Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why Being In A Band Is Hard (From Someone Who's Done It)

Oh look, another overly-ambitious kid sporting a few guitar licks and some lyrics sprawled on a napkin. He can't sing for shit, but he can play the intro to Iron Man! All he needs is some kind of amp and a distortion pedal (all cranked to eleven of course...) and he's ready to hit the stage and record albums and make some money.

Are we rich yet?
Well, except it doesn't work that way. I should know; I was one of those kids.

I see it all the time in my local music shop... the kid who thinks he can play guitar but really he might as well be bashing the fucking thing with a hammer. And of course he's got the BIGGEST Marshall amp the store has cranked all the way up so everybody can appreciate what a thousand dying cats sound like. I see it every time I'm there, and it's always the same thing. The perpetrators often buy the guitars they wail on, and that's the last time you see them.

I once offered a kid there if he wanted to learn how to play some Metallica, because he kept playing what sounded like the intro to Master of Puppets, but I could have mistaken it for punching the guitar repeatedly. All I know is, it hurt my ears so bad that I was almost ready to start talking in sign language and making appointments to get a Cochlear implant installed in my brain.

I'm not claiming to be a master guitarist or anything, but there should be a fucking rule to all these music shops: if you can't play, you can't play.

But it's easy to pick up something as magical as a guitar and suddenly start asking random people to make music with you, even when you haven't the slightest idea how to play. The ambition that comes from learning the first progression of a favorite song is pretty empowering. I know the feeling pretty well. The first riff I ever learned was Metallica's "Seek and Destroy", and after that, I was already picturing myself on top of the world.

Something like this.
Eventually, I learned some more songs from Metallica, and it was shortly after I found out my cousin had started playing drums, and wanted to start a band. I was all in. This is how I learned everything about it. It isn't easy by any means, but it shouldn't discourage anyone who really has a will to pursue a career in this mumbo jumbo. I only come here to speak about what exactly is hard about being a prominent role in a band.

When we started our band, me and my cousin Nate had no prior experience. Sure we listened to a lot of the same music, but we never hung out and listened to it. He was into Pantera, more groove-themed heavy metal bands, Killswitch Engage, among others. He was mainly hard rock, rap, and metal. I grew up on so many genres thanks to my brother, and it's a wonderful thing.

A lot of people think that when you start a band, you need to have one sound, one universal influence. What they don't understand is that having appreciation or, hell, even liking other genres can vastly improve how fast you learn music and how far you can stretch your creativity. Trust me, when you've written fifteen or so songs and you start to get writer's block, you will start thinking of other approaches.

Recently, my cousin suggested we did a rap/rock type of song, and you know what? It was a fucking fantastic idea. You can only write so much about anger and pain before it becomes monotonous. I was seriously thinking of quitting because I couldn't write a decent riff and lyrics for months. Nate would suggest something, and it wouldn't have the same impact on me. I didn't like the rhythm of it, or it was too simple, or it didn't sound like I was knocking over the Great Wall of China with one kick. It wasn't epic. Nate would just shrug, and forget it, although I knew he wasn't happy. It's at that point you get desperate and start suggesting to cover songs.

We are now a Ludacris cover band. Grab your gold chains biotch.

We started as a four piece band, and eventually dwindled down to just us two. It takes commitment on a serious level to become even an ounce successful. That doesn't mean just getting together on Fridays to record a song in three hours time, and mix it in less than that. It's not that simple. Recording is a hefty process, and requires a lot of patience and trial and error. Also, knowledge, something I severely lacked when I was asked if I could record "the band".

It literally went like this: We would travel about 15 miles out to Nate's house, hauling my amp, my guitar, and my laptop in my car. Rain or shine, or snow... whatever. We would go in a vacant room, where the drum set was, and I would turn the laptop on and get my DAW setup to record him. No drum mics, no triggers, nothing. Just me holding my laptop up in front of the set. I would hit record and give him the thumbs up to go, and he would start playing the drums to what would become a song. No metronomes, no sound checks, just record and hope he kept time and didn't mess up. It was a mess. Cymbals were so loud, that it cut out every other part on his set. There was no bass drum.... it simply didn't exist through this guerrilla style of recording. The reverb from the room made it sound muddy, and even worse, poor quality from the laptop mic. Combine this with the fact that I had no idea how to clean up sound, or limit decibels or anything, and you have what literally sounds like shit.

