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Entries in praise band (2)

Tuesday
Mar062012

Getting in Tune with the Music

Ed mugging behind the StratocasterNovember 2000I suppose maybe I should have done it 17 years ago, but I waited until February 23rd. I mean, I started when I was just about to turn 21, and now I'm 38! But I didn't ever do it right. I just did it my way. And then things got distracted and even the attention I used to pay it was cut down noticeably. But something inside me keeps nagging for things to be reawakened, but this time it has to be done a different way. Of course, everything could have been different if last Friday happened anytime in the last 17 years. But it didn't happen that way. But it did happen.

I had my first proper guitar lesson.

You read right, folks. First paid guitar lesson ever. It wasn't for lack of opportunity; there are quite a number of teachers in this town, and there were several teachers among the various bands I used to work for. It wasn't that I didn't know anything about guitar, either, or about music. I did have a basic musicianship class (and a concurrent piano class) at Mesa College in 1993. So, by the time I picked up a guitar in late summer 1994, I was already introduced to chords and scales and intervals. My second instrument, the piano, made some sense to me since one key makes one sound. But after playing in bands that used guitars rather than keyboards, it began to be apparent guitar and bass would be more useful as auxiliary instruments to know. (I mean, I had a piano at home but I wasn't about to go to a rehearsal with it!) 

It just so happened that Bill Francis, the curious fellow who lived at our house in 1994 had two guitars and he wanted to shed one to make a few bucks. For me to say he lived "at" our house is more descriptive than to say he lived "in" our house. He was afforded a trailer or a shed to live in, courtesy of my old man, who was willing to help just enough to keep Bill from being totally homeless. Bill let me borrow one guitar—the Fender F-210 I still use today (about 25-30 years after its manufacture)—and that the old man subsequently bought for my birthday just a month or so later.

I had a chord book but had no idea what to do with it, really. It was more of a traditional jazz-blues kind of book from Mel Bay and I was kind of sour on it because I didn't hear the chords I saw in the rock bands I played in. I didn't really have vocabulary for it, but I was essentially missing the various power chords, partial barre chords with an A or E string left to drone, or certainly, open tunings or altered tunings. Not long after messing with all that, I sought some time with Jim Pupplo from Slaves By Trade. SBT was just in the process of breaking up, not by some big artistic differences, but that Jim was leaving to play with another band. As a parting gift, he showed me some power chords and other bits one day at his place. The thing is, I wasn't really sold on guitar as something to get passionately into. Chords never fell well under my fingers, and even to this day, I am slow to get certain forms, lest my fingers get into a tangle.

The battle-damaged F-210I never took a lesson since then. I've had a few more chord books and a couple books that, if actually used as intended, might have done me some good. Instead, I was keen on experimenting with sound. In early 1995, I was in an interesting spot to receive two guitars from a girlfriend who was keeping her convict friend's possessions. For a while, I had an acoustic guitar (don't remember if it was electro or not) and the very same Strat as I now play. (Sort of. Almost everything on it has been replaced and renewed over time.) I recall that quite early on in my guitar era, I took to using alternate tunings. I think the first ones must have been to tune to what would be a minor barre chord, or maybe a major if desired. One of my early tracks, Earl, was simply me strumming open chords at a couple positions as a drone effect. I was rather far from actually making music. Another odd tuning I used was EBEebe and perhaps a more extreme form, EEeebe. Somewhere there lurks a recording from mid 1995 using that tuning on the F-210, with an amazing stack of octaves and unisons but no real chords. It pretty much is a heavy attack minor key kind of theme that has an interesting buzz about it. That Fender acoustic could be called on to do some odd tunings. I've used it to play Robert Fripp's CGDAEG tuning, and even a variant of that, tuned a half step down! And of course I've done DADGAD and DADF#BD type things. It's versatile.

