with that airline, though I must say that this incident it was only the rotten cherry on top of the already gross ice cream cone that was my experience with them over the course of 4 years.)

What about that turbulence that comes up mid-set like consistent “bonk” notes going into a chorus?  Or, if your music is pretty complicated, a quick change that you only nail collectively half the time or less?   Or the lyrics/syllables that the singer can’t remember or agree on how to enunciate with the backup vocalists?
Pilots use flight simulators to prepare for possible turbulence and work out problems before they’re in the air putting everyone’s lives at risk.  What about treating rehearsals as show simulators instead of just hasty run-throughs to make sure the take offs and landings are ok?  Other performing artists call this a dress rehearsal and they actually run the show as if the audience is there and deal with any problems that arise in real time.

But that’s too much pressure for most bands that just run the songs  the night before the show (not making it through some without crashing and starting over in the middle) and then wing it on stage the next night.  “Take offs and landings ok? That’s all that matters. Let’s go in there and just start rockin’!”

Imagine if your pilot thought that!

For that reason, I don’t like that Austin-tacious laid-back way of rehearsing.  Even nailing your songs in rehearsal isn’t like being on stage.  Rehearsal turbulence isn’t real.  Your nerves and energy level aren’t what they are on stage.   How often do you come off stage thinking, “that was a solid performance.  I deserve a treat!!”?  If you’re like most musicians, it’s more likely that you focus on what went wrong.  So why not fix it before the real flight?  Before you fly your flight crew and passengers into turbulence you know is out there?
I suggest that once your take offs and landings are solid, stop focusing on running whoel songs and shift to fixing the 10 seconds in the middle that always fall apart.  Zero in on your trouble spots, turn down and slow down enough that you can pinpoint the problem, use a metronome click through your PA so everyone can hear it if you feel like your rushing/dragging and then play it CORRECTLY as a group over and over until you play right more often than you play it wrong.  Increase the tempo and keep playing it till you play it right every time.  This could take many rehearsals.
I write all this at the risk of being told what the guys in Steers told me over a decade ago —- that I care too much and no one’s going to put in that kind of time.   My response – the pilot can never care too much about the experience of the passengers if he/she expects to keep them in the seats.

Plus, if you stop willingly sucking in front of people, they won’t think you suck.  What a concept!

Gods of Convenience – 10 Years Later

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The Line-up from the Gods of Convenience days: Rick, Adam, me, Bill and Tommy outside Room 710 (now Valhalla) in Austin.

Recently, I was the guest on the Power Nap podcast. It’s a long conversation to have to sit through but I was amped up by the topics raised by the hosts Mike and Dieter.

At one point, Mike brought up The Invincible Czars’ first album Gods of Convenience. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the release of Gods… wow!

A couple of posts back, I was feeling critical of the me of 2005 and since it’s the anniversary of the album, I thought I’d use this post to reflect further on Gods… and that time.

First, there’s a bunch of stuff that might be interesting to know about where we were as a band when we recorded the album.  It was interesting for me to review it.

In February 2005, the line-up was young. Rick and I had been at it for 3 years but Bill (keyboard) and Tommy (drums) had been in the band only 9 and 5 months respectively. It’s odd to me that such a fresh line up had already debuted our Nutcracker Suite holiday show just a couple months earlier and (for better or worse) “put ourselves on the map” (as Graham Reynolds said) with a surprise success that was simultaneously exciting and damning: we liked that we sold out a show, but didn’t want to be known as a hokey Christmas band. We inadvertently and effectively put a foot into the uncool world of “novelty” acts.  We didn’t mind so much but there was a collective sense that we wanted to do something that wasn’t perceived as cheesy by our peers and serious music fans. This idea seems silly looking back because it focused on trying to win over people who’d already dismissed us rather than focusing on those who did like us.  I mean…  in spite of what I wrote above, the holiday show we do is fun.  I love playing Tchaikovsky’s music and we don’t have to do it year round.  As much as we wanted to be cool, being true to ourselves meant we weren’t.

(Side note – it was only two months later than we played that weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth.  I remember feeling very validated when John Wright thought enough of us to tell his brother Rob to actually listen to us on night #2 – something he doesn’t do often with opening acts.  He told me thoroughly enjoyed us and reminded him of Nino Rota.  Cool kids’ opinions mattered less and less to me after that night.)

