Death of a Band and a Post Mortem

Hey folks,

Well, February has been quite a month. It’s now nearly the end of March and I’m just now getting around to announcing this.

My band, formerly known as the Black Pearls, split up. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

BP began probably in August or September with just me and a female singer. Our first audition was a keyboard player and the three of us got along well. Finding the keys player so quickly made it look like the the rest of the band would click into place.
Looking for bassists and drummers has been documented somewhat in my blog, but we found a drummer that seemed to have good credentials and taught drums on his parent’s property full time. I used to teach full time so I thought this was a good sign. There was an attitude that came with Mr. Drummer from the beginning though that I didn’t like. “I won’t audition without a bass player”, he said.
Well, I’ve never heard a drummer say that before, although it made sense to some degree – the drummer and bassist have to fit well, they have to have respect for each others spaces (musically speaking) and groove. This is not an easy thing and takes experience to get down.
So we started getting emails from interested bass players and set up auditions. The first bassist was scared of our material and canceled. The next one really wanted to be a front man and walked into the house without knocking.
But the rest were more looking for paying gigs. The fact that we weren’t gigging, and weren’t even close to it was a deal breaker for a lot of guys. In fact, many were already working in other bands and were looking to supplement their income with work from us. So obviously, these were not the right fit.
Then in December of ’09, our singer was contacted by a bassist that she had worked with many years ago. She liked him, and was excited to have him audition. He was working with another band and was not happy with it. So we called our drummer “He Who Won’t Play Without Bassist”, to attend the audition.
The audition went well, but I have a rule: no one is hired on the spot (it’s happened to me before and it just never goes well). We talked about the guy, the drummer liked, him, and our singer was sure he’d add a lot to the band.
We told him he got the gig.
We had another practice with him – now we had our full lineup and needed to add in the songs that our new bassist could sing. Then, before we could have our 3rd practice with him, he quit.
He cited that his mother’s health had taken a bad turn, and his good friend just lost his fight with cancer and he just didn’t have the energy to deal with a new band.
Many people in the band gave him support, and said he could just take time off if needed, but no, he claimed he needed to quit.
Now the drummer had already been to several practices so he decided he would continue to practice with us and audition new bass players along the way. But tensions were growing…
The drummer refused to give a 100% commitment to the band, adopting a “wait and see” attitude. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. He complained about the PA system I had bought, claiming it was too small to play out with. He refused to practice any day but Sunday and only at the given time of 2:00 because of his teaching schedule (this meant we couldn’t accelerate our learning curve on the 40+ songs needed), and his approach to learning songs (tempos, intros, outro’s, transitions, and breaks/fills) contrasted sharply with our singer’s views (mood, expression, enunciation, emotion) and they did not see eye to on many things.
The biggest impact he had though was on our song list. He complained that our material was too obscure to get hired and we need to be playing the songs that other bands are playing.
So what was happening here was someone who was never in all the way, and complaining about things to get us to change them. And I/we did the wrong thing in turn: we accommodated him.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the song list is critical to a band’s success. But it should match the personality and talents of the band. But here we diverged and started throwing songs in like “Celebration” that didn’t really fit the Black Pearls. I have nothing against that song and played it in bands before, but most of the band didn’t like it and that’s just not a good thing to do.
In January, the bassist who quit contacted our singer again. Things were fine with mom, and horrible with his band, and please, please, please, please would you consider having me come back? “You have to talk to our leader” she said, meaning me.
So we got on the phone and he spent most of the time talking about what a dictator the guitarist was in his current band and how the circumstances that caused him to quit are gone and he wants to have a long talk with the Black Pearls and assure him he was sincere.
In the meantime, we got another audition with a guy from Berkelee School of Music (see previous post) and the audition was close. I liked the new guy, but I knew our singer was willing to lay her rep on the line for her friend.
In the end, we did the wrong thing. We hired back that bassist.
Immediately, practices took on a different tone. Bass guy began telling our singer how to sing. He began wanting to drop songs from set list (we dropped 2, but I figured he added 2 by adding in new songs he was used to singing). He criticized our back-up vocals and kept telling us how bad we were, how we are not ready to play out, and we needed to compare ourselves to currently working bands (and provided web sites).
Ok, honest criticism is good and fine, but he began controlling practice. He declared we can’t learn new songs until sets 1 and 2 were solid. And we can’t play out until we’re ready – a bad performance would kill us and word would get out and no one would hire us.
OK, I am the leader of the band, and I heard some amount of merit in everything he said. At the same time, I was starting to feel like we were accommodating him like we did the drummer. He sent our singer a link to a vocal coach. He sent us links to bands on youtube. This was all in the space of 2 practices.

We took a break over Superbowl Sunday and Valentine’s day, but something didn’t feel right.

