Sunday, 21 July 2013

When Bands Fall Apart (Not Us!)

I wouldn't say that I'm normally given to sentimentality, much less seriousness. However, I thought I'd write the next few posts about the life and death of bands, particularly for young musicians out there who are starting out. We caught up with a young guy at a gig at Rooty Hill Anglican who had just started playing drums in a band, and in the following weeks of interacting over Facebook his honesty about the challenges he was facing mirrored a lot of my own experiences over the years.

Rather than starting with the life of a band, I thought I'd start by writing about the hardest part- the demise of a band.

Bands are by their very nature a challenge. Often the most productive musical or creative partnerships implode on themselves because the ability to express emotion on an instrument tends to also come with an inclination to look at the world a different way, and four or five people looking at the world a different way is often going to be a challenge.
On top of this, you have the issue of proximity- if you are making and recording music, you're going to be with each other for long, tense and frustrating stretches- and handling that on its own can be a problem. This is compounded by differing backgrounds and expectations, where one person's "direct approach" is another person's "super-critical douche bag" and so on.
Then, finally, you've got the issue of vision- if the band doesn't know what it's about, then everyone comes in with a different expectation of how or why things are done. Even if everyone agrees on something initially, that doesn't actually mean everyone understands it on the same level.

I was in my first band when I was 19 (1999). We were called "Tatterdemalion". I was playing keys and a friend from high school was on electric guitar- in the beginning, that was it. It was the super-early days of home recording and a world of possibilities was opening up, before the rise of the iPod and so on. His guitar pedal had a drum loop built in and my piano could go down low enough that we didn't need a bassist. Eventually, my brother bought a drum kit and joined the band the year after.
I'm 32 presently so that was certainly a while ago. Looking back, it was a truly special time- things seemed limitless. We had a thing called time which, as a dad and a full-time employee, I have scant amounts of now. The  musical landscape was shifting and we had a unique sound and a great way of melding the instruments that allowed them to be complimentary. We recorded random demos and played with loops (before that was "in") and wrote a ton of material.
There were some cracks, however. I had a very liberal interpretation of the word "time" and "punctuality". Give or take 30 or 45 minutes was about the norm. This meant the guitarist felt I didn't care about rehearsing.
The guitarist was not given to showing appreciation in the same way I was- if someone did a favour, then that favour was accepted. It was not necessarily met with thanks or gratitude beyond "oh, cheers". This became something of an issue when I was buying all the equipment.

We skirted around these issues for 2-odd years. Then my brother decided to move to Armidale for uni, and the guitarist and I got talking, then some of these things started to come out, and then we were decompressing two years of not saying anything by yelling at each other.

We'd spent those two years creating a sound, something unique and different. We'd built up fans and contacts and met other bands and were finally doing regular-ish shows. And then in a moment, it was all gone.

I wasn't prepared for how hard it was to deal with initially. I had been fortunate in that the first person I'd started making music with gelled musically with me. I did not know how rare that was at the time.

We went and did other things. Started a venue together called The Attic, which was heaps of fun. Stayed in vague contact- friendly, but it was never the same as it had been.

Over the subsequent years, I started a number of other projects. They were fun, sure. I played with a lot of musicians and it meant I had to learn to adapt to different styles and certainly pushed me. My brother moved back home and was not doing so well after a death in the family; I asked a very good drummer who was a friend to leave the band so that I could give my brother something to do and catch up more often, and even that was really hard. I was fortunate that he was understanding of the situation and took it well, but I could tell it upset him.

Eventually I resigned myself to writing music for my own enjoyment and forgetting the idea of gigging and sharing music in the way I had before. I had two small kids and a wife and after finishing a job which had taxed me creatively to a huge degree, I was prepared to let things go. All up it was not until 2009 that I met Tristan at a church thing.

He was playing in an act called Eye Opener and the drummer asked if I played keys at all-I said that I did. Rehearsals were a few blocks from my house and I figured I could spare the time. I was tentative- in fact, somewhat timid- fully prepared for it to be another one-off experience or an odd stand-in-where-necessary kind of thing. We didn't really gel well at first, and piano is a hard instrument to fit into an existing band.
Then got to one of Tristan's songs called "Undone" and something just clicked. We all surfaced at the end of the song, having been lost in musical revelry that somehow we'd all just "gotten", and that feeling was back- the feeling of something new, something special, something that was going to work. We were putting something out there that hadn't been heard before, and Tristan, who by his nature is incredibly encouraging, had a plethora of material already and made me feel super welcome.

