17 December, 2011

Charlie talks to the kids.

In the weekly musicians' ads I post every Monday, lately I've been face-palming when ever I read an ad for a group of adults willing to recruit a teenager. I've made the argument over and over again: Leave the high school kids alone. They don't have bills, they have homework. They can't play the clubs by virtue of their age. They live with their parents because the law says they have to.
And I've also made it a point to not fuck with the high school kids who post ads on Craigslist because, hey, they're kids; they're allowed to make mistakes. One of my favorite internet writers, John Cheese, said it best when he summed up what it's like to be a teenager: Everybody expects you to be an adult but everybody treats you like a child. Being a teenager is a shitty time. And, yeah, they have dreadful taste in music. But those bands mean the world to them. The other day, I watched a YouTube video of a young, female drummer doing a drum cover of a Paramore song. She was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt. And that's when it dawned on me: I don't dig Paramore but they mean the world to this girl right here, the same way Nirvana meant the world to me at (what I'm sure is) her age.
So, no, I don't (or try not to) fuck with teenage kids. (In fact, as annoyed as I was by Rebecca Black's "Friday", I was, in a small way, proud of her. What teenager wouldn't want to be a pop star?) But I got to thinking: If I had to say something to the kids, what would I say? What advice could I impart? And further, why should I impart advice? One of the wisest things I ever read came from the Satanic Bible; it said something along the lines of "do not give advice when it isn't asked for".
Alas, I'm not a Satanist. I get a pass.
So, kids, gather round. I'm about to tell you how to be in a band. Because I know everything.

Start a band. All of a band.
When starting a band, all you really need to do is start a band to play the music you want to play. You need to find the musicians that are into making the kind of music you want to make. It really does help to be on the same page. Also, you need to find musicians that can actually play. There are plenty of apocryphal stories about musicians that learned how to play while they were in the band but, believe me, you can save yourself weeks worth of headaches by finding people that can actually play. You're also going to want to find people interested in being in the band.
None of this is going to happen on the first go around. In high school, the first bands I tried to start were constantly hampered by the drummer who refused to take his drums out of his house (because they were some sort of heirloom, this did not stop him from decorating them with baby doll heads and stuffed animals on nooses); the bassist who couldn't play but wanted to so he could impress some cheerleader type that, honestly, he had not even a snowball's chance in hell with (further, he wouldn't practice the bass so much as cut pictures of Jennifer Anniston out of magazines and tape them to the instrument); the bass player who got thrown in juvie after beating the shit of some guy whose house he broke into; the bassist who this and the bassist who that... the list is pretty long.
The main thing is that if you're going to start a band, you need musicians who want to be in a band.

Practice. All of the time.
There's no set-in-stone gauge for how long a band should practice before they are stage ready (and stage ready comes before studio ready; more on that later). Some bands can get to that point after two months of practicing once a week, some bands need four months three times a week. It's always different. My first band was ready after two months of once-per-week practices and we knew it but we were still terrified. My second band could not have been less ready after the six months of practicing (but that was due to drugs). My third band practiced maybe for a few weeks and then hit the stage.
If I can impart any rule to you for practicing, it's run through the set twice. At least twice. Every time. Keep lines of communication open and ask who was comfortable with this song or that. Go back over the ones somebody feels iffy on. Those are the only suggestions I'll make as to how to run your practices. If you want to take off your shoes and sit on the floor, do it. If you want to watch porn - OK, don't do that. It's distracting. If you want to jump off the kick drum and pretend you're playing live at Wembley, go for it. It's up to you. But set a schedule, stick to that schedule, and go through the set twice every time.

