Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Shifting focus

The Whiteboard


Nothing but a 20 minutes or so practice while watching some Olympics.


Nothing. Went on 4 hr bike ride featuring: roots, mud, rain, great company, more mud, lunch at a historical hotel and a little more rain.

Nothing. Do I really have a gig in less than a week? You'd never know by how hard I'm working.

Band practice. Ran through the whole set. Not great. Came home and edited 3 tracks in an hour and a half.

The Commentary

The last time I tried to mix Bicycle Built for Two (actual title: Daisy Mae) it took me 4 or 5 hours over two days to come up with something listenable. Last night I did 3 times the material in around 1/4 the time and it sounds better. Hmmp.

I suspect that first effort helped the later one. A lot of the extra time was spent button pushing and knob twiddling. What does this effect do? What happens if I drench it in reverb? And so on. In essence, though I didn't realize it at the time, I was practicing with the recorder and its mastering software. Just like guitar, practice is essential.

But there's more to it than that. I find I have two levels of listening. There's hyper-critical and focused, where each part of the sound is serially the center of attention. Then there's a wider approach, where the whole is considered. Last night I was able to move between the two without effort. Usually once I start listening critically I can't stop. All I can do was shift my attention through each instrument and hope for the best. I'd listen to the final mix again after at least a night's sleep. The theory being that given enough time I'd hear it more as whole. Doesn't always work. The same problems or concerns would stand out front and center, and really, why wouldn't they? After you've invested a lot of time and energy on them it's hard hear anything else.

Last night was different. I was under some time pressure. The LUC is using these tracks as a background for a visual presentation. (She designed a Rails to Trails project that won an award and is presenting it at two conferences.) I've been dawdling and suddenly it was crunch time. Crunch time without crisis, not my usual state of affairs.

I think there are two reasons it went so well. The LUC was sitting across from me as I did the mixing. I've been trying to maintain my shit as much as possible around her. I tend to over-react to just about everything and it's time to stop. The other reason is something that Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Black Hawk Down etc.) said in the commentary for Matchstick Men. Apparently he likes to work quickly, decisions are made right now and things are kept moving. He trusts his instincts and I'm beginning to realize that the only way to learn to trust yourself is to actually do it.

Last night I found myself listening to the track as a whole without any agenda. The decision to change something was based on a feeling: did it sound "right". If it wasn't right I'd narrow my focus: how's the bass, what about the drums, is the lead too loud etc. The first thing I noticed as being wrong got adjusted then the process would start over. I wasn't conscious of any of this at the time. I'm really hoping that by working out what happened I'll be able to repeat it.

So, the formula would appear to be:

An unhealthy respect for a Hollywood director.
+ A strong desire to avoid the disapproval of a loved one.
+ A procrastination produced need for speed.
= A better way of working.

Hmmm, I wonder if this'll help me file my taxes on time?

Friday, August 20, 2004

In which I compare myself to a rockstar

The Whiteboard

Good band rehearsal

Did 3 hours or so mixing on Bicycle Built for Two. To be used as a soundtrack for the LUC's video about an award winning project she designed.

Turned out the results of Tuesdays work were crap. Back to the mixing board.

Excellent band rehearsal.

The Commentary
Ya better love practicing if you want to be a musician. Until you're uber-famous and gigging every night you're going to spend a great deal of time in an unhealthy environment with just your band mates for company. Sometimes it's the best place in the world.

On Tuesday we had a normal rehearsal with one abnormally good performance. We've been working up a latin version of a Gordon Lightfoot tune. Very jazzy, almost lounge. It's been a struggle, this is not a feel that any of us are particularly familiar with. Something clicked on Tuedsay and suddenly it was right.

The feeling is hard to describe. It's a little like being on a date that's going well. You're looking across the table and suddenly realize that she really wants to be there. She wants to be there as much as you do. The fact that you've just eaten an unhealthy amount of animal protein and she's a vegetarian doesn't matter anymore, something's clicked. Your heart speeds, things become sharper, the little voice that nags "don't screw this up" falls silent. It's not love, you don't really know her, and it's not quite lust because your mind is still in charge. It's a vast and glorious feeling of rightness and potential.

Playing in a band when things are really clicking is just that. You're in the moment, a moment that for whatever reason feels right. The moments ahead are sought eagerly because they extend that wondrous now. It's bigger than just you. You can feel, and hear, that your band mates are getting it too. The fact that you've been breathing smoke and mold laced air for years to get to this point doesn't matter anymore. Nor does the tintinus that sometimes keeps you awake at night. It's right, it's now and it's glorious.

