I’ve been wrestling for some time with how to get back into the music scene. I’m not so much interested in popularity, but making and performing music for appreciative audiences consisting at least partially of strangers is one of the great pleasures of my life. (Since I make a decent living slinging code, commercial considerations need not enter into my music, so you indie purists can rest assured that I’m artistically pure, since I have no need to make money off my music and relatively little interest in fame or trying to convince throngs of people of how cool I am. I’m doing it purely for the art, baby.)
But in the years since my old cohorts from No Consensus and Exit Drills skipped town, I’ve found the crop of music-playing friends and acquaintances in my town to be a poor fit to the kind of musical concepts my brain dreams up.
Generally the issue is either one of technical proficiency in instruments or in music in general, or excessive devotion to a narrow musical genre, or stylistic inflexibility, or issues of commitment or organization (hard to get to call me back, forgets to show up, or when we get together to play they end up spending most of the time watching TV or something instead), and in a few cases, an excess of technical proficiency coupled with an aversion to dialing it down a notch when called for (which relates to stylistic inflexibility I suppose).
Also, let’s be frank. Holding a band together sucks. Usually people start playing together because they’re all friends, and just happen to have some compatible ideas. But the creative management issues end up poisoning the personal relationships. You don’t have to watch VH1 for very long to see this story played out over and over. Personally I think people mix up way too much personal baggage into playing music together, because there’s some kind of conception that that is how it’s supposed to work. Recently a writer at Faster Than The World memorably declared that good bands are like gangs. I think that’s close to the conception a lot of musicians have, but they tend to think of gangs as people with really deep interpersonal connections and compatibility and ignore the fact that any necessarily large group of people is going to contain subsets of persons that have certain specific incompatibilities and disagreements. The kum-ba-ya concept of people all just fitting beautifully together in harmony and unity is at best unrealistically idealistic, and at worst just plain conformist. Thus, for any band or gang or company or family to function, it requires that people put aside the personal and social when necessary in favor of a coherent overriding vision or purpose.
Musicians seem to have a hard time grasping this concept. Firstly, too few musicians are willing to subsume even the smallest piece of their pet ideas and creative ambitions in favor of taking part in interpreting and realizing a creative vision or concept not wholly their own. They seem to think that as “artists” they shouldn’t have to be expected to do so, or are stuck on a narcissistic notion that playing music is supposed to be all about self-expression. I’m aware that I’m exhibiting such a quality by expecting to find musicians compatible with my musical ideas; but I’m capable of playing the other side of the fence as well. For instance, the all-too-short-lived band Fools really sprung from songs Blake was writing. I liked those songs and what appeared to me to be the musical vision behind them; obviously I can’t read Blake’s mind, and in any communication some data is necessarily lost, but likewise, often such a musical vision is incomplete at first anyway, leaving collaborator with some room to propose ideas of their own based on their interpretation. This is what happened once I decided to take a whack at joining up with Blake and making Fools an actual band – I was trying to bring to life something like what I thought Blake was hearing in his head. I solicited his input constantly and allowed him to steer me in a different direction if something I came up with on the drums or bass seemed wrong to him. We can also look to my past involvement in such diverse projects as Angry Cops, Page 5 Girl, and The Police Cops for examples of me joining a band to try to serve someone else’s idea because I thought it was a good one.
The other thing is that musicians too often confuse the creative with the personal. Not too long ago, for instance, I posted a blog (elsewhere) on my frustrations with putting a band together and not being able to find what I felt to be compatible enough collaborators among my friends still in the local area, comparatively with those I worked with in No Consensus, Exit Drills, et al, who have moved off to such supposedly hipper places as Seattle, California, and NYC. Admittedly it was an emotional piece, inspired as it was by the feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy I sometimes have when these old collaborator-friends come back to visit for the holidays and I get to hear them perform and/or talk about their new music and what kinds of experiences they’ve been up to, and how they seem to have become relatively successful at music while I wallow here in obscurity. It’s easier to stick to the stance of not caring about your popularity or commercial success when you don’t have to deal with that. The old “coulda been me” thing. Anyway, point is, it was primarily about the music-scene aspects. However, friends of mine read the post and misinterpreted it as a complaint against them as friends or as people rather than as musical collaborators, and certain people got very angry, to the point where I had to delete the post before any more people’s feelings got hurt. Unfortunately I’m still getting fallout from the incident.
