by guest blogger David Wyatt.
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.
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.