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.

 

 

Vans

If you really want to get on the Warped Tour, start by firing your whole band (including yourself) and replacing them with some pretty boys with dyed black hair and lip piercings. Then print a bunch of shirts with your band logo on front and the offensive word of your choice in Impact font on the back.  Now you’re ready to …

Oh wait, different kind of van… let me shift gears(remember to edit that out later.)

I spent a good deal of my time in the last two weeks working on our van (Van Halen). I had to perform the dreaded spark plug replacement job – a task that is relatively simple routine maintenance on most vehicles but is a huge pain in the butt (and fingers and elbows) on this make/model. In fact, mechanic shops have asked as much as $1000 to perform this on our van. Parts for the job are about $50. So I set about doing it myself.

Aaryn Russell (Muppletone, Flying Balalaika Bros.) and I changed a couple of them a 9 years ago. Then my dad helped me change the rest out in Salt Lake City. He said I used up all my car help from him for the rest of my life on that job. It really sucks and this time two of the plugs were stuck.

Thankfully, it seems to be working now but on day 10 after several other issues in addition to the spark plugs had popped up, I was really considering either buying a new vehicle or renting a van from then on.

Well, not really. Renting doesn’t seem like a good idea to me unless you’re just doing a few shows out of town a year. Otherwise, owning your own band van or vehicle is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Opposite Day is about to do a 4 date run to Carbondale, IL and back (where they get to play with Cheer-Accident and Yowie!) so I’m going to use that trip as a possible illustration for renting versus owning.

If OD rents a van for 4 days from Capps Truck and Van Rental, it’s going to cost them $500 plus $0.25 for every mile over 600 that they drive.  OD is also doing Lawrence and Norman and I estimate the total trip in miles to be about 1900 miles so the total rental cost would be approx. $825.  That’s over $200 per date they’re playing.

However, looking at OD’s past shows, they haven’t played outside of Texas very much in the last 10 years.  So let’s use a more typical example to them.   If they picked up a single date in Houston and needed the van for just 24 hours,  it’d cost them $167 plus $32.50 in extra miles.  That’s about $200 just to use the vehicle for a single show.   Same as the above.  I think we can safely say it costs $200 to rent a van for a single date.

That’s not terrible.  If they only did this a few times a year, it’d be cheaper than bothering to buy, maintain and insure a vehicle.

So let’s break down what I payed to own by van per year.  I bought it ten years ago for $8000.  Let’s tack on:

  • $1000 interest (high estimate)
  • insurance for ten years – $3500
  • tires – 4 x $500 = $2000
  • oil changes – $120 x 10 = $1200
  • other repairs – $10000 (this is a very high estimate.  there were several years where my repair costs were nearly $0)
  • registration/inspection – $800

total = $28,500 – so let’s just say $30,000 or $3000 per year that I’ve owned it.

If the Invincible Czars only played 15 road dates per year (ha!), that breaks down to $200 per show.  Wow.  The same as Capps but with no maintenance and always in a van in good working order!

So maybe it’s worth it if your band doesn’t play out of town much.

But if you do more stuff and look at the long term, it’s worth it to own.  The Invincible Czars did about 30 road dates in the last calendar year.  30 x $200 = $5000 in rental costs.    That’s $2000 more than the average cost per year of owning my van.  We played out of town 30 times a year every year since I’ve owned it.  That means I saved approx. $20,000 by owning the van (I’m sure rental rates were cheaper in 2005 than now).

It’s worth asking, “What if my band doesn’t last that long?”  The good news is that you can use your van for any band.  Van Halen has been used by The Invincible Czars, Foot Patrol, Boss Battle (many times), La Mancha, The Genius Mistake, Poon, Sweetmeat and more that I would probably remember if reminded.

Plus, I had it available to me at all times and used it as my personal vehicle during that time.  It’s come in useful any time I’ve needed to move anything big. Several higher paying wall paper gigs paid me more because I was able to transport the PA system.

Downside – you will help everyone you know every time they move.

So, if you do buy a van here’s what I recommend:

  • research the best make/model and year for your budget and band size.  I bought one of the highest rated vans of all time in 2005 – the 1999 Ford Econoline.  One regret – wish I’d gotten one size bigger.
  • buy the newest used model you can afford.  DO NOT BUY NEW.
  • have a mechanic check out the vehicle before you buy it.  I recommend Lemon Busters in Austin.  They will go to the vehicle, drive it and send you a report and you don’t even have to be present.
  • Buy a repair manual specific to your vehicle and keep it in the vehicle
  • Learn to do as much routine maintenance yourself as you can (except oil changes – they’re so cheap, it’s worth it to have someone else do it and dispose of all the old oil properly).
  • Find a friend or relative who likes/knows about working on cars and get their help when something goes wrong.  Pay them back in other favors or chicken stew.
  • Find a good, affordable mechanic in your hometown.  (I have been very happy with Luu Automotive on Kramer in Austin)
  • Keep a tool kit in your vehicle filled with at least the bare minimum you’d need to work on most problems.  Very often you’ll find that the same size screw appears over and over in your vehicle.   I’ve found that I can go a long way with a ratchet, a 5/16″ socket and flat head screwdriver.
  • Live with little or cosmetic things that aren’t worth the bother or expense of fixing – dents, electric locks, etc.
  • Read and heed the owner’s manual and maintenance schedule.  Lots of oil change places have gotten a bad rap for selling unnecessary fuel flushes and stuff like that but some of that stuff really IS necessary – like changing fuel and air filters, spark plugs, etc.  Know the difference.  (I still get bamboozled by this!)

But don’t just listen to me.  I don’t like working on cars and remain mostly ignorant about a lot of things under the hood.   I’d love to hear more tips from someone who knows what they’re talking about.  Leave them in the comments.