There’s also the issue of being located in the kind of place that has a relatively low population density (in comparison to someplace like NYC or Chicago or even Minneapolis) that is also not the sort of town that indie musician types generally flock to. It means that my pool of potential collaborators is fairly small. On a few occasions in my musical career I’ve put musician-wanted flyers up at local music shops, coffee-shops, and the like. The great majority of the time I receive no calls; on the few occasions that the flyer approach has worked, it has always turned up a person whom I already knew anyway and could probably just have asked in person if I had thought to (Peter V. being the most successful example of this). I’d probably have better luck if I listed my “influences” or style I want to play as something like “Tool, Metallica, Deftones, etc.” but then of course I’d be lying. I guess indie-noise-post-punk or anythng else too far off from “active rock” radio doesn’t have much of a draw around here for recruiting musicians. This is probably what called the old crowd away from the Cedar Valley, because in several cases it seems to have worked out. Joe, Stacy, and Mark W. supposedly have a band together in Seattle (I’ve not heard them yet); Matt M. hooked up with some locals and formed the Pasties (soon to be trekking through Iowa on tour); In NYC, Phil S. joined up with Phonograph, and supposedly Tom and Mike have guitar-tech/road-crew gigs with TV On The Radio. These people all seem to be making great music off in these other places, instead of making it here where I might be able to get involved. But then I chose to hang around here, and I’ve few if any other reasons to regret that decision.
Anyway, all this ends up amounting to me not being able to put together a band of collaborators that is willing or able to interpret the songs I’ve been writing over the past few years in a manner that I would consider satisfactory.
For a pure recording project this isn’t so much a problem, as evidenced by the quality, if not the quantity, of the output of the project that began under the name Slow Motion Accident and has since been renamed to Electric Love Adventure. On the other hand, when collaboration is really ticking along well, I thrive on it creatively, as evidenced by the relatively low volume of ELA’s output. Also, composing, rehearsing, and recording and entire band arrangement’s worth of instrument and vocal parts is time-consuming for one single person, especially if you’re like me and tend to dream up fairly complex stuff (at least, compared to the average indie-rock or punk band). But the real issue is, I want to play live dammit. And I can’t play all the instruments at one time.
Recently I’ve gotten together with the Nelson brothers, known for various local bands they’ve taken part in together and individually. I found a flyer at Bob’s Guitars that Shawn had put up, calling for a drummer, and since Tyler had left his drums at my house for a long time and I’d been playing them quite a bit, I decided to give it a shot, figuring that by the time Tyler asks for his kit back I’ll have managed to save up a few bucks to get my own. This collaboration looks promising, though so far we’ve mostly just improvised together. They seem to have a preference for playing slow-quiet-pretty stuff (big Mogwai/Sigur Ros fans, as it turns out), which is pretty cool. There are times I kind of wish we would just go ahead tear the roof off the sucker, though. Such is the music game. Anyway we have a good time together and it sounds cool.
I plan on continuing with that, but in another part of my brain it keeps coming back to wanting to also play a more frontman-ish role, or wanting to play guitar or bass, or just wanting to play “my” stuff. Which is where I come back around to the kind of songs I end up writing and putting together on tape as Electric Love Adventure. Playing those songs live isn’t a realiztic option right now, apparently, and I’m old enough to be a bit too impatient to spend more time looking for an opportunity. I could do a solo ELA show with stripped-down solo renditions of those same songs, but then my live presentation would be totally out of whack with the recorded one, and I don’t like that.
But then I thought the other night, why not just do a whole different band as the live thing? If I start from the place of being a live act and let the limitations of the live presentation drive the arrangements, then I could probably come up with songs and recordings and a live set that target a more simplistic approach, more efficiently than when I try to realize grand schemes with a horn section and samples and three guitars.
Once I had hit on this idea, I had to figure out what this new band would end up sounding like. Rather than try to jump genres and styles all over the map like I do with ELA, I thought maybe this project should have a bit more of a focus, a bit more consistency in style and sound. This would help allay the blank-page syndrome – often, setting some limitation parameters at the outset really sparks the creativity, whereas if you leave all options open you get overwhelmed with possibilities and end up not being able to choose a direction and make progress along it.
