Development Part 1 – Invest the Time

Today I’m beginning a series of shortish entries on development.  Something (perhaps decades of bigger-than-life celebrities) has dulled Americans’ sense of reality and left us believing that over-night success is not only real but also the best and possibly only path to achievement.

Any skill worth having requires effort and time to develop.  There are a lucky few who just come out of the womb with serious ability, but even these people must develop.

Bjork in 1976:

Bjork in 2015:

 

 

I feel like there are two seriously flawed beliefs  that result from denying the need for development.  They are not mutually exclusive:

1) if you can’t do something perfectly and effortlessly RIGHT NOW, you’ll never be able to do it ever so why bother?

2) you don’t need to develop your craft because you’re already really good and the world just isn’t aware of your radiance.

These beliefs both take the “playing to your strengths” philosophy to the extreme point of “completely ignoring your weaknesses”.

#1 struggles to develop new skills because they refuse to give any attention to anything they’re not already good at doing.  They are relegated to the tools in their toolbox – they don’t develop new skills.  They want to be good/finished/rewarded right now or not bother.  They often have incredible strengths but lack the discipline to do to the unfun but necessary things to keep things moving.

#2 wagers that he/she is the next one to be annointed by the gate-keepers and when it doesn’t happen, they age into a weird sense of bitter entitlement for having not really done anything good or at all.  They expect the rest of the world make-up for the fallout created by their imperfect beauty.  (I feel like Courtney Love is the poster child for this in some ways)

 

Now, I’m definiltely a fan of playing to your strengths.  Why make your first stringers sit on the bench while the B-Team is out there missing easy shots and losing the game?  But sometimes you have to play to your weaknesses even if you don’t want to develop them.

No one’s good at everything.

Maybe for you it’s managing money or time.  Maybe it’s interpersonal interactions.  Maybe it’s stage fright.  Some weaknesses must be overcome at least passably or the problems they create will develop faster than your strengths!

Anyway… Developement is simply the process of growth and it’s usually slow.  It can be accelerated by things like guidance, money and smart choices, but mostly, it’s an investment of time. If you want to be good at something, spend time doing it and let your long, long string of tiny successes and experiences culminate into something bigger.

And I mean long.  The other day, I was practicing and I played something I realized that the me of 10 years ago had struggled with.  I remember playing it for hours over and over one night at my old house in south Austin.  That night and the 10 years of nights just like it that followed paid off.  Just not quickly.

Interview with Chico Jones from Boss Battle and Ohm Recording Facility

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

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

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

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

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pic by Erin Frazier

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

#BetterBand Week on Soundfly.com

I’m not exactly sure how it happened but the people at www.soundfly.com found me and asked me to give feedback on their Building a Better Band video course.  I went through the whole thing and I have to say that I wish they’d shown this stuff in the music and music business classes I took at ACC!  Heck, I really wish I’d seen something like it when I was 15 and started my first band.

I was flattered when they asked me to contribute a guest blog post as a teaser for the course.

Right now, soundfly.com is celebrating #BetterBand Week with a discount on the very course I’m talking about.  Check it out.

No Day Job – How’s That Going?

I missed an entry last week because I’ve been so damn busy various things I set in motion after quitting my day job. Thinking on that and having been asked about it a lot, I thought I’d write a short entry to give an update on what I’ve done in the 5 1/2 months since I said goodbye to working for the man:

March – easily the busiest and most lucrative month since I quit working the day job. I wound up having one gig that paid me as much as I normally made in a single month plus a couple others. I got really sick again at the end of the month just like last year and played a wedding that was just me and a singer at the height of a very bad fever. It was unpleasant.

April – Invincible Czars toured east of Austin with the silent film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two Star Symphony drummer Kirk Suddreath joined us. It was fun. I didn’t earn any money but I didn’t lose any either. I started actually working with bands on pre-production and song arrangements for their recordings. That’s been slowly picking up steam. I also helped Opposite Day with a bunch of booking and management stuff. I started playing bass with Muppletone. I also continued filling with Sam Arnold and the Secret Keepers.

May – I thought this month would be dead but things got really complicated with Opposite Day booking. I started doing a bunch of gigs with Jean Caffeine. I also started making weekly “How to Play…” guitar videos and posting them on youtube as an excuse to get better at video editing and using Adobe Premiere. I’ve kept those up and even had some requests! Tony Brownlow and I started getting together to get The Genius Mistake going in the near future. We’ve been playing new and old songs.

