On Saturday we had our usual rehearsal in Nick's basement. This time Ryan had to leave early to go to work, so both he and the ever-present eye of Emily's video camera left around three. Conrad had to take off too. He apparently had a date to meet up with some chick for coffee. I had an image of some horrible looking burnt-out hippie chick, but I gave our drummer the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was not technically homeless at the moment, so maybe he could draw a hot chick.
Jed and I had nothing special to do, so we decided to hang back and do some jamming for new material. He got out from behind the keyboard and picked up the electric guitar that sat down there. He still played it in some songs, so he just left it there for rehearsals.
We sat down facing each other and got in tune. Nick could see this didn't really involve him very much, so he went upstairs.
"We haven't worked on much new stuff for a while," he said, and he started absentmindedly strumming. "It's always just covers."
"There's an agenda for it though, right?" I said as a started picking at the strings. Since playing around on some of the guitars I'd come to appreciate picking over plucking, and was playing that way more and more. "It gives us more flexibility. We can go after different gigs if we can do some covers. We can play them in our own style, so there's not much artistic compromise."
"Yeah, I know," he said. "I've come around to it. I'm even going to go with Nick when he goes out to that Grill House place. I want to get that gig and get some money for doing all this. I'm going to be completely ironic about it though. If we get the gig I'm going to dress like a cowboy when we play. And not just a hat. Like, a full head-to-toe cowboy outfit, complete with toy gun and sheriff's badge."
"That's cool," I said. "I'll dress like a pirate. Wait, were you thinking Halloween, or The Village People?"
"Neither, I was thinking about making fun of the crowd that goes to that place. It's going to be full of rednecks, and unless we had a ton of people there to support us, we'll probably get a rough ride."
"It's possible. I don't think we're going to get bottled or anything, but it might not be a positive reception."
"So why agitate people by dressing to mock them?" I said with a grin.
"I don't know. Defiance." His play got faster and he got into a rhythm, and we started working.
I don't know how the hell it happened that as a group we never hit a creative dry-spell. Maybe the brief breakup over Christmas had something to do with it, but someone in the band was always working on new material to introduce. If one person hadn't come up with any ideas, another person would have, and everybody was fighting to keep up. We were competitive about maintaining a contributor's voice in the band, so Jed, Ryan and I were constantly trying to bring in something new. A lot of stuff got modified or combined, but we weren't competitive about that stuff. We just wanted to bring something.
All the same, when the next Tuesday rolled around, we again opened with a few new covers. This time we were a little less clever with our choices, going a shitty commercial radio route, picking Green Day, White Stripes and Nirvana. Still, it was a quick little set, and even though we'd chosen the songs as a result of a time-crunch compromise, the crowd that showed up gave us a good reception.
There was more flow this time from the Thursday night crowd to our Tuesday night. Apparently showing up for a Thursday show had reminded people we were around. I still got the idea that people were showing up as much for the promise of a party in a scuzzy-but-safe bar that had cheap bottled domestic beer. And I wasn't sure how many of them would make a trip to a bar like The Grill House, that had a decidedly older clientele, and tended to be pretty rough.
That was the first Tuesday that we got any money from Kieth for bar sales over the hundred dollar base that he'd paid us weeks ago. It was a good sign.
On Thursday, Lise and I went on our own to Jake's Restaurant to see what the bands we like. We wanted a night out to ourselves without the rest of the band, and since Jake's was the bar where Lise could get served without ID, that was the place for us.
It was sort of a celebration for us. On Friday I was due to receive my first check for my job at the hamburger place, and Lise had also landed a crappy part-time service industry job at a lottery kiosk at the mall. So we were happy with our lives for the moment because, although we really hadn't made our lives better, we could at least alleviate some of our financial worries.
We were happy to run into James, our former convenience store co-worker. He was there to play with a band, although it wasn't his usual group, The Urges.
"New group," he said, gesturing to some guys tinkering with their gear on stage. "I'm playing drums instead of bass or guitar. We're called The Technology Gizmos."
"What happened to The Urges?" I asked. "Did you guys break up?"
"No, no," he laughed. "We're playing here again next week. But it's so easy to get a gig here, a lot of musicians are putting together side-projects and one-offs and stuff like that. I don't know if I'll play again with this bunch, but it should be fun tonight."
"Cool. Good luck."
Lise and I had a few drinks and talked with some people that we knew. When The Technology Gizmos got ready to play we went up to the small clear floorspace in front of the stage. They played some kind of shoe-gazer type stuff, where they would hang around a beat and just riff and riff the hell out of it with very little variation. They had a groove, and their songs were long. There was something there.
