Friday, February 10, 2006

1. My Band Went to the Olympics and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

But who did bid thee join with us?

This is a tale that must be told.

It's old news by now, but still instructive, possibly even entertaining. I had hoped to tell this story to parties who might actually take measures to correct what happened, but I don't know how to contact those parties.

The story you are about to read is true. Some of the names have been changed, to protect my hide if anyone gets upset. Aspiring Christian musicians are free to use this information to help them decide how they should or shouldn't behave on tour, and what they will or won't tolerate from the people they choose to work with. They're also free to completely ignore this information and learn their lessons in the school of hard knocks.

It all began in the summer of 2003 with an e-mail from an individual I'll call B. He's a former worship pastor for one of those Gen-X, postmodern "emergent churches," and a few years ago he put out a highly respected worship CD. I played as a guest musician with his band exactly one time, in 1999 or so. It was a lot of fun, but that was all it took for me to realize that I don't relate to emergent churches. Nothing against them, but they're not my cup of tea. Chronologically I'm Gen-X, but in terms of culture, philosophy, and values I'm quite different from most people my age. But I digress.

B. remembered my one-time guest shot with his worship band. In the four years since then, he'd left that particular church to help plant another one, moved around a bit, and gotten involved with another music project that was taking him to fun locations like the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and several places in Honolulu (one of those, the X Factory, is a youth center in a former kim-chi plant where I once played a set with Ric Blair. But I digress.) This new band was called Loudmouth Worshippers. They'd be going to Athens to play at the 2004 Summer Olympics, and they needed a musician like me to give their sound a more ethnic flavor (I play fiddle, mandolin, and several variations thereof, if you hadn't gathered that already).

Was I interested?

Well, wouldn't you be?

Part 2

2. How Can I Make Repressed Memory Syndrome Work for Me?

There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it.
——Julius Caesar,

I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly.

Do you ever look back on moments in your life and wish you’d been taking notes?

What I'm getting at is this. In every life there are a few times when one says to oneself, “I am going to remember this as long as I live.” The death of a pet, or, God forbid, a family member. Getting your driver’s license. Graduation. Your first job. Getting married. The birth of your first child. Et cetera. And that's nice, but chances are that those aren't the moments you'll actually need to remember. No, those moments, more often than not, seem trivial and mundane when they're happening. At the time, of course, you have no awareness of their future importance. Then, days or months or years later, you're left scratching your head and asking yourself, "Now what exactly did so-and-so say to me?" I remember my anniversary, but quite often in my marriage, that fact has been less important than whether I remembered to pick up margarine at the grocery store.

Which more or less brings me to my point: There are things I'm going to relate in this tale that I wish I could remember better. For example, I'm not entirely sure about everything that happened the first time I met Q.

Q. was the manager/executive producer for the band, Loudmouth Worshippers, that B. had invited me to join. (I hope this anonymity thing doesn't make my story too confusing. I've racked my brain for a nickname for this guy, and Q. is as good as anything else. It reminds me of the meddlesome, omnipotent being portrayed by John De Lancie on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The Q. in my story wasn't suave or brilliant like that character, but he was meddlesome, and seemed to think himself omnipotent.) After I had declared my interest and exchanged a couple of phone calls with Q., I was invited to a recording session.

You know, I'm not going to tell you Q.'s name,* but I'll tell you a little bit about him. He runs a Bible software company, but at present I'm not sure how active it is. Its Web site has been little more than a placeholder since March 2005. He also has an independent record label, but so far the only projects he's officially released are compilation CDs. Several artists and bands have been "signed" to his label at one time or another, but as far as I know, he has yet to release a full-length CD by any of them. He also purports to run a film production company, and I guess we'll just have to wait and see whether the film he's working on ever gets finished.

To earn his daily bread, Q. runs a small company that purchases and resells secondhand office equipment. I'm sorry I can't be more forthcoming about his identity, but we've all seen what happens to people who leak too much information. However, if you're a young worship musician who's recruited to play at the Olympics with the next hot band in Christian music by someone who seems to fit my description of Q., here's my advice: read every word of every post on this blog. Then and only then will you have the information you need to make your decision. And if you don't decide to run screaming for the hills, at least you can't say later that I didn't warn you. But I digress.

Now where was I? The recording session was to be in a studio on the campus of a church in North Seattle. I remember wandering about the grounds carrying four or five instruments and talking to Q. on a cell phone until I figured out which building it was. Q., his wife, E. (OK, that's enough initials), and B. were there, and there might have been one or two more band members. I am pretty sure that things seemed disorganized, because that's how all the recording sessions were: charts missing or in the wrong key or not having all the chords; working on songs that weren't on the list I was given before the session; being told, "Oh, we're going to redo some of those rhythm tracks you're playing with" or "We're going to add a cello to this" (in which case it was impossible to know how my own tracks would fit in with the final project); and lacking a sense of what the arrangement was or what the style should be for each song.

In the first session and the several that followed, I was often playing on songs or arrangements I had never heard before — which can be OK if the charts are accurate and the arrangement and style are understood, and a big waste of time if they're not. Pro session players quite often record stuff they don't know, and many of them are good enough to nail it on the first take. I wish I were that caliber of player, but I'm not.

