Riot Band Blues was a fiction series that ran on ultimate-guitar.com in ninety-one chapters, from February 27, 2009 to January 21, 2011. It followed the adventures of the university band Riot Band through the eyes of Eric, as he, Ryan and Jed try to get their act, and their lives together.
In April and May this year, two high school classes in Kansas City, under the direction of teacher Dan Duncan, studied the story. Duncan had his students write questions about the story, and they were forwarded to me. I answered them and returned them to be discussed in class.
For the interest of those who read the story here on U-G, I am sharing the questions and answers. For those who are unfamiliar with the story but are interested, you can find the first chapter here.
A second group of questions will be added shortly. * * * *
It seems as if Eric, the narrator of Riot Band Blues, uses his size to intimidate other people. What is the significance of this in regards to his character? (Justin Elliot)
Eric definitely uses his size to intimidate in the early stages of the story. That reflects his background of growing up in a rougher rural setting, and also reflects his sports experience as a young person, where intimidation is a necessary aspect of physical competition in contact sports. It reflects his rather simplistic way of interacting with people after arriving in what is, for him, a relatively big city.
It stems from insecurity. He's big, but he's young and not very socially skilled. So when he needs to negotiate his way through a difficult situation, his default response is to try and intimidate and threaten violence, like when he threatens to crush a rival musician's skull like a teacup.
Later, as he starts to learn that this isn't the way to operate within a more nuanced social environment, Eric begins to talk his way through situations more, and that's a key part of his character development.
I think the theme of text is "finding yourself." Do you see all of your characters finding themselves once they were in the band? (Charles Mayfield)
No, I don't think the characters necessarily find themselves. They are searching, that's for sure. I think people at this point of their lives, when they are still young students, hich school and university aged, are still very incomplete. People's personalities are formed, but they're still inexperienced. They're meeting new people and being exposed to different things. Their interests can change a lot over short spaces of time.
We watch the characters, especially Eric, as he learns and grows, but even by the end of the story it's too early to say that he's found himself. But definitely, personal growth and development, and in that sense "finding yourself," is definitely one of the major themes.
What do you see as James's role in the text since he never joins the band? (Andrea Davis)
Like a lot of the supporting characters in the story, James is mostly there as a device. Because he appears with some regularity through the whole story we do get to know him a bit, but he's there largely to help move the story along, and also to teach Eric and Ryan lessons. For example, when Riot Band is forming a very aggressive, confrontational relationship with the band Seriosity, James is there to demonstrate that not all the members of a "rival" band will necessarily think and act the same way.
Later on it's convenient to have James reappear and help Eric out. He's one of the few friends that Eric finds outside of either Riot Band or his love interests.
Eric breaks up with Sash before the book starts. Why is there so little information on their relationship? (Luis Rodriguez)
The relationship itself is not central to the story, but the fact that it just ended is important. Eric is lost and heartbroken at the beginning of the story because he's just been dumped. Along with his girlfriend, he's also lost the only social circle he'd found in his new city, so he's lonely and vulnerable. Ryan on the other hand, gets kicked out of his own first band in the very first chapter. Ryan is in the process of getting kicked out of his band when Eric first meets him.
In this sense, the boys both find each other on the rebound. They've both just lost friends, and so they attach themselves to one another by forming a band. If they weren't both in those situations, they likely never would have even met, let alone started playing music together.
Why do you think Jed wanted to join the band in the first place, since he always seems ready to stop and quit the group? (Dara Alvarado)
Like the manager Nick, Jed is what I view as a "scenster." He wants to be involved in things, even if he knows what he's getting involved in is ridiculous. My take on Jed when he first joins Riot Band is that he views it as a silly challenge for himself, to see if he can help this obvious joke of a band function. And the animosity from Eric is very obvious, so it adds to the ridiculousness for him. But because he's taking it on, almost as a joke, it's easy for him to back out and say, "No, this isn't interesting anymore, I'd rather do something else." He doesn't invest himself emotionally in Riot Band until much later in the story, when he starts contributing to the songwriting and the creative side of things more.
What was the significance of not having more of a definite ending to the story? (Evan Cowan and Broderick Crawford) Why wasn't there a more obvious climax to the text? (Tevin Newton and Carolyn Rorer) Why wasn't there more closure to the story? (Marcus Robinson)
A lot of it had to do with burnout. Riot Band Blues had been planned as a series, not a traditional novel, so the idea was that it could just keep going and going. I had a vague idea that I would do something like three hundred chapters, which was insane. I would have had to write a chapter a week for six years with no breaks to reach that goal.
In later chapters I was starting to get fatigued with the whole process, and I running out of interesting places to carry the story. I tried to solve this by introducing more and more characters and variables, but instead of carrying the story forward, it was just muddying the water.
