After taking the last three years off from playing music, I've recently made some efforts to hook up with some people to jam, and maybe get a proper band together. I'm in a new city now, so I don't have the connections I once did, and I've been using local scene magazines to meet other musicians, which is a lot like trying to advertise for a new best friend. If you've ever used this process to meet potential band-mates, you probably know how ridiculous this audition system tends to beit's an ego fueled process where people are trying to throw up a front of not only being terribly talented, but also real and rock'n'roll enough that anyone with any sense would not only love them and desperately want them to join the band, but feel an actual need to be near such a cool person.
Potential band-mates blabber for a while about their street-cred, then later walk away rejected and muttering under their breath, assuring themselves that They weren't auditioning me, I was auditioning them.
The whole atmosphere of trying to find a regular group of musicians has made me think a lot about the band I played in during university. It has made me think wistfully and nostalgically about how great we were and how great we could have been, but it has also made me shake my head with incredulity about how naïve and incompetent we were. I would like to recount some of my experiences to potential new recruits of the music game, both as inspiration and warning. The road to fame and fortune is bricked with broken dreams, and upon every one of those broken dreams is inscribed the name of a band, that for a variety of reasons was awesome, and for a variety of reasons, failed. The name of our band was The Famists.
Why We Were Awesome
The Famists (the name was a gag about creating a theory about fame. Since we never achieved even the smallest measure of fame, you can rest assured the theory was as big a failure as we were), were the classic college band. We got together on Fridays after class, had a few beers, smoked a bit of weed, and jammed for the rest of the night. Mike (the guitarist), Dev (the drummer) and I learned covers and wrote songs, and played together for the better part of two years. We didn't go far, but we had the tools to make it big. Why were we so awesome? Let me tell you:
We were fast learners: Our first gig, after we had been playing together for only a few months, was a total disaster. It was in a half-empty bar in a small town not far from the city we lived in. A friend of Dev's was bartending there and he let us play, and even gave us several pitchers of beer as payment. The beer was not such a good idea though, because we were so nervous that we drank ourselves into nearly fall-down condition. We aborted songs in mid-chorus, played songs over twice when our set ran short, and because we didn't bother with a sound check (hard to believe, but it didn't even cross our minds), all the patrons who didn't walk out in disgust were driven up against the far back wall by the piercing shriek and wail of our slightly out of tune gear. It was ugly.
Despite that obvious failure we kept trying, and by the time we played our fourth gig, everything was smooth sailing. We were prepared, nervous in a good way, and we put on a tight, exciting set. The sound technician, a local veteran of hundreds of gigs, told us he had never seen anything quite like it, and yes, he meant it in a good way. The glow from that show lasted for weeks. We had come a long way.
We were open-minded about styles: Although what we were basically interested in playing was pretty straightforward rock and punk, we allowed ourselves to take songs from many different genres and tweak them into our own style. Towards the end our set list included a surf tune, a jazz song (cleverly titled Jazz Song), a speed-metal cover of the old Batman theme song with a lounge interlude thrown in, a faithful cover of The Animals House Of The Rising Sun, a few punk-pop songs of our own creation and a twelve minute long medley of original grunge-punk. All of these incongruent styles blended together with our sound and made for a varied, entertaining set. It set us apart from some local bands that would get up and play ten original songs that all sounded exactly the same.
We knew what would work with our style, but at the same time, we knew what not to play, even if it was exactly how we wanted to sound. We idolized old punk, and learned songs by The Ramones and The Misfits, but we knew that playing them live would be clichéd, so we kept them as warm-up songs for practice. We also learned some Sex Pistols, but never played them again after that disastrous first gig.
