Sunday, 21 July 2013

When Bands Fall Apart (Not Us!)

I wouldn't say that I'm normally given to sentimentality, much less seriousness. However, I thought I'd write the next few posts about the life and death of bands, particularly for young musicians out there who are starting out. We caught up with a young guy at a gig at Rooty Hill Anglican who had just started playing drums in a band, and in the following weeks of interacting over Facebook his honesty about the challenges he was facing mirrored a lot of my own experiences over the years.

Rather than starting with the life of a band, I thought I'd start by writing about the hardest part- the demise of a band.

Bands are by their very nature a challenge. Often the most productive musical or creative partnerships implode on themselves because the ability to express emotion on an instrument tends to also come with an inclination to look at the world a different way, and four or five people looking at the world a different way is often going to be a challenge.
On top of this, you have the issue of proximity- if you are making and recording music, you're going to be with each other for long, tense and frustrating stretches- and handling that on its own can be a problem. This is compounded by differing backgrounds and expectations, where one person's "direct approach" is another person's "super-critical douche bag" and so on.
Then, finally, you've got the issue of vision- if the band doesn't know what it's about, then everyone comes in with a different expectation of how or why things are done. Even if everyone agrees on something initially, that doesn't actually mean everyone understands it on the same level.

I was in my first band when I was 19 (1999). We were called "Tatterdemalion". I was playing keys and a friend from high school was on electric guitar- in the beginning, that was it. It was the super-early days of home recording and a world of possibilities was opening up, before the rise of the iPod and so on. His guitar pedal had a drum loop built in and my piano could go down low enough that we didn't need a bassist. Eventually, my brother bought a drum kit and joined the band the year after.
I'm 32 presently so that was certainly a while ago. Looking back, it was a truly special time- things seemed limitless. We had a thing called time which, as a dad and a full-time employee, I have scant amounts of now. The  musical landscape was shifting and we had a unique sound and a great way of melding the instruments that allowed them to be complimentary. We recorded random demos and played with loops (before that was "in") and wrote a ton of material.
There were some cracks, however. I had a very liberal interpretation of the word "time" and "punctuality". Give or take 30 or 45 minutes was about the norm. This meant the guitarist felt I didn't care about rehearsing.
The guitarist was not given to showing appreciation in the same way I was- if someone did a favour, then that favour was accepted. It was not necessarily met with thanks or gratitude beyond "oh, cheers". This became something of an issue when I was buying all the equipment.

We skirted around these issues for 2-odd years. Then my brother decided to move to Armidale for uni, and the guitarist and I got talking, then some of these things started to come out, and then we were decompressing two years of not saying anything by yelling at each other.

We'd spent those two years creating a sound, something unique and different. We'd built up fans and contacts and met other bands and were finally doing regular-ish shows. And then in a moment, it was all gone.

I wasn't prepared for how hard it was to deal with initially. I had been fortunate in that the first person I'd started making music with gelled musically with me. I did not know how rare that was at the time.

We went and did other things. Started a venue together called The Attic, which was heaps of fun. Stayed in vague contact- friendly, but it was never the same as it had been.

Over the subsequent years, I started a number of other projects. They were fun, sure. I played with a lot of musicians and it meant I had to learn to adapt to different styles and certainly pushed me. My brother moved back home and was not doing so well after a death in the family; I asked a very good drummer who was a friend to leave the band so that I could give my brother something to do and catch up more often, and even that was really hard. I was fortunate that he was understanding of the situation and took it well, but I could tell it upset him.

Eventually I resigned myself to writing music for my own enjoyment and forgetting the idea of gigging and sharing music in the way I had before. I had two small kids and a wife and after finishing a job which had taxed me creatively to a huge degree, I was prepared to let things go. All up it was not until 2009 that I met Tristan at a church thing.

He was playing in an act called Eye Opener and the drummer asked if I played keys at all-I said that I did. Rehearsals were a few blocks from my house and I figured I could spare the time. I was tentative- in fact, somewhat timid- fully prepared for it to be another one-off experience or an odd stand-in-where-necessary kind of thing. We didn't really gel well at first, and piano is a hard instrument to fit into an existing band.
Then got to one of Tristan's songs called "Undone" and something just clicked. We all surfaced at the end of the song, having been lost in musical revelry that somehow we'd all just "gotten", and that feeling was back- the feeling of something new, something special, something that was going to work. We were putting something out there that hadn't been heard before, and Tristan, who by his nature is incredibly encouraging, had a plethora of material already and made me feel super welcome.

