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Changing Direction When the Familiar Doesn’t Work

Hi ya –

If you’ve been following my posts, and they’ve been infrequent to say the least this year, I was in a top 40 band at the end of 2009 and into 2010. I made mistakes with band personal, material choice, and not following my gut instincts, the band folded, and I’ve been not playing with anybody for months.
The current economy is hitting the working musician hard. Many bassists we auditioned were already in another band, but looking for more work. Established bands (that is, web site, DVD, complete lineup, tons of experience and professional package) were scrambling to get more than 1 gig a month. (News flash: if you’re in it for the money one gig a month is not meeting your needs).
I realize now that trying to start a cover band (i.e., a band that only plays hits from other bands) with no connections, limited equipment and weak vocals was just not going to work. It’s tight right now and club owners and booking agents are going to go with known bands, not new ones.
So I felt validated that my decision to fold it was the right one. Still, I stuck my profile out on bandmix.com just to see if anyone would ping me.
And four months later someone did.
Scarlett Dark, lead singer for LIPSHOK , an all original metal band out of Hayward wanted to see if I could possibly add something to their new material. They have a CD out on iTunes called “In the Darkness….Light”.
OK, they have a CD, they have a full line up (vocals/keyboard, bass, drums, and guitar) – and just what do they need me for?
Primarily Scarlett wanted to know if I could write music. The answer to that is yes. She wanted to know if I was available? Again, yes. It appears that members of the band have too many commitments to put forth an effort to produce another group of originals. Scarlett has done all the writing and wants input, as well as someone to record with.
I met them in their home in Hayward where they converted their detached garage into a fairly sound proof practice studio with recording equipment. Scarlett’s husband Phil has a good nose for bargain equipment (this I envy!) and happily showed me some of the gear he’s picked up : amps, mixers and even a 7 string Ibanez guitar.
We played for nearly 3 hours. First, I followed a chart Scarlett wrote. Then we tried out different styles on the same chord progression. Phil said “Man, I love the chops, but can you change gears and play real melodic?” I guess I was more in “impress them” mode so I slowed down, and built more melodies around the changes rather than show speed.
Next, we worked on a piece that I had been playing around with for quite some time. I built this riff around B Phrygian mode (this is B to B in the key of G: B C D E F# G A B) I liked it because it reminded me of Yngwie Malmsteen. They grabbed onto that and started building a chorus and bridge to it, Scarlett writing down the chords and promising to write lyrics to it.
In the end, it was a very satisfying and promising start. We are trying to schedule another practice for this weekend and continue to flesh out this tune and a few others.
So, in the end, I’m not really replacing anybody but a part of a new start with these nice people.
This is only the 2nd all original band I’ve been in. Everything was top 40, and money, money, money. Some key points with my new direction:
1) Venues – places to play – these are limited. Not everybody wants to hear original music and in this genre of metal (think Nightwish to get a flavor of what they sound like).
2) Time on stage – usually one set. I’m used to being in a top 40 band where you take the stage for the whole night. Normally original bands play with other original bands in the night. It is not uncommon for 3 or 4 bands to play in an evening.
3) Money – ha, not much. Maybe enough to cover gas.
So why do it? Well, if it’s so hard to crack into the top 40 circuit now, I might was well go with artistic expression. With only a 4 piece, my corner of the song is wide open for me to embellish. It is my hope that my input will be significant and maybe…just maybe….we make a CD.
Now that would be cool….
My next blog will be more on metal playing, speed shredders, and 7 string guitars.
till then…
Spencer

Keeping it Simple

My original guitar teacher had a real positive attitude about being able to do anything with the guitar, that he passed on to me.

Tonight, I was watching the ChickenFoot DVD with a friend. We are admiring Joe Satriani’s guitar work when he said “To me, YOU sound like that”. I smiled at the compliment, because I’m not as good as Joe or most great guitar players who spend 8 hours a day playing (I have a day job!) but I look at it this way:
Anything, no matter how complex, can be broken down into it’s smaller and simpler pieces. You master one piece at a time, one after the other, until you finally can do the whole thing. After all, a marathon is only putting one foot in front of the other (yeah, I know – for 26+ miles!).
I didn’t say the end result was easy or not requiring hard work, patience, perseverance, or most importantly – desire. Being a great guitarist, runner, computer programmer, or writer comes with looking at the small things first, then gradually put them all together.
In this sense, I never limit what I can do on the guitar (unless it’s physically impossible for my hand to stretch too far). For me, a new skill on the instrument is only a question of how much time it’s going to take me.
Keep it simple, and you can learn anything from how a nuclear reactor works to how Joe Satriani get’s those crazy runs on the guitar.
Keep enjoying the summer…
Spencer

The Power of Negative Thinking

Yes, that’s right, weird title eh?

