31 December, 2007

Open Stage (or Performing Madness)

"The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness."

- Mick Jagger, from Performance

Though I am a NEET, "nothing" is never a good answer to the question "what do you do?" So the next best answer for me is probably "starving musician" - although, despite not making any money, I'm not technically starving. However, if my 'job' is recording music, then I haven't been to 'work' in months. And if my 'job' is performing for an audience, I only go to 'work' one night every two weeks.

On the recording side of the spectrum, I'm currently in the progress of recording an album - my first real album (Clear As Mud). Completely self-produced, recorded in the comfort of my own room, with only the equipment I own. But I've kind of run into a brick wall, and progress has been halted more or less indefinitely. Mostly because I am insufferably lazy, or if I may shift the blame onto psychology, I suffer from an avoidant personality. But I'm starting to come around to the idea of working with someone I know in their semi-professional studio, to help me record something worthwhile. I figure, getting away from all the mess of trying to record a sound, and just focusing on playing that sound, will help the flow of things immensely. We'll see. I have yet to make a move on that front.

On the performing side of the spectrum, I've been going to a bi-weekly open stage at the local coffee den (hereby referred to as "the den") regularly for the last 3 and a half years or so, except for the time I've been away at college. The open stage is hosted by a really groovy local folk rock band (The Primatives), whom I have become rather friendly with over the past few years. They're incredibly supportive of local and budding musicians (hence hosting the open stage), and they're a very good folk band that rocks.

Back in the summer of '04 (The Summer of Dreams), when the open stage was just being brought to my attention, I started developing my performing chops (if you could even call it that). I got a gig at the den with my brother, who was just starting to play guitar, and we played a bunch of mostly classic rock covers that were admittably rough, but it was all in the name of fun and the experience of actually pulling together a show of our own (though mostly just for friends, and the staff at the den). We called ourselves The Crunge. Since then, we've played a few more shows, though the last one was a little while back. We seem to have moved in somewhat independent musical directions. But, throughout it all, the open stage has lived on.

At first, heck, even now, learning a couple new songs to play every other week was a real pain. Maybe if you're just learning a few chords and some lyrics, like for a Bob Dylan song, that's alright (no offense to Mr. Dylan). But for a guitarist like me, who wants to play killer licks and hot riffs and sultry solos, and didn't really care much about singing, it was a lot harder to come up with something new. Of course, there's always the option of playing the same old stuff over and over again, but I feel like I have to at least try to mix it up. Nobody wants to hear the exact same songs every single time (well I don't, at least).

So I managed to get by, and I learned a bunch of songs in the process, and I generally got more comfortable with going up and playing in front of an audience, which is great. But, that's still pretty much limited to the familiar crowd of the den. There's another open stage nearby, at Empire, but I have yet to make the leap and play there. I tell myself that part of the reason is that, being a guitar store instead of a coffee shop, with the bright lights and the sterile atmosphere, it feels a lot less comfortable than the den. But part of it is undoubtedly the fear of playing to a crowd largely made up of people I haven't played to before. But I guess that's an important step in the process to becoming a performing musician. I mean, what's the point of playing to the same people every day? I'd love to be able to tour the country, or parhaps even the world, and that means playing to strangers every night. But that would assume I had musicians to play with, to bounce my playing off of, and that we actually had something worth playing to people. You can probably tell I don't have much confidence in my talents at this stage.

Sometime during the past fall, or perhaps late summer, I was jamming on electric guitar, just doing random improvised stuff, the stuff I do to please myself, and that I don't really expect anyone else to appreciate. You know, experimental, electric noise. Playing with feedback and stuff like that. I was fooling around with a bow, a la Jimmy Page, getting some neat sounds, and my dad's friend (also a guitarist, though generally acoustic, and more folky than I) remarked that that was the kind of thing I should do at the open stage, to really put on a performance. So hell, I decided to give up the whole song-playing shtick (although by this point I was actually doing fairly well at covering some classic Peter Green songs, and had even been getting compliments on my singing, which is something I've never put much conscious effort into improving), and just plug into the sonic waves of chaos, as a sort of anarchic musical expression.