We were inventive: Dev was a deadly drummer who could play in a lot of different styles, and Mike was interested in art theory and was always trying out a lot of different techniques with his guitar. I was ridiculously inexperienced, and was learning from the both of them. This uneven mix allowed us to play around a lot and do some screwy things on stage. They were all just gimmicks in the end I suppose, but the theatricality added a lot to our show. Playing slap bass with a beer bottle or having Mike play his guitar solos with a drum stick does tend to make people pay a little more attention. We allowed the gimmicks to be part of the show, but not the whole show. They never overshadowed the music, and we left the really weird stuff (such as the massive stack of sandwiches and the stomach-punching competition) as just interesting ideas.
We were friends: We played together, but we also hung out together and had a good time away from music, which allowed us to cool down away from the instruments when things weren't going well. We genuinely enjoyed each other's company, and didn't just see ourselves as band-mates. We were pals.
Why We Failed
So we were good friends doing interesting things musically, and we could put on an entertaining show that wasn't limited to playing the same boring drek all the time. Why didn't we go further? Well, the answers are pretty simple.
We had no front: We weren't interested in bringing in another person to sing, and that meant vocal duties fell onto Mike and I. Problems abounded: neither of us particularly wanted the job, and neither of us were very well equipped for it. As a result, a good third of our set was made up of instrumentals. There was no front man for the audience to focus on, which I'm sad to say is necessary. It's not often that a band can have two people share vocal duties and get anywhere, although Blink 182 is an example of a three piece band that does it. It was something that held us back, though.
As well as lacking the visual focus that a front man or lead vocalist gives an audience, our varied musical choices meant people couldn't really figure out what we were doing. An important lesson in life is that your strengths are often also your weaknesses. Being able to incorporate different styles of songs into our set made us interesting, but it also probably made us less accessible. What do you expect when you follow up a speed metal song with a surf tune?
We couldn't record: We found ourselves in a difficult situation; to get paying gigs we needed a demo, but without the gigs we didn't have the money to properly record one. What's the answer? Do it yourself, of course! We tried on a number of occasions to record half-decent material on rented four-track tape decks (tragically, digital recording on your home computer was still a year or two away). Every attempt was a nightmare, usually involving forty straight hours without sleep. We had confidence in our technical skills with the machines, but always managed to get nowhere (I stayed away from the bloody things myself. A certain ex-girlfriend probably recalls me accidentally pouring beer into a four-track she'd borrowed from the university), and somehow whatever we did manage to record never made it onto a regular cassette tape. We would end up with our songs trapped in limbo in four-track format, or bizarrely, copied onto a VHS tape.
We had no business sense: Somehow we had the idea that if we got really good, we would just magically become successful. People in any type of business, be it music or manufacturing, will know that doesn't happen. We spent no time doing the necessary legwork of going out and getting gigs and then promoting the hell out of them. The shows we got were pretty much given to us by friends who were active in the local scene. These gigs were typically showcases where we would be playing third or fourth in a lineup of six bands, and the only people paying any attention were our girlfriends and the other bands that were waiting for their turn to play. We had no idea what was required of a band that wanted to get somewhere, nor did we bother to find out. We just sat around jamming, waiting for something to happen. Obviously, nothing happened. Nothing ever happens unless you make it happen.
We were friends: I said before that your strengths are also often your weaknesses, and it is true. Our greatest strength as a band was that we were great friends and had a great time playing together, but of course, as soon as something went wrong with the friendship, it sounded a death-knell for the band. There are few bands that can survive a falling out between pals. The Police did it for a while, but of course they beat the shit out of each other on a regular basis. Joey and Johnny Ramone didn't talk to each other for twenty years, but who wants to be a part of that? No, when we stopped talking we stopped jamming, and that was pretty much the end of that. Too bad, so sad.
I have no regrets that The Famists didn't go far, because my experiences with them were outstanding. If I do manage to find another group of guys to play tunes with I would far rather they be good friends who do interesting things musically than wankers with good business sense. I guess that speaks to my motivations for playing more than anything else. If you do start yourself a band, best of luck to you. If you need any help from me, I'll be at home, playing slap bass with a beer bottle.