So I guess I thought that recording an album of aggressive, proggy instrumentals and a few tunes with angry, snotty lyrics THAT WE’D ALREADY RECORDED AND RELEASED was a good idea. This had the subtle yet later noticeable effect of both alienating people who had loved our holiday show and not even registering in the minds of most others. Brilliant!! (I assure you, there was no strategy to any of what I/we did back then.)

We recorded Gods ourselves, of course. That’s what bands that aren’t already rich or connected do and we were proud to be among that fold. Affordable digital home recording was still relatively new and we had to not only learn how to capture sound but how to deal with this new digital medium that no one else we knew (or could afford) was really any good at it either. We didn’t do that well — when Chico Jones mixed it, he at first asked us not to put his name on it!

Still, the experience educated us beyond what we would’ve learned through any other process we knew of and we/I used it to make future efforts less painful and time consuming.

We tracked the initial takes as a group in a single weekend at the office building where I worked by day. It was not the best sounding space but it was the biggest space we could find. We filled in the vocals and extra horn & guitar parts later at Rick’s house and my house. This was much more difficult than it is today. We only had one desktop computer capable of doing what we needed so if we moved, the whole set up had to move. This was pre-flat screen monitors and pre-cloud storage (dropbox, etc).   Most affordable laptops didn’t have the capability to do what we needed.

The summer before, I’d blown out my voice on the road. It actually hurt to sing for well over a year and has only recently been as powerful as it once was (it didn’t help that I gave up singing for a while in 2010). It was frustrating to have to perform the tunes for the recording knowing I was at about 60%. Worse, it physically hurt to even give that much.

Still, the CD was exciting to work on. We liked hearing ourselves and unlimited undo/redo enabled us (and I mean that in the worst way) to add and take away stuff as much as we wanted. I think my puritanical standards when it came to capturing performance harmful, in retrospect. I wanted us to be able to play a couple group takes and make minimal fixes of each tune but I didn’t seem to understand that doing so would require some arrangement changes.   So everyone was trying really hard to master material that was sometimes simply not playable.

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Rick and I showed up at Ohm to mix the album dressed exactly the same one day… unplanned.  Pic by Chico Jones.

Plus, all the songs were on sheet music and the better readers among us were getting really literal to the point that right notes took precedence and sounding good was less of a consideration.  In that way, Gods is more of a document of how we might’ve sounded rather than how we did.

Unlimited tracks also enabled me to make the arrangements too dense and layer things with tasteless abandon.   I’d gotten pretty good at making complex, layered arrangements that didn’t sound bad but they didn’t sound good either. They weren’t very effective.   I knew what was under all those layers but no one else did.  It must’ve seemed like a total jumble to listeners. It didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Of the 1000 pressed, I still have about 30-50 copies.

So what’s any good about it?

Well, if it fails to present my ability to orchestrate effectively, it at least presents my strong desire to do so – or at least to do something different than most of my peers (I felt like La Mancha also did a good job of this kind of thing). I put a ton of work into the material and even if it doesn’t work, it shows.  For me, it’s cool to hear what potential was there with no guidance beyond simply listening to classical music and trying to emulate it with our instrumentation with me and my limited skills (a few music classes at ACC and private guitar lessons) in the drivers’ seat.

Bill’s keyboards really stand out to me. I hear the songs differently than I did in those days – instead of focusing on the horn and guitar, which were the original two instruments in the band, I really zoom in on those awesome analog keyboard sounds that Bill shaped for us. No wonder audiences kept telling us we sounded like Yes.

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Bill aka Willie Poland.

I’ve always liked Tommy and Adam’s performances on the album.   We’d recorded the songs before with other drummers but they finally rocked with Tommy. He understood what I was going for with these tunes.   I remember feeling giddy after the first time he came and played. It was just the two of us and he made “Doctor’s Excuse” really kickin’!