In less than an hour, my youngest son graduates 8th grade. The speeches will be filled with hope and visions of successful futures. It truly is a special moment in a person’s life. Hard work, perseverance and attitude all pay off in this one wonderful day of celebration.

Yet during our daily lives, a lot of negativity (thoughts, words, or just “energy”) can cloud our daily lives. Some obvious, some not so much.

When I’m with my students, I’m careful about pushing them too hard, or admonishing them too harshly for not practicing. This is optional, it’s supposed to be fun and rewarding, not a time to be dreaded.

Yet I remember a time when I was only about 19 and trying to be a music major at a local junior college. Notice I said “trying” – I didn’t know if I could cut it. I was fine with theory, ear training, history, and all that, but, like most guitarists, my sight reading wasn’t all that good. I worked on it of course, but here I am sitting next to some kid with a sax who’s been sight reading n his instrument since the 3rd grade. It was intimidating, to say the least.

But the hardest thing of all was our instructor for the jazz combo class. His name was Glen Richardson – a hotshot sax player who was in a very active band called Solar Plexus. They gigged all over and were on TV. This was 1978 and jazz was changing at that time. They had zero stage presence – they preferred the “purist” attitude – the music was more important than showmanship.

I bring him up because he was extremely demanding of the class. Luckily he didn’t pick on the rhythm section too often (that’s drums, bass, keyboard, and guitar) but he was murderous on the brass section. He’d get mad at them, then all of us had a target on us.

I remember distinctly him blurting out one day : “If you tried to enter Julliard they’d laugh!! They’d say come back in 5 years!!”

Other remarks were more subtle but just as cutting. When a player had trouble with a particular passage, Richardson had him do the part a few times until he got it right. At that point he said “That’s it, good” followed by muttering “…it only took you 3 times…”.

I may not have been the direct target of his scathing remarks but I sure felt them anyway. I lost confidence in myself and my abilities. Finally, that school year was over and a few months way from mean ol’ Mr. Richardson was what I needed, plus I started gigging on my own. Confidence back and restored.

Richardson was an obvious example, but people can be very subtle with it.

As we work on honing our craft, whatever that may be, we need to be honest in our assessment of our abilities, and decide what is the next step we need to tackle to improve, but keep the negativity away as much as possible. It does no good other than to perhaps thicken your skin, but personally, I can do without that 🙂

Happy graduation day to all those grads out there!