June – vacation month. I hadn’t seen my family in Utah in a long time. I had multiple bookings cancel or fall through. It was about the most frustrating month of booking I’ve had in years only now it was doubly annoying because I was booking OD and the Czars. We wound up abandoning the idea of the Czars touring Germany this year as a restul. Near the end of the month I started working super hard on the Czars’ Nosferatu soundtrack fall – both musically and promotionally. I’ve learned that if I just write a little bit of music, sync it with the video and put a bunch of “Don’t Miss…” type text on it, I can do all the promotion for any given project having only created about 1% of the actual content.

July – Our Van started really having trouble just when we needed it for Czars’ road gigs and the labor to fix it was expensive so I started delving into self repair. I’ve learned A LOT about fixing cars in the last two months. The van is still not roadworthy. Invincible Czars shot a video in our house for Peter Stopschinski’s “Dark Theme from Metropolis”. Phil, Leila and I got really into arranging Bartok’s six “Romanian Dances” for the silent film. I saw Faith No More in Houston. They were excellent. I recorded some disappointingly eye opening vocal tracks for the Genius Mistake album that’s been sitting with no voices for one year. ugh.

August – With the van not working and being dependent upon Capital Metro to get me places, I hit a wall with all this juggling and wound up having to choose which balls to drop and pissing others off. I had to bail on a Secret Keepers gig and then had to get really choosy with my time. The Czars had the opportunity to use Ohm Recording Facility for a super cheap rate for a single day. We went in there and recorded a bunch of material for the Nosferatu soundtrack and all our silent movie (no drums) versions of Bartok’s “Romanian Dances”.  Long time readers of the this blog will also be interested to know that the reason I missed last week’s entry is because I was actually asked to write an entry for the web site Soundfly.com.  I was more surprised than anyone about this development!

To sum up, mostly I’m still in the “figuring it out” stage of this grand experiment. Yes, I’ve reached the point of purposely skipping meals to save money.

Confidence and Over-Confidence (or The Band “People” Magazine Mentioned By Name)

10 years ago, when I was much newer to the money losing business of music, I used to waste time perusing the sites of “booking agents” that were representing bands that I’d seen play at clubs like Room 710 and Beerland.  I was usually surprised at the way these “agents” (usually just a friend, lover or dealer of one of the band members) played up their bands — and even moreso by their selection.  Most of the bands lasted about a year at best or had a better name than they did music/talent. I was baffled that these bands that were lucky paid $50 for a gig had representation. (I still see this. There’s just no accounting for taste – even my own.. which apparently is out of touch with everyone else and has been forever.)

These days, I realize how hokey those “agencies” were. Still, as rinky-dink as they were, the bands on them had one thing I didn’t – someone that wasn’t in their band that liked them enough to take on the pain in the butt responsibility of booking the band and pumping up their image to the gate keepers.  Having someone like that in your corner is very validating for a young band and communicates something to talent buyers.  Even if they did a crappy job, at least these people were talking up their bands.

I certainly didn’t have that.  The only person talking up my band was me. So I set forth on the long road of building my own reputation.  I wasn’t any good at making myself look good. In fact, I was better at doing the opposite than anyone I knew.

Eventually, I gained a little confidence indirectly by simply failing so many times.  I developed what I now know as the “fake it til you make it” mentality.  I started saying yes to opportunities that had seemed unrealistic and outlandish or even undesirable because that’s all that was coming my way.  “Can your band be in San Marcos  on a Wednesday at 4:00 PM and play 2 sets outdoors in the freezing cold on an open stage in a parking lot to sick children?  Oh yeah and you’ll need your own PA.”  That’s character building (I just hope Tommy, Adam, Phil and Leila see it that way now) but it also opened some doors.  Lots of times we didn’t really have 2 sets worth of material or PA suitable to playing outdoors.  We did it anyway.  We faked it knowing that even if we blew it, we didn’t really want to play that gig again anyway so… what the hell?

But there’s some level of fakery that bugs me and I don’t think I’m alone.

I finally unsubscribed from a Dallas booking agent’s email list after receiving an invitation to the video shoot of a wedding/cover band with a link that read, “See the band that People Magazine” is raving about (I can’t remember that exact wording but it was something like that.)

I clicked the link which took me to a tedious article on People’s web site about a high society wedding for a pair of rich people I’d never heard of.  Buried among the paragraphs was a single sentence that simply said that that this band provided live music for the wedding.  It also mentioned the catering company.

