Playing with other musicians for the first time, especially after noodling around solo for so long, has a lot in common with the process of culture shock. At first, there's a general wariness on the part of everyone involved, followed by a stretch of amusement and acclimation to musical quirks and customs, then acceptance, and finally (I often find) weariness and longing for familiar ground.
In other words, ad-hoc practice with a set of metal-heads didn't entirely end well. But it was illuminating.
Ultimately, experiencing other countries proves more of an education about your own, and that's certainly true musically. For example, my own context is rock- and blues-oriented, which means that I unconsciously base my playing and writing around the emphasis of certain beats in 4/4 time. I've gotten comfortable with that. But in a lot of harder metal and prog rock, primacy is given to the riff: a pattern of notes in a rhythm independent of the measure's basic beat, and which may even necessitate odd time signatures, like 5/4 or 9/8.
I don't know if this makes me a musical bigot, but I really hate odd time signatures. Four on the floor, baby.
But here's the other thing: when you come into contact with another musical culture, there are customs that end up being enforced. Just as intercultural communication, your role changes as you negotiate a common ground of understanding. And in my case, it ends up being constricted, which drives me crazy.
See, the job of the bass (or any instrument, really, but particularly bass) in rock music is circumscribed by the other band members. It exists in the space left over. If the guitarists insist on using distortion and heavy chords at all times, it cuts into the bass's ability to add effects or play in the upper register. Or, on the other hand, if the keyboard starts emphasizing left hand lines, now there's competition for the traditional bass role. You can try to fight for position, but I find that bass is at a disadvantage in these situations: it doesn't have the range of keys, or the volume of a cranked guitar rig (remember, higher frequencies require less energy to create at an equivalent loudness--and I hate volume wars anyway).
So the funny thing is, I got invited to jam because of my solo bass work, which crosses into a wide range of sonic territory, only to find myself relegated back to playing root notes on the clean preamp channel. Everything else got lost in the soup of distorted guitar crunch. I admit to being puzzled: this was not an unforeseeable outcome. So why invite me in the first place?
For my family, Christmas is a time to sit around and talk. For Belle's family, my impressions are that it's quite a bit noisier, and involves karaoke.
I'll be honest: I never really got the appeal of karaoke before. It always seemed silly to me. To a musician, the idea of performing with a pre-taped backing track is vaguely akin to cheating--not to mention not nearly as much fun as playing the songs for real.
But on Tuesday, I had a kind of an epiphany while watching people sing along with the cheesy MIDI versions of "Desperado" and a long set of Filipino pop songs. There's a kind of feeling that comes from being in a band and playing music with other people--performers share energy through the act of coordinating rhythm and melody. It's a communal experience. Karaoke is a way for people who think that they're not good at music to get that same feeling.
It reminds me of a passage from Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music:
Jim Ferguson, whom I have known since high school, is now a professor of anthropology. Jim is one of the funniest and most fiercely intelligent people I know, but he is shy - I don't know how he manages to teach his lecture courses. For his doctoral degree at Harvard, he performed field work in Lesotho, a small nation completely surrounded by South Africa. There, studying and interacting with a local villagers, Jim patiently earned their trust until one day he was asked to join in one of their songs. So, typically, when asked to sing with these Sotho villagers, Jim said in a soft voice, "I don't sing," and it was true: we had been in high school band together and although he was an excellent oboe player, he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. The villagers found his objection puzzling and inexplicable. The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women, not an activity for a special few.
Our culture and indeed our very language makes a distinction between a class of expert performers - the Arthur Rubensteins, Ella Fitzgeralds, Paul McCartneys - and the rest of us. The rest of us pay money to hear the experts entertain us. Jim knew that he wasn't much of a singer or dancer, and to him, a public display of singing and dancing implied he thought himself an expert. The villagers just stared at Jim and said, "What do you mean you don't sing?! You talk!" Jim told me later, "it was as odd to them as if I told them that I couldn't walk or dance, even though I have both my legs." Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody's lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone. The Sesotho verb for singing ( ho bina ), as in many of the world's languages, also means to dance; there is no distinction since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.
That's the value of karaoke, and of Guitar Hero and Rock Band: they break down the barriers between "musicians" and "the rest of us," and allow people who don't think of themselves as musical (due to a deficiency in our cultural attitudes) to get in on the fun. For these purposes, the technical proficiency of the performance is less important than the community feeling it fosters. Criticising them for not being "real music" is beside the point.
Great moments in band ad responses from Craigslist:
Have you seen this ridiculously pretentious article from the Washington Post Magazine? The writer got an award-winning classical violinist to play in a downtown Metro station here in DC, then put a camera on it to see how many people stopped to listen. Not surprisingly, no-one did, a fact that the author milks for all kinds of "why has beauty died?" angst.
It's possible to respond to this rationally: to mention, for example, that the people walking through L'Enfant Plaza station are probably going to work at the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the Department of Energy, or any of other government agencies located nearby, and if they're late they could be fired. They don't necessarily have time to listen to music, no matter how good it is. That would even be true if they're riding an efficient, reliable underground system, which (as any visitor to the city can attest) the DC metro is emphatically not.