Spencer

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

Sundance Film Festival 2010

Hey foks-
As I mentioned in my last post, I was going to be on my way to attend the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in majestic Park City in Utah. The event lasts about 10 days and due to my schedule, we attended the last 3 days of the festival. My girlfriend, Angela, has a family friend named Brian Jones who owns a production company called Hanger 3 (http:\\www.hanger3productions.com) and has worked in the past as one of the volunteers at the Festival. Brian was attending this year in the capacity as a producer/director and had arranged for us to stay with him at a condo in nearby Midway.
This was my first such event and I asked Brian, a man of seemingly infinite patience, what is the main focus of the festival, what are film makers trying to accomplish and how does one go about making a movie anyway?
It turns out that there are quite a few applicants – probably in the thousands, of filmmakers wanting their film to be shown at the festival. Of those, about 200 are chosen to actually be shown at various theaters in the area. Some are feature length (80+ minutes) while others are short films (called “shorts”) and may be around 15 minutes in length. Few, if any, of the films submitted have been snatched up by a distributer at this point (like Lions Gate, or Miramax) but if it’s a feature film, that is the hope that it will get picked up. Shorts might get picked up for a DVD compilation or maybe shown on a Cable channel like Sundance or the Independent Film Channel (IFC). This is really about artists trying to get their work noticed, for the primary reason of getting yet more funding to go out and make another film.
Brian drove us around in his rental car and when we weren’t talking about our Droid phones (we are both new owners) I questioned him about how one gets started in this highly competitive industry.
One of my favorite film makers, Kevin Smith, made his debut with a feature called “Clerks” that was filmed in black and white at a convenience store at night where he worked during the day. That film launched his career and cost him about $25,000 to make. Clerks was shown at the Cannes film festival in France.
So using that as kind of a base line, I asked Brian what was the complete bare minimum it took to make a movie. He said it could be be done for as little as $7,000 today, and that would involve people taking on multiple roles – Produce/direct, Sound and editing, a Grip (someone who makes sure the area to be filmed has electricity, etc) and camera rental. Gone is film – it’s all digital so the choice of filming in black and white to save money (like Kevin Smith did) no longer applies. The camera of choice today is the Red camera (“http://www.red.com/”). People use various software to edit cuts and audio. So with about $7k and 6 or 7 people, you can create a film. Of course, making a film that people stand up and take notice is the hard part. And that brings us to Sundance.
The first movie that Angela and I got to see was “D0uchebag”. This was a comedy/drama done by Jonathan Schwartz, Super Crispy Entertainment and was a seemingly very low budget movie about a man, Sam Nussbaum, who is about to be married. His plans take a detour when he is reunited with his estranged brother by his fiancee, in the hopes that his brother comes to the wedding. This becomes a bit of a road film as the two take off to find his brother’s long lost 5th grade love. Comparisons to “Sideways” are inevitable here, although the focus is more on Sam and his relationship with his brother.
While not as good as “Sideways”, the film was enjoyable and we the public were given a piece of paper to vote with. The four corners are marked “Fair”, “Good”, “Better”, “Best” and you vote by tearing the corner that best reflects your opinion of the film.
After the film, the director came up with the actors for a Q & A session. It turns out the actor who played Sam was not an actor – he was an editor and the director wanted him to act this time. The director was very humble and gracious and they looked like a great group of people.
On a side note, I noticed some of the band names that played on the soundtrack including “G*dd*mn Electric Bill” (asterisks mine). That is the most unique band name I’ve heard in a long time. The band is promoting the film on their website.

The next day we got to see a move called “3 Backyards” – a film by Eric Mendelsohn. At first I thought it was a “slice of life” kind of film, but although the story takes place in a single day, there are 3 parallel and non-intersecting story lines that all have a significant event that takes place.