I guess you’ve got to take what you can get… but this was free advertising at best and hardly a rave review.

Everyone in the entertainment business is always trying to play themselves or their clients up to be bigger than they are.  Why?  Because there’s some truth and value to the idea of “fake it til you make it.”  Plus, image is almost everything.  If you’re perceived as a pro who’s done this a million times it can often mean more opportunities and more money.

There’s nothing wrong with learning as you go. We often learn stuff best by simply doing it and confidence can be the key. As I started venturing into bigger soft-ticketed events, I slowly learned that simply stating something with confidence was often the difference between a confirmed gig and a “maybe next year” email.  I’ve wound up sub-contracting sound engineers and even staging, lighting and power when my knowledge about these things was cursory at best.   My clients (that sounds so weird) didn’t even have the cursory knowledge though.  As long as I seemed confident and positive, they were happy (even if I was actually pulling my hair out and cursing myself as soon as I hung up.)

You might hit boundaries.  That’s ok.  I just hit one a year ago.   I was trying to turn around a silent movie booking situation that had gone awry (original talent buyer booked it then quit the company as we were on the verge of confirming) and learned the hard way that Warner Bros. does not deal with third parties – only directly with movie theaters.  The theater felt embarrassed when WB asked them why I was trying to book a movie at their theater instead of them doing it. My final phone conversation with the theater made me feel like a 19 year old grocery sacker being fired because the boss was in a bad mood.

So you don’t want to be over-confident.  Afterall, there are some things that you can’t fake til you make.  If you tell a club booker that you normally draw 100 people when you really only draw about 25, it won’t take long for you to find yourself back on Tuesday nights – unless you pretty quickly find about 75 more people willing to come see you.

Well… maybe you CAN fake this if you have enough money.  A former artist manager I know used to refer to a concept he called “papering” the audience which is simply when a promoter can’t get people to buy tickets and offers discounts or even free tickets/drinks just to get people they know to show up. Even if they lose money, they made it look like the band sold a lot of tickets.  Remember Fletcher Clark’s “joke” about the best way to make a small fortune as a musician is to start with a large one? If you can’t get people to come see you even for free, why not pay them to be there? I think we’d all be surprised at how much this kind of thing goes on even at high levels  (Glenn Danzig’s comments about Ozzfest being a “corporate buy-on” are not the first I’ve heard of bigger bands paying to play even at high levels.)

But most of us can’t afford to do that.

Last year, I got an email from a talent buyer in Ft. Worth that I’ve worked with asking me I’d ever seen a particular band that was asking him for a high guarantee.  I hadn’t.  They had an impressive web presence and touring history.   They’d traveled as a supporting act in big venues for pretty high level acts with commercial radio airplay and name recognition among people who shop in malls.

But they’d barely ever played in North Texas.  I noticed they’d played Austin a few times but  only one weeknight at the Lucky Lounge (nothing against Lucky Lounge – it just wasn’t the even close to the size of the other shows they’d played) and a handful of unofficial dayshows during SxSW.   I asked the booker if there was any reason he thought they might do well at his club (which is the same size as the Lucky Lounge) and how he heard about them.  Apparently they just sent an email to DFW promoters with a pitch and dollar figure.   I guess that was enough to get his interest because he was considering it.  He kept asking around about them.

A few weeks later, I was dealing with him on another gig and asked about that band.  He said he told them to stick it.

But maybe I don’t know how to balance or manage confidence. Years ago, we played an official SxSW showcase with a buzzing San Marcos shoe gazer band who had a manager that was a total dick to the SxSW sound engineer. I thought he was way over the top. As negative as my experience with him and his band was, in the end, he was right – that SxSW showcase sucked. The stage manager was passed out drunk on the couch in back when we loaded in at 8 PM and the sound was pretty damn bad and this is not unheard of during SxSW. At least these guys had someone willing to stand up for them and say, “you can’t treat us like this.” I simply grinned and powered through.

(Side note – that band borrowed our bass amp when theirs blew and ours was never the same after they used it. They didn’t even thank us and then they played an encore AT A SXSW SHOWCASE that we had to follow. I wish I’d had their manager to yell at them.)

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.

 

 

 

10,000 Kicks

I re-re-re-re-read this quote from Bruce Lee recently:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

and it is the reason for this week’s more journal-like entry:

April 2015, marked 10 years since The Invincible Czars played a lovely weekend with NoMeansNo in Austin and Ft. Worth. I went back and listened to an excellent room recording (made by Adam Kahan) of NoMeansNo’s Ft. Worth show April 25, 2005. Then I listened to a few recordings of The Invincible Czars from that weekend. It was exciting to hear what we were playing back then but also kind of depressing.  10 years later, those recordings sound like a band that hadn’t been together very long and was trying to play beyond its capabilities – rough around the edges to say the least.