It was nice to dance to a band that was just doing its thing. It was funny to think that I hadn't even been to see a band play or danced in front of a stage until I was in a band myself. But all of this stuff was feeling more and more natural.
Lise and I went outside and split a joint after the first band, and when we came back in, we got drinks, took a table in an out-of the-way place, and just sat watching the crowd. It was an amazing dynamic.
We weren't watching as the second band took the stage because we were making out. We weren't doing the full-on open mouth thing, but we were rubbing noses and getting into each other's space. It was probably enough to qualify for a cute-affectionate-gross display, but not actually disgusting-gross.
The second band started playing, and I sat up and took notice. They sounded different than every other band that had crowded the little stage at Jake's. They sounded professional.
I had a look, and they were an older group, probably all around thirty years old. They looked slick, like they'd played a thousand gigs together, and their sound was very polished, very full. Their songs were nothing special. No covers that I recognized. I was pretty sure they were all originals. I thought they sounded like formula radio rock, but they were polished, that was for sure.
They played a set that was a little short of the hour mark, and although I didn't stare transfixed at the stage the whole time they were playing, I was definitely aware of them.
Lise and I were both feeling the drinks by the time they finished their set, but I made sure we stuck around long enough that I could talk to these guys. I caught up with them as they were finishing their tear down.
"Hey," I said to their singer. They had a standard five man set-up: singer, two guitars, bass, drums. The singer was waiting while the guys locked their gear into cases. I caught his attention. "I'm Eric," I said. "My band plays here pretty often, but I haven't seen you guys before."
He turned around and gave me a big smile, then shook my hand. "First time here," he said, "but we've been around."
"You sound really tight," I said. "Have you guys played a lot of shows?"
"Oh, yeah. A couple hundred."
My jaw slightly dropped. I hung around and chatted with them and got their whole story. They'd been playing together for six years, and had made a lot of money playing as a cover act. Like my buddy Knelson and his cover-crew Crankshaft, these guys spent most of their weekends playing bars around Garrison Valley and the small towns for a few hundred kilometers in all directions.
"Those weren't covers you were playing here," I said.
"No," the singer said. "We've always written our own stuff, but we don't usually get a chance to play it. Some places we'll stick songs in, and people won't recognize it, so they stop paying attention. Eventually you just think what's the point, right?"
He shrugged. "That's why we're playing here, because we can play our own stuff."
"Oh, man," I said. "That's so weird. My band plays here all the time, and we're trying to learn enough covers that we can start playing those bars. You know, for the money."
"Sure," he said. "Just don't get stuck there." He looked at Lise and me. "Come on, let's grab a beer."
"We're getting close to the end of this," he told us as he sipped from a bottle. "Our window of opportunity is closing. We'd be able to keep making some money for a while longer, but if we ever want to do anything playing our own stuff, we have to get at it. Otherwise we'd never play here. It doesn't pay anything."
"I'm really confused now," I said. "We've been working hard toward playing a place like The Grill House so we could get some actual money for playing."
"You can still play The Grill House," he said. "Just try to brand yourself as something other than just a plain old cover band. Don't get up there and do 'Mustang Sally' and all that old crap. I bet I've had to sing 'Mustang Sally' two hundred times. I hate that song."
"Yeah. Look man, thanks." I shook his hand. "You've given me something to think about."
Lise and I went back to the house. Smoky was there in the living room. He still had on his steel-toed boots from his job at the home improvement warehouse. He was playing video games.
"How's it going, guys?" he said as we came in. "You have fun?"
"We did at first," Lise said, and then she slapped my arm. "This guy started moping just as we were getting ready to come home."
"I'm not moping," I said. "I just don't know what to do. Playing in a band is so full of traps." I sat down heavily on the couch.
"What's your problem?" Smoky said, not taking his eyes off his game.
"It's stupid," I said. "The only way you can make money is by doing covers, but then you get stuck never breaking through with your own material. If you play your own material, that's great, congratulations, but you're stuck making bad money, with terrible odds of actually achieving any commercial success. What a pain in the ass."
"Yeah, poor baby," Smoky said. "To hell with it. Have a good time and make what money you can. Shit, how many people do you meet that just play in a band for a living? Nobody can just do that forever, unless you're a real monster player. Just have fun while you can. Like me. You think I want to sell pot my whole life? I'm just enjoying the time."
"Thanks," I said, but I didn't feel any better. Nick and Jed were going out to The Grill House to deliver a demo on Friday. We'd see where things went from there.
2010, Nolan Whyte