The first is a business man struggling with a marriage in jeopardy. He leaves for the airport and his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he uses the opportunity to just….hang out. He thinks, he observes, he lies to his wife and says he’s on a plane when he’s not.
The second is about a young school girl who is trying on a bracelet that is to be a gift to her mother from her father. She can’t get it off in time for school so she wears it out the door – only to lose it. She has a interesting encounter with a dubious stranger to get it back.
The third stars Edie Falco of Sopranos fame – she plays a house wife that is asked for a lift to the Ferry (these folks all live in Long Island) by a British actress who moved into the neighborhood. Edie is a gossiping, stay-at-home mom who dabbles in art and is thrilled at the prospect of becoming a friend and confident of this woman, but things don’t turn out as planned.
One of the things that bothered me about this film was the sound track – no Electric bill band here, it was orchestral with shrill piccolo parts that hurt the ears. My girlfriend found the movie to be really intense and observed that the soundtrack was supposed to make you uncomfortable, like the glaring of the sun. Well, it accomplished that! When I looked at the online reviews on the Sundance web site, people either loved it or hated it, no middle ground. But it did win the directorial award from Sundance.
Again, this was followed by a Q & A session with the director, who humbly wished he could continue to make more films. These guys aren’t Spielbergs or Camerons with unlimited budgets. In fact, more than one comment was made about “Avatar” by directors, usually in a comical reference, as their budget is probably 1/1000000 of that.
We had some time to kill in between films so we got to explore Main Street in Park City, Utah. For those of you in northern California, the place had a bit of a “Grass Valley” feel to it, albeit colder. Lots of pubs, restaurants, and gift shops to check out.
Our first two films had been at the Eccles theatre. It was fairly large, but with an odd set of rules. I could buy a soft drink out in the lobby, but when I tried to re-enter the theater, I was chased down by a woman who said to me “You can’t take that in there. Go back into the lobby and put the drinks in your pockets and come back”. Yes, I had to go back to the lobby, empty my pockets of my wallet and cell phone, stuff two large 32 oz Diet Cokes in my pockets (with the top of the bottles clearly showing) and waddle back to the re-entry point where they happily let me in. I’m not the kind of person to throw a fuss in public, but the ridiculousness of this rule was annoying, to say the least.
Our third film was a midnight showing. It was a French film with English subtitles and looked very professionally done. It was called “Seven Days” and is one of the most brutal films I have ever seen.
The story covers a small family of 3 – a surgeon living with his wife and 8 year old daughter. When his daughter is fatally attacked by a predator, he changes. Through some flimsy plot devices, the doctor manages to secure a deserted cottage home in the woods and kidnaps the arrested predator in transit and bring him to this remote location. There’s a reason for the hurried plot at this point. A countdown of 7 days commences, ending on the little girl’s birthday. Each day brings forth a new torture for this shackled man as the doctor goes down a road of insanity.
Advertised as “not your average torture film”, I would have to agree. At least with “Saw” the torture of each character is short lived. Not in “Seven Days”. We endure everything from beatings with a chain to bizarre surgery. I am not one to close my eyes, but I had my hand ready at more than one point. Angela even asked me “Are you going to shut your eyes?” I nearly did.
This film ran nearly 2 hours and we got out at 2:00am with a temperature of about 10 degrees. We missed the shuttle bus that would have taken us back to Main St. in 10 minutes and instead ended up on the last bus of the night where the driver was supposed to drop us off at the library, but instead he enjoyed a flirtatious encounter with a young lady and didn’t stop there. Brian, who was waiting for us called me:
“Where are you guys? Was that your bus that just went by?”
“Yeah, I think so”
“Well, what is your next stop?”
“Driver, what’s our next stop? He says Main St. Transit Center”
“Ok, I’m on my way”
It was tough because Brian’s wife had just joined him today, and I’m sure she was tired from the trip, but here it was, 2:30-am and temps now in the single digits as Brian followed us to the last stop and picked us up. We made it home and met a member of Brian’s crew – Marilyn Giardino. Marilyn is a script supervisor and has worked on various movies with various artists. Here is her profile on imdb.com :
Marilyn was very warm and engaging and full of interesting stories.
Friday was our last full day in Utah. We had one movie left to see – it was an 11:30pm showing. We looked around for other movies, but after 7 Days, we wanted something light and there just wasn’t anything like that that we could get to, so we hung around Park City all day, sampling the food and atmosphere, and picking up some souvenirs.

The last movie was “The Perfect Host” and starred David Hyde Pierce. This was probably my favorite movie of the four. I can’t say that much about it, other than a criminal is trying to escape from the scene of a crime and he’s wounded. So he takes refuge in a man’s home, posing as a friend of a friend. From there, the story becomes a very nice balance of humor, wit, bizarre, and sometimes even creepy. As good as the humor is, you’re never convinced something bad can’t and won’t happen.
After the movie, the director and David Hyde Pierce himself came up for Q & A. What a treat. Mr. Pierce seemed relaxed and joked around with the audience. You could feel the excitement in the crowd that here is someone who is an accomplished actor here to take questions. (No, I didn’t ask any!).

The night was over, and we piled into Brian’s rent a car for the 20 minute drive back to our place. The next morning came early and we packed and got off to the airport with time to spare.

As we made our way through security, they had body scanners in some lines. It wasn’t mandatory. But that was the line we chose so I said “oh let’s just do it”. I was told I could have nothing in my pockets, not even paper (but I could hold my boarding pass). So I get into this little tube thing (“Beam me up, Scotty!!”) where they had a marking where your feet go. I just put my hands against the greenish plastic tube and I was told “Not there – put your hands like in the picture”. Sure enough, there was a drawing of a man with his hands behind his head…the old “FREEZE!!” posture. So I did and the scan was done in seconds and I was free to find my shoes, my phone, my two carry-ons and get breakfast with Angela.

The only unfortunate event was that while I was flying home, I realized I didn’t have my camera. It turns out I had lost it from somewhere in the theatre (my last photo was of David Hyde Pierce) and the airplane (although we looked everywhere). I have been able to get a few photos from my phone and some that Angela took, so I still have some nice photos for the memory. I contacted the lost and found email address for Sundance and they were very nice to me, but it hasn’t turned up. It was a Canon SD 1200 I had just purchased and was getting used to. It looks like I know what I’m going to get for my birthday – my last Christmas present. Oh well, it could be worse.

All in all, it was a wonderful, memorable trip. The only thing I’d change is maybe take some time to ski while there. I’m not a great skier, but living in the San Francisco bay area and having to drive 3+ hours to snow makes the distant runs look very appealing. Park City is a charming town, the film makers were honest artists and we had a fantastic time.

