It looks a lot like a black and white scene from Westworld.
"Hi, Hollis This is Carol from WKEZ. We're having an event down at the station this weekend and we'd love to have you play. It doesn't pay, but you'll get a free beer and exposure."
I cringed. I do not know of a single musician who has not been part of this proposition. Carol, like a lot of well-meaning folks who might say or think they "love" music and "totally support" musicians somehow think that it's acceptable to pay in the invisible currency of exposure. What other profession is solicited in this way? While this is a confounding, insulting, illogical behavior for the many talented, professional musicians trying to earn a living from their craft, this can be explained with an economic analysis of the value of live music:
There are many substitute goods for live music - A substitute good is something which can be obtained that delivers a relatively equal value as that of the primary good. From the audience's perspective, it isn't difficult to imagine the substitute goods available that could replace paying a musician or band:
- Playing MP3's or CD's from a computer or stereo
- Playing a satellite radio station
- Playing a terrestrial radio station
This can be a tough lesson, but the reality is staring us in the face: there is a very small audience that seeks out live music from unestablished artists. Because of this small audience and the number and quality of the substitute goods pushing down artist wages, musicians and singer/songwriters have to rethink what it means to be a performing and working musician. This can include making a real push to sell branded merchandise at shows, teaching private lessons, and changing the format of your act to be more commercially viable (i.e. playing covers).
When these other money-making options are considered, the exposure of playing a free show may seem more attractive. There is also the other option that you don't play non-paying gigs.
Take a stand. Just say "no," as Nancy Reagan might say. No one is forcing you to take these gigs. "Become the change you want to see in the world" as it were. This may lead to many nights of sitting in your rehearsal room or going to a bar and listening to other bands perform live, but what else can be done?
Actually, a lot can be done. The more introspective and thoughtful among us might take a moment to step back and consider why we aren't being offered good, paying gigs. If you find yourself in this position where you are really looking at your music and your act, here are some of the following questions you might ask yourself:
1. Is my band any good? - I have this at number one for a reason: because it seems to be the very LAST thing folks consider when trying to figure out why they aren't getting paid gigs and aren't selling any records. Have you done a live recording and listened to yourself? If the answer to that is: "Oh no, it's weird to hear myself on a recording" then you have a problem. How do others hear your music? Is it nice and fun to listen to? Is it beautiful? Is it technically skillful? Is there anything good about it? Do you play songs people actually enjoy? My guess for most folks is that there is a LOT of work to be done in this area. It's hard to get honest feedback from our friends and loved ones because they will want to say only good things about us. Take a moment to figure out what bands in your area who get paid, consistent gigs are doing right and try to coach up your band and your music to get closer to that.
2. Am I promoting my shows well enough? - Probably not. And the promotion you are doing is annoying or forgettable. Ask yourself: why would a venue owner want to pay you money when you are doing nothing to promote the bottom line? Make each show an event. If you are playing a bill with other bands, try to cross-promote and organize a concerted effort to get your folks out to see the other acts. If you are playing a headlining show, make each one special. Give it a theme. Play games. Wear a costume. Do SOMETHING to make your show worth going to.
3. Am I playing the right places? - This is an interesting question and it is one I have started to ask myself more and more. The traditional route for most gig-seekers is a bar--the thought is that local bars in town are in the best possible position to pay well. Folks like to come in and drink and having the value-add of a live performance keeps people in the bar drinking. The reality is that this doesn't pan out unless you are at the top of your game in terms of your act and your following. The reality is: most folks who go out to a bar find live music to be distracting and annoying. Bar owners and booking managers realize this and there is a trend developing for venues to require you bring in a certain number of people. The methods for tracking this vary, but the message is clear: your utility is not your music, it is your recruitment. This can be disheartening and it should be, so perhaps there is another model where a venue and a performer both win regardless of the musician's "draw." Look for performance opportunities at nontraditional venues. This past December, a friend of mine called me and asked if my holiday band The Reindeer Games might be interested in playing a paid show. Well of course! My friend is an owner of an eminently cool bar and music venue here in town. He said, "Well, it's not at the bar." It turns out, it was at a lovely little independent hardware store in my neighborhood who wanted some holiday music to get more folks from the neighborhood to come and hang out at the store. They set out some wine and cookies next to the battery aisle where we played and the most amazing thing happened: the patrons of the store hung out, listened to music, drank, had a great time, and our band got paid very well.
Here in San Antonio, our music community struggles with forming it's own scene identity and finding a market in the wake of the titan up north, Austin. Perhaps those of us who struggle finding good, paying shows (I count myself in this group) need to get creative about where we are taking our music.
Are you a musician struggling to find a good, paying gig? Are you a musician who is KILLING it on the live scene? I'd love to hear from you.