Some of that was to avoid having to learn real music on the guitar. Almost as soon as I picked up guitar, I found my two leading inspirations to diversify away from my drums-only identity. In December 1994 I saw Mike Keneally for the first time, and in the spring of the next year, the newly re-formed King Crimson threatened to explode my brain. There was nothing I could do to emulate Keneally's guitar or keyboard playing, but I could make jokey recordings with copious amounts of tape editing. And over in Crim-land, I could go for a highly processed tone, ambient effects, noise, and unusual tunings. It was fortuitous that just a month after seeing the Crimson King, I began working for Rockola. By the end of the summer, I was beginning to work for Bob Tedde. He let me borrow all sorts of things that made my experiments fruitful: pedals, 12 string Rickenbacker, effects boxes, Mustang bass (the short thing), and over time, various synths. Doug and Marty of the band also let me use bass and drums if I was responsible for getting them to the next gig. Various other guys I jammed with let me use instruments for various periods: 6 string bass (the one I played with an air compressor), electronic drum kit, and more. It was handy to have access to things, but because I wanted to record more than I wanted to practice, I set about my early practices that became my standard approach until maybe 2001: the recording was the artistic focal point for me and instruments were the brushes that let me paint the sound onto tape or disk. Learning musical vocabulary and repertoire was secondary, and often ignored.

Receiving coverI worked around cover bands playing a lot of classic rock, funk, disco, fusion, and even some blues and country. Some of what I missed in lessons was supplemented by watching bands so much of the time, and at least taking some stabs at things I saw over and over. But I never really learned songs or parts on guitar or bass in the way that I did on drums. Major disadvantage that I am now trying to put right. Receiving was recorded at the peak of my activity in the music/tech world, but you will barely hear anything directly attributable to my having watched so many bands play those styles named above. On Receiving, like all my recordings, there is really no knowledge of conventional harmony. I doubt there is even one tonic-dominant progression to be found. Or maybe only one! And yet, there is some adventure in the tension and release on certain tracks. It just isn't anything you'll find "in the book."

Over time, there were a few players that were on my scene for a few months or a year or so, and who graced me with better musicianship than I ever brought to things. In order, I'd name Michael Kropp (bass/guitar 1995), Tom Griesgraber (bass/guitar/Stick 1997-99), and Todd Larowe (guitar/bass/keys 1999-2002). Each of these guys gave me access to better playing on those instruments, but each also left me with something to think about as I watched their method or as they helped me unpack other things about music. My understanding was pretty decent, but my application of any of that to the instrument was always lacking. Knowing some things was half the battle, but I never won the other battle on any of the instruments I played: working the sticks and picks with any discipline. I've tended to regret that.

In the years since 2005, most bets have been off the table anyway, particularly with regard to space to set up and do thing as I used to. That was a bruising time that took a lot of wrestling. Despite selling off pieces that I sort of wish I had kept, I did retain enough to maintain a guitar/bass/drum/recording capability. And in the absence of actually playing much guitar or bass, I've been soaking up music just as a listener and allowing it to reach me in a way that I don't think it did when I was trying to create stuff myself. In the background I've been trying to push myself to develop some familiarity with pop music of various eras, either on bass or guitar, or just in trying to map out chords and get a feel for things at a new level. Part of the challenge has been to develop my ear and intuition on an instrument.

Church in the parkIn the fall I briefly played drums and a bit of bass for a budding worship band at church. I don't like the music and I didn't like the structure, but I gave it a shot for a while to at least put myself to some use. In all the years of doing church and playing music, I had never played for any liturgical purpose. The band leader was driven enough to buy a drum set and so I used that at rehearsals, making it quite easy to show up and play, only needing to add a few personal bits to the kit.

Fender bass wall with 5 string jazz bass and the bastard Fenderless fretless modJazz bass on the left; Fretless on rightIn October I bought my first instrument in years. It wasn't a huge step, but it warmed me up some. I found a rather used and very cheap ($100) Indonesian Squier P-Bass at a pawn shop, and as soon as I got it home, ripped the frets out in gleeful abandon, using toenail clippers! Then I took it to a luthier and paid 2.4 times as much ($240 more) to have the fingerboard properly finished with inlay lines and dots, and smoothed out. I was just aching to have a fretless again. It's no Warwick, but it soothes me to find my own notes again. Maybe it's part of my ear training method, but it's good to have a fretless bass once again.

Since the late summer, I've been joining in on a monthly acoustic/folk kind of meetup that lets me come in to learn some pretty basic songs on guitar. Again, not all of it strikes me as my kind of music, but since I did such a job of not learning the basics, now it's like I am building the foundation underneath the second floor! Just a couple days ago I went to the monthly meetup and the theme was "no guitars." I was able to come in with the fretless and hamfist my way through the tunes. It was quite a different group with no guitars. I think I was more able to participate on bass than on guitar.