Nightmare Gigs

Hey, it has to happen, right? All those wonderful nights where people compliment your playing, tell you the band is great, and you get along well with your “employers” (eg club, bride & groom, company, etc) should be balanced out with jobs that make you appreciate those finer moments.

Equipment/Personel Issues

Although I’ve never had a player NOT show up, I’ve had some come very close to being late. Our drummer got lost on the way to a wedding gig once. This was before the age of cell phones. The technique used by our singer was to remotely change her answering machine message on her home phone to directions to the gig. Then she found out she didn’t have enough time to record it all so she re-recorded it at a break neck speed before the beep went off, thinking that the band member would call her number (by pulling off the road and using a pay phone). Her efforts paid off, that’s exactly what the guy did, got back on the road and showed up 15 mnutes before we were to play.

In this day of cell phones and navigation devices, this is less likely to happen but people do forget their cell phones or they’re out of a charge.

With respect to equipment, I’ve never had a failure but I’ve heard many a story of their amp suddenly smoking. I’ve been lucky in that aspect – but as a guitarist you can have some backup. If you use an external foot board (with various effects) you can plug directly into the PA (provided there is a free channel) and get the amp fixed later. If the footboard dies, you can go off the amp straight and use the onboard effects (useful to get a modeling amp here…like Line6)

One thing that threw me with my Line6 amp until I figured it out – my power cord is a plug-in type on the amp end. I forget that and when I move the amp around it sometimes comes loose and then -ack! – I have no power! Nothing comes on! Lesson here: when you set up, double check all connections so there’s no surprises on stage.

Interesting Crowds

Here’s where the stories get a bit more….colorful.

Story #1: A long time ago we were playing on a slightly raised stage (about 2 steps) and I had my heavy Les Paul Custom on my shoulder when this guy comes over to me and motions me to come closer so he can talk to me. I bent over – and this guy grabs me by the neck and pulls me closer to him so I can hear his request. I’m nearly falling off the stage at this point (a thigh-high railing kept me on) but this apparently inebriated person didn’t notice. When I finally got away from him, I told our bassist (who called the tunes) and he ignored the request until the guy came over to me a second time. “Frank, call that tune and get this guy off my back!”, I growled and we finally played his tune.

it gets better…

Story #2: We were playing a private home on a large lot of land down in Morgan Hill, CA. I was filling in with this band and they had equpment and lights.

Well, these good ol’ boys were drinkng when we got there and while setting up, there were some hostile looks cast our way (not sure why other than their happy, elated state). It got dark and it got cold. The people throwing the party wouldn’t let us use their restroom to change clothes either.

So we got our stuff plugged in, used our lights after dark and played I guess 2 sets. That was our arrangement and then another band was coming on. They wanted to use our lights, we wanted to leave. Even though they were asking a favor, they gave us attitude: “Hey, man, can you dig playing without lights?” We got all the sound equipment loaded onto the trucks and waited until the last minute to pull the plug on the lights. By then, all the band members were on alert that we were taking off fast.

Sure enough, when the plug was pulled on the lights, there was some confusion at the party. People wanted to know what was going on. We jumped into our vehicles, and took off down the road. I don’t even know if we got paid for this gig.

Last Story…

I was in another band that was quite Top 40’ish and less rock (although when we did do rock tunes, that was my forte). We got a gig at Fort Ord near Monterey, CA (which was closed under the Clinton years).

I’ve played military bases before, but I don’t know what they were thinking when they booked us. This was not a coed crowd – it was all enlisted men, no one to dance with, so it was purely entertainment. And they didn’t want to dance (obviously) – they wanted to ROCK. And they weren’t shy about expressing themselves. In essence, we were boo’d off the stage and trying to make a go of eeking out a single set of our more rocker tunes. They wanted Van Halen and we were doing Men At Work. Lesson here: know who your audience is and what they want!

I believe our contract was honored and we got paid, but we couldn’t wait to get out of there!

Note that these are only a few “bad” stories while most nights are much less exciting – thankfully!!

This week I’m going to Utah with my girlfriend to attend the Sundance Film Festival. I hope to have a story or two when I get back!

Spencer

Do You Really Want To Make Money Playing Guitar?