Last year, I wrote a quick thing about what my musical resolutions would be for 2017. They were as follows:
1. Release “RESCUE" - Last year at this time the recording for RESCUE was complete, but not much else. We subsequently launched a campaign to mix and produce RESCUE on vinyl. The RESCUE Album Release Campaign on indiegogo.com raised more than $5700 to get the record properly mixed and printed on vinyl. The only words I have lately have been brief, but sincere thank you’s. What I feel in my heart however, is an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all the friends and family (because I know every single one of you!) who supported this venture. Quite simply, this record is a home recorded album getting the vinyl treatment. I got my friends to learn my songs and come over to record over a few afternoons in the living room of my little house in San Antonio. From there we thought, and talked, and played a lot while thinking about how to get it funded. We set up the RESCUE Album Release Campaign on indiegogo.com and our friends and family showed up in droves. In total we had 72 backers give $5768 in support from a goal of $5500. It was fun to reach out and catch up with you all supported us. I am continually humbled by the generosity of our friends and family. Again—thank you. I can’t wait to show you what we put together. As of now, our backers have received a download code for a band camp download of RESCUE, so technically we can count this as a release. RESCUE will be available on vinyl and CD at the end of this month!
2. Go see more live, LOCAL shows - I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this really at all. I have the same tired excuses as well:
Everything starts too late.
Getting out/parking/Ubering is too expensive and it’s a pain in the ass.
What if it sucks?
All of these are terrible justifications. There is plenty of local music playing at reasonable hours. Uber/Lyft is king and the cost is worth it. These people (for the most part) are my hard-working neighbors trying to make a little extra scratch, so why don’t we all save ourselves from a DWI and go ahead and have someone drive us? What if it sucks? Well—then it sucks! The next weekend I should get a gig and do better. There is too much opportunity and talent in this town to just sit on my couch on a Thursday through Sunday and pillage my way through a joint Netflix list. I will do better this year and I look forward to seeing and hearing performances from local bands in San Antonio.
3. Play more live shows - We had a fun Reindeer Games season this year, but other than that we did not get a chance to play any Buck Webb or full Sleuth shows which is kind of a bummer. We’ll do better in 2018 as we have lots of reward shows to fulfill for our Indiegogo backers!
4. Make Better Music - The highlight of the year was getting to play more holiday shows as Reindeer Games. I really felt the Christmas and holiday music improved over last year and the year before. Everything seems to sound a little bit better every year we do it, so in that way we made better music. It’s funny how the making of better music is directly tied to playing more live shows. I see this (in the very few locals shows I have attended) with my friends’ bands. Every time they get better, tighter, more focused. It’s a cool thing to watch and inspires a sense of fandom in me.
5. Take care of my most important instrument. I did a better job of this in 2017 than in year past. I quit smoking and have taken steps to address an issue which has plagued me since I was a child: snoring. I’ve planned on writing something about this as it is sound coming from me which I’m not in control, however you could say there is something music about it? I mean, it is sound so technically it is within the purview of things to talk about in these posts. It should be interesting to report back on what I do to get my snoring fixed.
It’s going to be an interesting year, but I feel I should add a new resolution for 2018 so we’re not only addressing the failures from last year. For 2018, I resolve to manage my time better and look for more opportunities throughout the day, week, and weekend to practice.
What are your resolutions music or otherwise? I love hearing what people want to work on in the coming year. Good luck to you all and Happy New Year!
It's hard to know where to even begin when you talk about a guy like Clint Buck. I can say a few things about Clint, some of which are true, and some of which are just barely not true as to make you think there's a good story behind the myth.
Clint Buck is the kind of guy and friend who you could call up and say: "Clint, it's a beautiful Saturday so we are going to go look for this treasure I heard about that's buried somewhere."
And Clint would say: "Well, okay. First we're going to need a map, some safari hats, and a couple of sturdy shovels."
The point is, Clint is the kind of person in your life who will indulge whatever dream you have--whether it be playing bass on all the little dinky songs I've written from the past ten years (HOLY CRAP, CLINT, WE'VE BEEN PLAYING TOGETHER FOR A DECADE) or being my wingman when I was trying to get a very special woman to notice me--Clint Buck is an extraordinary man of music, law, and character and I'm proud to wish him a very happy birthday!
If you are not aware, let me aware you: among all the wars we are fighting (the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on women, Food Wars, etc.) we also have a War on Christmas.
You might be asking yourself: "Hollis, what oil or natural resources does Christmas have that is worth going to war over?" The simple, mature answer is: Santa Clause. There are people in this country who hate Santa Clause's freedom. We intend to defend Christmas to the last ugly sweater and branch of poisoned mistletoe above the kitchen threshold.
The first battleground we fought to defend Christmas was at the Mission Open Air Market in South San Antonio yesterday morning. Yes, in front of the Mission Cafe with coffee cups drawn and our wives and fiances in attendance, we sang creamy eggnog Christmas melodies and laid down some sick Reindeer hoof beats for the shoppers in attendance that morning. Along the way, I took time to remind shoppers of the upcoming holiday.
Hollis: "Ladies and gentlemen, just to remind you: there are only 8 days until Christmas. If you haven't finished your shopping, this needs to happen NOW. What are you people doing? All the Christmas presents are nearly gone! At this rate, you'll have to just get the used circular saw blades available in booth 8 as stocking stuffers."
