Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pssst . . . Over here.

As you can probably tell from the information that has been revealed in this blog, I have logged some time in the world of rock 'n' roll over the past nine months.  Countless hours have been spent in the inter-galacticaly renowned Sonic Goat, additional hours stoking the creative fires of song-writing, an unquantifiable amount of time watching the experts on stage at First Ave., and at least a good 45 maybe 50 minutes trying to master the art of the electric guitar.  (Do not get distracted by this revelation.  I will elaborate in another post as necessary.)  In doing all of the above, I have been allowed into, or perhaps obtained unauthorized entry into, the inner sanctum of rock and have learned or otherwise absconded with the secrets only insiders know.  These are the super top secret, juicy tid-bits that the likes of Dylan, Hendrix, Plant and Gaga have gone to great lengths to keep under wraps.  But, well, because we've gotten to know each other and you look like a nice sort of person who can be trusted, I'll let you in on a few things -- but you didn't hear them from me.

First, a few tips for singers and songwriters:

1.  It is better to avoid using the word "pharmacy" when at all possible while writing rock 'n' roll lyrics.   Unfortunately for me, I came across this sage piece of advice the hard way.  Indeed, I committed the classic rookie mistake of incorporating the word "pharmacy" into a set of lyrics.  As a result, I can now explain first-hand the reasoning and collective wisdom behind this rule of rock.  First and most obviously, if you are using a song structure  that involves rhyming, you've just set yourself up for a doozy of a task.  True, there are options, such as "occupancy" or "frequency" or maybe even "narcolepsy," but really, it's a tight corner to get out of.  Thankfully, I avoided that hazard as I installed "pharmacy" in the odd line that wasn't rhyming.  But still, it doesn't exactly roll of the tongue when one is singing.  Also (and here's where the true inside information comes in) it is likely to produce an overwhelming urge to want to sing an alliterative "fucking" right in front of "pharmacy."  This is especially likely to occur once you have realized that you've committed this cardinal sin and are nevertheless trying to salvage the song.  As you might guess, this in turn makes it tough for the band to get through the song or to ever really hear it without a phantom "fucking" running through everyone's heads.  So, just remember, when you hit that point where you are tempted to write a song and you hear the siren call of "pharmacy" pulling you towards the rocky shore, just plug your ears and row hard the other way.  You'll be glad you did.

2.  It's incredibly easy to write a rock song.  Again, those on the outside might think that songwriting is difficult and only for those who can channel some spirit world of lyrical advisers who will spin out yarns of mystical intrigue, obscure literary references, elaborate metaphors and maybe even some of those things mixed together in a rhyme scheme (all while avoiding, of course, the previously referenced temptation to interject "pharmacy").  Or maybe you think songwriting is reserved for people from Liverpool who can incorporate "ob-la-di, ob-la-da" into a kick-ass song without anyone really noticing. (Not to mention such topics as meter maids, savoy truffles, vengeful raccoons and walruses whose identity is at issue.)  But that is so not true.  As has been demonstrated in a previous post in this very blog, bad songwriting is incredibly easy.  Van Halen did it with "Jump" and "Panama."  Starship (previously Jefferson Starship, previously Jefferson Airplane -- clearly they were so distracted by naming their band they didn't leave enough time for lyrics) did it with "We Built this City," and Aerosmith most definitely knocked it out in under five minutes with "Dude Looks Like a Lady."  And that's before I've even plumbed the depths of bands whose entire catalog seems to have taken advantage of this trade secret.  Bands like ABBA, Hall and Oates, and Foreigner.  So, you see, you too should feel free to give it your best shot.  Don't give up.  Keep on fighting.  Don't stop believin'.  You can make it if you try.  Might as well jump.  Go ahead, jump.

3.  If you close your eyes when you sing, watch out for the mic.   Gaga warned me about this last summer during her stop-over in the Twin Cities, but I just didn't listen.  It's not the kind of hazard you would think about because so many in rock make it seem so effortless, but the dark reality is that if you close your eyes when you sing and move at all, it's quite possible that you will find your teeth hitting the microphone, and, well, it just doesn't make for a great sound or really polish your rock 'n' roll image when that happens.   All the intensity and focus pretty much evaporates instantly when you taste the metal and get that weird sensation in your teeth.  I really don't recommend it.  (I'm pretty sure there is a divot in one of Jim's mic's from this very phenomenon, but let's just keep that between us.  I'm not sure how much of that he saw at the time.)

 Now, a few tips for the Jimmy Page wanna-bes in the audience.

1.  There are things designed to keep your guitar strap from coming off at inopportune moments.  You should get them. 

2.  Keep your guitar pick where you can find it.  Even if you are not the lead guitar player in your band -- in fact, even if you don't actually really know how to play the guitar at all, except for one section in one song where your band mates have taught you a pattern you can play using only the 5th and 6th strings -- you should keep your pick someplace accessible.  In the world of rock 'n' roll, the back pocket of your jeans is not as accessible as you might think.  While it is a perfectly good place for wallets, cell phones, condoms and gum, it's not nearly as accessible as you assumed it would be when you have four counts to find your pick and start playing.  I've heard they make devices that attach to the microphone designed just to meet this need for accessibility.  I recommend looking into those.  You're welcome.

3.  Size matters.  I'm not talking about the guitar or any physical attributes of the guitar player.  I'm talking about the cord.  The one that you will plug into your guitar on one end and, with any luck, an amplifier on the other end if your intention is for people to hear your instrument.  While the length of the cord, as far as I can tell, has no impact on the sound produced, it has everything to do with street cred.  See, if you show-up with a 7ft cord, you're pretty much telling the world that you don't really rock hard or even at all, because if you did you would need a much longer cord to accommodate your floor slides, lean-outs to the crowd at the far ends of the stage and your show-stopping stage dives.  If you're lucky like me, though, your band mates will point this out for you during practice before it could ever possibly matter.

