Tryna Be a Rock Star, Part II – Joining Bands

Dispatches from the front lines of the music industry.

Since I was thirteen, I have been a drummer in one band or another almost continuously, except for two 9-month droughts at the beginning of college and after I graduated. That’s over eight years of band practices and gigs.

As I’ve asked a few friends what they’d be interested in reading about, they’ve asked, “What’s it like to be in a band???” Right. Of course. Not everybody has been in bands for years and years, so I shouldn’t assume that they all know the routine of rehearsals and gigs…

So I’ll start with the tricky topic of joining bands.

There are two different ways to join a band. One begins with friendship: you and a couple buddies realize that you all play various instruments that would work together as a band, so you start one. The other way begins with music: you want to play in a certain kind of band, so you go find other musicians.

These two ways can be mixed – maybe you start with a friend but then find other musicians to round out the group, or a friend joins onto a group you’ve had for a while. The best bands ultimately become both good friends and good musicians. One particularly sound piece of band advice I’ve heard is from the almighty ?uestlove who says for a band to work, you need to (at least) have one day a week that is Band Day. Everyone comes over, hangs out, eats food, watches movies, and plays music. A band doesn’t work if it’s an impersonal, professional experience. Music is too much of a human activity to be stripped of relationships and reduced to just sound. This is also why rock history is full of interpersonal drama…

Every band I’ve been in before I moved to Austin was based on friendship – I played with people I knew from school. Moving to Austin all of a sudden presented a new challenge: figuring out what kind of band I wanted to be in; I had no network to draw on anymore. I was alone in a new city.

So after a few months of making my own music in my room, it became painfully obvious that I needed to be in a group and play some gigs. What was I doing in Austin as a musician if I wasn’t playing with other musicians? I turned to Craigslist.

I had two basic approaches. Approach #1 was to see if there were bandless musicians out there who I could meet that might be interested in starting something from scratch. I like writing music, and with another one or two talented writers, we might come up with something kickass and new, possibly even genre-groundbreaking. Hopefully.

Approach #2 was to see if there were existing bands looking for a drummer or a keyboardist. Obviously, there would need to be a skill match; I can’t play at super speeds like a metal drummer for example.

Approach #1 meant posting to Craigslist for the first time ever. Approach #2 meant I was checking Craigslist regularly, so I got a sense of how people advertised. Some postings are very short and uninformative with several spelling errors. Some have a long list of other bands they “sound like”. So I linked to my own music and listed an eclectic set of artists I loved. At the very least, I thought I could find some people with similar taste in music to give us a starting point.

The result? I got a few requests to be in bands that already existed. I responded to the ones that seemed interesting. A rap-funk duo never replied back. A metal band was too metally for me. A couple people simply lacked talent or didn’t send me any recordings of themselves. I was not about to go to a random person’s house to play who-knows-what music…

One did lead to a rehearsal. One guy wanted me to play keyboard with his acoustic guitar and drummer duo. They were nice guys with music that wasn’t too difficult for me on piano. Since I have only ever been the drummer in a band, I very much wanted to try being a keyboardist for once. This group felt like it would be good training wheels for me on keyboard, but logistics got in the way, and their music didn’t grab me enough to persuade me otherwise.

Soo, approach #1 never really worked out. But Approach #2 did! On the very first day of thoroughly checking craigslist, I found a couple groups looking for a drummer that indicated they already had an album and were getting ready to tour.

This led to a mini crisis. I was sure that I would have a successful audition, but I didn’t know if I actually wanted to be in those bands – they played very generic alternative rock. It was oddly a new challenge for me. I had only ever fell into bands with friends before – the option of choosing what type of band I wanted to be in felt like a strange luxury. I waffled. I consternated. In the end, I decided to wait for postings that would excite me more. I didn’t contact them.