Possibly the best thing about it —- Gods doesn’t sound much like anything else from that time. I’ve often thought we’d be perceived as a Brown Whornet or Mr. Bungle rip-off but we’re not really as avant garde as them and lacked animated front man.  Whether anyone else liked it or not, we’d successfully created an unlikely mix of aggressive indie math pseudo-metal with fun, goofy, world-influenced stuff a la Oingo Boingo and Brave Combo combined with the DIY attitude of NoMeansNo and Fugazi.

We were pretty good at what I now know to be marketing.   One really, really weird thing at this time was the number of other bands who thought we’d quit our day jobs. People far more experience were surprised to learn that we weren’t making any more money than they were… or at least very little more. (Maybe that’s why none of the cool kids came to our shows – we seemingly came out of nowhere with this Christmas thing that didn’t seem like much of a gamble from the outside and got a bunch of attention for it. I’d probably have hated us, too.) I guess we’d just done a good job of promoting ourselves – we had a better web site than most other bands in Austin at the time thanks to Rick.

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Our second show with Tommy on drums at the Caucus Club in Austin— now known as The Mohawk — on their brand new (at the time) outdoor stage October 2004. We were super stoked when the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram ran this a HUGE version of this pic (taken by Gina Holton) in advance of one of our shows there.

As all over the map as the album is, that variety has never gone away. We’ve at least been consistent with our inconsistency and it all started there.  We only got better at things like improvising (which most of us sucked at in 2005), playing latin and country styles and mixing loud guitars with horns and violins.

Though the recording is super dense, many of the tunes on Gods lasted a long time in our live show. We got a lot of mileage out of my arrangement of “A Glezele Vayn”, “Iron Fist of Stalin” and “Mursketine” which were always standouts. “Glezele” was the default encore number until 2013! You know how you sometimes get sick of a song? I never got tired of playing “Doctor’s Excuse”, “Gods of Convenience” or “Mursketine”.

Unlike a lot of Austin bands, we actually had a bit of a message with the notion of the song “Gods of Convenience”. The Austin Chronicle called us “activists” in their generous 2.5 star review. The rest of the lyrics were about indie-rock snobs and other people who’d pissed one of us off. Not exactly tackling the issues. Nonetheless, our lyrics weren’t just about partying, love/sex, satan or nothing at all. They may not evoke much emotion, but at least they were pretty well thought out.

Tommy, Adam and I were really tight together. This recording reminds of all the stop-on-a-dime weird, unnecessarily difficult changes we were capable of together as the extended rhythm section. Even if it only appealed to other dudes with beards who like metal, we were pretty damn good at it.

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Adam, Tommy and me at the old Emo’s in 2005 opening for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. We’d shaven half of our hair. Tommy had only half a beard and I only had one mutton chop. Adam had half a goatee!

I think that sentence might just sum up the way I feel about the album in general. Gods came out right around the time that new music was newly so plentiful and readily available that no one wanted to invest their money or time in anything that wasn’t sure to please. Developing an act slowly in public still happens, but it seems that most of the more successful (whatever that means now) groups these days come out of the gate already totally put-together with social media, business and video editing skills as strong as their musicianship – sometimes stronger!  Maybe we (especially me) were naive and idealistic dreamers living at the end of an era but I’m glad that we were able to have a time of such an innocent and simple passion for what we did. I miss that. We were just doing what we thought was cool and working what we had (we still do this).  We were always, always genuine. I’m proud of that and that’s what Gods reminds me of now.

Thank you Adam, Rick, Tommy and Bill for rocking for real.

 

 

Tribute Bands – Cruising in the “B” Ark

(or Shooting Free Throws Whilst Stand on a Ladder)

I was going back and forth with a fan from Chicago this week on the topic of original music verses playing covers and tribute bands. It got my wheels turning.

Before you read this, know that I don’t hate tribute or cover bands and I think that comparing them to original bands is not apples to apples:

I don’t remember much about my first gig in LA except being surprised to find almost nothing but tribute bands in the show listings of their weekly paper.  Someone (I think Bill Petersen) predicted the scourge of tribute bands would find it’s way across the country and it sure has.

Though I mostly feel neutral about them now, the idea of tribute bands becoming the primary contribution of a music scene to its region still bugs me. “Los Angeles – the Copy Cat Music Capital of the World” doesn’t seem fitting for a town that creates tons of good original music – even if it’s just as obscure as anything from any other city.