(In all fairness, I must say I've played on worse sessions. The worst was probably the first one I ever did, for a singer-songwriter in L.A. [this one, if you're wondering]. Our time slot at the studio began at midnight, because it was cheaper then. She was a completely self-taught musician and fairly talented, but she had no musical vocabulary and neither did her engineer. I don't even remember whether her charts had any chords on them. Not a problem if you've got a great ear, but I don't — I have a so-so ear. Anyway, she didn't like what I was playing, but she lacked the capacity to tell me what she wanted me to change. I think I tried for about three hours before I gave up and went home, and in that period we might have gotten 30 seconds of tape that ended up on the CD. But I digress.)

Q. himself was nearly as deficient in musical vocabulary as that singer-songwriter was, but his engineers seemed to know their stuff, and B. was often around to show me things on the guitar if I had questions. Did I mention that B. had written most of the band's songs and that I've always respected his songwriting? Well, more later about that. And more later on what I couldn't have known at the first session: that no matter how much I and the other band members worked on recording the songs, many of them would never sound finished, because Q. was forever pulling out tracks and replacing them with others as we went along.

In later sessions it became clear that Q. was not fond of Celtic-style ornamentation on fiddle solos, which is a shame because they're part of how I play. I had to very conscientiously avoid such ornamentation, which was difficult for me. I played a viola solo on "Be Thou My Vision" and the engineer kept reminding me to leave the Irish stuff out. I wanted to say, in my best Hibernian brogue, "Are you bollocks? It's an Irish hymn, for the love of God," but I didn't. Also, at the second session, I met some of the other band members (at least I think they were members when I met them — but more later about that). I broke into a bit of a hornpipe on the mandolin (not while the tape was rolling), and one of the people I'd just met made a wisecrack about dancing leprechauns.

What I don't remember about these sessions is at which one of them Q. told me about Jimmy & the Pullet Pluckers. And I don't remember exactly what he said, which is unfortunate, because it turned out to be one of those moments when I should have been taking notes.

For the uninitiated, Jimmy & the Pullet Pluckers** is a Christian band from Nashville formed during the recent "swing revival" craze. If you called them the CCM counterpart of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, you wouldn't be far off. But while most swing revival bands have gone the way of Sinatra, the Pullet Pluckers are still going strong, which says something either about their talent and perseverance or about the CCM market's failure to recognize when trends are over. (Please don't get the wrong idea — I would rather listen to swing music than just about anything on modern pop or rock radio.)

But I digress. I had heard of the Pullet Pluckers, although I didn't know their music, so I was impressed when Q. told me they were "one of our bands." That's the only phrase I recall well enough to put in quotes. I remember getting the distinct impression that Q. was claiming to be their manager and/or the one responsible for starting the band. I would later learn that this impression was false. (You can check the band's Web site to see who their manager and founding members are. No mention of Q. there.) But, you will recall, I wasn't taking notes.

In retrospect, it seems unlikely that Q. stated an outright falsehood. The incident was probably an early manifestation of two of Q.'s particular gifts: 1) exaggeration; 2) making vague statements that could be interpreted a number of different ways, but were nonetheless calculated to reflect positively on him and increase his legitimacy in the mind of the listener.

Now if I hadn't been such a gullible chap, I could have gone to the Pullet Pluckers' Web site while his remarks were still fresh in my mind, there corrected my impression, and perhaps even cleared up the misunderstanding. But I did none of those things. It would be at least a year before I discovered the precise nature of Q.'s relationship with Jimmy & the Pullet Pluckers. More later about that. In the meantime I was determined to be part of this band and go with them to the Olympics — snide remarks about leprechauns notwithstanding.

So what's today's lesson, kids? One of two things: either (a) carry a notepad with you at all times and write down what people say to you, because you might need to recall it later on; or (b) if someone tells you something about himself that sounds both impressive and verifiable, by all means do try to verify it — especially if you will be placing significant trust in this individual in the future. If you succeed in verifying the claim, the individual will look all the more impressive because of his truthfulness. If you succeed in disproving the claim, then you will know you should either ask for clarification or put your trust elsewhere.

*For some reason Q. himself uses a pseudonym in letters to the editor as well as in press releases on his own Web site.

**To protect the innocent, I'll do what I can to ensure that the names of actual, existing, legitimate music ministries are not dragged unnecessarily into the story.

3. Crossing the Continental Divide

Now, by the gods, I pity his misfortune,
And will awake him from his melancholy.

I wanna begin this post by telling you a little about me, just so's you'll know where I'm comin' from. I am thirty-five years old, I am thrice divorced, and I live in a van down by the ...

Wait a sec.

Well, I did turn 35 a few months after going to Athens, but forget the rest of that. I just figured that since my Hellenic debacle was not my first experience with touring music ministry, it might do some good to talk about one of my other such experiences, for the sake of comparison. Just so's you'll know where I'm comin' from.

One fine spring day in 1989 I sat down on my bed in my college dorm room and narrowed my summer options down to two alternatives:
(a) commit suicide or (b) audition for Continental Singers. I then chose (b), figuring that if it didn't work out, I would still have (a) to fall back on. I guess that means (a) was my Plan B.

The most succinct way to describe the Continental Singers is "the Christian Up With People." They send groups around the world performing CCM songs in a "show choir" format, with video, lights, bright costumes, and choreography. I grew up attending Continentals concerts at my church, and had always harbored a desire to join them. The music is undeniably bland by a critic's standards — but you must understand that Continentals perform mostly in churches, many of which are rather conservative, and they have to choose material that won't give too much offense. By age 19 I wasn't exactly a big fan of the music they perform, but I still wanted to go on one of their tours. This may explain why I chose to audition as an instrumentalist rather than a singer.

