Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Today's Chemistry Lesson: Drama Dissolves Music

Things have been pretty political here lately at the House of Exuberance, so I figured I'd offer a sorbet to clear the palate. Aaron (linked at left) and I recently found a musical project to join, as I'll explain shortly, and it got me thinking about the concepts underlying band chemistry.

As many of you know, I am a musician. I got my first guitar 19 years ago. Back in the mid-1990s, I performed as a bassist and backing vocalist in local cover bands such as Scoobacca and Parallax. A few years ago, I played bass and sang lead for Sonogasm (there's a band name that hasn't aged well) and experienced morsels of local success with SG performing a set mostly made up of my own original songs, a blend of grunge and progressive rock. I was in college during the grunge years, so I cut my adult musical teeth on Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and the Stone Temple Pilots, and that influence integrated with the Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Rush, Metallica, and Dream Theater that had dominated my formative years.

Unfortunately, having musical ability and even a stable of written material is not enough to get a person on stage even at the local level. Being on stage is what it's all about. Even performing at a dive pub for a handful of disinterested barflies is great fun, and performing in front of a more substantial crowd is an incredible adrenaline rush. I have been associated with several other bands over the years, but only the ones I cited above made it to the stage and stayed at that level. To stay at that level, a band needs a unifying vision that gets buy-in from all members, discipline and a good work ethic from all members, and compatible personalities. It is not entirely unlike a marriage in that a band is only as happy as its unhappiest member.

A wise, experienced musician will bend over backward to get on stage and stay there, because he knows that's where all his practice, devotion, and discipline are rewarded. The problem is that most musicians are neither wise nor experienced. Mostly this is because they are young, but immaturity shows up even in older musicians, eccentric as the musically-inclined often are. This immaturity leads to band drama, and band drama corrodes band chemistry and destroys otherwise promising projects. Pub stages everywhere are mostly filled with two types of bands: talented bands who have not yet imploded, and untalented bands made up of friends who have great chemistry but little potential. A tiny fraction of a fraction are the third type of band, which manages to stay together and move on to bigger things. Given the choice between the two more likely outcomes, I'll take the band full of good buddies with a low success ceiling. At least they're having fun.

I am going to develop this thesis anecdotally, but first, here are some better-known examples of where drama has impeded music. Black Sabbath never had the same "spark" without Ozzy Osbourne. Pink Floyd: Roger Waters. Faith No More: Jim Martin. Queensryche: Chris deGarmo. Evanescence: Ben Moody. And those are just bands that survived losing a member to drama. Most drama implosions lead to disbandment. Soundgarden. Warrant. Drain STH. Galactic Cowboys. Ratt. Even when a band thrives after a chemistry replacement, their fan base is divided -- a contingent insists that the original line-up can never be topped. By far the benchmark example: Van Halen. They were a better band with Sammy Hagar commercially and creatively, but the specter of David Lee Roth will never leave them alone. Dream Theater has emerged as the absolute flagbearer of progressive metal today, but some fans still carry a torch for Kevin Moore. I'm sure there are even some hardliners sitting in a Cleveland pub who will never forgive Rush for losing John Rutsey and replacing him with Neil Peart.

Band drama starts internally when a band member's expectations, reasonable or unreasonable, are not met. In Sonogasm, Jeff (guitar) and I were often frustrated with Chuck (drums) because Chuck struggled with timing, having been out of the musical scene for many years. Chuck and I were frustrated with Jeff because Jeff, while very talented, tends to be undisciplined in his approach to practice, hindering band development. Jeff and Chuck were frustrated with me because I wouldn't stick to a focused musical direction for the band. We had started alt-prog, very Tool-esque, and all was well. Then, as I developed as a composer, I was writing grunge, southern rock, alt-mainstream a la +Live+, and even hybrids of pop and nu-metal. That wasn't what Jeff and Chuck were interested in playing.

The three of us had the talent and dedication to hold Sonogasm together for a while, but eventually the problems reached critical mass. Chuck would whiff badly a few times in a live show. Jeff would show up to practice not having learned a new song element... again. Our portfolio stagnated because I wasn't bringing in enough viable material, and the band couldn't agree on which covers to add to freshen things up. Our internal frustration from having our expectations unmet by our bandmates eventually became a catalyst for clashes with one another, and we wound up putting the band on "indefinite hiatus." That is a euphemism that means the band will probably never re-form, but since nobody had sex with another band member's girlfriend or wife, the members are still at least on speaking terms with one another. The last of Sonogasm's 20-odd performances was by far our best, and perhaps we were able to relax and enjoy it more knowing that we had already decided to move on afterward, and our band problems were no longer a weight on our shoulders. We remain good friends.

Band drama can start externally as well, when circumstances force a change in a band member's ability to fulfill his mates' expectations of him. After Sonogasm broke up, I briefly joined Aaron's band Ekosphere as lead vocalist. Ekosphere had just lost their second female lead vocalist in a row, and the guys were hoping that eliminating the gender issue would lead to better chemistry. There was still drama brewing in that band that might have killed us eventually, or that we might have overcome, but we never got to find out. After a few months of developing the Ekosphere songs that survived the departure of their lyricist and introducing some of my songs that had worked well in Sonogasm, we were ready to gear up and hit the stage. Then, one of the other guys hit financial trouble, and I ran face-first into my 1L law exams. Neither of us could put our full attention on the band, and the project unraveled from there. A sad ending to a band that had, at one point, earned an opening slot in support of an international act (Tears for Fears).