The next time you hear a mega-rockstar say that the money doesn't matter, they're still doing it for the music's sake, you might want to hold off on the eye rolling. Consider this: I've been playing in one band or another since around 1990. I've never even come close to making a living at it. Although I've played hundreds of gigs they're the exceptions in my musical life. And yet I still do it. I still slog up the hill twice a week, and in winter it's a real slog, to practice for no pay. Why? Because the feeling I'm seeking is all about the moment, it's independent of external considerations including money. It's addictive, and we all know addicts will do anything for a fix. Think about the moments you've had like the one I've described above, wouldn't you try and recreate those feelings if you could? Isn't it possible that someone who's been payed a lot of money over the years to play music would still be searching for that feeling? Seems likely to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Having it both ways

The Whiteboard

Dang, I'm really, really lazy. Once again I can't remember what I did when. There was some practicing and of course the regular band rehearsals.

We did play a gig of sorts. Our first (and bestest)* bass player was in town for a couple of days and we ended up playing at an impromptu party for her.

The Commentary

Have you ever been a captive audience? I mean truly captive, where the alternatives are to listen to the show or throw yourself out of a moving vehicle? I had this privilege a couple of weeks ago on a vintage train. It was a stag of sorts for a friend with a train fetish. The trip out was fun in a low key sorta way, most of the enjoyment was provided by the company rather than the event.

On the return trip however, we were given a floor show. No, not the usual floor show at a stag, these folks kept their clothes on. Oh, and what clothes they were! He had a shiny lime green stripped vest with matching bow tie, hat and spats. She had a belt and shoes of the same material and hat with a large feather in it. Yup, these folks were "Entertainers".

"5 foot 2 Eyes of Blue" and "I'll Be Working On the Railroad" were the only parts of the set to stick with me. The latter because we were encouraged to sing along and if caught not singing were glared at and mocked by Mr. Shiny Hat. He did a lot of mocking and flirted with the pensioners, it was....awkward. Now, to be fair they were pretty good singers and worked really hard, especially in the face of the vast indifference and/or outright embarrassment of a goodly portion of the audience.

I've been trying to figure out why it bothered me so. I know music is subjective and just because something isn't to my taste doesn't mean it's bad. I suspect that I was feeling embarrassed for the performers more than I was hating the music. Arrogant no? I mean, who am I to judge someone who's actually making a living playing music? For all I know these folks truly enjoyed the music they were presenting and don't harbour secret fantasies about writing the first successfully Goth-opera or whatever.

We played our "gig" such as it was a week or so later. I'm always uncomfortable playing for the people who'll love us no matter what. They deserve our best, not that paying customers don't also deserve that. It just that I don't want to let anyone down and I really don't want to feel like I'm taking advantage of them. Also these folks, well, for the most part they're musicians. Some of them are great musicians and that's intimidating.

I felt that it sucked, we're really not in gigging shape. But as usual, people told me how great we were. One told me we were....wait for it....entertaining! She gave me a funny look when I said rather abruptly that I didn't want to be entertaining. When asked what I'd rather be I told her "moving". Silly really. This band isn't meant to be moving. We play instrumental covers with overtly humorous intent fer Weird Al's sake. No wonder she looked at me funny, I was responding to something internal.

There's a local band called The Floor who are getting a lot of buzz around town. They're decent musicians and have interesting arrangements, can't really tell what they're singing about, but that's par for the course. They're really quite good in a Cure-ish sorta way. I love The Cure and by all rights I should love these folk. I don't. In fact I found them almost as irritating as the performers on the train. Every time I've seen them I've left early thinking "Stop trying so hard."

I don't think they inhabit the song very well. The best performances I've seen are by people who are simply in the moment. They're method acting, reaching inside for the feeling and then expressing it. The Floor seem like they're telling me "Feel this!" rather than showing their emotions and hoping I'll come along for the ride. They also don't seem to snap out of it between songs. Part of truly being in the moment is that when the song's done you're in a different moment. Carrying the song's emotions into the break is over-selling it.

I have nothing against being entertaining. I have nothing against being emotional. The trick is to be both. Like always, I can see the problem but have no idea how to fix it. The way the current band is set up it'd be very, very hard to have any more emotional depth than we already have. Maybe if we all wore matching shiny spats....?

*MJ, I'm not saying this because you're my one and only reader. You're the only bass player we've had that would actually listen. Not just to what the rest of us were playing but also to what we had to say about it.