To truncate a tome (a phrase which here means "to make a long story short"), I was accepted as the third-chair violist in the Continental Orchestra (the only one of their groups with string players) and spent the summer playing around the United States and Europe. It saved my life.

Surely you haven't forgotten (a) from an earlier paragraph — I was suicidal, and suicidal people tend not to have positive or cooperative attitudes. I have no doubt that I was a complete pain in the rear for my tour director during rehearsal camp and the first leg of the tour. But our bus that summer was a microcosm of Christian community, and the support I received from my leaders and tourmates pulled me out of my depression and gave me a renewed sense of self-worth that I've never lost since then — although I've been in plenty of situations that brought it under attack (more later about that). So I don't care what you think of Continentals' music; what they did for me is far more important than a matter of taste.

At the beginning I didn't have such a high opinion of our leaders (but, you will remember, I had problems of my own). I even met once or twice early in the tour with a group of six or eight disgruntled musicians who wanted to propose some changes in the way things were run. I'm pretty sure that our director listened fairly to our proposals and rejected most of them, if not all. But I've forgotten what they were. Over the course of the tour, the director proved himself, by his behavior, to be a person of unimpeachable integrity. And because of this, our objections ceased to matter (to me, at least) long before the summer was over.

Here are a few things the Continentals did right:
  • We attended a week-long rehearsal camp before we hit the road, which gave everyone time to learn the music and choreography and start to form relationships.
  • Our light tech and sound tech were part of the team. They trained along with us at rehearsal camp, and planned in advance for our equipment needs.
  • The leaders made an effort to personally engage every group member, one on one, and get to know what made them tick. I am sure this was not easy for them in my case.
  • If the leaders felt any self-doubt about their leadership ability, they didn't tell the group about such doubts. If they made mistakes, they did it with confidence. If their decisions bore an explanation, they gave one, within reason.
  • The leaders sacrificed their personal comfort and convenience for the benefit of the group. They set examples for us by being on time for every call, keeping their cool in tight situations, and treating us fairly and graciously while nonetheless maintaining strict boundaries. There were times my tour director was brusque with me, but it's not as though I didn't give him cause. Eventually we earned each other's respect.
  • The leaders themselves were musicians. Our director was a trumpet player; his wife was a vocalist; and our three assistant directors were a vocalist, a French horn player, and a violinist.
  • Expectations were clear. There were rules for what you wore, what you did with your free time and your time on the bus, what you did during setup, performance, and tear-down, and how you behaved around your host families. Every day had a schedule and it was given to everyone first thing in the morning. The tour itself also had a schedule, and it was given to everyone before we hit the road. You knew where you'd be playing every night.
  • Each day was structured to include some down time, even if it meant just taking a nap on the bus. Some days included free time or activity time, schedule permitting, even if it meant just stopping at a shopping mall for a few hours. But you knew in advance when you were going to have free time, when it would begin, and when it would end.
  • Every day included at least 90 minutes of sound check/rehearsal/warmup before the gig.
  • Spiritual disciplines (group prayer and Bible reading) were practiced consistently, with gusto. We sang together in private as well as on stage.
  • We were fed.
So there are just a few characteristics of a successful touring ministry. You might want to keep them in mind later on, when the Big Fat Greek Vacation actually reaches Greece. At some point we'll ponder whether it's fair of me to judge my experience on the Continent by my experience with the Continentals.

Until then, happy surfing.

4. If the Casket Falls Out Before You Reach the Cemetery, You Just Put It Back In, and That's a ...

Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men's lives.
——Richard II,

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
——The Merchant of Venice, V.i

The foul practice
Hath turn'd itself on me.
——Hamlet, V.ii 

Having devoted the previous post to background information, I'll now resume my thrilling narrative. I've talked a bit about recording sessions, which of course are different from rehearsals because the musicians play one at a time instead of all together. Now I'll try to give you an idea of what our rehearsals were like.

In college I had an acquaintance named Alecia. After she graduated, she married a guy named Joe, had a couple of kids, and moved to a house in South Seattle. Our first band rehearsal, on July 19, 2003, turned out to be in her garage, although she wasn't playing in the band. Besides Alecia, there were some other familiar faces: B. was there, along with a percussionist and lead guitarist I'd met at the second recording session. Q. had come along, naturally. There were also some new faces: a bassist and drummer I hadn't met, and a guitarist/vocalist named Holly.

Holly, a few months pregnant at the time I met her, is a worship leader at another of those emergent churches — hers is in West Seattle. She and B. were to be the tandem lead vocalists of Loudmouth Worshippers. (I think there might have been a third guitarist/vocalist at that rehearsal, but if so, he or she disappeared thereafter. More later about that.) Through all that ensued, my wife and I ended up getting to know Holly better than we knew anyone else in the band.

About the rehearsal. We slammed through 10 or 12 charts. B. had written most of the music, and it was good stuff: catchy melodies, chord progressions not too predictable. B. has a talent for taking classic texts (Prayer of St. Francis, the Nicene Creed, the old hymn "Breathe on Me") and finding new melodies for them. And there was a fair amount of intrigue and poetry in his original lyrics. We were doing one classic hymn, "Come Thou Fount," with the original melody. But, as I said, we were slamming through everything. No attention was given to dynamics or arrangements; we didn't go back to rework problem spots; everybody just played as loud as possible, and I tried to find some sonic space for my instruments somewhere. I have mentioned that this band had already played live gigs in Hawaii and Salt Lake City, but at this rehearsal they didn't sound like a band that was used to playing together. Or maybe, I thought, it was just me.