Happy 2010 folks,
Band update: our lineup is complete!! Our new bassist is fitting in nicely and things are tightening up in practice.
One of the undercurrents that has been unfolding the past two months is a certain amount of resistance to the material we have taken up. This happens in most bands at some point. You start or join a band thinking you’ll be playing the stuff you really enjoy, and end up playing a song like “Celebration” from way back in the 1980’s.
What’s up with that?
A band has two main directions it can go in:
1) Original – You can forge your own path just like the Police, Green Day, Van Halen, and everybody else on your iPod by playing all original compositions
or
2) Covers – You can play for money by entertaining crowds with dance music.
Neither path is really easy to do. Both require money up front for equipment and promotion, although going all original requires more. Books have been written on both of these subjects so my discussion about these topics won’t be exhaustive, but I’ll cover the main points.
All Original – This is the path my oldest son Ryan wants to pursue. He’s a drummer and really doesn’t want to play other people’s music (called “covers”). In fact, one of his good friends is already in a band :
http://www.myspace.com/ringsofsaturn7
These guys have a CD they are recording, an artist designing their logo, and an ad for a rhythm guitarists who’s first requirement is a driver’s license. 🙂
To be original, they have to be different in some way. They need songs that are memorable in whatever genre they are writing in. Like Rings of Saturn, they need a graphic design artist to come with something new and eye-catching for their logo. And they need a CD – badly. That’s studio time, hopefully with a good producer and engineer so the quality come out acceptable.
The money will be scarce at first. In fact, in this “death metal” genre Ryan likes so much, his first concert I drove him to had 13 bands playing and the tickets were $25 in a venue in San Francisco that held maybe 1,000 people. That’s not a lot of money rolling in. Plus, they had an aggressive schedule – their next night was in Portland, OR. I told Ryan they probably rode in the bus all night. “Can’t they take a plane?” he asked. Not on that kind of money.
Of course, with greater risk can come greater reward and if your band does become the next Metalica and then you can make demands (called “riders”) in your contracts that there are no brown m&m’s backstage (yes, Van Halen did that just to see if anyone was paying attention).
Cover Band: This is the route most musicians take, including myself. One can make a lot of money here if they are smart about it, but like any monetary venture, there are things to look out for.
Your expenses are going to be similar but on a smaller scale than the Original band. You are going to need equipment – PA system, maybe lights, but not a huge one. You don’t need a CD of full length songs, but a demo CD that does a medley of 5 or 6 of your songs. And a website. Many bands begin with MySpace but add a decent hosted web site later on like Touch of Class:
http://www.tocband.net/core/index.php.
My friend Kevin plays trumpet in this band and when I saw them play at ShBooms! in San Ramon, they keep the crowd on their feet all night. Their web site offers video clips of them playing, a song list, and photos. For that you’ll need to pay for the domain and the web site and most likely will end up hiring a web developer to make your site stand out.
Both the cover band and the all original band need attention to play out, but the target venues are different. Cover bands want to play (at least) clubs and for more money, corporate parties and weddings. Original bands will want to play select clubs that cater to original music in that genre you’re in, which is a much narrower selection.
Material selection – this is where many bands break up or lose members. Most musicians have an idea of what kind of music they want to play. Even though they may be in a cover band, they don’t want to “sell out” and play disco. They want to stay true to their roots (whatever those roots are).
However, if your goal is to make money and get out of clubs (clubs pay the least), you need to understand you have a target audience. Your job is to entertain and get them to dance. If you’re playing a club, the club owner wants as many thirsty customers as possible in there. The X company wants great dance music at their Christmas party. And the bride at her reception wants to celebrate her new union with her groom. This is where you drop songs like “Smoke on the Water” that nobody can dance to and start playing “Celebration”.
A fantastic reference for the budding working musician (for any kind of musician, drummer to vocalist) is Cover Band 101 by Stefan Greene. The author talks a lot about material choices before he gets into web sites, demo CD’s, demo DVD’s, and gear. If you’re serious about making money, get this book. And I think even if you’re serious about an all original band here, there’s enough information about promotion that some of it carries over for any kind of band you’re in.
Sometimes my students are surprised by the material I play. I guess you could call it “shocked disgust” lol. But I try to find a way to have fun with it. Every band member needs to project that they are into the music they are playing. Few things are worse than a band with a bad attitude. You’re having fun, they’re having fun. They go home having paid $50 between cover charge and drinks, you go home with $100 in your pocket (or more if it’s not a club).
What’s that bumper sticker? Oh yeah “The worst day fishing is better than the best day working”. To make money playing your beloved instrument in front of an appreciate crowd is a wonderful feeling and sometimes beats the steady, but sometimes less satisfying path of a regular job. Or you can be like me and do both. (Sleep optional!)
Then there are those gigs where everything goes wrong. That will be the subject of the next blog. 🙂
Rock on,
Spencer

Birth of a Band

Hey folks –

Ok, while that title sounds dramatic, it IS a lot of work to put a band together from scratch, carve out a distinct look and sound and persona and start working.