In 1996, Scoobacca was in amazing shape. I played bass for three one-hour sets as the band entertained parties and keggers, looking for a more relaxed atmosphere than we had encountered at our few pub shows. We were college buddies who all loved music, and we were democratic enough that our cover portfolio had extensive input from all members. We even allowed members a plenary veto on any one song, to avoid dragging down our performances with tunes that, for whatever reason, one member hated to play. (My veto, in case you're curious, was Ugly Kid Joe's "I Hate Everything About You." That song is just plain not good.) We hit all the rock and metal subgenres and had something for everyone to enjoy.

Then, Scoobacca threw it all away. Our drummer, Squirmy, left to go be a photographer for Sports Illustrated (can't blame him) and we brought in a sketchy guy who had drumming skill but didn't work well with us personally. We kicked out our vocalist, Mikey, because we didn't think we could make it to the next level with him. In retrospect, this was an unrealistic expectation; Mikey's vocals were above average for a local party band, and he could have developed if we had been more patient. Our vocalist auditions were an agonizing ordeal of wannabes and washups and junkies, none of whom had as much character in total as Mikey had in his little finger. We languished for an entire summer without being able to perform. Band practice became a job, but we weren't getting paid. I quit, and though I didn't realize it, that would turn out to be the killing stroke because I owned most of the band's gear. We were so busy dreaming of fortune and glory that we traded our most solid assets for shit in a shiny wrapper. I am still friends with Johan, the guitarist, though we rarely get together because our lives went in different directions. I never hear from Mikey or Squirmy anymore.

Finally, earlier this year, two guys put together a band project called Flapperwax and found a guitarist and bassist through a Craigslist ad. The bassist, Aaron, worked out great with them, but the chemistry wasn't there with the guitarist, and the drama began. Long story short, they ended up auditioning me and replacing the guitarist with me on lead vocals and second guitar. (Their lead singer was a lead guitarist at heart, so he favored the transition.) My audition was a little rusty, but they liked the band chemistry with me there, and we had a discussion right away about the band's expectations of one another. We are all in our thirties, all working family men who have to prioritize accordingly, and this put us into a compatible state of mind right away. I feel bad for the guitarist who was booted -- I've been booted too, and it's no fun at all -- but band chemistry is just that important. Even though Aaron and I had other band projects floating around in the planning stages, such as a long-term study with Chuck and a movie-theme covers project with Jeff, we knew that joining Flapperwax gave us a rare realistic opportunity to get back on stage -- and stay there -- sometime in the foreseeable future. So far, things are going well. My material is blending decently with theirs, and practices are productive. Here's hoping.

Even without drama, it's difficult to get a band to go anywhere. Aaron and I comprise the all-acoustic "Bumpus Hounds," whose performance of April 2008 is recounted on this blog. It's great fun and Aaron and I have near-perfect chemistry (as is not hard to accomplish when two friends make up the entire band). The problem is that the Hounds have a very low ceiling. Most of the material out there is beyond our ability to perform with only two acoustic guitars and a singer. Though there are venues for acoustic small-band performances, most of them are dead ends and not much better than just jamming at the occasional party, park, or street corner. The desire is there and the chemistry is there, but the Bumpus Hounds aren't likely to go anywhere, because there's not very much they can actually do.

So there you have one man's "musical journey" teaching the resounding lesson that getting a viable project together is rare, and getting it to go anywhere is rarer still, even when there are talented and willing musicians who are interested and ready to go. It still isn't worth it to stay in a band that is infested with drama and isn't fun anymore, but a musician has to have the wisdom and perspective to know when a problem is worth being patient enough to fix, and the maturity to know how to diminish drama rather than catalyzing it. When a band has a hit, more than enough external drama arrives to test the limits of the members' endurance. There is a time limit on this sort of thing. I am 35. I only get to play at being a "rock and roll star" for so much longer -- after that, I will remain a musician, but the settings change to somewhat more staid and conventional opportunities. I intend for music to be a positive creative outlet, and that means the chemistry has to be there. Hopefully, in whatever creative hobby you pursue, you will enjoy that hobby's analogue of good chemistry and the rewards that follow.

1 comment:

  1. I dunno, man. Most people prefer the Black Sabbath of Ronnie James Dio. In fact, I don't personally know anyone who disagrees with that. Their music got much better with the superior singer. The spark they have had since 1980(ish) is much brighter.

    Ratt disbanded, but they are back together. Have been for a few years now. I think Jamie Crosby is the only one not currently with them. Of course, he is dead so he has an excuse. He died of AIDS. Not HIV, but full-blown AIDS. Sucks for Ratt because he wrote all their good stuff.

    Aside from these two points, you are spot on about the premise of the discussion.