Heartbreaker amp/cabinet looks pretty lean and sporty.I hope to make the Heartbreaker screamAll this has helped draw me back into spending time with music. Over the past few years, there have been a trickle of song fragments and chords that I have not finished. Part of the hold up is not really feeling I have a singing voice yet, but knowing that can be worked on. And I think maybe that should be made a co-incident priority with guitar related tutoring. I've mostly resisted the urge to set up a recording environment. It's hard, but I've sat many times in the past decade, staring at a rather complete recording rig, fully aware that I am more beholden to the gear than any stroke of brilliance and passion in my fingers. And that got old. I've stormed out of the studio plenty of times knowing that that approach was disingenuous, and that I should tap into whatever feeling lurks, and to work at developing some technical readiness to deliver the goods when the muse arrives. Eventually complicated recording setups can be put together, but for now, I need to trust that me and the guitar have something to say, and that has been the trouble. 

Another meetup group I just tried last week was a songwriters' meetup. I got a good feeling off of it, and since the people are dedicated to song craft, with a chance to be reviewed by others, and a feeling of collaboration, it might lead to other opportunities that get me out of my rut.

Unfortunately, the jobless situation means funds are a bit tight, but the choice to get music lessons is a worthy use of funds. I've been of the mind that the time has come to seek personal growth with some combination of music lessons, a gym membership, or with a shrink. I can't really afford all three. Two of them are things I've never done. One will just tell me to do the other two. In the few days between the first lesson and the songwriter meetup, I felt distinctly more alive—damn the therapists! I've been of the mind that it's time to make some more space for music, even if it comes at some cost to a life at, say, church. I've already cut back on that for various reasons. With the meetups and a new sense of empowerment, I might be able to meet some new people and do things that I've been setting aside and dreaming about.

Sunday
Sep112011

Drumming, Strumming, and Humming

ed on drums with two members of the new MHUCC praise band, playing in the parkToday I was in a whole new situation in more ways than one, or maybe more ways than two or three. You see, while drumming isn't anything new to me, and I've done some public performance on drums, I have never performed publicly on bass except as a kind of joke (with Rockola and their stage gimmicks), and have never ever been part of a music making ensemble for church. And furthermore, I've never really played guitar in public to account for much, and even more so never tried to sing for any public outside of my 2006 voice class at Mesa. And still furthermore, until just a few weeks ago, it was almost impossible to have done much of anything in the aim of singing AND playing at once; my skills just did not go there.

And yet today all of that was put to some use.

ed on bass with members of the new praise band in the parkLoyal readers of this fine journal know the struggle I've had with music for the last decade. And it has been one decade and a bit more since the old Hog Heaven glory days. Over time it has been apparent that if I was going to keep doing anything in music the game would have to shift to another focus. Mainly, the focus would have to move from my solo-oriented musicking. (Which was originally considered a way to learn stuff that would eventually let me be more versatile in other musical situations beyond playing drums in grunge and classic rock bands that were in abundance here in SD in 1995.) I didn't know it would take so many years to even get where I am now. All the life that has been chronicled here had to happen. As my understanding shifted, it was clear I'd have to make music for different reasons. All the years of basically being a listener more than a player were times that I've had a chance to connect with music in a way that I perhaps haven't done prior to, say, 2003, but now with more experience and learning to bring to my role as a listener, hearing more of the life in the songs that I like, and connecting with it more readily. I've found myself shifting my listening focus from some of the instrumentally focused ears I had for drum parts (when I was just a a drummer), or instrumental parts (when I began to incorporate guitar, bass, and keys), or for a few years now I have been able to better hear and appreciate vocal music, or the vocals in the midst of a full mix. Having had just a bit of training at a basic level, that opened me up to imagining how it was done and allowing myself some leeway to explore my own voice some. But mainly to let the expressiveness hit me. Connecting with more singer-songwriter artists of various genres has helped me shift focus too.

Years ago when I went to church at CCCPB, I got into drumming at just about exactly the same time in 1989. My intentional church life and drumming go together as partners in the narrative in my life, but aside from one jokey cymbal crash for a church play in 1990, and aside from last year's picnic show playing blues and country and oldies with the Broken Strings, performing in the midst of several local UCC churches, I have never until today—that's about 22 years now—played in a worship setting, on any instrument. But today I was in a trio that played a number of musical pieces for an outdoor service, and for my part, I was on drums primarily, bass for one song, and came equipped to play guitar and to sing, but the set list got changed some on account of the synchronicity of the worship service falling on the 9/11 anniversary. But once we finished and were in picnic mode, I did actually take guitar to a circle of people and, in a kind of giddy way that once was on display when I did my first "performance" for my old man and grandfolks in August 1989, I was excited to try out some newfound musical ability.