I eventually decided to end it at one hundred chapters, but as that was getting closer and closer, I still wasn't getting a clear view of how to close the story. There was no significant story arc, it wasn't moving toward a really powerful conclusion, and try as I might I wasn't able to come up with something worthwhile.
I found that I was just knocking off each chapter just to fulfill a weekly obligation. The material was getting weaker and it was absolutely exhausting to write each week. That really wasn't how I wanted the thing to end, so I settled on writing one single, strong final chapter that would be intentionally vague so that the readers could imagine it going any direction they wanted.
You make the characters seem super realistic. Were any of them based on other people in your life or how you see yourself? (Sharon Hanson)
I've often privately joked that all of my characters are based on me, and to a certain extent it's true. I have to judge whether people's words or actions are believable. But no one in this story, Eric included, is based directly on myself or anyone else.
When I develop characters, I try to identify a character trait, and attach that to a physical trait. Then I let the action of the story fill in everything else, so that the reader gets to know the characters by how they dress, speak and act. For example, with Jed, you hear that he's tall and he has a handlebar mustache, and I let the reader's imagination fill in everything else. I don't like to dwell too much on descriptions, because they can get tiresome to read (and to write). I identify things that become representative of a person. Jed's mustache. Ryan's curly hair. Conrad's shaved head and crazy eyes.
No one in this story is based on real people, but I'll take something I've seen and use it as a detail to make a character realistic.
Actually, having said all that, I admit that both Conrad and Jasmine were partly inspired by people I met, although I didn't really know them very well. They just showed up and acted crazy enough that many years later I saw a place for them in this story. But even then, you're taking a brief moment of seeing a person, and then making up a whole new person (the character) based on a single tiny incident.
Why is the narrator the character with the least amount of talent but also the character that becomes the "ladies' man"? (Andrea Davis)
Well, Eric never really scores with chicks just because he's in a band. Neither Jasmine or Lise are really "groupies" in the traditional sense. They might think it's cool that he's in a band, but his talent or ability is not necessarily a factor, because both girls hook up with him before actually seeing him perform.
I'm also not sure I would describe Eric as a "ladies' man" necessarily, because he's never really pursuing the girls. They have a tendency to come to him. He's just lucky that he's attractive enough, and has a quietly naive charm about him.
Do you see Eric's living conditions being symbolic with where he is with his life at that point? (Evan Cowan)
Yes, absolutely. And as much as Eric sees himself as this big tough guy, he allows himself to be put into these ridiculous living arrangements. A closet? Are you kidding me? Where's your dignity, dude? Where's your backbone?
But it speaks to what his concerns are. He might not like these situations, but changing them is never his highest priority. He's too disorganized, too lazy, and frankly, just not concerned enough with his material environment to change his situations. He's too wrapped up with what's going on in his head and heart to worry about where he's sleeping every night.
What is the significance of the motif of alcohol consumption and what do you see it representing in the story? (Ben Franco)
A good deal of that has to do with my own experience during university, when I was playing music with a band. I wanted this story to reflect the tone of my experiences, without copying actual events, and what I saw as a musician was a lot of people drinking at bars and parties.
I think I show alcohol consumption in a balanced manner. The characters definitely drink a lot, but it's not glorified. Drinking is a two-sided coin. People drink to have fun. That's why alcohol is a billion-dollar industry. People like to drink and party. But there's also the other side: people make bad decisions and say stupid, regrettable things when they're drinking. They do stupid, rash things. And alcohol is involved in just about everything that goes wrong for Eric in the story.
Why is it so important that the band play original music? (Ashlyn Lipnicky)
With bands, there are two directions you can go. You can become a cover band, or you can become an originals band. Cover bands get to make money by playing bars and hotel lounges, but it's almost impossible for them to go beyond that scene. The ceiling is very low.
Originals bands usually make terrible money when they're starting out. It's difficult, especially if you're trying new material and your songwriting is not top notch. However, any band or artist that gets famous will do it on the strength of original material. Pop stars who don't always write their own stuff would be exceptions, but even they have paid songwriters producing "original" material for them.
Most bands start out playing covers, but if they decide they want to try and make a name for themselves, they'll start writing their own stuff, try to find an original sound, and try to find fans by playing their own songs. This is true for the characters in Riot Band Blues.
For each of the characters there is a point when they realize that writing songs is not just an obligation so the band has original stuff to play. It becomes a creative outlet for them. Jed only comes back to the band when they allow him to start influencing the sound and playing his own songs. And for Eric, he finds that he's able to express himself and work through his personal issues through songwriting.
In a lot of ways, Eric grew up as the quintessential jock. He's the tough-guy hockey playing kid who was raised to think that expressing emotions or creating anything artistic makes you soft and weak and vulnerable, so when he starts to take songwriting seriously, it shows an important stage in his development into a more mature person.