We had fun at the Mission Open Air Market and are looking forward to the next mission to save Christmas at the Bexar Pub on Dec. 23rd! We also put together a little Christmas recording and it is available on Bandcamp and embedded below. Have a great week! Get your shopping done!
"Crossword" was written some time in either 2008 or 2009. This song is heavily influenced by MGMT's sound on "Time to Pretend." The song originally featured an electric guitar playing what is now the distorted bass riff. It sounded way too thin with guitar and the beat didn't have any "punch" or direction.
I decided to mess around with taking out the electric guitar, distorting the bass, adding a slight touch of stereo delay to the drum beat, and a wicked keyboard theme/solo and then caking on layers of vocals to try and achieve a fun, indie type of sound with a drum track.
The distorted bass did wonders and is something I recommend when dealing with a riff or melody that sounds thin on electric guitar.
The vocals are a little different than any other song as well. On Danger as a whole I stepped back and tried to think about the limits of what I was doing and make it sound as good and exciting as possible within those limits. Singing loud, singing soft, singing high and low, singing with a funny voice and then completely sober--I wanted to get a little bit of everything. This was a tune I decided to "sing whisper" and then layer tracks to get a big, unique vocals sound. The lyrics are a little saccharine, but the melody and instrumental themes are pretty fun (I hope) for the listener. I had a dream of doing a video for the tune of a single take in the neighborhood and house I lived in when I was in school. In a lot of ways this is a very representative DANGER INVITES RESCUE song. It sounds like a song recorded joyfully by oneself in the quiet, dark comfort of an amateur home studio.
This is not going to be some sort of feel-good piece where I bait you into thinking I’m going to lay out a controversial opinion and then it switches into an ecumenical, feel-good article about how everyone’s musical tastes are different, how there’s no such thing as a “bad” instrument, and that it is all about the musicianship of the performer.
No, the worst instrument is the harmonica.
Simply put, this instrument should be played by no one and every moment of sound I’ve experienced from this noise vessel has been unpleasant.
It started out with a few arguments at parties. People would laugh, telling me I’m funny. How could anyone hold such an extremist view towards something like the harmonica? I doubt anyone has even thought about it before which makes it a novel opinion for people who don’t really pay attention to the sound which invades their ears. The sound of this small, seemingly innocent, free reed instrument drives me to a dark madness I hesitate to mention. The only sound worse than the harmonica is the sound of a harmonica player’s voice bloviating about the “craft” of playing harmonica. This “craft” is invented nonsense.
I started testing out my opinion on a more experienced audience: musicians. This did not go well. There is something about categorically labeling an instrument as “terrible” that really gets underneath harmonica players’ skins. Such snowflakes.
Yet, I remain steadfast and defiant in the face of this complacent, harmonica-apologist culture. Most music with a harmonica instantly sounds better if you simply take out the harmonica or substitute it with a different instrument–ANY INSTRUMENT. It doesn’t even need to be a real instrument. I’d rather hear looped sound of our sun exploding than listen to even the best harmonicist. Additionally, I think it’s a disgrace that the word “harmony,” one of the most beautiful elements of music, could ever get involved in the naming of this musical abomination. If you are a harmonicist, I implore you to stop. NOW. Abandon your weapon of discord and go and musically sin no more.
That is, unless your name happens to be John Popper, and you play for a little band called Blues Traveler.
If you are not familiar with Blues Traveler, they were (and are) a rock band SUPER popular in the 90’s featuring the melodious and birdsong-like harmonica lead from it’s front man, John Popper. A large, beautiful, enigmatically talented musician who has somehow managed to master the worst instrument that western culture has ever produced, John Popper playing a harmonica is akin to hearing a miracle take place in a pop song. When one hears John Popper play a harmonica, the whole body feels elevated or light, as if John Popper somehow discovered a way to dull the effect of gravity with his harmonica.
So I reached out to John Popper and Blues Traveller in a well-worded and thought out tweet claiming that his instrument is terrible and shouldn’t be played by anyone other than him.
Surprisingly enough John, or someone in the Blues Traveler crew who is a BIG fan of harmonica, tweeted back with a thoughtful and kind response.
I strongly recommend: Howard Levy,Jason Ricci,Lee Oskar,Charlie Musslewhite,Little Walter,& on chromatic harps(the kind w/the button),Stevie Wonder& Toots Thielmans...There are many great players,but alot of bad ones creating a low expectation...the harmonica will-— Blues Traveler (@blues_traveler) December 8, 2017
-allow some things to come easy (especially the diatonic “non button” kind)...but it can become annoying when the musicality isn’t absolutely persued...It’s doesn’t need to be about technical proficiancy as much as musicality...just look at Niel Young...He rocks! :)— Blues Traveler (@blues_traveler) December 8, 2017
That last part has stuck with me for the last couple of days:
...it can become annoying when the musicality isn’t absolutely persued...It’s doesn’t need to be about technical proficiancy as much as musicality...just look at Niel Young...He rocks!
This has made me stop my hatred for harmonica (briefly) and think about my own playing and writing. Have I been pursuing the musicality in the performance of my instrument? Or am I too focused on the technicality or some other aspect apart from just playing the music in a musical way for the song? Here’s a performer who has mastered and elevated an instrument otherwise relegated to hobos and miscreants giving a simple recommendation for us amateurs: Pursue Musicality.