I guess you could point to Robby Steinhardt (Kansas) or John Cale (Velvet Underground) as the first musicians to play amplified violin-family instruments in a rock band. (Of course, people like Bob Wills and Stuff Smith had been using them in jazz and swing for years.) Charles O'Connor of the Horslips also comes to mind. I don't know for sure about the others, but Robby and Kansas figured out two things: you have to have a good pickup and a preamp, or you'll never be heard above electric instruments; and you to have to arrange the music so that the violin sounds like it belongs there. Well, I had one of the best pickup/preamp configurations in the business on both my mandolin and my fiddle: a Fishman bridge pickup, paired with a Crown microphone, run through a Rane AP13 preamp. (Both my AP13s were mounted in a portable rack case, along with a mixer, and I brought them to the three rehearsals and the gig I participated in before we went overseas. More later about that.) But, at least at that rehearsal, we took no time to consider arrangements. I could barely hear myself, and it's hard to arrange what you can't hear.

Of course, there's really no point in working too much on your arrangements for live shows until you have your personnel nailed down. Keep that in mind.

Several weeks later, on August 23, 2003, we held a second rehearsal in Joe and Alecia's garage. In between the two rehearsals I went to Ireland, so in my memory they seem farther apart than they actually were. I remember I was really late for this second one, but I eventually got there. Not much had changed except some of the personnel. We had a new bassist; I don't think the lead guitarist or the phantom third guitarist/vocalist were there; and if I'm not mistaken, we were, like Henry David Thoreau, following a different drummer. Actually, we were following the percussionist, who was filling in on the trap set because the drummer was even later than I was. But if I was expecting that we would work on arrangements this time, I was disappointed — it was just more slamming.

Actually, in retrospect, slamming seemed to be the favored approach for a lot of things in this group — and I'm not just talking about music. I'm talking about the most memorable part of that rehearsal: a spectacular argument between B. and Q., which, if I recall correctly (and again, I should have been taking notes) had something to do with how the band was expected to sound. Q. always said he wanted us to sound like Coldplay — which was a bit of a puzzler for me, because I have never heard Coldplay* and know absolutely nothing about them except that their lead singer is the father of Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, who is named Apple. I can hear the playground taunts already. Some therapist is going to buy a luxury yacht with the money he gets for having that kid on his couch. But I digress. Frankly, I'm a conflict avoider, I didn't want to listen to the argument, and the rehearsal was pretty much over when it started, so I excused myself from the garage and went home. But before I left I did hear Q. pull rank as the manager/producer/financier/Svengali for the band, and threaten to get rid of B. and everyone else if he didn't get his way.

In other words, it didn't matter that B. had written these songs and performed them hundreds of times in his own church worship bands. It didn't matter that this band had already been out playing gigs. It didn't matter that the person trying to assume the role of musical director (Q.) didn't know a whole note from a hole in the head. It didn't matter that this was a slam-through rehearsal conducted at least partly for the purpose of bringing me up to speed, and therefore it was hardly fair to judge whether the band sounded like Coldplay (at the time it didn't sound like much of anything). It was Q.'s way or the highway, and he could be volatile if he didn't get what he wanted.

So the evidence was there for me to see — but doggone it, I wanted to go to Greece.

Not that I felt personally threatened by Q., or had any arguments with him myself (up to this point). He was always complimentary toward me and my playing. In fact, because I tried to be flexible in recording sessions and give him what he wanted, he took to calling me a "professional studio musician." I didn't endeavor to correct the misconception, because I was flattered by it. It gave me some incentive to behave like a professional, a phrase which here means "Keep your head down, don't make waves, give 'em what they want, and concentrate on playing your best." I've often thought about attempting to be a professional, and have considered joining the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. After I got back from Greece, I called the AFM and asked what professional studio musicians charge for their services. I was told the AFM doesn't send anyone out for less than $50 an hour, and there is, I think, a three-hour minimum.**

Wanna guess how much I got paid for my studio time? Zilcho. And I was OK with that. This was ministry, after all, and I was getting a free trip to the Olympics. There is, nonetheless, a certain amount of irony in calling someone a "professional studio musician" when you're not willing to treat him like one.

*Funny, these coincidences — I stopped in Rubato Records tonight to look around, and heard Coldplay for the first time on the in-store sound system. My quick impression: Start with U2 circa October or Boy. Then give Bono a frontal lobotomy so that he can't emote. Next, throw in a piano. You might need to throw it directly at Bono in case the lobotomy doesn't slow him down enough. Voila — you've got Coldplay. I didn't hear any strings, so I don't know how I was supposed to fit into Q.'s concept of our band's sound.

**I think I did six sessions for Q., for a total of about 10 hours of recording time. So my work was worth at least $500 by professional standards — $900 if you apply the three-hour minimum.

5. I'm Gonna Take a Trip on That Good Ol' Gospel Ship

Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto listening.

I'm often asked...

Sometimes asked...

Somebody once asked me...

about my experience with worship music. Why would I want to join a band called Loudmouth Worshippers?