It took quite some time for me to have the confidence to show them some of my songs, and again here, Tristan's encouragement made a huge difference. All of a sudden, we had a set, we had a band, and before we knew it, we had a gig.

The gig was a kind of local band competition and we got up on stage and it went off. That feeling of electricity and musical connection jumped out and it was the beginning of something great. Right?

Well, sadly, no. After a year, it had become clear that Eye Opener was starting to have its own problems. Our drummer had become increasingly erratic; he'd gone back to uni to start a second degree and it had taken him into a new group of friends. Rehearsals were missed or he was hung over, or he hadn't slept and had then drunk a large number of energy drinks and halfway through songs a cowbell would be grabbed and the whole thing would be lost.

I was adrift at this point, staring over the precipice I knew we had to step but unwilling to do so. I couldn't believe we had come back to this point after all the years in between; finally, the right musical connection had been made and now it was all falling over? Unacceptable.

Tristan took it harder than me. I had at least had the Tatterdemalion experience, and been through the six or seven side projects which I'd abandoned but never really taken seriously. For Ted, who'd been a solo act, this was the first time he'd had a full act to work with and the loss of the hope that had been there hit him hard. We talked for ages and reached the conclusion that we couldn't just drop the drummer, who had helped start the band, and keep Eye Opener going. We'd have to drop the whole thing.

We sat down and all talked- set things out, divided up the money we'd made, and went our separate ways.

Except that we didn't. Ted and I kept playing and he brought around another drummer from his church, Pat. Micky, who had been bassist for Eye Opener, was bored and decided to jam one day with the three of us, and it was golden. Marty, who had come in for a couple of Eye Opener practices towards the end and had done a couple of gigs, was keen to join the new entity.

And so Redwoods was started. The sound was slightly different, and as things clicked, we had a creative burst; I wrote about 20 songs in the space of 6 months, working on many of them with Tristan, and he likewise wrote a whole bunch. But to the drummer from Eye Opener, it looked like we'd said we were breaking up Eye Opener just so we didn't kick him out, and re-formed. That was hard, and there was understandably a lot of anger.

So here we are now, almost 2 years on. Thus far, things are still continuing well for Redwoods. But if you're out there and thinking of starting or joining a band, here are some tops that I hope will be useful.

Reuben's Amazingly Useful Band Tips
1) The band will cost you more money than you will ever make out of it. Understand that straight up.
2) Talk openly about what you expect in relation to rehearsals and gigs. Are people wanting to just have a relaxing muck-around or a really serious practice? Is 5 or 10 minutes late to start or finish going to cause big problems?
3) Band finances are a problem. If you put money in, make sure it's money you can afford to lose. Don't buy "band equipment" because then if you break up, no-one knows who it should belong to. If you are expecting to get money back (eg. you pay for CD production or something) then it needs to be something the whole band is clear about beforehand.
4) You're unlikely to hit the big-time. This is not to be negative, but a lot of bands find mediocrity hard and keep using phrases like "when we're famous". Instead, I suggest focusing on enjoyment- if you love what you play and who you play with, then you're likely to have a better sound, which will give you a better shot at fame.
5) Talk about expectations of time availability. How often is too often for gigs? And rehearsals? Being young and single is one thing, but when someone's in a steady relationship, staying out all Friday and sleeping all Saturday gets pretty thin pretty quickly. Keep talking to accommodate each other.
6) Finally, know what your band is about. Be clear on what the reason is that you make music. This will hopefully in keep some borders so you have an idea when things are going off track. You can always re-assess and change, but knowing- and dealing with- changes in direction can save at least a friendship, if not a band.

The hardest part about any band breakup is that friendships rarely survive. So my single greatest tip is this: prioritise friendships and don't let pride or ego get in the way. Sometimes, we need to admit that we just aren't good enough, or that what we want isn't in line with what others want. Other musical opportunities will come in the future; friendships, however, are hard to replace.

Hope this is useful to you out there!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Strands goes live and we speak to Chel from the Australian Alopecia Aerata Foundation

So, it's been a while. I admit it; I've been slack. This year feels like it's gotten away from me somehow, and now it's almost halfway through. Mind-boggling.