Maybe that’s what happens when a scene gets so big and saturated though — when a community has so many options that the fleeting and unrefined tastes of the majority practically dictate that anyone who wants to play the game must deal in lowest common denominators. The idea of asking the audience to make an investment as simple as listening to a whole original song or watching a whole original short film becomes too big a request. They don’t have time for that when they could be seeing one of two Led Zeppelin tribute bands tonight!

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about giving your audience what they want – and don’t tribute bands do that better than any original act possibly can?

I mean, The Egg Men are about as close as anyone under the age of 50 will ever get to seeing the Beatles live. That’s valuable to a scene – and possibly even outside it! Plus, it helps keeps the Beatles’ alive beyond recorded media. Cool.

But that’s not giving your audience what they want. That’s giving The Beatles’ audience what they want.

And this is why it’s so easy to hate tribute (and cover) bands when you’re a snobby, self-proclaimed artist like me (hey, at least I’m not alone!): They get to skip past the years-long investment and trial and error of creating music and a b®and and building an audience. Instead, they tap into an already-existing catalog of beloved classics that audiences already love thanks to the work of the most popular bands in the world ever and their team of managers, arrangers, handlers, publicists, etc. etc etc.

That sounds pretty smart from a business standpoint – but it’s kind of like shooting free throws on ladder three inches from the basket. Either you’re cheating or you’re not really playing the same game.

If you don’t care about playing the same game, that’s great because you are now mentally set to play high paying gigs right off the bat while furthering the catalog of your favorite band.

That’s why I now feel pretty neutral about tribute bands. They’re not playing the same game. I already know I can shoot ten out of ten free throws on the ladder as long as I don’t mess up majorly. I don’t really care about playing that game.

That’s oversimplified. Good tribute bands take work, talent and dedication just like original bands – but (I say this with total respect to The Egg Men and any really good tribute band) tribute bands aren’t artists.

OK OK OK – yes, there are some very cool tribute bands out there like that put their own spin on the music they tribute – Jazzus Lizard, Dung Beatles, Dread Zeppelin.  In that way, they’re more like a band covering the material in their own style rather than striving for an exact replica of what’s already been done.

But there’s probably a Beatles, a Led Zeppelin and a Pink Floyd (why are they all British?) tribute band in every major US and European city. Why should anyone outside of Austin care about the Egg Men when the Day Trippers and the Paperback Writers and the Number 9s are all playing the same songs we all know and love?

I posit that the number of people who choose to listen to a recording of The Egg Men over a recording of the Beatles is very low and probably even lower than the number of people who listen to recordings of obscure small time bands.

Original bands have the opportunity to make a direct and much deeper connection with their fans. Even if it’s small, it’s real, lasting and valuable to both parties.   Original bands can change lives and that can go beyond the boundaries of their home town or region.

Tribute bands only validate changes to lives already made by the band they tribute.  They don’t make as direct a connection so much as they act as a medium for one.  They’re valuable and even memorable but… ultimately they’re cruising through universe of music in a Douglas Adams-esque “B” Ark and the music business knows it:  Ever see a review of tribute band’s album?  How many tribute bands play at ACL, SxSW, FPSF or other music festivals?  Not many… if any.

Side Note: Anyone want to start a NoMeansNo tribute band?

Prove Yourself. Now Do it Again. Again. Again…

Recently, I had a group conversation that meandered its way onto the topic of having to continually prove one ’s self  – even to people who already know you to be capable.  Some of the people felt like they shouldn’t have to prove themselves to their fellow musicians… or anyone.  Some of us felt like proving ourselves again and again was necessary –possibly even the whole point of being a performing musician.

I was definitely in the latter group and the whole thing got me thinking some stuff that I thought would be worth sharing here.

There’s real validity in viewing a career as a series of hurdles to jump – regardless of profession.   Artists, dancers, software developers, construction workers, soldiers, athletes and even office workers are all constantly having to prove themselves over and over.  If the answer to “Can you do this?” is yes, then the next question is either “Can you do this again?” or, “Can you do that other thing?”

Primus proving it.

In the case of musicians, we’re constantly performing in front of our band mates, our audience, our peers and critics in various formats.  We’re constantly proving ourselves to them.