Well, gee ... maybe it's because I had been playing worship music in churches for 13 years (mostly in this one and a couple of years in this one), because I think that's one of the ways God wants me to serve him. And from time to time I'm nagged by the desire to expand my involvement in music that expresses my faith.

(I didn't say "Christian music" because I'm not particularly anxious to be part of the CCM market, or to play the syrupy, repetitive pap with self-centered lyrics and outrageously affected vocals that passes for "worship music" in said market. Furthermore, this doesn't rule out my playing other types of music — I'm not going to give up my chair in Thalia Symphony just because we might play a piece by a composer who wasn't a Christian. Nonetheless, one function of music — although not the only function — is self-expression, and for me, that function is going to include my faith. But I digress.)

I think I've received exactly one negative comment about my playing in worship bands — someone thought I was trying to be a rock star because I move around a lot when I play. That person obviously had a lot of confidence in her ability to determine people's intentions by their actions. (I move around a lot no matter what kind of music I'm playing — I'm easy to spot in the orchestra because I'm the violist who can't sit still.) On the other hand, I've received a lot of praise, the best of which is when people say my playing helps them focus their attention on God. Which is, after all, my goal when I play worship music. I try to play my best, but my intent is to glorify God, not myself. My worship-band playing is improvisational, and it's informed by knowledge of chord progressions, scales, arpeggios, harmony, countermelody, complementary vs. contrary motion, and the mood of the song. In other words, it's just good solid musicianship. No smoke, no mirrors, and nothing up my sleeve. I don't claim any "anointing" or divine inspiration. If other people want to attribute those properties to me, that's fine, but I can't afford to get a swollen head. I refuse to entertain the notion that being a musician makes me more "spiritual" than any other Christian.*

Anyway, I had actually been praying and thinking about whether there was a way for me to get further involved in artistic expression of faith — and then that e-mail from B. arrived. It looked like a good thing at the time — maybe even an answer to prayer. Which, perhaps, is another reason I overlooked Q.'s not-so-commendable attributes and stuck with the project.

Speaking of Q., he never asked for my personal philosophy of worship music, but in an e-mail before the first recording session, he did ask me to provide a letter of reference from my pastor. He wanted the members of Loudmouth Worshippers to be seriously involved with music in their own local churches. And, he said, he was going to visit my church and check out what I was doing there.

It was no problem for me to obtain two letters of reference — one from my pastor in Seattle and another from my former pastor in L.A. And I told Q. he was welcome to drop by my church any Sunday, although he should check with me first, as I play there only every other week.

He never showed up.

In retrospect, I suppose the thing to do would have been to ask Q. for a letter of reference from his pastor. That'd be fair, don't you think? He claimed to attend the church pastored by Casey Treat, which was a bit of an eyebrow-lifter, as I disagree with much of Casey's theology and wonder whether Casey himself isn't a little off the beam. I was determined, however, to be on my best ecumenical behavior, a phrase which here means "cooperate with Q. in the spirit of Christian unity, and don't judge him by the church he attends."

Later I was surprised to learn that (a) Casey was suffering from hepatitis B; and (b) Q. didn't know about it. (I'm sure that Casey's illness must be a bit of an embarrassment to him, since he's known for teaching the "word of faith" doctrine, which claims that illness and poverty are the result of insufficient faith. I do hope that Casey both recovers and rethinks his theology. But I digress.) I'll just say this: I attend church frequently enough to say with some certainty that if my pastor went public with the fact that he had a life-threatening illness, I would know about it.

Anyway, the next time someone says he's going to check up on me, I'll try to do an equal amount of checking up on him.

*If you don't like my thinking on this subject, maybe this guy will be more up your alley. He professes not to have all the answers, but writes as though he does.

6. Broken Promises

I, that am honest; I, that hold it sin
To break the vow I am engaged in;
I am betray'd, by keeping company
With men like men of inconstancy.
——Love's Labour's Lost,

That is a piecrust promise: easily made, easily broken.
——Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins

I can sense your frustration, gentle reader. You feel betrayed. You think an essay whose title includes the words "Greek vacation" should actually contain some description of a Greek vacation. After all, what is a title but an implicit promise about content? And if a person breaks an implicit promise, isn't he not only a liar but a weasel, since he raised your hopes without actually stating the promise? And isn't a manipulative liar worse than a bald-faced one?

Dear reader, I shall try to be neither sort of liar. Everything in this essay is and shall be, to the best of my knowledge, completely factual. When it becomes necessary to disclose facts that do not reflect well on me, I intend to do so. Let me reassure you, I did in fact go to Greece and will attempt to get us there soon. Bear in mind, the preparation took more than a year; the trip itself lasted only two and a half weeks.

But speaking of broken promises, perhaps now would be a good time to tell you what promises were made to me before I stepped on the plane. Or at least what I expected, since in some cases, whether the promises were explicit or implicit depends on other contingencies, such as the meaning of the word "we," for example. So, implicitly or explicitly, Q. and his wife, E. — via conversation, e-mail, and text on their Web site — had fostered within me the following expectations:
  • That we'd be playing "at the Olympics" in front of "thousands of people" and staying someplace "in the shadow of the Acropolis." Meals, a place to stay, and transportation would be covered. Virgin Megastore would be a corporate sponsor for commercial concert venues.
  • That Q.'s company and record label would also sponsor performances in Athens by some better-known Christian bands: Switchblade, Feveri$h, Jimmy & the Pullet Pluckers, and Mob Barley. Loudmouth, we were told, was booked to play a concert with the latter two bands. I was impressed. Switchblade and Feveri$h in particular are fairly high-level bands, and they don't work with just anybody. Q., it seemed, had the connections to make an event like this fly.*
  • That Q. and E. would spring for some Olympic event tickets. Here we must note the difference between an expectation and a promise:

    E. sent everyone a link to the Olympic event schedule for Aug. 24–25, comprising some 50 events, and asked us to name the ones we'd most like to see. She wrote, "Even though Q. and I were so busy during the last Olympics in Salt Lake City, we committed to everyone that we would go to an event or two during the next Oly’s in Athens."