You could also point out, to the author's snotty suggestion that every child stopped while every parent urged their wayward offspring on, that children also enjoy stopping to talk to crazy homeless people and eat candy that they find on the ground. Children are not flawless barometers of musical enchantment. When I was a kid I listened to Wee Sing and watched Ernest movies, but I don't see anyone suggesting that we should install the corpse of Jim Varney with a recording of folk songs in Metro stations. Kids in that part of town mean that the parents have to drop them off at daycare before work, which no doubt makes the family schedule less flexible.
Don't forget to take note of the "high culture" snobbishness of the article. How dare those lowlife office workers not recognize the genius of this world-class violinist, playing the greatest music ever made? Except of course that beyond a certain level of competency, hardly anyone ever notices the subtleties of musicianship. Most people are not musicians. They don't care that someone added a fine semi-tone quaver to a phrase, or that you did something tricky in the dorian mode there (good job, by the way!). Even many music buffs do not really notice the intricacies of a given tone or instrument. Especially, I want to stress, in a Metro station.
And is this the greatest music ever made? That's a little Eurocentric, isn't it? Why didn't the Post put a great tabla--or gamelan, or mbira--player into the Metro station? Perhaps because that music would be something a little more out of the ordinary. People might have actually stopped for that--still not many, during a morning rush hour, but a few. And then no-one gets to write a condescending article about it.
But I think the best response to the article that I've seen is from composer Richard Einhorn, a.k.a. Tristero at Hullaballoo. He writes that we should do this more often:
Exactly. And perhaps more importantly, let's stop putting those great musicians on pedestals in expensive auditoriums, where only the rich can pay to see them, and the price tag grants them a gleam of exclusivity far in advance of their talents. I'm not denigrating great musicians. I'm not saying that Joshua Bell's playing isn't a thing of great value. But instead, consider how terrible it is that most people will never really listen to this kind of music because it is presented poorly and to only a privileged few--or moreover, how discouraging it is for most people that good musicians are seen as untouchable (and unattainable) for the common man.
"He's got to learn the names of chords, instead of just playing them at me and assuming that I'll be able to figure it out," I say at the IHOP.
"Yeah, but you always manage it. That's why he keeps doing it," says Belle.
It's been almost six months since I darkened the concrete stoop of Stacy's Coffee Shop for their open mike, and the event has evolved somewhat since then. An older man named John is running the show now, and he's a bit more organized, I guess. The old system was pretty much hit-or-miss, orchestrated through shouting back and forth with the barista. But in turn, most of the people that I used to see there are gone now--including almost all of the younger musicians. Have they been driven off? Did they go back to school? Like me, has work pulled them away? I don't know enough to say.
I end up on stage three times--once early on to waste some time, once with the white-boy bluesman who asked me to come (the same one I cut some basslines for a couple weeks ago), and last when the keyboardist finally shows up. There's an old joke: why was the keyboard player onstage with three bands in one night? Because it took the first two for him to set up! I am not sure that it's a joke anymore.
How does an open mike survive? It strikes me that they're like any organization. Some of them are strongarmed along by the charismatic and the insane, and without that person they fall apart. Others might be communal affairs, created and maintained by a fluid group. In both cases, the makeup changes, either through subtle selection ("This isn't really my kind of crowd") or the interpersonal equivalent of genetic drift. If I ever go back to school for a higher Communication degree, there's a paper in this.
This weekend, I went over to record some bass tracks for a friend I met at the Stacy's open mike. He's a good kid, a singer/songwriter type who mostly plays white-boy blues. We tracked something like 12 songs in 3 hours, which is screaming--but since all he was usually asking for was root-5 lines, it was pretty easy work.
Really, it couldn't be more different from what I'm doing now, something that became clear when I played a couple of my sketchpads for him. Whereas all of my stuff is spare loops layered with distortion, he was looking for that acoustic folk vibe--to the point of asking me if I could sound like an upright. But while it's not the same sound, it's nice to know that I can still play a traditional rock bass role when I need to. Sometimes I miss the idea of being in a full band. And then I remember the hassle of practice, paying for equipment, searching for gigs, and having to play second fiddle to a guitarist again, and I feel pretty good about what I've chosen to do.
In other solo bassist news, one of my acquaintances from the Lowdown, Steve Lawson, has a new gig. He's still playing his looping bass, but now he's doing it with a jazz vocalist and covering everything from Slipknot to the Cure. They're calling themselves "The New Standard." It's interesting stuff, and very different from the way I loop. You can check it out here.
That's it! Thank you, you've been a wonderful audience! Good night!
Roars of applause, whistles, chanting, and much stomping of feet. Some time passes.
UPDATE: Thank you! Gosh, okay! Thank you! A few more paragraphs...
This is a post about encores.