It took quite some time for me to have the confidence to show them some of my songs, and again here, Tristan's encouragement made a huge difference. All of a sudden, we had a set, we had a band, and before we knew it, we had a gig.

The gig was a kind of local band competition and we got up on stage and it went off. That feeling of electricity and musical connection jumped out and it was the beginning of something great. Right?

Well, sadly, no. After a year, it had become clear that Eye Opener was starting to have its own problems. Our drummer had become increasingly erratic; he'd gone back to uni to start a second degree and it had taken him into a new group of friends. Rehearsals were missed or he was hung over, or he hadn't slept and had then drunk a large number of energy drinks and halfway through songs a cowbell would be grabbed and the whole thing would be lost.

I was adrift at this point, staring over the precipice I knew we had to step but unwilling to do so. I couldn't believe we had come back to this point after all the years in between; finally, the right musical connection had been made and now it was all falling over? Unacceptable.

Tristan took it harder than me. I had at least had the Tatterdemalion experience, and been through the six or seven side projects which I'd abandoned but never really taken seriously. For Ted, who'd been a solo act, this was the first time he'd had a full act to work with and the loss of the hope that had been there hit him hard. We talked for ages and reached the conclusion that we couldn't just drop the drummer, who had helped start the band, and keep Eye Opener going. We'd have to drop the whole thing.

We sat down and all talked- set things out, divided up the money we'd made, and went our separate ways.

Except that we didn't. Ted and I kept playing and he brought around another drummer from his church, Pat. Micky, who had been bassist for Eye Opener, was bored and decided to jam one day with the three of us, and it was golden. Marty, who had come in for a couple of Eye Opener practices towards the end and had done a couple of gigs, was keen to join the new entity.

And so Redwoods was started. The sound was slightly different, and as things clicked, we had a creative burst; I wrote about 20 songs in the space of 6 months, working on many of them with Tristan, and he likewise wrote a whole bunch. But to the drummer from Eye Opener, it looked like we'd said we were breaking up Eye Opener just so we didn't kick him out, and re-formed. That was hard, and there was understandably a lot of anger.

So here we are now, almost 2 years on. Thus far, things are still continuing well for Redwoods. But if you're out there and thinking of starting or joining a band, here are some tops that I hope will be useful.

Reuben's Amazingly Useful Band Tips
1) The band will cost you more money than you will ever make out of it. Understand that straight up.
2) Talk openly about what you expect in relation to rehearsals and gigs. Are people wanting to just have a relaxing muck-around or a really serious practice? Is 5 or 10 minutes late to start or finish going to cause big problems?
3) Band finances are a problem. If you put money in, make sure it's money you can afford to lose. Don't buy "band equipment" because then if you break up, no-one knows who it should belong to. If you are expecting to get money back (eg. you pay for CD production or something) then it needs to be something the whole band is clear about beforehand.
4) You're unlikely to hit the big-time. This is not to be negative, but a lot of bands find mediocrity hard and keep using phrases like "when we're famous". Instead, I suggest focusing on enjoyment- if you love what you play and who you play with, then you're likely to have a better sound, which will give you a better shot at fame.
5) Talk about expectations of time availability. How often is too often for gigs? And rehearsals? Being young and single is one thing, but when someone's in a steady relationship, staying out all Friday and sleeping all Saturday gets pretty thin pretty quickly. Keep talking to accommodate each other.
6) Finally, know what your band is about. Be clear on what the reason is that you make music. This will hopefully in keep some borders so you have an idea when things are going off track. You can always re-assess and change, but knowing- and dealing with- changes in direction can save at least a friendship, if not a band.

The hardest part about any band breakup is that friendships rarely survive. So my single greatest tip is this: prioritise friendships and don't let pride or ego get in the way. Sometimes, we need to admit that we just aren't good enough, or that what we want isn't in line with what others want. Other musical opportunities will come in the future; friendships, however, are hard to replace.

Hope this is useful to you out there!

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