The name was picked: The Black Pearls. There’s another “band” (more like a duet) in the UK with that name. While you can get sued using the same name, it’s not likely. But I do know of a band locally here that got sued from a band in New Zealand and had to change their name. Interestingly, their new name was better anyway. So I’m not worried.

The next order of business was finding a bassist. We had one for a short bit, but he dropped out due to personal reasons. We auditioned a guy who was from the Berklee (yes, that’s spelled correctly) school of music in Boston. Steve Vai went there. I wanted to go there but couldn’t afford it. It’s a “wow” thing to have on your musical resume for sure.

So this guy played great and sang well. But the original guy who dropped out freed up and wanted to give it another whirl. With better vocals and a stronger sense of commitment, we went with Rikk.

Okay so now we’re complete, the gigs just start rolling in, right? Noooooo. Rikk sings so there are adjustments to be made. Songs he can pull off need to be added. Background vocals might need to be rearranged. There is an adjustment period that will go on for a few weeks while we still try to nail down a repertoire of songs that 1) People like, 2) we can do well. Each song on our list needs to fill both criteria so we need to constantly be assessing ourselves.

Bill, our keyboardist, doled out some of his own money to buy some digital recorders so we can have that feedback from our practices. We can hear if our background vocals are awful (and on one song they were!) or if the ending isn’t tight, or whatever. It’s a snapshot in time that shows you what an audience will hear and every artist flinches at hearing themselves. Robert DiNero doesn’t watch his own movies. I can understand this. While most people are thinking he nailed it, he’s seeing everything he’s doing wrong.

Next blog will be about gigs. The job market out there is tough – how’s a band to make a living?

Keep practicing

Spencer

Band with No Name

Hey folks –

Yes, it’s been too long since I’ve blogged. With back to school, back to soccer, a new team at work, and a few speed bumps here and there, I haven’t had the chance to blog much….but I’ll bring you up to date.

I’ve started a band with a freind of mine who used to take lessons from me. She’s a singer and a song writer, and she’s much better at networking than I am. In no time, we got a keyboard player. In fact, we only auditioned one and Bill got the job.

The drummer also was a pretty good choice. Andrew teaches full time and decided it was time to play out again. Since the bass and drums drive and steer the band, Andrew wasn’t sure he would stay with us if we couldn’t get a bassist to compliment his playing.

So we auditioned. And auditioned. And auditioned. Those darn bass players! I guess that’s why my youngest son plays that instrument – they’re a different breed of cat. The first guy canceled on us because his baseball team went into over time, plus he thought the songs were too hard.

(For the record, we auditioned with Cold Shot by Stevie Ray Vaughn, Breakdown by Tom Petty and Black Friday by Steely Dan…so yeah, if you’re just a metal player, this probably is going to be curve ball for you…)

The second guy wanted to ditch bass and become a front man / lead singer. Hey, just stick to the advertisement description please!

Third guy was closer, but didn’t sing.

The fourth guy played well, sang well, but didn’t want to be part of a start up (he was already gigging with another band).

The fifth guy was actually a good fit all the way around. Our drummer liked him, he sang well, and came prepared.

So we just put together like 50 songs and go find a job, right? Hmmm….there’s a bit more to it than that.

When you’re building a band, you’re building a business. I used to hate the thought of music being a “business” but one MBA degree later, I understand that to be completely true.

So we have our line up, what’s next while we’re figuring out our set list?

We needed a name. The name allows us to grab a free MySpace Band page. It helps focus us on what the band picture should look like. And……it will help generate buzz.

I decided that we had ONE WEEK to pick a band name and move forward. Sometimes when everybody is easy going (and our band is) we can churn a bit too long on a decision. I did what I do with any engineer – give them a deadline. Next Sunday we pick a name – you don’t like it, speak up. So it’s part democracy, but with a referree – me in this case.

