I’m seven!

beautiful, blogging, funny, music, sad, true No Comments »

It’s probably time for a drumroll or whatever.

This is the seventh birthday of BFS&T, and it almost went by unnoticed.  By ME, I mean.  It’s easy for no one else to notice, because I haven’t written a damn thing in six months, but you’ll be glad to know that I do at least consider writing once in a while, or I’ll have an interesting dream that I think about sharing, for about one second before I roll over and go back to sleep.  It’s not that I don’t want to write, it’s that I want to share things—good or bad—that I think are compelling, and whether it’s a case of writer’s block or the financial stress and lack of self-confidence that extended under-employment brings, I haven’t felt capable of creating compelling content lately, so I’ve continued to lie low.  The good news is that I’m not trapped under the black cloud of full-on despondency, like I was when I wrote the previous entry.  What a strange time that was.

One thing that can potentially get me back on track is if I write about music.  For some inexplicable reason, when I started this blog I didn’t intend to write about music too often, if at all.  I figured there were (and are) many people who wrote (and write) about it much more eloquently than I ever hope to be able to, and that’s fine.  I’m happy to create music, and to make a meager living at it; I don’t necessarily need to write about it.  As the famous saying goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about art.”  That being said, music is what I care about more than anything.  I also probably know a lot more about it than most people do.  Having the opportunities to play so many instruments with so many people in so many styles and in so many places, I feel I have an interesting perspective.  I guess we’ll find out together whether or not I actually do.  The tricky thing is that this blog is quasi-anonymous (unless you’re friends with me on SocialNetwork), so I may have to get clever about the way I describe and pseudonymize people, but that’s definitely a challenge I’m up for.

I’m not going to make any promises here.  There may very well be another extended hiatus.  But I haven’t forgotten about this creative outlet that I love, and I’m certainly not giving up on it.   I can’t believe it’s been around for seven years.  Seven is a good and supposedly lucky number.  Truth be told, I thought it was six—and at first I even called this entry ‘I’m Six!’—but then I looked back and remembered that it was migrated over from that other blogging platform in 2006, not 2007, and that this is now 2013.  Phew!  All that to prove that my skills at simple addition remain intact.

I should probably wish you happy holidays, too, in case I don’t get back here before then.  I hope your season is filled with any combination of joy, love, friendship, family, travel, and fun.

‘Til next time, then.

See you soon.

 

putain, fais chier

blogging, cello, music, sad No Comments »

Hello again.

I felt I should write about a more serious subject for the first time in what seems like quite a while, and it’s the reason I haven’t been writing as often as I have in the past.  The problem is motivation.  I’ve been really frustrated with myself and the state of my life for the last few months, and I just can’t seem to pull it together.  Eight solid months of constant financial difficulties have created a sense of foreboding and despondency that is, while not entirely new to me, certainly at an all-time high.  That kind of stuff isn’t fun to write about, and neither is it fun to read, so I’ve kept quiet.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and I don’t want to you to worry about me.  Incidentally, ‘I don’t want you to worry’ reminds me of a funny thing one of my friends said recently.  He said that he’s going to start saying, “I don’t mean to–” and then say that very thing.  As in, “I don’t mean to be rude, but you look really fat!”  I responded in kind with, “Pardon my French, but ‘Putain, fais chier!’ ”  But I seriously don’t think you need to worry.  Actually, you can if you want, or not; I can’t really stop you.  But at least you know what’s going on.

In some strange news, two people have died very young recently.  One of whom I knew only slightly—a friend of a friend kind of situation, but he was a great guy—and the other I didn’t know at all, but who was my close friend’s brother-in-law.  Both men died from sudden heart attacks, and both men were in their thirties. I don’t really know what else to say, but my heart goes out to all involved.  Things like that freak me out, and with the news of the airplane crash in San Francisco and the nightmarish runaway oil train that derailed and decimated the heart of the little town in eastern Canada, it’s a miracle I get any sleep at all.  There are a myriad of things to ruminate over.