    1. I guess that since she asked us to choose an event, I assumed she'd do something with the information we gave her — namely, buy tickets.
    2. She used the phrase "committed to everyone that we would go." Well, how do you "commit" to go to a ticketed event? Buy tickets.
    3. She didn't ask us for money — so logically, who was left to buy the tickets? Q. and E.
    4. I assumed most events would sell out well in advance, so it would be smart to buy tickets ahead of time, especially for a large group like ours. (In fact, the Athens Games were rather a disappointment in terms of ticket sales, but no one could have known that beforehand.)

    Well, my assumptions might have been logical, but they weren't accurate. E.'s e-mail never said who'd pay for the tickets. And she and Q. did take some band members to an Olympic event, although those who went had to pay for their own tickets. So this counts as a shattered expectation but not as a broken promise.

  • That Q. had assembled another band called U4ic,** who would be flying over with us. He said I might play with that band as well, and in fact he called me in to record some rhythm tracks and a lead break on tenor guitar for a U4ic song. It was a calypso version of the hymn "Sweet By and By." (Those tracks are probably my only contribution to one of Q.'s musical projects that actually appeared on a release of any kind. But more later about that.***)
  • That a cellist would join Loudmouth, and she and I would each be expected to prepare a classical solo piece. I gave Q. a copy of my solo CD and sent an e-mail suggesting a couple of pieces I could play and asking which one he liked.****
  • That the Loudmouth CD would be completed and for sale at the concerts we played — and the band would get some of the money.
  • That there were some 150 ministries supporting Loudmouth.
  • That band members would be doing TV and radio interviews. When I asked whether my wife, Sarah, could come along for the trip, Q. suggested that she could be an on-camera coach for the interviews. Later he offered to pay for her transportation as well as mine, as long as I confirmed her availability with him right away. If memory serves, this offer was made toward the end of the week of July 18–24, on Thursday or Friday. I confirmed by e-mail on Saturday, July 24, and by voice mail the following Monday.

I could go on. But now that I think about it, I had reason to believe, even before I went to Greece, that broken promises were something of a behavior pattern with Q. and E. I've already mentioned Q.'s failure to show up at my church. In addition, they repeatedly talked about recording at some cushy studio (this one) with living quarters, hot tubs, and a 9-hole golf course. Since I thought they were just trying to impress me, and I don't particularly care where I record (I made most of my solo CD in the producer's laundry room), the fact that this never happened didn't bother me. Maybe it should have. Q. also waxed rhapsodic to my wife about plans to have our volunteer roadies do a Stomp-style performance at our concerts (as though that wouldn't require talent, training, choreography and a ton of rehearsal). This latter scheme even made its way into a press release, along with many other non-events. Various other teasing tidbits about things "in the works" would crop up in e-mails from E. — working with a Grammy-winning guest producer; gigs in Idaho and New Zealand as well as on Crete and the Greek island of Patmos; staying at Kalamos Youth Center; playing at a Worship Together seminar — and then dissipate into the ether, never to be mentioned again. In fact, this last suggestion seemed to be the occasion of a dramatic flip-flop in Q. and E.'s promotion strategy. Here's an excerpt from an e-mail E. sent on 7/2/2003:

We had several invitations to music fests, events, etc. The one reason we have said "No" is because we want to have CDs for you guys to be able to be compensated for your time.
And here's what she said on 10/7/2003 when she mentioned playing at Worship Together:
I know it may seem weird to you because most independent groups finish their CD project first and then go out there and promote and do concerts and stuff, well not us. We have chosen to get you guys out there promoting in all different avenues with cool opportunities, i.e. radio servicing, radio interviews, TV, concerts, etc. for several months before the release of the CD like the big names do it. By the time your CD hits the street everyone is familiar with who you are.
Did you catch that? The two statements are completely contradictory. It's a 180-degree change in the space of three months! How bizarre is that? Given that we never played at Worship Together or any other such event, the first statement was probably closer to the truth. On the other hand, given that the CD was never released, the second statement was probably closer to the truth. In the end, we got the worst of both worlds: no CD and very little exposure.

So if I've learned anything, I guess it's that people who make false promises about extravagant things (such as studios with golf courses) may be just as likely to make false promises about basic things (such as room and board, performance venues, and whose transportation is covered). And perhaps, having seen that certain promises weren't kept before I went to Greece, I was foolish to expect that other promises would be kept when I got there. However, I can't impute to Q. any sinister motive. He may well have attempted to effect all the things he promised — but if so, many of his attempts failed. He tended to represent deals as done when they really weren't, and to take credit for the work of others.