I had started some ideas before, most of them with Noel, that were working with something like this kind of framework, but I hadn’t hit on anything that really excited me just yet, with the exception of a possible fast hardcore/punk/chaotic band that I could play drums in, inspired by early Husker Du, Void, and a bit of Men’s Recovery Project. I thought it would be a good angle on a band concept that Noel and Jim had talked about before and Jim would be a perfect lead singer for it because he has such a gift for putting forth a big belligerent onstage persona. But as soon as I brought that idea up, they started pulling it in all sort of other directions that didn’t work with it to my mind – Noel prefers the more mid-tempo punk rock for one thing, and I was hoping for something with a more old-school hardcore tempo. Also, one thing such a band would need is instrumentalists capable enough to keep up, however sloppily, with the very fast tempos, and it turned out that Jim didn’t want to sing at all, he wanted to play bass. I’ve never heard Jim play bass so I don’t technically know if he’s good at it, but that’s just the thing – the fact that I’ve never heard him play it suggests to me that he doesn’t practice at it with any kind of regularity so his abilities with it are likely to be rudimentary. And I don’t really think Noel has lead-singer charisma the way Jim does. So my enthusiasm for that waned rather quickly because I have to at least be playing music that I like and I have certain technical-quality standards. (And anyway, why is it that people insist on denying the role they are really good at, like Jim wanted to do? I don’t get why people want to do that so often. Lead singer is his gift and he wants to ditch it. But anyway.) But the thinking that started me in that direction – that of going for something simpler and more stylistically focused – still stands, and finally the other night it led me to this current idea I’m developing.
Given this new orientation towards simplicity and focus (which may have possibly been influenced by my experiences writing/designing software? You think?), I realistically could play with as small a lineup as I had to, even as a one-man band in the manner of The Wanteds, which was something I’d once told Blake I would probably end up doing anyway. The difference is the direction of approach: rather than write songs and arrange them for a band, then bemoan not being able to find a band to do it, I’ll go to war with the army I have, so to speak – the band I have will determine the arrangement. Even if the band is just me. Infact, I decided to start from the one-man thing, and only add on second or third bandmembers if the right ones came along (which doesn’t mean I won’t ask around a bit.)
I’m not much into playing one-man coffeehouse acoustic stuff. It’s just not what I go for. I don’t even own an acoustic guitar, other than the one I got Leah for Christmas. I could maybe do a solo electric blues thing, I do have a bit of a thing for classic electric blues like Muddy Waters and stuff. Generally though, I like loud stuff. Much as I try to come off the chill indie rocker dude, I like big ugly hairy music. In addition to stuff like Yo la Tengo and Sebadoh, and weird old psychedelia and krautrock and various noise and experimental stuff, I like noise rock, some industrial, and a bit of the artier or more extreme sides of metal. I love stuff like Godflesh, godheadSilo, Big Black, Distorted Pony, Dazzling Killmen, and that second Season To Risk record. I fucking dig Napalm Death, dammit. And really, I have kind of an aggro personality on the inside and a lot of old anger to draw on from my youth, and it comes out in a lot of my songs, as anyone who followed Exit Drills could tell you. Even though it doesn’t come through in every song I write, it’s a big part of what I’d consider my musical influences. So the folkie and/or bluesman angles are probably out, although a bit of trashy/bluesy garage-punk will no doubt find its way in through the guitar.
Naturally if I’m a one-man band I can’t do it as a drummer. Luckily I already have a drum machine that doesn’t see enough use lately anyway. That’s fine, both Godflesh and Big Black do/did the drum machine thing, and so did Distorted Pony early on, and I think maybe Slint did too. Previously, I’ve preferred to use natural drums when possible, and have taken the ideal that drum machines should be programmed in such a way as to try to sound as human as possible, which takes considerable extra effort. But actually, there’s something I find kind of endearing about the mechanical feel of it. When that’s the sound I want, it’s really the sound I want. I’ve used drum machines in ELA before when I wanted songs to be “drum-machiney.” Also, this town’s music scene has a perennial dearth of decent drummers who aren’t already in multiple bands. So we’ve got that down.
So far, it’s starting to sound like I’m going to end up sounding like a low-rent Big Black with the bass guitar missing. But hey, that’s a start. Big Black has been over with for years, with the exception of last November’s memorable TG25 performance, and there hasn’t been anyone like them since. As I start putting together songs and possibly adding people (I’m interested in a bass guitarist, and possibly someone with some cool industrial synths and samples, or someone who can do both; I’ve also set the limit that this band will go no larger than a trio), I suspect it will start attaining more quirks that will make it unique.
I plan to continue Electric Love Adventure and the Nelsons thing in the meantime, especially as I’m going to end up coming up with songs that won’t fit this new band’s focus. But then, my more aggressive material always seemed a bad fit for ELA anyway.
So that’s my lengthy meditation on the musical direction I now think I should pursue, and how I arrived at that conclusion. If you’ve read this far, you are definitely the kind of person I’d want to hear from about what you think of all this, and perhaps whether you might like to play bass in it.