The extra odd factor is that most of the drum and bass stuff I played was out of a songbook that the UCC has formed recently, based on praise music. And to be rather blunt, I never liked the stuff and have often been rather unsparing in mocking the stuff. Many reasons for this, but I could address that as muso-artist ("the stuff is just brainlessly simple choruses that ape pop song conventions"); or I could take it on as a sound engineer (bands of amateur and semipro players with a mixed bag of gear and an even more mixed bag of stage skills makes for a messy mix); or I could talk about the rather inane theological ideas that comprise the lyrics. I would make these arguments because I have always hungered for musical sophistication and complexity (whether that is of any use or not), or because I worked for The Rock Church for a year or more as audio tech who had to wire stages with unusual and shifting musician lineups, or because I came from a liberal theological tradition that can be a bit snobbish sounding at times but that does pursue unusual avenues of theological thought and inquiry. To me, praise music has never done it for me. It just smacks of the church appropriating the common culture to get the hook in the mouth of the vulnerable. To me, it's pretty smarmy stuff musically and theologically. It wasn't enough to just have a rock or pop band instrumentation; it had to have screens, Internet video feeds, and the whole song and dance. I used to mock it all by saying, "how in the world did Jesus ever get any attention without all this shit?" My coarse but effective guide is that the more a church is invested in a modern day pop gospel band and screens and other showy things, the less I expect to be interested. To me, the goal appears to out-produce the secular world. On stages, as an audio man accustomed to working on professional stages with professional bands who "play for the stage," it could be rather dreadful as less experienced players come in with bad mic technique and sub-par gear, and ask for things they have no idea about. In fact, after about a year or so of working for the Rock Church, that was one gig I told Mitch (my boss for those Rock shows) that I never wanted to do again. And for a few years, that worked out.

During my years of distance from music, repeatedly talking about wanting to play music in a collaborative effort and not with solo ambition, I have kept the musical flame alive only by basic life support means. Obviously I kept a share of gear that allows me to get back into my guitar, bass, drums, and recording ability. The keyboards are all gone though. (I find myself a vulture, circling over a piano shop that is going out of business soon, waiting for the fire sale on an upright, just so I could get back to where I was in early 1996!) Since no place I have lived since 2006 has given me a Hog Heaven style studio environment, I have never had all my gear at my disposal, with most being stacked and put away. The acoustic guitar generally was around, and sometimes I'd bring the bass out and with either I'd strum or thump along to music or download some chord sheets and try to throw myself into unfamiliar territory. Some I'd try to sing. I have a lyric folder that has some ideas that have a few chord changes, but as alluring as working toward being a singer-songwriter has been, not feeling the "voice" in me has left me rather disappointed. I have had musings that maybe I need to do a cover album of songs I've connected with—Nik Kershaw, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, David Sylvian, Mark Knopfler (all from England in the 80s, mainly!) Aside from the few shows with the Broken Strings in the years since early 2008, that was about all the music being made. Period.

the drums were Ringo-style with a 4 piece kit and two cymbals. Pretty lean stuff.Then about a month ago I heard of a woman at church, a new member whom I had not met, was interested in praise music. When I heard about this I was not yet thinking I'd be involved with it, and the news was from a friend who washed her hands of that kind of sound when exiting the Southern Baptist world (with an ex-husband who played such music too). But somehow a week or so later, the topic came up again and it was drawing me in at least as a chance to play music and learn some new stuff, clearly in a setting I had no expectation of ever joining in on. Today's date was given as the first performance date, so somehow I offered that I was interested and could be called on to play drums or maybe bass or vocal parts. With just a few weeks to go, that is just what happened. All of it. We started off two times at the church and then another three times here at the house. It was just three of us—she on guitar and voice, and another on piano and voice and a generally handy sense of musical director for it all. I started on bass the first night, then brought a "toy" kit of kick, snare, hat, and ride only, but when we got to my place, I had the range of things set up and ready. Even guitar. One night we had no keys so with just two of us, we strummed a bit and listened to music that might fill the bill or get us rolling anyway. Built some rapport. While I am far from a sight reader, it is getting easier to read lead sheets (chords/lyrics only) and to give it a go. I have found that if I start off attempting both an instrumental part and the vocal part at about the same time, I have better luck integrating the two and for the few songs that I've tried that way, I've done better at doing two parts.