Play your friends' parties.
You're too young for the clubs and the last thing you want is to have to have your parents in the crowd.
Also? Don't worry about touring. Not now. Worrying about touring comes after gathering a local following. Worrying about touring comes after you've moved out of your parents' house and while you have to worry about keeping your job and paying your rent while you're away. For now, just worry about getting to play in the dining room, living room, basement rec room of your friends' houses.
Trust me. You'll get to play your friends' house parties. Everybody wants a party with a live band. Don't expect to get paid or anything like that. Motherfucker, you want to get paid? There's a bowl of chips. Go to it. Getting paid comes later. Getting paid comes when you're old enough to play the clubs and, when you do that, you have to wait around until after the bar closes until maybe three or four in the morning (depending on when last call is for your municipality) to get fifty bucks in your hand. And that's not your fifty bucks, that's the fifty bucks you split between you and your bandmates.
Right now, all you've got to worry about is when the party is and how to get your gear there. Once you, your bandmates, and everybody's gear is there, for the love of fuck, act professionally. This is something that's going to apply to the club scene later on. The club won't have you back if you break things and you won't get to play your friends' parties if word gets around that everybody in the band pissed in the shampoo bottle (Guilty.) or some other inane bullshit. Yes, it's rock and roll. And even though it's rock and roll, nobody likes an asshole. The point of being in a band is to perform and you can't very well do that if nobody wants you performing for them because one of you wanted to start a food fight like they saw in that one YouTube video that one time.
Look, play your friends' parties. It's easy.

Don't be in a hurry to record.
I'm just going to say this first: Your first songs, if you don't have a bevy of them under your belt already, are going to suck. There's no need to record them.
If you do feel the need to record them - and Christ knows I've got shoe boxes full of cassettes of my earliest songs - don't go to a studio. A single day in a studio is the equivalent to one of your paychecks from McDonald's or Walmart or wherever your first job is. Going into a studio, as awesome as it is, is expensive and time consuming. Buy yourself a four track and some cheap mics and some cheap cables. Start perusing audio engineering discussion forums for tips on recording (there's the always excellent Tech Room at Electrical Audio and the equally excellent forum at Tape Op; these will take some sifting and searching to get the answers you want but the answers are usually there).
My first four track was two hundred bucks, used. Since I bought it eleven years ago, I've had my own demo studio right there, next to my rig, whenever I need it. In contrast, a day at a recording studio will cost you maybe the same. One day versus eleven years...
And, yeah, that's just for demos. That's all you need to record right now. You don't need to make a record yet. You need to focus on...

Don't stop writing songs.
Again: Your first songs are going to suck. As seriously as I took myself back in the day, as much as I believed in myself back in the day, I listen to the tapes that fifteen year old me wrote and I cringe a little. Three quarters of those songs never needed to exist. One eighth would've been fine if they were strictly instrumental pieces and even then they would need to be heavily revised. One sixteenth could stand to have the lyrics scrapped or rewritten and even then are questionable. One thirty second are notable only for innovations I made in my own learning curve. The remaining thirty second? Barely passable as OK.
And while I'm sure it's not just me, there's no recorded evidence of other bands having the same suckitude. You know why? Because all the box sets that other bands put out, replete with rarities and previously unreleased material, are put out with the bands' permissions. There are absolutely no boombox recordings from when they were just beginning to write songs; they're putting out material that they'd never be embarrassed by. I'll call out the following people: Contributing Author Joe from (my band) KRAKOA (BGOH) and the Gouda Nuffs (BGOH), Contributing Author M. Martin from Pink City (MI & Wales), Avid Reader Tiger Gang Tony who was in Tiger Gang (MPLS) and I'm sure some others, Suspected Reader Justin from Treysuno (BGOH) and the Kyle Sowashes (Columbus) (I think SpeedGov'r (Columbus), too). I'm sure that all of them will tell you that their earliest attempts at song writing are best left unavailable to the public.
Songwriting is a skill like any other: You have to keep at it.
It's like this: Nine years ago, I couldn't cook worth a damn to save my life and I was forced to, by adulthood, to learn to cook. Last year, for lunch, from scratch, I made this:
I improved over time, is the point. You will too. So keep writing songs.
And believe me, even though I said your first songs will suck, your friends who have you play their parties, when they say they liked it, they'll mean it. You are the newest high school rock star. They're jealous of you and your bandmates because not only are you in a band but you made your own music which is a terrific feat. Now all you have to do is keep making your own music and you'll get even better. It's how it goes.