I was watching my Clatter DVD last night, because I like to steal techniques from Amy, and something caught my attention. At the end of the show, Amy and Joe waved goodnight and walked off stage, with one song unplayed on their album. Sure enough, when the audience went nuts, they came back out and played "Left Out" for everyone. This was a pre-arranged show expressly for the purpose of taping the DVD--fans came from all over to support them. If you've bought the Clatter DVD at this point, you're probably already a fan, if you don't know them personally since they're such friendly people. Why the charade?
I don't know how long it's been the convention to have a mandatory encore song or three after the show ends, but I wish it would go away. For one thing, I don't want to put up with 10 minutes of loud clapping, yelling, and whistling from every moron in the audience just so the music can continue. It's also a little insulting, frankly: we all know that the band's going to come out and play some more. Why wrap it up into a ritual of hero-worship and hormonal over-enthusiasm? Why do we have to beg for it?
I mean, we're all at least trying to be adults, right? Is it too much to ask that someone plays some music, finishes a satisfying show, and then we all go home without the obligatory pretend walkoff?
It'll be a dark day for us all if I ever reach the level of musical fame required, but I promise now: should that time come, when I leave the stage, I'm not coming back.
"Good job with that Black Keys song," says the impressively inoffensive young man who preceded me. (It's important to understand, at this point, that the eight songs before I got up to play had been acoustic numbers. And not just any acoustic, because it's not like that's a rarity at open mikes, but songs that were guaranteed to leave your pulse at a comfortable resting rate without alteration or acceleration. If there is a beneficent deity, may he save us from acoustic singer-songwriters. After that, I could have played a heavily distorted Mary Had A Little Lamb and still rocked the joint. But that's an entirely different parenthetical discussion.)
"Thanks," I say. "It's a good song."
"I've seen you do it before," he says. "At Iota a couple months ago." Which stuns me. I didn't think anyone was watching me at Iota--there weren't that many people there, and I thought I bombed completely. I say as much now.
"Well," he replies, "you're the guy with the bass guitar and the looper. You kind of stand out, you know?"
Oh. Right. Good point.
Let's call him Bentley, names changed to protect and all that. Every week, he's at the coffeehouse open mike playing originals on an old, slightly out-of-tune acoustic. Bentley's about sixty, maybe as young as fifty, but it's hard to tell. His white hair is cut close, with a carefully trimmed beard. When he plays, his hands and his voice both shake. He never smiles. Instead he stares straight ahead and sings in a voice that is thin and urgent. Some people have a stage presence, but Bentley doesn't, and you feel uncomfortable with him while he performs.
Bentley's dad comes with him each week, in a polo shirt, white tennis shoes and a grey meshback cap. He is every little old man I've ever seen, and where Bentley always seems like a bitter ball of shame his dad has a blast. When I finish my three songs and sit down, he taps me on the leg and says: "You done good. That's what the sergeant use to say. That was the highest praise that sergeant ever had to give you. You done good."
Bentley doesn't know what to play for his third song. His dad rasps out: "Play 'Doo-wah-diddy'" and then cackles to himself. "It's my favorite song," he confides to us. Bentley looks at the back wall and begins the song. He sings:
"Pickin' and a-hittin'/I'm playin' my guitar/Hopin' and a-dreamin'/that one day I'll be a star."
When he repeats this at the end of the song, Bentley's father (who has been singing along during the chorus) calls out, "You are a star, Bentley!" with a total lack of self-consciousness. His son does not react.
Could there be anything more horrifying than yours truly, earnestly tempting to gyrate his way through a salsa dance class? I submit to you that there is not. The Nerdlet may do her best to tell you that it was endearing, perhaps adorable. But make no mistake--there's a reason this white boy is usually found playing funky music instead of dancing to it.
I had a fun time, much to my surprise. The instructor at the Clarendon Grill was funny and good at disarming the crowd. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, even at their most awkward. The only real problem I had was the same problem that I have with all dance classes: there's a bit of a jump from the basic step (which even the least coordinated caperer can learn) and the more advanced spins and swings. I managed to competently massacre these slightly-better-than-basic moves during the class part of the evening, but when it came time to actually make use of them on the dance floor I drew a complete and utter blank. I'm sure the resulting cognitive chaos bore some resemblance to a thorazine-addled octopus.
Although I am no expert, I will say this right off: for a rock musician, latin-based dance is a very odd beast. The dance takes place on an 8-count, kind of an 8/4 time, I guess. This gives enough time for moves by the male and female in turn. What complicates matters, for me, is that almost everything takes place on the 1-2-3 or the 5-6-7, with a rest on the 4 and the 8. I'm a 1 and 3 kinda guy, myself, although I certainly know the value of a 2 and 4. 1 and 5 as the initial steps in your crazy triplet structure? That's a sure solution for a confused rock bassist, particularly since the actual bass of the songs is much more straightforward. How do you play a rhythm instrument like that when the dancers are marching to a different drummer?
I want to try playing and writing some latin-influenced music, after last night. Let's put it this way: I'm kinda eyeing Salsa across the room, she seems cute enough. But I've been seeing Rock for a while now, and although we've got a pretty open relationship I just don't know if I can adapt to someone new. Besides, Rock's older sister (the Blues) would kill me if she found out.