A very illuminating quote appears on an old version of the Web site for Q.'s record label:

We support and work with a lot of credible, worldwide renowned ministries. We feel in order to keep a ongoing trustworthy relationship with these ministries and future ministries, it is important when looking at adding more people to the team, we keep the high standard of growing a business and ministry where we are all "living a life above reproach" as the Apostle Paul commanded Timothy to all Christians.
Of course, it isn't up to me to judge whether Q.'s behavior meets this standard or not. I'm only here to recite the facts.

*Speaking of connections, Q. not only licensed songs by Jessica Simpson and Moby for a compilation CD, he claimed to know the artists. He also claimed that well-known Christian singers Stinky Cheeseman and Picante Chilipepa were supporting our Greece trip — but I am not sure whether said support was supposed to be financial or emotional. The impression that Q. was working with several bands besides ours seemed to explain why he was sometimes hard to reach, and why his work on the Loudmouth CD was going so slowly. After all, he had many other irons in the fire!

**People like myself who pay attention to words and their meanings will note that "euphoric" usually refers to an artificially induced sense of well-being, such as you might get from drugs. So perhaps it wasn't the best name for a band professing Christianity.

***Here's a chronology of changes to the music section of Q.'s Web site, which rather tends to support the notion that chaos and instability reign at what passes for his record label:

Early March 2005: Loudmouth Worshippers renamed U4ic; U4ic renamed Playpin Junkyard. Makes you wonder who's reading this blog.

April 2005: Q. deletes the music page from his Web site, renames his record label, and launches a new site for it. Playpin Junkyard disappears entirely; U4ic is still listed, with no release date or other information. A new project called Knee Fight is scheduled for September 2005. (Knee Fight — what the ...? As if Playpin Junkyard weren't a stupid enough name...)

Autumn 2005: Release date for Knee Fight comes and goes. Project deleted from site. Link added to the Web site for "Six Steps to Heaven," a Hawaii-based band. U4ic still listed, with new graphic but no information. "Six Steps to Heaven" may have the best shot at actually finishing a project and getting it released, because (a) they're a pre-existing band not manufactured or managed by Q.; (b) they're in Hawaii, so he can't interfere with their operations on a daily basis. We shall see.

October 2005: Q. and B. recycle the name "Watercloset," a band B. used to front about 13 years ago. B. is the only original member in the new lineup, but he does obtain the blessing of other original members to use the name. New band photo includes two of the guys who went to Greece with Loudmouth, along with B., and two others I don't recognize. The forthcoming project is to be titled "The Best of Watercloset" — kind of an odd title for a band that did one CD in the early '90s and has been inactive since then. And, as we shall see, every water closet gets flushed before long.

February 2006: Q. assembles another outreach team for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. Details are never made public: no announcements about which bands are going to Italy with which other bands, etc. Perhaps Q. has learned something about making extravagant promises.

March 2006: U4ic link disappears from record-label homepage. So both bands Q. assembled for Athens are history. The "Watercloset" project is reconfigured as a solo project for B. Considering that these changes happened just after the Winter Olympics, it's really tempting to infer that another meltdown occurred in Italy, similar to the one that unfolds in this blog, and that existing material is being repackaged as a B. solo project because Q. can't keep a band together long enough to do anything else. However, you'll never catch me making such inferences. That would amount to idle speculation, which is not my purpose here.

****Do you think I ever heard back from him about this?

7. Are You in This Band Too?

I'll show you how to observe a strange event.
Your lord sends now for money.
——Timon of Athens,

In speech, dear reader, I am not verbose. Articulate, yes, but I'm usually a man of few words.

Print, however, appears to be another story. I'm endeavoring to make this essay fun to read, which is challenging because it's basically one long complaint. I rewrite bits of it to add more punch to the language. I'm endeavoring to make it as accurate as possible; I've changed descriptions and added or deleted things as I rediscover facts I had forgotten. I'm endeavoring to filter out picayune details and unnecessary tangents (well, most of them) in order to focus on the important events — the "bones" of the story, you might say.

And yet this tale is coming out longer than I expected. Perhaps my story is a fish: it has many small bones, all pointing in the same direction.

For eating purposes, I like fish in general, although I like some kinds more than others. One thing about fish, though: You would never take a few bites of catfish and then expect the remaining bites to taste like salmon. But as I review the events that led up to my Greece trip, hindsight tells me that's exactly what I was doing. Q. and E. were serving catfish, even if they claimed it was salmon, and the joke was on me if I really expected it to taste different once I got on the plane.

Speaking of which, the purpose of this chapter is to bring you a few steps closer to that event. Ready? Then let's get on with it.

There were, as I have suggested, a few more recording sessions, mostly at a studio in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood run by a talented engineer named Scott. At one of these sessions I first met Logan, the infant son of Holly, our lead singer (you'll recall that she was pregnant when I met her). More later about him. These sessions were all fairly uneventful (well, OK, I was rear-ended by a pickup on the way to one of them, but fortunately I was driving a rental car and had purchased an insurance waiver). As the months went by I received a lot of CDs from Q. that were meant to represent the progress being made on the Loudmouth record. Frankly, I didn't listen to most of them, but when I did, only a few songs ever sounded as though they'd gotten beyond the rough-mix stage. The others seemed to be subject to a lot of addition and subtraction of tracks, without getting closer to sounding finished.