Big thanks to @blues_traveler for weighing in and schooling me on harmonica. Below is a spotify playlist of the recommended harmonicists. Check them out and throw a little love towards the monster John Popper and the very rocking Blues Traveler on Twitter @blues_traveler.
My nephew just started his first year in band. He’s learning how to play the tuba and when I sat in on one of his parent-mandated practice sessions, it made me think about my own beginning in music and some of the things I’ve learned while learning how to play different instruments.
The first instrument I dedicated myself to learning was the trombone. I come from a musical family, and growing up, playing music was a family activity. I grew up with instruments being learned, practiced, and mastered, so there was a sense of a specific “path” in learning an instrument.
When kids start off with an instrument, unless they are some sort of prodigy or have the phenomenal ability to concentrate and focus on learning for long periods of time, there will inevitably be a period of “jacking around” on the instrument. As a kid, the ability to make noise is one of the only powers you have when you are short, broke, and have no autonomy. As such, it is tempting for kids under a certain age to get distracted and experiment with the instrument, making noise not related to any specific learning task. This is natural and can actually be very helpful for the learning process as a young student learns the range and scale of sound he or she can make on an instrument. It's like watching a baby learn to stand up and walk: it looks ugly at first, but the kid will find the right muscles, the parents will give lots of encouragement, and small victories while learning technique and tone will pave the way for advanced development.
There is a certain point where the small victories end and the "getting one's sea legs" must give way to maturity and focus, and a commitment to spend quality practice time with the instrument. All students of instrumental performance will hit a plateau when expanding a performer's range and general ability. This is a natural process and the eventual satisfaction gained from learning these more difficult concepts will shape a person. Taking private lessons takes on many of the more difficult aspects of academic learning, coupled with the physical requirement of learning the actions necessary to make sound and play songs on an instrument.
It is hardly ever considered as such, but in addition to the listening and technical knowledge aspects of playing music, there is a significant physical experience that is often overlooked. Playing any kind of instrument involves coordination, muscle exertion, in the cases of wind instruments, the production of air to cause the internal mechanism of the instrument to work. These physical movements can be awkward and challenging to learn for a beginner of any age and is a critcal part of learning how to make a great sound.
For your benefit, or the benefit of a young person in your life who is just starting his or her musical journey, here are five helpful tips to aid in learning how to play a new instrument.
Take Private Lessons - Get a great private lesson teacher. This can't be stressed enough. Learn the fundamentals of an instrument and learn to walk and run before you try to fly in an untraditional direction. You'll the need the technical and musical tools to make any type of sound worth listening to. Depending on your instrument, there may be a lot of options for this type of instruction. A good way to find a competent private lesson instructor is to visit or call your local music store. The staff at instrument shops will know the best performers and teachers in your area and will know the teachers who are best trained and experienced in instructing young students. Students often form a mentorship with these instructors and this positive early interaction with a trained musician provides an important early role model outside of a typical teacher or parent.
A private lesson teacher will also help direct your instruction. While it might be attempting to let yourself fuddle around on the instrument, only learning barely enough to play your most favorite songs, a lesson teacher can correctly identify what skills needed to be learned in a certain way and order to allow the student the best chance to succeed. This role of the private lesson teacher becomes important when a student does encounter the performance plateaus mentioned above.
Take care of your instrument
Most traditional rock instruments are quite easy to maintain and repair. This is where I have to make an important distinction between types of instruments. Clearly, no beginning trombonist will have the equipment to roll out dents in his or her slide, but the materials to clean and maintain a guitar, for example, are quite affordable.
Indeed, part of the process of learning how to play an instrument is actually learning what the damn thing is made of. There are plenty of YouTube videos which might explain this, however, I prefer for students to learn this with a qualified teacher or luthier (for guitarists).
The most fun and kind of bittersweet thing I did after I saved up money for my first new guitar was to promptly disassemble and inspect the first guitar I ever owned. It is much more difficult to fix things (especially in crunch time type of situations) if you do not have the experience of taking something apart and putting it back together again successfully. You should explore anything you don't understand about your rig. Know what the component and installed parts of your setup will give you a special type of command over your instrument--more so than people who view their instrument as something to be coddled and feared.
Play with other people
A lot of your musical development will, and must take place by yourself in the privacy of your personal practice time. Playing with others, however, allows you to test the techniques you learn out in the field with other musicians possibly of different ability. This special type of rehearsal is great becoming a well-rounded musician. It teaches you how to work with others, listen, make compromise, and perhaps pick up techniques from other musicians.
Find people in your city or town who want to play music and go for it! Go for it even if it is a style of music not in your wheelhouse. This type of experience helps you grow as a musician because you are having to stretch yourself to play for the enjoyment of someone else. This is a type of playing at your frontier which will be addressed below. They key is, do a GREAT job. Hate country music? Do you think all those guys are redneck, religious hillbillies? Get into that music and figure out why people like it. Are there opportunities to make money in a type of music you normally don't play? Why not if it means you will improve your chops, make some friends, and progress as a life-long musician?