People were actually impressed. Although there are some that honestly admit that my playing is a little too loud and grating and dissonant - a completely understandable reaction - even they tend to admit that I've got *something* going on, even if they're not quite sure they understand what it is. One time, I even got a request to turn it up! And I've heard that people keep asking about what kind of pedals I'm using, to get the bizarre sounds I can coax out of my guitar, only to be surprised that it's just me, my guitar, and a regular old amp with built-in distortion. It's an exhilarating experience, and the playing is very physical - sometimes even involving smacking my guitar around - so it's quite a workout, and I always feel pretty good after I finish, even though on some nights I have a better opinion of my performance than others.

So what's the trick? Even before a baby learns to talk, it knows instinctively how to scream. That's more or less what I'm doing. I haven't learned all the sophisticated ways to make a guitar talk and say certain things, but I have a lot of musical frustration inside me (mostly because that sort of talent doesn't come naturally to me like it does to my idols) and this is my way of getting it out. The only reason it's any good, I suspect, is because 1) I can actually coax some pretty interesting sounds out of my guitar that tend to make even some guitarists curious, and 2) listening to experimental music, particularly of the post-rock and related varieties, has given me something of an ear for creating soundscapes that vary between the immensely loud and the comparatively quiet. Maybe I actually have something going for me with this new shtick. I dunno, I also feel like I can really only go so far before I've found all the sounds I can make and put them in all the relatively interesting combinations possible after which people will quickly start to get bored. But who knows until that happens, right?

In the meantime, I still have a desire to learn to play guitar the 'right' way, particularly in the form of the blues. It just doesn't seem like I'm anywhere close to making any kind of money out of it, let alone turning it into a career. Still, it's probably one of the things, if not *the* one thing, I'd truly enjoy doing with my life.


  1. The other good thing about playing your experimental stuff live is that the spirit of improvisation might touch you for a bit and you might find something new.

    Still another good thing about it is that you get to hear feedback from other people, other guitarists, on what they like in what you actually play, rather than a bunch of covers of what other people played... so I think it would reflect more truly on your personal style and help you develop things in your style, like your album.

    I thought you'd been playing at Empire for some time now, actually... so I was surprised to read that you don't!

    Since Doug's back home now and (presumably) keeps a schedule similar to yours, is there any chance of you guys jamming together and working things out, even though you've gone in divergent directions?

    If the guy with the semi-professional studio is who I think he is, I still think you should follow up on that and see where it goes... maybe you'll even get a chance to try out the stick.

  2. I've gone to Empire numerous times, always to watch Doug perform, just never to perform myself, yet.

    I wanna be able to play and improvise on a bunch of Doom covers, and with Doug's interest in heavy metal, I think he's in to that, he's kind of been suggesting we do something like that, but ultimately it's a matter of actually learning the songs so we can play them. I've worked out a few Doom riffs so far, but Doug has yet to come and play something for me. Not to pin it on his shoulders. But with people like us, these things don't tend to move quickly or with seemingly much conviction sometimes.

  3. Z, I need ya to burn me the doom songs, I can't like learn 'em from memory n stuff. :D My plan is that if my new lifestyle works out then I will have time and space to learn drums at my new house.

    Anyway, I am EXTREMELY excited about the idea of you recording a post-rock/noise album because I think it could be something that is actually legit, and then I could live my dream vicariously through you. Fact of the matter is that my dream from day one has been to produce something that I feel is fully legit. And I've never done that. I think I've made 4 or 5 albums that are daring masterpieces on par with The Beatles and The Pixies, BUT I don't think I could pick up a single one of them and actually IMPRESS somebody with them. I think for people to accept the roughness as being legitimate music, I would need a legitimizing persona like Charlie Manson, GG Allin, Varg Virkenes or Jeff Mangum. Unfortunately, I know I'll never be like any of those people. I have high hopes for your post-rock album because if it's tight enough I think it will be really legit.