So, using google docs where we can all collaborate on the same spreadsheet at once, we all put forth our best ideas. I had some “great” names – like “the Agoraphobics”, “4 out of 5 Doctors”, and “Puppy Crack” (my girlfriend has a puppy and chewing shoes are like “crack” to them).

Well, needless to say, no one really liked my names. It had to do with image – it’s about branding. If we were a punk band, Puppy Crack might be appropriate. The Agoraphobics might be hard to spell or remember and many people don’t know what it means (fear of open spaces). “4 out of 5 Doctors” was still considered too much of a joke.

I’ll tell you what we settled on next blog….Stay Tuned!!

Spencer

A New Addition to the "Family"

Hey folks –

In my last post, I was talking about searching for a guitar. My search took me to trying Jacksons, ESP, other Ibanez’s, etc.
You need to remember that when you are looking for a guitar (or a car or a house or whatever) you are looking for YOU – first and foremost come your needs and how the thing feels in your hands. A million people can say it’s “great” but if it doesn’t feel right, don’t give into the bandwagon effect. Be your own person when it comes to this or you’ll have regrets.
I tried out a used Jackson at this other store in the SF east bay, CA. It was great. But as I alluded to in the last post with the other Jackson the action felt “heavy” to me. The guy offered to have it set up with .09’s instead of .10’s (in other words, lighter strings). I told him of my search for the elusive Ibanez S5470, which was the same priced as this used Jackson. He gave me the following incredible offer:
“Buy the Jackson, take it home, you have 30 days to return it. I’ll order the Ibanez. If you come in and like it, we swap. If the Ibanez comes in after the 30 days, we’ll extend the time limit”
WOW! What an offer! I mean, it blew me away. I took it. I bought the Jackson and off I went.
Now nothing comes perfect, so in the time I had it, there were pros and cons to the guitar. I have to say up front that looks don’t count too much. Sure, I love a beautiful guitar as much as the next guy but I’d take a lime green one if it sang to me.
The guitar took some effort on my part to play fast in the upper register with. This has been noted in other forums but the volume nob is right under your hand between the pickups (did anybody PLAY this design??). The tone of this instrument was really dark. Jazz would be no problem with this guitar, but it felt like it was too dark – I really had to crank the treble in the EQ to get a good metal sound or even blues. I was somewhat concerned what it would sound like in a live setting.
And I found the oddest thing – when I was playing in the upper register, my pick would hit the front pickup. Now I’ve done that on other guitars – if you look at my Les Paul it has gold plated (well not real gold!) pickups and the bottom corner of my neck pickup is beaten up. But that never bothered me. It bothered me on this guitar.
I thought I could adjust to all these things and probably would.
Then I got the call that the Ibanez was in. It took me a week to free up the time, but I finally got down there and checked it out. I figured it would be on the rack, but nope, they had it still in the box, waiting for me.
OK, the guitar is beautiful. I thought “wow” when I first saw it. We plugged it in with the ZR2 tremolo and it was just great. It has a much brighter tone than the Jackson, but I wanted a guitar I could play jazz on sometimes, and mostly rock on the other times. It’s sustain wasn’t as good as the Jackson’s, but good enough.
I took it. Here is a picture of it with the same paint job:
http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.guitarvillage.co.uk/admin/pages/upload/Ibanez/Ibanez_S5470TKS_m.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.guitarvillage.co.uk/product-detail.asp%3Fid%3D6293%26catid%3D3%26manid%3D48%26quantity%3D1%26product%3DIbanez%2BS5470-TKS%252C%2BTrans%2BBlack%2BSunburst%252C%2BNew%252C%2BInc.%2BCase&usg=__bJZor2s6eGZt-EmJh1IOk8bDtBo=&h=226&w=650&sz=24&hl=en&start=1&sig2=zKIVc2QDJVEThQXAyYpxNw&um=1&tbnid=SzfS0URcFMXIfM:&tbnh=48&tbnw=137&prev=/images%3Fq%3DIbanez%2BS5470%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26rls%3Den%26sa%3DX%26um%3D1&ei=hzuYSpakGIjEtAPyzpy-Ag
I look forward to playing out with the new addition to my family 🙂
Rock on
Spencer
PS – if anybody in the SF Bay area wants to know who I dealt with, I’d be happy to tell you. I believe in loyalty and would love to send more people to this guy.