Play and learn at your "frontier"
There are countless books and semi-helpful blog posts which purport to give the secret of successful and virtuoso musicians. Malcom Gladwell thinks it takes 10,000 hours of practice. The real answer is a concept called playing at your frontier. The concept was explained to me as such by Professor Don Lucas many years ago while I was taking trombone lessons from him as a relatively new trombonist.
You should play at your frontier. What is your frontier? It is the point in your playing where things start to break up and are difficult. Your frontier is the place just beyond your best ability. When you start living in your frontier, the frontier doesn't become the frontier any longer--it becomes your ability. This is a moving target and it should be. True practice is always a movement of ability. Some of it is painful and no fun some times. For some people it is meditative in a way like an athlete might practice and work out like a runner will pushing himself to break a previous time. Ideally this is something you want to teach students when they plateau, but most students will need a push in this direction to learn how to play and practice at their respective frontiers.
I hardly ever hear of folks putting this into practice, but it's made a huge difference in my playing and I've observed it make a difference in the playing of others. When I have spoken to musicians about the way they play and practice, I always ask if they ever record themselves. They typically respond with a shocked and embarrassed expression and say something to the effect of "Oh, no. I'd never do that. I hate to listen to the sound of my (instrument, voice, etc) on a recording.
For those of you who feel this way, I have some tough news: the way you sound on a simple live recording is the way you sound to other people. Good, bad, or whatever is in between. The modern human mind can tell the difference between "digital hiss" on a lo-fi recording and overall bad playing. If it makes you cringe to hear yourself on a recording, what do you think others think about it?
Everyone should make a habit out of recording themselves play. Listen to yourself play or sing new songs as you learn them and identify the "pain points." Where are you weakest spots? What stands out in the recording as being amateurish or not sounding good? These pain points in your playing are where you must focus your work. A private lesson teacher will be useful in guiding your practice toward the specific techniques to master to correct those failures. Some private lesson teachers will even allow you to record your lessons, providing an invaluable tool for retention of key concepts.
It is also encouraging to go back and listen to one's progress, either on one song or over months or years. Recording has always been one of my favorite things to do. The nature of music is temporal, and capturing it and reveling in it on a recorded medium provides a special type of musical satisfaction. I have profoundly improved in my guitar playing, songwriting, and singing as a result of recording frequently and often, and then making a point to listen to the recording at least once.
The technology is easy, available, and pretty cheap for what skillful hands can turn into great results. If you have a smartphone, there are many inexpensive and free apps that can create high quality recordings using the smartphone's built in microphone. Do it. LISTEN TO IT. Get great!
If you are learning a new instrument I would love to hear from you.
"Brother Danger" was written in 2007 and evolved from a song about a fictional heart surgeon. It roughly turned into a musical song poem with imagery taken from thoughts I had about my dad, my dad's dad, my friend's dad. my dad's uncle, and my maternal grandfather. It's a song about men. It features turns of phrase with religious and political ideas informing the characters in the narrative. It is a serious song, but one should understand and hear the acoustic guitar rhythm part to sound like a consistent march forward and unwavering hope for redemption and meaning in a harsh world.
This is a "quiet-loud" song. Thick keyboard noise is caked on to serve as a surreal instrumental backdrop. The keyboards whine as if something imminent is about to occur as the acoustic guitar repeats a terse, heavy, acoustic , choral riff. The drums are fake drums from a keyboard mixed to sound like what drums from a Genesis or Peter Gabriel song would sound like. The haunting chorus and reverb-laden vocals chant out a song about a traveller who is driving and runs out of gasoline in a small rural community. A good samaritan on the road picks him up and gives him gas money. The kind stranger turns out to be his father who is very shell-shocked and miserable from all the hardships he has faced in life. He takes him home to meet his fun, adventurous uncle who celebrates getting to meet his nephew with playing bassoon and smoking cigars.
The traveller decides to settle down and buy a farm, but the every-day life of living in a small, rural community starts to weigh on him and his crops start going rotten. He gets a job when he loses the farm but find that he can't work for anyone and the life he though he would have of adventure and wealth will not come true.
The traveler, having failed at farming and traditional work, turns to God and country, but nightmares haunt him still about the seeming meaninglessness of a life of struggle. As he takes communion he hopes that Jesus will take notice of his life.
I joined the mob; I called it macaroni.
I started having some bad ol' dreams.
I went to church. I drank a thimble full of Jesus.
I hope he pours one out for me.
Brother Danger from the album "Danger" is available on Bandcamp.
I know you have felt it: that feeling of recklessness, coupled with creativity, mixed with interest, with a dash of energy for a new thing. The feeling of inspiration is a powerful, wonderful productive, and creative force in our lives; though it’s sometimes difficult and inexplicable to harness and put into practice in our everyday, uncreative, make-ends-meet lives.
There are people who feel inspiration through romantic love interests, extended travels, a hard life lived, and drug-fueled, bacchanal reveries. Western culture is replete with these themes in art and music and the values and issues the everyman experiences and is drawn to express remain timeless.