I chalked this up to the fact that we'd rehearsed only twice in a year. If we'd taken time to establish our arrangements, then we'd have known what tracks needed to be on the CD. But instead we were arranging them as we went, one player at a time, while the studio clock was ticking. Really talented producers can make great music this way, provided that they know what they want and how to get it out of their musicians. But in place of a talented producer we had Q., whose lack of musical acumen I have already complained about, and whose concept of our sound seemed to be a moving target. On 3/18/2004, E. wrote:
Since we are not going to be using three finished tracks that have been done up (because [Q.] is wanting to re-do them), distributors have OK’d a pre-promo mini CD, limited run (meaning not many free copies) with some of these songs.
Ah, so that's why the songs never sounded finished — the ones that were finished had to be redone for some reason. Meanwhile, we had a bunch of musicians from all over Washington state who needed some time to get comfortable playing with each other, especially if we were going to play at the Olympics in front of thousands of people (let alone record a CD). I didn't mind being in a manufactured band as long as we had time to become a band. It doesn't happen overnight.

I thought that since I was the new kid in the band, perhaps only I felt this way. Later I learned otherwise: Holly had expressed the same concern to Q., who allegedly told her that our first five days in Athens would be exclusively devoted to practice. More later about that.

In early July 2004, just six weeks before our trip, some good things began to happen, but so did some weird things. The weirdest was an e-mail from E., claiming that there was some kind of quota on non–European Union performers in Athens, so we'd have to trim the size of the group in order to play at the commercial venues sponsored by Virgin Megastore. The e-mail was being sent to a "select few" band members, and those of us who wanted to "opt out" would be first in line for future outreaches in Hawaii and New Zealand.

Well, if you start "opting out" people, pretty soon you no longer have a band. Sure, they could perform without me and my "color instruments" — and in fact, the band had played a gig in California over the Valentine's Day 2004 weekend, which I wasn't able to make because I had a wedding gig booked. But apart from me, wasn't everyone else pretty essential? A band isn't a modular unit that can be reconfigured any which way, is it?

Well, is it?

More later about that. I'll tell you now, though, that when I got to Greece and asked some of the other band members about that e-mail, none of them remembered getting it. So just how few was a "select few"?

Anyway, the implication seemed to be that I might be able to go to Greece, but I might not be able to bring my wife, Sarah, to do her on-camera coaching. So here's part of an e-mail I sent to E. in response:
Look, I certainly don't want to cause you guys any trouble. I would be disappointed not to go to Greece, but mostly for selfish reasons. If you have room for me and not Sarah, she and I will see what we can do about finding a ticket for her on our own. She can go as a tourist and stay with a missionary friend of hers in Athens. In the end, though, you should do whatever's in the best interest of your goals for outreach & ministry.
I meant it, too. It's a funny thing, though: A couple of weeks after sending that e-mail, I got a voice mail back from E., saying that Sarah and I could both go. But she also asked us to pay for our airfare! Wait a minute, I replied, I thought our airfare was covered. She came back with this:
whoops, I made a mistake and I apologize, your ticket is totally covered. I guess you didn't get back to us in time whether Sarah could help with video production stuff over there.
So now I'd have to give her a money order for $1,352 to cover Sarah's airfare. (That's a dollar for every guitar picker in Nashville.)

You'll recall that I had confirmed Sarah's availability just a few days after Q. originally offered to cover her airfare. Now I was suddenly being told this wasn't soon enough, and I was being asked to cough up some serious cash or leave behind my wife — who had already scheduled the summer classes she teaches around this Greece trip, and whose expectations were just as high as mine. I asked E. whether I could sell my solo CD at our concerts, to help defray the unexpected cost. She said I could, except at churches and a particular gig being organized by Logos Music, which was to be the band's distributor in Greece. So I went to the bank and got the money order, paying for it with some of the revenue from those summer classes.

Now, if I were a cynic I would make a comment about the timing of E.'s sudden demand for $1,352, coming as it did a few days after my offer to find a way for Sarah to travel separately if it would help the band beat the quota system. If I were a cynic I would say it was awfully interesting that although the quota was no longer a problem, suddenly the money was — just after I'd sent an e-mail suggesting that I might have the means and the will to get my wife to Athens on my own. But I am trying hard not to be a cynic.

Still, dear reader, money is money. You might want to keep a running total of my expenses as you read. Just don't tell me what it is — I don't want to get depressed!

Speaking of not being depressed, I did mention that some good things had begun to happen. Namely, another rehearsal was finally scheduled, and we were to play a gig at Seattle's City Church before going to Athens. The rehearsal—our third, and almost exactly a year after our first one — took place at Holly's church in West Seattle. And it was a good one — we actually, finally, started to talk about arrangements. Even though this just consisted of deciding which instrument should be "on top" (i.e., playing fills and lead breaks) for each song, at least we were making those decisions.

One challenge at this rehearsal: The only people in the room I recognized were B., Holly, and Q. The rest of the band was new to me. As follows:
  • A new bass player, Ben Paris.
  • The cellist (I don't recall her name).
  • A keyboardist named Justin, who had played with the band before, but whom I hadn't met.
  • A new third rhythm guitarist/vocalist named Brian.
  • A new percussionist.
  • And last but not least, the drummer. I can't tell you for sure whether this was the same guy from the other rehearsals. There might have been a different drummer every time we rehearsed, for all I know — a real-life Spinal Tap situation.
So we were now a 9-member band. So much for quotas! At the end of the rehearsal I still didn't feel quite ready for our gig (for example, many of us were still playing from chord charts, some of which were still in the wrong key), but I was looking forward to it nonetheless. It felt as though we were finally starting to cook that fish. Or at least reel it in.