In our defense (against my own comments I guess!) we truly hadn’t been a band very long! Though the Czars name had been around for 3 years, the line-up in April 2005 wasn’t even a year old. We were trying to figure out what we did well with a mish-mash of material from the band’s earlier, wackier days and our then new, heavier sound.

Still, listening to these old recordings, I realized my biggest regret about The Invincible Czars’ only era of sustained line-up stability (2005-2008) was that I failed to identify our strengths and capitalize on them (more on this another time). I wasn’t leading well (or even consciously) enough to focus the group or myself enough to find our “one kick”. I was always juggling. We practiced A LOT but thanks to me, we were practicing 10,000 kicks.

(If you’d asked me at the time what our kick was, I would’ve probably said something like, “lots of variety,” which is essentially bundling 10,000 kicks into one.  No.)

This got me thinking – what could I have done better and how can I implement it now?

I wish the me of 2005 would’ve chosen the band’s best kick, practiced/developed the hell out of it and then shared it when it was really good instead of rushing to create something that was “good enough” for shows on Red River and then trying to figure out the rest out on stage in front of people.

That’s what I try to do now but I didn’t have this perspective then. The me of 2005 had already been through 2 bass players, 3 keyboardists and 5 drummers in three years. Our “kick” seemed to change every few months.

(I’ve often thought that I should’ve dispensed with all the “what’s best for the group” thinking and simply determined my individual best kick and then found people to complement it. It may have been self-centered but at least it would’ve given us a kick to practice!   I  guess that’s what I eventually did but the me of 2005 was reluctant.  My favorite bands were bands – not solo acts with a backing band. I wanted to find what we were good at doing.)

Even without constant line up changes, determining your kick can be difficult. You have to go through some trial and error and it’s tough to know when you’re on the right track until you’re really on it. Sometimes this requires letting go of your preconceived notions, and conflicting desires and simply working with what you’ve got.  (I really envy the people who seem to naturally know what they are, recognize their strengths and – most importantly – go with it and love it.  Especially when they do this at an early age.)

In 2009, then drummer Louis Landry advised that we make a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of ourselves. Doing this the first time was really uncomfortable. Most of the band thought it was BS and didn’t want to participate.   At that time, I’d only just grabbed the reins and started trying to really be a band leader.  It was really disheartening and discouraging to have my band mates sit in a room in front of dry erase board and slowly realize we had been spending more time compensating for weaknesses and threats than capitalizing on strengths and opportunities.  Why were we playing songs with vocals when none of us were good singers? Why were we still worried about our draw at clubs when our best shows were in restaurants, theaters and outdoor events?  I didn’t have answers other than, “because that’s the only thing I know to do.”

But at least we learned some valuable info.  (big thanks to Louie for remaining positive and on my side through the process.)

Even once you determine your kick, you still have to actually put it into practice and the tedium of doing so can be a major threat.  It’s fun when you’re making leaps and bounds with little effort in the early stages but when the same effort only yields a baby step’s progress in the middle and final stages, most people bail. They put their kick on the back burner and start working on a new one so they can have that sense of satisfaction of making “big progress” again.  But that big progress only happens in the early phases.  If you don’t  stay on course when the fun fades, you’ll wind up on the path to 10,000 kicks.

That’s not to say you have to be a one kick pony.  Just find your kick and incorporate it into everything you do.  Maybe your kick is improvisation. Now you can improvise over all kinds of styles.  Maybe your kick is writing catchy hooks, playing at high volumes, instrumental wizardry, ambience…  maybe your kick is a female singer who’s been your horn player for a long time but you’ve been spending too much time concentrating on outdated material to write new stuff for the best part about your band that you never knew was right under your nose!

Just pick one, stick with it and I think you’ll see that what seems like a limitation will become your greatest strength!

I want to end by adding that though I’ve been really critical of myself and my band over the years (and in this post), I would’ve had to have gone through all this one way or another.  I had a lot of personal problems that are more to blame for any of these perceived failures than anything else.  I’m glad I made some good friends on my journey — Thank you Tommy, Adam, Rick, Bill (wherever you are) playing some “lots of variety” on stages all over the place with me in 2005!