For many artists, what inspires them is life experience and the task of expressing some greater meaning through their medium.
There have been many times in my life when I have felt (for a lack of better words) "dry." There is this feeling I get when I am playing by myself and nothing sounds right. The old songs sound too old and stale. There are no new ideas which appeal to me. It can be depressing.These I feel this way it's a lot like depression in that I can't imagine not feeling this way--not feeling the absence of that magical, euphoric ingredient: inspiration. You can read many self-help books about creativity and the psychology of the creative mind, but I offer you a quick list of suggestions to get you out of that rut should you ever feel the overwhelming weight of a creative rut:
1. Go to a museum - There is nothing like a different artistic medium to gin up thoughts you might not otherwise create in a vacuum of vapid pop-culture, click-bait, buzz-feed nonsense. Bonus creative points are awarded if you take a friend or group of friends. The beauty of visual art which recorded and live music cannot accommodate is that visual mediums provide an optimal environment for discussion. Visual medium is static; music is temporal. It is exactly this difference which can make you think differently about songwriting and can inspire you to next-level thinking and feeling.
2. Go on a date - A large percentage of the songs in western culture have to do with romance, or rather, the pursuit of romance. Even if you are currently in a committed relationship or are married, taking your partner on a date and expressing love and affection can do wonders for catching a little creative fire. Bonus points awarded if there is a creative activity involved. Don't just go do dinner and a movie. Prepare a picnic and pack delicious food. Serenade your lover on a blanket in the park. Have a real conversation and get out of your own head by concentrating on someone else. It will do your relationship wonders and this unselfish, empathetic attitude may give you a spark to tell a wonderful love story.
3. Go see a (great) musician or band play - In my opinion, this is the best method for getting inspired. There is a bittersweet feeling in listening and watching a band play who is so good and successful. Part of the feeling is joy and awe at the incredible music you are listening to and seeing performed, and the other part is kind of the "icky" self-conscious feeling you get when you see someone perform who is superior to you. That's good, though! USE IT! Go home and apply what you have learned from superior musicians and make your music better! Learn a new technique and actively master it. The great thing about music is that there will always be someone better than you. Don't be sad about it (for too long). Go out there and see what is at the frontier and push toward that. That excitement and awe you feel could someday be felt by someone else.
Singing a song and learning the lyrics to a song must be one of the first musical actions any new musician makes. As we grow older, we take in more music, our taste broadens, and we commit songs to memory which relate to very intimate parts of our soul. When I was 14 I used to make tapes of the radio and listen to them transcribing the words to certain songs that caught my attention and sparked my imagination. One of these tunes was a song called “Burn and Rob” by an indie folk artist named Paleface the college radio station at Tech used to play occasionally.
This song is a satiric take on a man who listens to a rock and roll record in a store and then commits his life to depravity, violence, and anarchy. The song is really funny and the kind of thing that appeals to a nerdy 14-year old.
After taping the song, I sat down and transcribed the lyrics into a tattered spiral notebook. In my weird day dreams I thought there might be a situation where I might need to know the lyrics to this song— so I set out to learn the words.
I can’t remember exactly if I had any sort of system. Most likely I listened to the tape of the song repeatedly, trying to absorb the lyrics of the tune subconsciously. I thought, repetition was the key to learning what seemed like a large amount of material. For me, this was a mistake, and I later learned to approach learning the lyrics to the song (and thereby learning the song) in a much different manner.
Through a lot of practice with varying results, I have come upon a good way to learn a modern rock or pop song.
- Find an overall “narrative” for the song - what kind of song is this? Is it telling a story? Is it a conversation? How is it divided, organized, and set up? Answering these questions and “outlining” the structure of a new song is helpful to set up as the first and strongest memory of the song. In the event that you mis-sing a lyric or get distracted, you have a good reference to allow you to just to the next portion of the song in a confident way.
- Learn the first lines of each verse - This is a critical component of the strategy set out in the first step. As long as you know the first line or two of a verse, even during a disastrous performance, you have a reference for the location in the song a diverse enough snap shot of what the song is about for the listener to follow along.
- Start practicing early from memory. This one initially wasn't obvious as I spent a lot of time looking at the lyric sheet to make recordings. The problem is when you read, your brain isn't set to "memorize mode" without some serious concentration. Go ahead and sing a verse by memory. Then get the first line of the next verse and on and on until you've got the song down. Memorizing the song isn't just about the words, it's the muscle memory from the "feeling" of singing it. Even if you you know all the pitches of the lyrical notes, you still need the feeling and experience which comes from making the actual noise with your actual instrument (or voice).
My last bit of advice is to get out and play new things for people. Family and friends of musicians often have to endure this, but it is a special experience to hear a song from its terrible, infant stages, to a middle part where you start to hear improvement, and then to the performance of a completely memorized song performed live. You are giving those people a peek behind the curtain and maybe in a subconscious way letting them in to hear how the sausage is made. It's not pretty a lot of times, but not everyone has heard it either.
Good luck on your song-memorization adventures. What techniques do you use to memorize the lyrics to a song? What is the most difficult song you've ever memorized?