Hours before we were to practice, our bassist sent us an email that he was quitting the band. Yes, again. He cited that we weren’t getting any better, it was too costly for him to drive out here to practice, Sunday was “family day” and we don’t practice any other day and his wife was giving him static. So sorry and goodbye.
I was actually kind of relieved. Why? Because he was becoming bad for the band. But I knew the damage wasn’t done yet. I talked with our singer and keyboard player over this and said “Mark my words, the drummer will quit”.
Sure enough, our drummer quit two days later.
So here we were, about 27 songs in our pocket and no rhythm section again, not square one but more like square two. In the last 7 months I’ve spent hours on material, hours on practice, hours doing research, spent $1,100 on equipment and no gigs in sight.

I made the decision to leave the band.

This might seem ridiculous on the surface. After the money, time and effort and the fact that I still had a singer and keyboardist, why quit now?

The short answer is it was just becoming too hard to hold it together. There needs to be a chemistry between people, things should come together somewhat naturally and I just wasn’t feeling it any more. I didn’t feel like going back and re-inventing the band, and that’s what was needed.

As I look back on it, I was too easy going with the personal selection. Regardless of talent, I should have kept looking for a drummer who was a better fit for our band, not one that was always going to be on the fence.

The huge mistake was letting the bassist back in the band. What was I thinking? I allowed myself to be influenced by a personal endorsement. The singer’s attitude of her past band mate colored all other opinions about other bassists and singers. I could see that, but I didn’t address it. And for my trust and generosity, I was rewarded by the bassist talking smack about me behind my back. I thought we were all adults here, but he criticized my leadership, my playing, my tone, my singing – just about everything. This guy is older than I am and acting like a spoiled kid. He didn’t address any of this to me directly, I found out after he quit.

I would caution all my students that the music community is a small one and close knit. I have no problems about telling anybody else about this guy and what he did. His behavior was unprofessional and immature and I’d never work with this person ever again.

The real damage done to the band was the change in musical direction. Too many people were unhappy with the song choices. Of the 27 songs we have, we would probably have to throw out about half of them and start over. Our keyboardist, who is a pretty sharp guy, noted that in terms of time to find, audition, and hire a new rhythm section and re-vamp the song list, this adds up to about a 9 month delay before we’d be ready to play out. That means 2011. That’s a long time.

So my lessons learned up by this experience would be this:

1) Like any other business, try to establish early on the direction you want the band to be in. Is it Rock? Metal? Country? Top 40? Classic Rock? In doing this, you need to assess your talent needs. The Black Pearls always lacked a strong male singer and for me, that was disappointing since I couldn’t do a lot of the songs I’d wanted to do.

Discuss the material and where you’d want to play. Clubs? Parties? Weddings? Are you willing to travel? If so, how far? It’s better to establish this as early on as possible and set expectations for others. This also lets potential band members determine if you’re a good fit for them.

Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the band. If you’re happy with the people themselves, pick material that showcases their strengths and minimize the weaknesses. I enjoy playing “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin but if the singer can’t do it, then that song should be scrapped. Conversely, if you’re looking to play some Led Zeppelin in your band, make sure the singer (probably female, given Robert Plant’s voice) can handle it.

2) Once you have the compass set on your direction, make it clear to any auditioning players. Remember too much democracy paralyzes a band. I had final say on any decision in the band, but I still tried to allow for players to have their say. This is fine if you picked the right people from the beginning. Look for people who like the music you’re doing and suggest things they can sing that fit with your set list.

3) Be willing to make the hard call. The bassist stayed late after 2 practices to trash me to the singer. I should have been told that at once after the first time. That’s poison to a band. It’s one thing to joke about the guy who’s always late, quite another to question their reason for that person being in the band.

4) Along with #3, consider new members to be on a probationary period. A lot of people talk the talk to get a job. Once in, how do they behave? Are they coming prepared? Are they starting to argue about the song list and want to throw songs out? Are they being as flexible as possible with practice times? Are they coming up with more problems than solutions? Be on the lookout for chronic complaining. Some people see a need and just fill it. Our Keyboardist just went out one day on his own and bought some recording equipment so we could record our practices. He didn’t complain about it, he just addressed the need. Our PA was underpowered so I spent $300 on a new power amplifier. What did our drummer do? He complained about the song list and the PA and how far he had to travel, and how this was the only day he could practice.

5) Don’t get put in the position of trying to please someone to keep them in the band. I made this mistake with both drummer and bassist. If someone can’t commit to the band, keep auditioning. A mediocre bassist with a great attitude is better than a great bassist with a mediocre attitude.

Bottom line: anybody can be replaced. Yes, that’s a harsh statement. I used to work for a CEO that ended every meeting with that statement. And it’s true. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that.

I’ll be in another musical project at some point, but for now, I’m taking the time to try to define exactly what direction I want to go in.

I’ll let you know 🙂

Spencer