My guitar was recorded through a jack adapter into my mic input on the laptop. I ran my distortion pedal through it. It was loud and dirty, and horrible quality. I would mute my guitar on the DAW, and play to the drum beat hoping latency didn't make me play out of time. It was horrible, but it was something. Having recorded a song was exciting, and it turns out further down the road it would get much easier.

That's the thing about knowledge. After doing this setup for months, I finally sat my ass down and researched on the internet about the basics of recording heavy metal music. I learned so much shit from it, and have since developed a routine to recording and mixing. Yes, I mix and record our songs. Every single one of them. It's astounding to listen to songs we recorded almost three years ago and compare them to recently recorded ones. The quality improves almost two-fold. We learned to set up a routine of recording; what effects to enable, where to have the instruments to have the flattest sound and no natural reverb, how to crossfade takes and not bury everything in reverb...

Also, better equipment, and that meant better quality. I still don't have drum mics, but I do have mics and stands to put on certain parts of Nate's set, so it can all be separately monitored and maintained.

A lot of it also depends on who's in the band. We are a two piece band, which means we take on more than one role. I play guitar, sing vocals on some songs, write the lyrics and compositions and mix and handle recording. Nate plays the drums, often writes the lyrics and compositions as well, and sings on some songs. It's very hard to do all of this stuff and sound good. Do I think we sound good now? Not really. There's a lot of room for improvement. I've been told I can sing, but that's a mixed opinion. Same thing for Nate. I think we both sound like old women who binge on coffee and cigarettes all day. Our instruments could be tuned better, and one day I'll learn how to use a compressor, but regardless I am proud of all our songs, and I even like some of the vocals. Especially when I try something new and it sounds good to my ears. It's even better when Nate digs it too.

After, when it's time to play a gig, even if it's in someone's back yard, it becomes a whole other deal. Location matters if you plan to play in clubs and little underground joints. That's how you get fans. Facebook and Myspace can only do so much. Also, you have to have stage presence. You have to play tight. You need to have a good singer. If you don't have one, someone needs to learn how to sing and play at the same time. I recently had to do this, and it's not a walk in the park. I'm one of those people who can't pat their head and rub their stomach at the same time. Imagine me trying to play fast heavy metal and sing at the same time.

That's when I realized that performing live would be impossible without actual members. And no one wants to be in a band that consists of two people writing everything.

Here's a funny story. We once auditioned a kid named Ricky who lived in Carthage, a city about 50 or so miles away from us. He claimed to be the best singer ever. We hung out with him and he seemed cool, loved to party, and really took nothing too seriously. Well, when it came time to test him on his singing, and we got all "serious mode" on his ass, he freaked the fuck out and blamed the lyrics as to why he couldn't sing. So this asshole drove an hour out of his way to come party and not sing. He laughed at everything we had, so much in fact that Nate almost addressed this with a swift fist to the face. Ricky ended up leaving and we never heard from him again. He actually paid us in Applebee's gift cards so that Nate wouldn't beat him up.

This has become common. We had a guitarist named John who shot my skills down, and absolutely would not learn my riffs. We had agreed that he would learn the rhythm parts, and I would play lead. Every practice we had, which was precious by the way, he would show up and start playing various Metallica songs. When it came time to play our original songs, he would smirk and stop playing. He just didn't want to learn my riffs.

Fuck you and your riffs.
It boiled to a point where he wanted to change the band name, and make us play his songs. He didn't want to merge songs and keep some, no..... he wanted to get rid of all of our shit and make US learn everything he had written. I hated his lyrics. They were simple, black and white. His riffs were too complicated for the lyrics to fit in. He wanted to play every solo. I wasn't even allowed to contribute to his songs without an argument starting. He thought he was a hot shit guitarist who wanted the warm spotlight on him at all times, except you have to take out "guitarist" and all you had left was hot shit in a warm light. To be fair, his stuff wasn't bad, but in more professional terms (and less hostile) it was two styles coming together that really didn't fit. That's important.

So, basically, it all boils down to this:

- You need to develop a sound. Don't stick to one genre of music. It will limit you.
- You need to have people who have the same drive and creativity as you.
- You need to learn more than one trade, especially if you want to record music.
- Trust your gut and your band mates.
- Do some damn research punk!

Seriously. I don't claim to have the best music ever, or the best band or whatever... but I do think we are very good, and I'm willing to prove it to you.

Check out my band, Hostility Rising and listen to our songs and leave feedback!

No comments:

Post a Comment