And before my last point...
After you've had maybe a year, maybe two, of practicing constantly, regularly, and damned near religiously, playing live wherever and whenever you can, writing songs all the goddamned time, recording practices for reference (only as much as you need to), and graduated from high school, then you can start working at getting paying gigs, thinking about touring, worrying about whether you should invest in a van or in studio time, all that shit. For the moment, however, you're still in high school. I'm not saying you shouldn't start a band while you're in high school, I'm saying you should focus on how you can be the best damnable band in the world while you're stuck in high school with all the limitations that imposes.

Be prepared: Bands break up.
Not every band is the Rolling Stones, where the majority of the original members are still at it. Some bands make it only ten years. Some bands are lucky to see a second year. And you? You're in high school. Some of your bandmates are going to go to college in other cities, maybe even in other states. They're going to have priorities that override the band.
So why even start a band if you may lose one or all of your bandmates after graduation? Because A) nothing says that that will happen. It's highly fucking likely but it's not certain. B) Say you start a band when you're sixteen. By the time you're eighteen, you've got two years of word of mouth about you, your band, and - more importantly - your work ethic. If you're only losing one member, somebody who's really wanted to be in your band for some time now because of the rep you've built will want to take their place. Found yourself without a band entirely? Your name is going to be known in the local circles and there's bound to be a band that will take you on or a musician who wants to work with you.
And, of course, there's the scenario where your academic career takes you away from your band.
Don't worry. There's YouTube footage from when the drummer's mom taped you guys. There're your .mp3s from the few demos you recorded at practice. You can back up your claims. And, I won't bullshit you, you're going to have to start from square one if you're in a different city and it's going to suck and it's going to take some time to start a new band. But you still have two years of experience under your belt and two years worth of physical evidence to back you up.
I'm just going to warn you: You can't pad this like a resumé. You can't turn playing a friends' party in the boondocks into 'touring experience'; that was a road trip. You can't turn basement rehearsals that were recorded for whatever reason into 'studio experience'. In the strange way that the world outside of high school works, it turns out that jobs are bullshit and music is a real thing.
See, jobs have coworkers. Coworkers never have to get along so long as they get the job done. I can't tell you how many reprehensible assholes I've worked side by side with, from crack heads to cry babies, that I've tolerated just to get the job done. I clock in in the morning, I talk to them while we work, and I clock out in the evening, making sure to never invite them to any barbecue I might be having because they're, honestly, just shitty people.
Bands are different. Bands are friends. Again: Bands are friends. These are going to be the people that you want around you. These are people that are going to have roughly the same goals as you not relative to operating a press or flipping a burger. You're actually expected to open up to these people and either share your creative vision or contribute to theirs and it's reciprocal: They're going to share with and contribute to you. So, from the get go, you have to be honest about everything you've done. Completely honest. No exaggerating.

Long and short of it?
Start a band. All of a band. No skipping past this point.
PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. There's a reason why that's a cliché: Because it's true.
Play wherever and whenever you can. And don't be an asshole.
Don't worry about recording for now unless you want to review things.
Be prepared for it to fall apart. And then don't be full of shit about what it was you were apart of when asked about it.


  1. The first songs Pink City ever recorded were "Wrung" and "Family Therapy," and before that a cover of the Cows' "Shitbeard."

  2. Er... by that, I meant they were the first songs we wrote and completed, really. We'd had more than a few demos but nothing completed.

    I really don't know what point I'm trying to make here. I'm dumb. Carry on.

  3. I was talking about your first songs ever, not your first songs with Pink City.


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