I’ve hardly touched my cello in months.  It never seems to get any easier, even after playing for almost nine years.  I play a ton of other instruments, and eventually I’ve gotten to a certain comfort level with them, but that comfort level on the cello continues to elude me.  It probably doesn’t help that some of the better cellists in town have either lived before or currently in my same apartment building, which has led me to be a bit self-conscious at times about practicing here, but that’s my own issue.  Learning the cello (and probably any other instrument) is a series of plateaus.  You strugglestrugglestruggle with one technique, and then it finally makes sense and you take a little step up.  You stay there for a while and strugglestrugglestruggle with another technique, and so on.  This is perfectly natural.  But when is it going to seem like I know what I’m doing on it?  My vibrato is terrible, I never sound or feel relaxed, I’m sure I have about a million bad habits, et cetera, et cetera.  By comparison, it only took about 2 years to feel comfortable playing the guitar, and about a year or two to feel comfortable on the accordion.  Drums, although I don’t play them very often, have always come fairly naturally.  Mandolin took about a week, but that’s an unusual situation, since it’s the same skill set as the guitar.  Cello is still, by far, the most difficult and frustrating instrument I’ve ever attempted.  I don’t need to be Yo-Yo Ma or join an orchestra or anything—although that would be great—but it would be nice not to cringe every time I hear a recording of myself playing.

That’s all I feel like writing at the moment, but I’m going to try to write at least a little more regularly.  Here’s hoping the despondency and foreboding dissipate before too long.  If and when they do, you’ll hear from me more.  If they don’t, then. . .well, I guess you won’t.  And you’ll know why.

See you around.

 

megalomania

funny, music, Portland No Comments »

This ad was posted on ListByCraig today, in the ‘musicians’ section.

“Very experienced drummer without legs. What I can do with the rest of my limbs will surprise you! Looking to jam or maybe start band with good people who can accept me for who I am.. Below are links to my drumming videos. Thank you to my brother for allowing me to post a few videos of me playing on his synth youtube channel! Love you and God Bless!”

Rick Allen, the drummer for Def Leppard, has shown the world that a person doesn’t need all of his or her limbs in order to rock huge arenas around the world.  I was expecting this guy to be using a modified drum set of some sort, or maybe he was even a guy like Trilok Gurtu, the amazing Indian percussionist who used to play with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra and all that. He has legs, and he uses them on occasion, but his main Thing is to sit on the floor, surrounded by a mountain of percussion instruments, creating a soundscape that is both big and small.  He sounds like a drummer, but so much more.  He’s amazing.

trilok_gurtu

So I’m giving the guy who posted his ad the benefit of the doubt.  He seems like a good guy, is really confident, and he isn’t going to let his disability come between him and his dream.  This being Portland, there are a million hippie percussionists out there, and this guy could be one of them.  Good on you, dude, and more power to you, I thought, as I clicked on the links to his videos.  Do not read the rest of this entry until you’ve watched both of the videos.  Don’t worry, they’re not very long.  Here’s the first one. . .

. . .and the second one.

I can imagine him twirling his virtual drum sticks at the end of that second one, or holding his iPhone aloft with the lighter app flickering on the screen.

I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

I have to commend the guy for his positive attitude, and his gumption or moxie or whatever, but OH MY GOD.  SO FUNNY.  Here he is bragging about how what he can do with ‘the rest of his limbs’, and he can’t even keep a solid beat.  And ‘very experienced drummer?’  What does that even mean?  Very experienced playing the drum machine with his fingers in his bedroom?

Okay, so assuming that all the stars align, and that a band actually wants someone to do that for them, what would that look like on stage?   A couple of guitarists and a bassist with their big amps, a singer strutting around on the front of the stage, and a guy sitting in the back tapping out beats with a drum machine on his lap.  Hilarious.

I hope he gets in a band.  I’ll absolutely go see them play.

This all reminds of a band I saw about eight years ago at the venue formerly known as the Rabbit Hole.  It was a female singer-songwriter and her ‘band’, which consisted of two electric guitarists and a CD player on the back of the stage, which provided their backing tracks.  She would say something like, “Here’s another new song,” and one of the guitarists would turn around and push the button on the CD player to make it play.  It was the (unintentionally) funniest musical thing I’ve ever seen.  I seem to recall that she even counted off one or two of the songs with, “One. . .two. . .three. . .four—” before one of the guitarists started the CD, but maybe I just wanted that to happen so badly that my memory is playing tricks on me.  It’s been known to happen.

In the interest of full disclosure, my first band (back in 1987) used the same Yamaha drum machine as the one in the top video when we recorded our song demos, and I played it the exact same way, by tapping on the big buttons.  We made a video for one of the songs at the local community-access TV station, and I’ve heard that they still play one of our other videos on their ‘Flashbacks’ series, which is simultaneously very flattering and slightly cringe-worthy.  Suffice it to say that I have first-hand experience with playing that exact drum machine in that exact way, and I’ve played all kinds of  instruments (including a keytar) on all kinds of stages, but I would never dream of doing that in front of people, for any other reason than a humorous one.