We're 27% there folks! Great job! It has been a lot of fun seeing the contributions light up my phone and reaching out and chatting with those of you who have backed our campaign. This is happening! Thank you so much!
Clint Buck and I got together this past Sunday and played 14 love songs in my living room while having brunch. It's a long video, so if you'd like to skip along to your favorites, the set list is below. Happy Valentine's Day!
- Just What I Needed - The Cars
- Ask - The Smiths
- Stand By Me - Ben E. King
- Sink to the Bottom - Fountains of Wayne
- I Think We're Alone Now - Timmy James and the Shondelles
- Brand New Key - Melanie
- Baby One More Time - Britney Spears
- Roll To Me - Del Amitri
- Fields of Gold - Sting
- I Feel Fine - The Beatles
- The Idea of Growing Old - The Features
- You Got Lucky - Tom Petty
- I Will Always Love You - Dolly Parton
- You Got It - Roy Orbison
Song: "The Label On Your Sleeve"
After I left Austin in 2006, I had a "regathering" type of moment where I hung out in my apartment in Arlington and listened to and (tried) writing and recording as much as I could. I was working a job close by where I was making a little bit more money and after hitting up open mics in Dallas and traveling to see many of my favorite bands live, I had a good idea of where I wanted my "sound" to go and what I was capable of.
I had just heard Arcade Fire at ACL 2006 and remembered loving the kind of serious but high tension mood their droning, repetetive verse beat style. Driving, disco "four-on-the-four" like you had a drummer stuck on the roof and told him to beat his kick and not to stop until the record is done.
This was fully fleshed out in my parents's garage on Christmas Eve of 2007. The original title of the song was "Pennant" like the kind of university pennant you might see at a 1950's college football game. I had the lead melody and the "theme" of the tune in my head for some time. I could hear it like it was bells or trumpets playing-something "glorious" and heralding like a fight song at a football game.
The drums aren't real. They are individual drum sounds from a Casio keyboard I played live into the recording to the click track. I could never get the drums to sound quite right, but they are passable. When I play this song live, I find myself wanting to go quite a bit faster and sing more like David Byrne. I wanted joyous, but "high tension."
The lyrics are about getting close and physical--how sometimes the first touches are the strangest and weirdest--with another person. It's kind of like that weird "touching" thing a teenage guy might do at the movies while he's got his arms crossed--it's that little "I want to hold your hand" motion. I'd like to know the over-under on that weird "touching" thing those guys are doing.
This is the first of many songs I would write trying to imitate The Features. Funny story: I posted this on The Features Fans online community board and no one responded. I suppose listening back it sounds a little rough, but still not bad for where I was in the process of learning to write songs and record them.
I feel the warmth inside your cashmere
I only wish I was the label on your sleeve
Maybe then I could be next to you
But instead I'll have to dream of ways to be
Close to you
So here it is in its full glory:
Two great producers were given the stems to the song "A Werewolf's Been There" from the upcoming record Rescue. Which sounds better: A or B? Follow the Soundcloud link below to listen to WEREWOLF A vs WEREWOLF B
During my junior year in college, I lived in Glasgow, Scotland studying abroad at the University of Glasgow. One of the first things I did after settling in to the neighborhood was finding a local music store and buying an acoustic guitar. One of the easiest ways to find other musicians and make friends is finding a local open mic to play. I got lucky in this respect as there were many open mic nights at nearby pubs and student unions and some of the pubs hosting them even offered a free pint for musicians who performed.
One of the open mics I played was a pub called Whistler’s Mother (named after the famous painting from James McNeill Whistler). The host was a guy named Andrew McGregor who ran the open mic with his friend Lindsey. They played mostly cover songs to start the open mic and created a very friendly and inviting atmosphere. Andy’s brother Stuart tended bar and was also a talented musician with his own band. The first night I played open mic at the Whistler’s I had the notion to let my freak flag fly a little and play some weirder, original songs. I made some sort of impression on Andy (not necessarily a good one) and he approached me afterward and talked about music and recording. He invited me to his home studio located in his dad’s print shop in a town about an hour away called Largs.
I met him early on a Saturday morning next to the Whistler's Mother. I had my guitar, a tuner, and a notepad with ideas for a couple of tunes I wanted to record. He picked me up in his small red hatchback and we headed for his little seaside hometown of Largs.
What a nice, interesting fellow musician! Here he was, getting up early on a Saturday morning. How cool was this situation I stumbled into simply by playing at an open mic?
On the way out of town, Andy turned to me and asked: "Hollis, did you know I'm a viking?"
Panic immediately set in as I thought how dumb it was to get in a car with a Scottish stranger. "I'm about to be kidnapped, or murdered, or molested, or all three," I thought.
Andy continued: "Largs has a viking museum as it was the last point of entry when the vikings invaded Scotland. I give tours and bang a battle axe on a shield and scare the wee kids. My viking name is 'Ragnor'."
I started breathing again taking comfort in the fact that the worst Andy would do to me is attack me with a medieval weapon (which he later confirmed he possessed).