What's even more mind-boggling is that All Of The Strands is now finally completed and ready for download! This was a project which required a lot more time and attention than I had originally assumed, and it's times like this I am glad that it was mostly not my time, but Pat's, because of his dual curse of amazing love of audio production and crazy perfectionist streak.

If you aren't aware of where this started, you can read these two posts. Rarely do projects come along that strike me so personally, and the odd thing about it is that I didn't even know anyone with alopecia aerata before I came across the Turning Heads project from Helen Beasley and Lina Hayes. I do love the power of images- that a couple of photos could create such a strong emotion as to elicit an emotional and creative response (courtesy of Lina's amazing photography and Helen's vivid art). Strands, in particular, was influenced by two images which were juxtapositions: the picture of little Violet, with her doll and its raggedy hair, and Stacy in the autumn leaves, which took the condition and instead turned it in an opportunity for even more vibrancy and life than a head with hair could manage. It kind of said "the hair's just a distraction from me" and I liked that.

Violet and her doll- photograph courtesy of Lina Hayes

Stacy in the leaves- Photograph courtesy of Lina Hays

It came down to a toss-up between the two and votes were split evenly, both amongst the band and the Alopecia Aerata Foundation. Then Stacy beat me at Words With Friends and it became clear that only Violet could be the winner. Also, the sheer amount of colour made hers hard to read. Really, just the last one. I'm not bitter about losing. Or am I?
Sorry, Stacy. It was totally close though. If the text didn't look like it was saying "Ali Of The Strands" it'd have been a dead heat. Or a famous boxer.

So Strands is now live. And any money you give to the track will be given straight to the Alopecia Aerata Foundation.
You heard me. All of it. It's digital so it's cost us nothing but time to produce, and given there's just about no funding for research going into this condition, it's a small way we can help.

Now, I'm not deluded. This isn't going to have a million downloads and fund a cure, as amazing as that would be. But it's a way of starting, at least, and I invite you to join us. You get a song that I think is pretty. They get some cash to keep doing what they do. It's win/win! You can even pick how much to pay. You can buy one for a friend. Or many friends. Or you can share a link, or tweet, or something else internet-based.

With that being said, the purpose of the song is not to apply only to sufferers of alopecia aerata. Rather, its intention is to serve as a reminder that there are things upon which we place value disproportionate to their worth, where the critical areas of importance- our very character- are often ignored at a superficial glance. Sometimes it's important to be reminded to go back and look again, however harrowing it will be to admit that the first glance was superficial.

As a Christian, this reminded me of 1 Samuel 16:7- "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature... man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." A reminder of my own inclination to make snap judgements, amongst other things. That someone with alopecia would ask "Will I ever be loved" caught me; for surely, someone could see that same spark and vibrancy captured in these photos with or without hair, right?

I reached out to Chel Campbell, the President of the Australian Alopecia Aerata Foundation, to get a bit more of an insight into who they are, what they do, and why what they do is important.

Hi, Chel. How did the AAAF start, and what is your role?
The AAAF was started on the 1st January 2010, to be the national body within Australia. My roles is the President.

What sorts of things to people find hardest about having Alopecia Aerata?
That depends on the age of the person and the age the person first experiences hair loss. But I would say the most common answer is: people always staring, having to explain that you're not sick (ie. don't have cancer), closely followed by acceptance of their self image, the not knowing if your hair will ever grow back, and the fact that no-one can give you an answer as to why it happens.

The most common questions into the foundation: will my hair ever grow back? Will I get a job? Will I ever be loved? Will I ever be me again?

What is the purpose of the Foundation?
Our goals are to support existing support groups, provide funding into emotional and medical research and promote awareness of the disease.

How can people help?
Help can come on many forms. You can attend any of our events to show support. You can donate money or hair. We run a Donate Hair program, where we request natural hair of 30cm in length or greater to be donated. We sell this hair to wig makers and all money made goes back into our Wigs For Kids program. This program offers the information required to make an informed decision if getting a wig is right for that child, and then what sort of wig. The greatest support comes by spreading the word. Understanding what Alopecia Aerata is, and discussing this with your peers, may just remove the questions and curiosity surround the disease that can make it so difficult for people with the disease.

Redwoods will be hosting an evening of music soon, with some of our favourite bands, as a fundraiser. More information will be coming, but we would love you to join us if you agree that there is value- and love- that does not require a given requisite appearance, but looks at the heart. I hope to see you there.