Some of my favorite things to watch on the youtubes are videos made by people playing in their homes.  Guitarists who shred and dance around in their bedrooms are always a hoot, but amateur drummers seem to take the cake when it comes to megalomania.  This guy is one of my favorites, for many reasons.  Most of all, he’s just not very good (but he THINKS he is, and THAT’S funny), but it’s the ridiculous and ergonomically challenging setup of his drum kit and the way he keeps looking at himself in the mirror that tell me all I need to know about the kind of person he is.

The best news of all is that he has his own channel (of course he does!), with an entire series of videos that we can all watch and enjoy together.  I recommend his version of “Limelight” by Rush.

The subject of auditioning and dealing with potential band members dredges up similar feelings, and I’ve written about that before, so if you’re so inclined, you can read more about it.

Okay,  I admit it; I’m an elitist musical snob.   Are you happy now?

 

 

taking care of business

funny, music, recording, Yakima No Comments »

I always knew that I wanted to be a professional musician.

I grew up in a remote, small town in the middle of nowhere, however, which meant that opportunities for music careers were limited at best, if not completely nonexistent, and that there were no links to the music industry—or any other industry save agriculture—in that little town.  I knew that I didn’t want to be a classical pianist or a jazz bassist (both of which I studied), or a teacher of either piano or guitar.  I knew that I was much too geeky-looking to be any kind of rock star or celebrity, but I figured that at if I could at least play guitar well enough, I might gain some sort of notoriety or interest that way.

All that didn’t stop me from dreaming, however, or from honing my musical skills, because even back in the day, you’d always hear stories about these so-called ‘talent scouts’ who comb the country looking for the Next Big Thing.  Never mind that my little town was so far off the map—thousands of miles from anywhere—and that talent scouts pretty much stick to the four or five biggest cities in the country; I had no concept of any of that, so I thought in my early teenage heart of hearts that if I could play well enough, and if I had a good enough musical reputation, word would spread and somehow get back to those scouts, as if they could show up in a random little town in rural Washington state and say, “Who’s the good guitarist here?”

I was in a couple of bands, and when it was time to record some of our songs, I was lucky enough to choose a studio that was run by a guy who’d moved up from AngelCity, and still had some connections there.  He was (or at least he claimed to be) friends with Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, so he seemed like a good person to know.  And he was, I guess.  He turned out to be a pretty weird dude, and I’ve told a few longish but interesting stories about him already (here, here, and here), so I’ll gloss over him for now.

I figured being a studio musician for hire could be a good and interesting way to get noticed and to connect with people, so I worked with Enigma (not Enigma Records, but my blog pseudonym for the studio owner) and did whatever was necessary.  I played guitar, bass, keyboards, and played the drum machine.  I worked with a group that Enigma had put together that was inspired by the New Kids on the Block, and the two of us collaborated on writing songs for a group of three teenage Hispanic girls who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but who were attractive enough that Enigma felt like they’d have a certain appeal.  All of these projects went nowhere, naturally.  Funnily enough, I do still have a couple or three cassettes of some of my sessions from back then in a box somewhere.  They always turn up when I least expect them.

I had read enough guitar player magazines to know that versatility was the name of the game in the recording studio, and I felt like I always had to be on my game, capable of doing anything, in case one of those shadowy and elusive scouts happened to show up in town, looking for Talent.  I befriended the major studio owners in town (of which there were about two or three), and let them know that I was interested in working on recording sessions, regardless of the musical style.  Occasionally, people I had worked with mention me to studio owners when they needed a guitarist or something, which I always appreciated, and usually jumped at the chance to do whatever they’d recommended me for.

My favorite of the recommended gigs was when one of my friends called me and said, “Hey, I know a guy who’s going into the studio to do a demo.  It’s kind of 1950′s style music.  You’ll like it.”

“Cool,” I said, “sounds good.  Where and when?  And does it pay?”

“Yeah.  He doesn’t have a lot of money, but it pays.”   He told me which studio at which it was happening, and when, and I thanked him and told him I’d be there.

My roommate at the time was (and still is) a musician as well, so occasionally, I used to invite him to come with me to things.  I said he could come if he drove me over there, because then he’d have an excuse to stick around without any of the studio guys raising an eyebrow.

So when the day came, we drove into the studio’s parking lot and saw an Elvis impersonator leaning against his slightly battered but still cool red convertible, talking to an older guy.  My friend used to tease me for some of the sessions I played on, and he liked to call me a ‘musical whore.’  He couldn’t resist needling me as we saw the pseudo-Elvis.  “Man, you are way more than a regular whore.  You’re a gay whore.  You’re taking it in the ass on this one.”