Here’s the line of thought the other side SEEMS TO ME to have:  “I can do this thing.  I have done it before.  Why do I need to do it again in front of these people?  I know I can do it and they’ve seen/heard evidence of it.  Isn’t that enough?”

No.  As a performer, you need to be able to do it – not almost do it – more than once.  Otherwise, you’re just lucky.

If you show up to a dress rehearsal and you can’t play your part well , the others don’t think, “She sounds good on the recording, she’ll get it for the show.”  They think, “Oh yeah, we had to overdub this on the recording because she couldn’t get it.  She probably won’t get it for the show, either.”   You can probably make up for this if or you nail your part at the show!

If you have a truly bad show, audiences usually know.  They notice missed hits, bad notes, etc.  You may get some leeway with a brand new audience that has never heard the material… but how long will that last?  Two or three performances in that market?   Eventually they start to think, “This band doesn’t live up to the recording. “  It’s a little tougher to make up for this because it might be several weeks or months or even years before you play to those same people again to prove that you just had a bad night that one time.

I saw Dillinger Escape Plan open for Mr. Bungle in 1995 in Dallas.  Dillinger was actually booed off stage!  I saw them a few times after that in different venues, their fingers were fast but all I ever heard was a rumble of white noise.  I never went to see them again and I never choose listen to their recordings, even though they’re good.

(NOTE:  It’s important not to confuse an audience that doesn’t like WHAT you do with and audience that doesn’t like HOW you do it.  If you’re a boy band opening for a metal band, that audience is going to kill you whether you play well or not.   If you are a half-assed metal band, they may not kill you but they probably won’t pay attention.  It’s hard to learn anything from this situation.  “Why do they not like us?”  Dunno.)

If you release a mediocre CD and send it to critics for review, you’ll be lucky to get bad reviews.  You’ll probably just get no review from most of them.  This is harder and more expensive to make up for because now you need a whole new product to send these same people to prove that you CAN do it right – if they’ll even listen.

And there’s where the coin flips – it’s also possible to prove yourself UNable.  If you can’t get your part in rehearsal, if you play badly in front of the audience, if the critics and gatekeepers think you’re mediocre, it’s entirely possible that those people won’t give you another chance.  “He never plays it right and he’s not going to.”  “They’re just sloppy.”  “She doesn’t write compelling songs or make good records.”

Recovering from proving yourself UNable is tough, tough, tough.  Sometimes you can’t.

There’s a really not-worth-watching video of The Invincible Czars’ only performance on KVRX’s Local Live in 2003 out there.  We didn’t know we’d be video-taped and so we look terrible.  We had just lost a drummer and so we don’t sound very together even with the excellent Aaron Lack standing in on drums.  When I called to ask KVRX if we could do Local Live again a couple years later, they informed me that they only have bands once ever.

Aaron Lack drumming with The Invincible Czars at the Carousel Lounge in 2003.

Neat.  Now one of our most mediocre nights is preserved forever in KVRX’s archives.  When I see that thing, I think, “No wonder no one ever came to see us in the early days.”

I wish that I had understood the perspective of audiences, critics, my fellow musicians and band mates.  I see now that the potential I saw in various projects I’ve done didn’t mean anything to anyone unless it was executed well.  Potential isn’t worth much to someone trying to hire a band for an event, to an audience that wants to be entertained or a critic who hopes to be wowed.  You either do it or not and those kinds of things will only happen after you prove yourself able to harness and use your potential effectively and consistently.  Not before. In their eyes, if you can’t prove it, you can’t do it.  Can you get on this stage and make this audience that has never heard you actually care?  Prove it.

Proving it once doesn’t end the cycle.  Now you have do it again for this other audience.  Now, again for this audition.  Again in this other city.  Now in the studio.  Now live on the radio. TV.  In the dark.  In the cold.  Again!

It won’t ever stop.  Even as aging rockers, jazz singers, classical musicians, etc. near the ends of their careers, they’re still proving themselves over and over again.  As I write this, Aerosmith is preparing to prove it once again in Austin during Formula 1’s Austin Fan Fest.

Final thought:  proving yourself  won’t bring success – only worthiness of it and a sense of satisfaction.