After some time though, I desperately needed to at least meet new musicians. So I did contact a DIY soft-rock group that also had a cello. I doubted that their music was really for me, but they seemed creative so I met with them. They were very enthusiastic about perfecting a set of songs and putting together a home-grown tour (of people’s backyards on the east coast?), making enough money off of it to pay for expenses. But ultimately, I told them no thanks, though I was happy to keep in touch. I figured maybe we could do a little collaboration at some point. We haven’t yet.

It was at this point that I finally had to confront and really decide what I wanted out of a band – being a tease of a drummer was not a long-term plan. I figured that if I was going to join an existing band, it would have to be music that I really enjoyed playing. To that point, one of my most favorite gigs ever was a christmas party gig with a funk band I had in high school. The place was packed with drunk revelers and there was a huuuge bass amp that thundered the place with our groovin lines. People were dancing everywhere. It was glorious.

So I wanted a funk band. Or… something unpredictable yet compelling, comparable to what I had hoped to get from Approach #1.

After a couple weeks, I found a funk band. Afro Taxi. I’ve listened to wayyy too much Red Hot Chili Peppers in my life, and these dudes idolized the chilis, so it was an instant fit. They are awesome people and I’ve had a ton of fun playing with them the last few months. So it was then pretty painful when I told them recently that I was going to leave Austin because they are some of the better friends I’ve made this year. [And to the confused: none of us have afros nor drive taxis, though they have a trailer which some graffiti artists covered with awesome Afro Taxi designs. During SXSW, when every other downtown parking space contained a Band Van or Band Trailer, none come anywhere close to being as awesome as Afro Taxi’s trailer.]

I suppose there was an Approach #3 too. It was sort of like the “being in a band with friends” arrangement. My housemates have a psych rock band. It’s not really my style of music, but they needed a drummer and I really wanted to play shows. I also figured it might be interesting to see another side of the Austin music scene, since funk bands don’t always play the same places as psych rock bands. And they rehearse in the living room.

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I apologize that this account has been rather dry and logistical so far. A more flowery account would be a narrative of emails, text messages, and conversations over smoke breaks…

It starts with something like, “Hey, thanks for the message. I checked out your music and it seems cool. I play drums and here’s some of my music. I’d be interested in jamming. Let me know what works for you.” That is followed by an exchange of addresses and aligning schedules.

You arrive at a house of people you’ve never met with drums in your car. You go to the door and say hi to people you’ve never laid eyes on before. Will they become your new best friend and musical partner for life? Will this just be a one-evening jam and you never see them again? Or are they serial killers? Craigslist is always a bit iffy… They have some instruments set up already. You check out their gear the way a car enthusiast eyes a new ride. They offer you a beer and help you bring in your drums. As you unload your van you make the same old joke about how you drive the green soccer-mom van of the ’90s, “But it’s perfect for carting around drums!” You set up somewhere in the room while the rest of the band shows up. You tell everyone you’re terrible at remembering names.

Then the band practice begins. They start playing a song and you get a feel for it and start drumming along. Occasionally they might stop and point out some aspect of the arrangement that isn’t obvious, or they have a drum part in mind already. Afterwards, you all hang out a little bit and talk about first impressions of Austin because they just moved here too – everyone just moved here! It’s the city of misfit musicians! Then you pack up and either talk about how they want you in the band or how you don’t want to be in the band. Either way, you head home feeling accomplished because you successfully jammed with other musicians and, y’know, the world didn’t end. You feel slightly more confident that you could navigate the music industry if you kept at it…

If you join the band, then you go back to their house regularly for practice. It’s basically like going to a friend’s house, but you bring instruments. Band practice involves playing through songs. If it’s a good band practice, then you regularly stop and hone the riffs or transitions or parts that aren’t strong enough. If it’s a bad band practice you just play straight through, repeating whatever mistakes you always make. Upon joining a new band, the first few rehearsals are all about you learning their songs. You might record the practice and take notes so you can listen and study them on your own time. Some bands rehearse really loud so you wear decibel-reducing headphones like a construction worker. If the band has a website, they might update it to include you as a new band member. At some point, you exchange phone numbers with everyone.

And you look forward to the first gig.

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