None of the songs are blindingly difficult but I find that at last I have to work from some basic building blocks of songmaking in order to progress. Slowly I am reversing the longstanding relationship to musicking that defined my older days: I was a recording artist, not a musician. Recording was the finished canvas, instruments were the paintbrushes and other tools to achieve that end. That means that my attempt to always come up with new recorded sounds was more attractive than getting the fundamentals right, which is generally regarded as a no-no. Occasionally a song did turn up and maybe it was memorable (Tired, I Wanna Be Your Puppy, The Power of Disco Compels You) but really, songwriting was accidental more than anything. And none of my stuff has been played live because I fancied myself in the vein of Steely Dan, The Beatles, and others who really just wanted to make recordings and not face the pressure to perform their work.

One thing that probably won't change is that the audio engineer part of me will wrestle with how to deliver a stage performance using electric instruments and amplification while also being seated at a dynamic acoustic instrument that takes more effort to play quietly than loudly. So for me at the drums to not have monitors to hear the others even over my own sound is rather challenging. And I'm not playing with much intensity at this or the Broken Strings type gigs. I use rod sticks, whip sticks, and those types of implements. But then people out in the audience, or hypersensitive people who are worried about "too loud" will emerge for certain, asking for the sound to be turned down. To me, that essentially neuters the performance on drums, while everyone else more or less has a knob to reach for and can still play with the same feel and abandon without making as much sound. (And I doubt that anyone will offer an electronic drum kit anytime soon.) Without monitors and a tiny sound system as we had today, at best I was able to get one speaker to be stacked upon my bass rig which itself was next to the drums where it was sort of audible but still not loud. Later video clearly shows the system was too low. The vocals were impossible to hear, the keys barely audible against the drums. 

What I foresee is that beyond "just" being a musician in this setting, sooner or later I will need to speak up in favor of some sane audio practices first using the minimal gear available in effective ways, and possibly incorporating more. But then there is still the cultural momentum of the congregation. Some will not like praise music because it is unfamiliar. Some because it smacks of a rather conflicted mix of conservative theology and "liberal" liturgy. Some will hear it and think it is just too loud. Or whatever. But really, since praise music is essentially pop music, gospel, rock and other styles that are essentially of the contemporary era of music, electrified and amplified, to do it like it's meant to be done means there is stretching to be done. Or to do it with a bit of a more acoustic instrumentation might mean there would have to be people with those types of instrumentation. I'd love to hammer on a djembe drum for some things, but not for everything. I play kit. Kit is rather loud when played with conviction. Loud is often misunderstood and cautioned against. 

About five years ago the cracks were showing in the wall at my old church where I had spent an August week installing a system meant to improve the church life. But it was majorly misunderstood and no one knows it even today. No one knows what to do with it. It is severely overengineered for an attitude like the one that exists there. But what I have found needs to happen is before these kinds of major decisions are made that will affect so many, the church needs to have some kind of visioning committee to evaluate potential impact, and to have some idea of feasibility. Something like a sound system needs to be operated weekly. Who will do that? And who are the various subs? What will the system be called on to do on the off days? Who will coordinate what needs to happen technically with any changes in the liturgy, with different ensembles playing, or more mics for guest speakers or whatever? I basically left my last church under a lot of pressure that I was the only guy who knew how to operate the new system and the culture there was mostly ignorant of what I was talking about, and if not ignorant, all sorts of factors conspired to make my ideas impractical. But by then, I realized that I was not in worship anyway, I was an audio tech again, and this time one that did not get paid, but was also utterly alone and was not part of a larger team to make stuff work right.

I know none of that has to happen. My present church is rather larger and far more conscious about major decisions. I would love to just show up and play music. But it is hard to suffer for long with bad sound after being responsible for making pros sound good. I can flex with regard to theology in the songs, or to play unfamiliar instruments in the name of taking some musical risk and enjoying camraderie. But bad sound just irks. People recognize bad sound but can't always articulate what is wrong. People maybe even are forgiving to either the amateurs or the intermediates who show up and give it a good try for the sake of worship. But really, to do praise music right, it takes some commitment to a certain level of technical quality. And again, I get the feeling I might be the only one who can bring this up, and fear that it will be somewhat mixed in its reception. 

But for today, I was happy to play all the instruments I have (but for electric guitar), and to try my hand at some new musical material, and to cut loose some with people who knew me but perhaps were rather surpised to see me up there at all, perhaps having no knowledge that I played anything. I really fancy the idea of finally integrating the two big threads of my life somehow.