Friday, February 10, 2006

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.


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