We drove an hour to his home town of Largs along the coast of the island--a beautiful little sea-side Scottish shire with plenty of gambling machines and places to eat fish and chips. I expected we would record in Andy's garage at his house or maybe set up a few microphones in a living room, which is why I was so confused when we pulled up to what turned out to be a print shop.
Andy’s home studio just happened to be located in his father’s print shop: a larger warehouse with printing technology ranging from large, laser printers to century-old printing machines with moveable type. The “studio” was located in a closet. Inside the closet was a large, custom-built computer running some version of Cubase which required a USB dongle to be inserted into the computer while running (remember the days?), a tall chair, a control surface with the model name of “Houston” (perhaps to launch a rocket, Andy frequently joked), a 88-key midi keyboard, and some cables hanging carefully from nails equidistantly plunged into the shelving unit above the keyboard.
It didn’t look like much, but I knew that great recordings had been done with less, so I was happy to throw my songs in Andy’s hands to see what kind of recording we could get.
Watching Andy work was stunning. He was an incredible piano player, and knew how to coax all sorts of great sounds from his keyboard. He also worked quickly and efficiently on the Houston. It was amazing to watch him work. When we think of recording engineers working in a studio, we get the image a guy passively moving faders up and down and twisting knobs occasionally—not so with Andy. After every track was recorded, Andy's real work began with editing, mixing, and doing the work of a producer to guide the song idea into a recording which would sound even better than what I could have dreamed. That is one of the real challenges of a producer. While an artist may come to the table with the component parts and ideas for a song or album, the monumental technical and artistic task largely resides with the person in charge of running the recording session. Perhaps an artist may come into the studio with an idea of a song he wants to sound like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but what part of that hit and his or her song does that likeness intertwine? Is it the killer, memorable guitar riff? Is it the vocal sound of 90’s teenage angst? Is it an ineffable mood aspect of the song that inspires him or her to make that comparison? Such is the challenge and the heroics of a good, competent recording engineer and producer. In professional settings these roles are usually separate, but for the more budget projects all these roles are relegated to the songwriter who might be recording the album on his own.
I fought a fight internally for a while for Rescue over whether I should complete each stage of the recording process with a professional: going to a professional studio and having an engineer record and mix the tunes; maybe having a figure in the local music scene with a particular and apparent talent for recording and production produce the record—guide the record into something worthy of attention. In the end I chose to serve these roles by myself not be because I thought I could do them better but because I wanted the time to learn and do it myself. While I will certainly be calling on professionals to help me finish the record, part of the “artistry” I hope people get from the album is a DIY aesthetic and a sense of artist growth.
I am better for doing this album and I am better for all the different people I have learned from (ahem…a one Andrew Robert McGregor). It is special for me to do the recording part of this project by myself, but there is no way I could have done it without the experience of learning from talented professionals.
If you want to record. find someone great in the studio and learn everything you can from them. What does their workflow look like? What special techniques do they employ on each track recording? How thorough are they? Do they make you do lots of takes until a line is clean and performed well? What can you steal from them (ideas and techniques--not actual property or equipment).
Happy New Year! I love celebrating and thinking about the upcoming year during January--then I promptly break all my resolutions between February through December. Here are my musical resolutions for this year. Will you help me keep them? What are your resolutions for 2017--musical or otherwise?
1. Go see more live, LOCAL shows - There are so many amazing things happening with music in San Antonio that it gives me a renewed sense of urgency to find allies and inspiration in this beautiful town. When I was in Lubbock, I had a history with the city--I'm attempting to build these things here in San Antonio and part of that is engaging and supporting the artistic community that is already here working.
2. Play more live shows - As I've gotten older I find myself going inward, headphones on doing recording and playing mostly at the house and with close friends. This needs to stop. As much as I'd like to invite everyone to take the magical journey with me through my recorded songs, people want to hear live music and they want to be amazed.
3. Make better music - I want to try to actually improve and learn more this year on my instruments, vocals, guitar, trombone, and recording. I want to expand my range and technical ability in these areas.
4. Take care of my most important instrument - I've always said the most important instrument a musician has is his ears, but I'm expanding to include the entire body for this post. As musicians, many of us forget that there is a physicality (or should be) to the art of creating music. We have to make physical exertions and movements to sing, play guitar, and especially for horn and woodwind instruments. I look forward to really do the things (and not do the other things) this year to take care of my health and make these musical "exertions" sound better.
5. Release "Rescue" - This recording I'm sitting on has been like a musical unicorn for me, and not in a magical, colorful fantasy-horse way either. It's officially been almost six years since I started writing these songs. They are almost done but little nagging things keep me from just doing it. There is the desire to release on vinyl, which increases cost. There is the want for the songs to have it mixed professionally--to have a guiding hand mix the tunes in the most appetizing way for someone to listen.. there is also the dream of having the perfect album graphics to package up this group of songs like a beautiful Christmas present waiting to be opened. These are just a couple of the things that represent a lot of time and money that should be spent on this project--this beautiful, aged project desperate to be released on the world.
Below is a little video of Auld Lang Syne I recorded a few years ago.
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