I laughed and told him to shut up as we parked and walked over to meet Elvis, whose real named turned out to be Steve.  He introduced us to the older guy next to him, who was his manager.  I shook his hand and successfully resisted the temptation to say, “Colonel Tom; nice to meet you.”  [FYI, Colonel Tom Parker was the REAL Elvis's manager for his entire career.]  We all walked into the studio together, and set about the task at hand.

The song he’d brought in to work on was called “Jukebox Fever”, which was an oldie that sounded like Johnny B. Goode, only sung like Elvis Presley.  I ended up playing drums, bass, and electric guitar on it, and spent all afternoon doing that.  I remember that the drums weren’t actual drums, but Space Muffins, which were a weird electronic hybrid trigger system thingy that attached over a regular drum kit and made it sound electronic.  It was a stupid idea for many reasons, in retrospect, but it was the early 1990′s (in other words, just BARELY out of the 80′s), and that kind of thing was still considered viable at the time.  But that’s not the point of this story.

The point is that once I was done playing everything, it was time for Steve/Elvis to do his thing, and I’m here to tell you that he totally ruled.  Everyone in the room, with the exception of Colonel Tom, had no idea what to expect from the guy, but he delivered the goods on that day.  Our jaws dropped, and we were completely impressed with him.  Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a ‘gay whore’ anymore, I was proud to have worked on this project.  IF ONLY I HAD A CASSETTE COPY OF THAT RECORDING.  Oh, how I wish I could hear it again.  Truth be told, I’d probably cringe at it, after all these years of experience and time, but I know that it would be awesome, and I imagine I’d be able to find some hint of the kind of work I’m doing now in it.

Not long after that session, the well-known British rockabilly/country swing guitarist Albert Lee came to my little town to give a guitar workshop at a local music store.  I’m not sure how that was arranged, and I wasn’t even remotely familiar with his music at the time, but I jumped at the chance to go to the workshop because I’d seen him in magazines, and knew that he was from The Outside World, which meant that he’d probably be a good person to ask for advice about becoming a session musician.  I went and watched him, and couldn’t have cared less about the music (I was still a metalhead/jazz fusion snob at the time), but liked his guitar playing well enough to stick around after the workshop to ask him a couple of neophyte questions.  Here’s how it went.

“Man, that was great!  Do you do a lot of recording sessions?”

“A fair amount, yeah.”

“What does it take to get into that?”

“I’m not really sure.  They just call me and I go down to the studio and play.”

“Wow, you must know how to play all kinds of styles and stuff.  Do they call you to do your own thing, or do they usually have something specific in mind?”

“It varies, but usually they’ve heard something I’ve done.”

“Yeah, okay, cool.  Thanks a lot.”

I nervously walked away, feeling like a small-town nobody.  When this guy was my age, he’d already performed all over Europe, and had later played with the likes of Elvis (the REAL one, not an impersonator), and Eric Clapton.  But I felt like I’d been lucky to have had a conversation with him, no matter how brief or awkward.  In the decades since, I’ve realized just how much I managed to glean from that tiny moment.

The secret to being a studio musician is a very simple one:  someone has to have heard a recording you’ve played on, or seen you play live, and then come to you and said, “I want you to do that for me.”  Everything else is just frosting on the cake.  So yes, you have to have skills.  It helps to have your own distinctive style, but you also have to be humble enough to listen to any ideas the people you’re working with may have.  It helps if you can take suggestions without feeling criticized.  It helps if you’re creative, and open, and relentless, and patient.  It helps to be prepared, and that can mean a lot of different things.  It helps if you’re able to trust your instincts, and occasionally even fight for them if you need to, but you also need to do so in a diplomatic way.  Above all, your love for music has to be the most important thing.  Serving the song, and doing what it seems to call for, should be everyone’s ultimate M.O.

To tie this all up in a nice, Presleyan way (in what is already a very Elvis-heavy story), you have to be able to Take Care of Business.  [Elvis's band was the TCB band, and those also happen to be my initials.]  You have to be able to give people what they are looking for and expecting from you.  And don’t forget to have fun.  If you’re easy to get along with, and if everyone has a smile on his or her face at the end of the session, you’ll get called a lot more often.

This began as a funny little anecdote about an Elvis impersonator, but ended up being much more than that, in a way that I didn’t foresee when I started writing.  I hope it was enjoyable.