Given the risks I'm taking by disclosing all of this inside information, I think I'm going to stop there for now.  But if you demonstrate that my trust in you was well founded, as I know you will, I might be willing to share some more tips with you down the road.  Because despite my rock 'n' roll identity, deep down inside,  I'm really just like you, stickin' it to the Man whenever I can, even though, in this case, that Man is the anti-establishment rock establishment, you know?  Right on.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Would You Like Cheese Stix With That?"

Here's a thing I didn't know before: starting a band is a lot like other things, especially those other things that don't go like you thought they would.   If you're me, the phenomenon of surprise at the difference between what you thought was going to happen and what actually happens is a frequent one.  It happens when the children resume consciousness each morning and every evening when I return home from work.  It also happens when I order pizza.  I'm sure you can relate.

You start out thinking it should be a relatively straight-forward deal.  You know what you want and understand, more or less, how the process works.  But then you call the pizza place and they hit you with their specials:  "Would you like two medium pizzas with two toppings tonight for $12.99?"  No, thank you.  I'll just have a large pizza, half pepperoni, half black olives.  "Any ice-cold Coca Cola products to go with that?" No, thank you.  "How about our famous chicken wings?"  No, thank you.  "O.k.  Would you like any cheese stix with your order tonight?"  And there it is.  The Cheese Stix.  It causes that momentary hesitation every time, in which I have to ask myself, "would I like any cheese stix with my order tonight?"  And sometimes it turns out the answer is yes, I would like some cheese stix and while you're at it, we'll take one of those dessert things you've got as well.  And, wait, can you go back?  What were the other choices again?

Now imagine standing in front of a mirror, naked (not me, you, in front of a mirror, naked) with a dude on a computer sitting next to you.  This is the cheese stix of starting a band, only, well, it gets a bit complicated because you didn't order the cheese stix in this scenario, it just somehow got added to your order by one of your band mates when you weren't paying attention.  So, while you thought you were just ordering the pepperoni pizza of rock 'n' roll, it turns out you still got taken by the bastards in marketing for a whole lot more.

Let me sort this out a bit.  First, the nakedness.  Being in a band is very much like being naked.  You have to try things out and, inevitably, as has been previously documented, fuck them up right in front of other people.  This is a regular part of being in a band -- fucking-up.  Well, at least in our band.  In fact, there is usually way more fucking-up than really anything else, except for drinking beer and avoiding other responsibilities.  (That part I do remember ordering.)  And, if you're me, there are always new and exciting ways to get it wrong.  You can remember the lyrics you were forgetting last time, and forget a new set that you've never forgotten before.  Or, you can forget the lyrics you, yourself wrote or you can create timing issues where there have never, ever been any before.  You can cough, be out of tune, make a face that causes someone else to make a mistake . . .  The possibilities are endless.

Then, after a while, just when you think you might be getting used to being naked, along come The Cheese Stix -- the part you don't remember ordering, but your band mate (let's call him "Jim") claims was definitely ordered and in any event, here they are so they might as well not go to waste.  In case my metaphor isn't working for you (though I can't imagine how that would be the case) I'm talking about the process of recording and producing a song, which as everyone knows, is the Cheese Stix of midlife rock 'n' roll efforts.

Perhaps if I come at it differently.  In mathematical terms, it looks like this:

Cheese Stix = sneakily or unexpectedly added item


Recording and producing a song = sneakily or unexpectedly added item


Recording and producing a song = being naked, in front of a mirror with a dude on a computer sitting next to you (who, of course, is not naked)


Cheese Stix =  being naked, in front of a mirror with a dude on a computer sitting next to you (who, of course, is not naked)

Except for the fact that you have your clothes on and there is no mirror, that is exactly what it is like to record and produce a song.  I now know this from personal experience, though I never expected that I would.

It works like this: you are informed that songs will be recorded and you are provided with a time slot at The Sonic Goat.  If you're Andy, this means you show-up at a time when I'm not there and record different guitar tracks.  If you're me, this means you show-up at a time when Andy isn't there, but after he has been there, and record vocal tracks over the guitar tracks.  This involves many unpleasant parts.  First, there is the wearing of headphones so that the guitar tracks can be heard.  This was my "We Are The World" moment when, for the life of me, all I could think about was headphone-wearing 80s pop-stars taking turns at the mic (and check the action between Kenny Rogers and Paul Simon.  I think Kenny didn't see Paul down there):

Then, there is the singing while wearing headphones and listening to the guitar tracks.  The best thing about this part is that you are the only one doing anything live, meaning that you are the only one who can possibly fuck-up and when you do you will have the spotlight all to yourself. 

After that, you get to listen to your vocal track -- all, by, itself.  Yep.  No other sounds.  Just the unvarnished tones of your voice.  To enhance the joy of this experience, you get to listen to your voice over and over again after each take.   Finally, if you are really lucky, you will get to listen to two vocal tracks simultaneously to determine the precise points of difference between them so that you can pick the best one ("best" being an extremely relative term, of course.)

Have I mentioned that I don't really like cheese stix all that much and that the naked-in-front-of-a-mirror analogy was meant to convey the unpleasantness of having to confront un-edited reality?  Just checking.

Still, once the cheese stix have been ordered and delivered, there is really nothing else to do with them but eat them.  So, we did.  When we were done, we ended-up with the following, more-or-less final version of "Sun," the haunting original tune you will no doubt remember from the previous post:

So, now we know two things: (1) judgment day has arrived, and (2) be careful when ordering pizza.