“Thank you; thank you very much.”

Todd has left the building.

mostly musical news

blogging, music, pictures, recording No Comments »

So let’s see. . .it’s been a while since I’ve written anything, despite my friend reminding me that I promised—on this very blog—to write more and tell more stories this year.  I’m attempting to hear and obey, and I have a ton of stories, since I went to Louisiana and the Bay Area for gigs recently.  My silence around here definitely isn’t due to a lack of material, it’s due to busy-ness, mixed with inertia, mixed with, um, something else that I can’t quite put my finger on.  It’s created an overwhelming backlog of stories to write about, which is also part of the problem.  I don’t want to dump a ten-thousand-word novella on you, so I’ll have to figure out a way to break up the stories into more manageable lengths.  I’ve had a couple of friends make fun of me recently for posting such gigantic entries.  More often,  however, they’ve made fun of me for not posting anything at all, so there’s that.

Major news on the music front.  My band (which I might call GhostBand for BFS&T’s sake) just finished mastering our CD, after I spent the last few weeks recording the last few parts and then mixing the entire album.  In case you were wondering, mastering is the process by which the ‘master’ CD is created, from which all of the future CD’s will be copied.  It’s the stage of the process in which the songs are officially named, put in album order, and a combination of some technical stuff (equalization, compression and limiting) to make the songs all play at the same volume level and make the individual tracks sound like a coherent collection.  It’s one of the many underlying but crucial steps along the way, and now it’s done.  Mastering is a process that began with vinyl records, because if there was a section of a song that was too loud, or if a sudden low-frequency instrument like a drum or a stand-up bass was too loud, it would make the record skip, or it could damage speakers.  Mastering is a way to smooth everything out, and to eliminate unwanted fluctuations in the overall sound and flow of an album.  CD’s are more forgiving, certainly, but the process is still important, and it really enhances the overall sound.  Our next steps will be to get the thing duplicated (we’re getting a thousand CD’s made), and to design the album cover.  Exciting!  I can’t wait to get this thing released into the world, so that you and everyone else can hear it, love it, and buy it.

We also filmed a video for one of the songs.  Can’t show it yet, because we’re waiting until the album is a bit closer to its release date in August, but it’s done, and it looks amazing.  It showed in a music video screening at the historic Hollywood Theater here in Portland a month or so ago, and that was the first time any of us had seen the finished product.  Our minds were completely blown.  It’s supposed to look (which is to say that it does. . .ha ha) like it was filmed in a night club in 1959.  We all dressed in period clothing, thanks to the costume designer; there are various characters (each with their own miniature stories), dancers, and choreography, and it’s absolutely stunning to watch.  Very distinctive, and it’s all somehow crammed into the framework of a three-minute song.  The filmmakers did a brilliant job.  Okay, okay. . .I CAN share a still from it.  FYI, I’m in the back left, with the vest and red tie, playing the electric guitar.

Pretty swanky, eh?  We used KickStarter to fund this whole process, which is a short way of saying we worked our asses off for an entire month, playing as many gigs as possible, making short promo videos, and generally promoting ourselves in every way we could think of.  And it worked.  We raised enough to pay for the video, and to finish the mastering, duplication and design of the CD.  We also will be paying for the rights to the two cover songs that will be on the album.

At the same time as all this was happening, FrenchSinger and another friend on whose CD I played cello had their own CD release parties a week apart, right before the Louisiana trip, so there was the obligatory flurry of rehearsals and craziness getting ready for those as well.

                                                 

As if that wasn’t enough, there was the photo shoot and KickStarter video for PolishCellist, who is about to start working on her next CD.  Certainly can’t forget about that.  What a hilarious and awesome photo session that was.  And yes, that’s a buffalo-head hat that we’re all wearing.

So that’s the biggest news.  I still have to go through my mountain of pictures from the band-related stuff, and from the trips to Louisiana, California and Washington (the state) with FrenchSinger.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to get some entries posted before my next musical trip, which is in a couple weeks and will take me to New York, Massachusetts (including the town where I was born!), and a dip into New Jersey as well.  Super excited, since I haven’t been back East for quite a long time, and many of these places—notably New York City and Ithaca—I’ve never been to before.

I should mention how grateful I am to have the opportunity to travel, and to play so much great music, and to be in videos, and to have photo shoots.  It’s a huge honor (not to mention expense) to be a part of these various endeavors, and I owe even more thank yous to my friends and collaborators who continue to make it all possible.

More to come.