More Me in the Monitor
I spent eight years as singer/guitarist/songwriter in an indie rock band in Chicago. Looking back, I realize it was about way more than music.
More Me in the Monitor
I know, you don’t want to hear about my band. “I used to be in a band” is the “let me tell you about this dream I had” of the arts. The only way you’d care is if we were famous. And even then, you’ve heard it before; Behind The Music and Spinal Tap reveal 80% of what you need to know about rock groups. However, one rarely hears about that remainder, the flotsam of faith, friendship, and failure that binds baby bands together as they struggle through their formative years.
I could try to make it sound like we were a big deal. I could tell you about the albums we recorded, the movie soundtrack that featured us, the NHL hockey team’s commercial that used our song, the positive reviews we got (the Chicago Tribune rock critic called our album “a blissed-out charmer [with] lovely melodies drifting down lazy rivers of sound”), the CMJ gig opening up for the lead singer of Big Star, the popular acts we played with (Death Cab for Cutie, Blink 182, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc.), the meetings with The Smashing Pumpkins manager and the Sony Records A&R guy, the manager and publishing company that signed us, the big-time producer who recorded us, the tours we went on, the groupies who came to our shows, and the big breakup. I could make you believe we were close.
Alas, that’d only be half the story. OK, less than half. Because I could also tell you about how few albums we sold (and how we never even released the last one), the merch piled up in my basement, our performances were typically with crappy bands no one’s ever heard (any fans of The Gaza Strippers out there?), I don’t know the name of that movie that used our song, the Chicago Blackhawks found our track because a friend worked at their ad agency, that positive review was actually rather iffy (“liftoff never quite arrives”) and others were even less kind (I still recall the one that called my vocals “nebbishy” because it sucks to have to look up the definition of your own insult), those meetings with industry bigwigs meant little to them (I eventually learned the main job of “the industry” in any industry is to spend all day taking meetings which lead to nothing), our manager’s most notable accomplishment was continually and confusingly asking us if we were ready for success (“No, are you really ready?”), our publishing company rep stopped returning our calls, our road gigs were booked by an agent calling in favors to set up opening slots on two-week “Star of David” tours (that’s what booking agents call it when you head in a different direction every night until the tour routing looks like a secret message from the Elders of Zion), that big-time producer was also a big fan of heroic doses of psychedelics and abandoned music a few years after working with us (his current web site: “my world is now steeped in my zen practice and being a professional options trader”), we once played a gig in Chapel Hill where the only people in the room were the bartender and the sound man, our only groupies were four long-haired, college-aged stoner dudes who stopped showing up when we stopped doing spaceout jams, and the band never even had a fiery breakup (we just went on a permanent hiatus). Why’d we end it? Because, at some point, it dawned on us we should be having more fun or more success.
When we started (Chicago, mid-90s), I naively thought quality leads to hits. Then I saw a bunch of great bands no one else knows: The Atomic Numbers, The Simpletons, The Chamber Strings, Rex, and Assassins to name a few. As I saw these bands I respected limp along or fizzle out, doubts crept in about our future. Meanwhile, I saw another band we played with accelerate to bigger things due to their slot on a This American Life tour where they ended their portion of the show with a choreographed dance routine and, later, a series of viral videos where they were splattered with paint and danced on treadmills. They’re a decent enough band but man, I wish the world heard more of The Chamber Strings and The Atomic Numbers.
My main memories of our band’s final years are of being tired. Tired of following up with people who didn’t care, tired of being another album in the pile, tired of booking and promoting gigs, tired of hauling gear, and tired of pleading with disinterested soundmen for “more me in the monitor” so I could hear myself above the blare of amps and cymbals.
Potential unrealized starts to fossilize. I’d see a guy I considered a relatively successful rocker (“he was signed to Sub Pop”) hang out at the back of the local rock club/dive bar slugging back whiskeys nightly. It felt like a cautionary tale. I didn’t want to be the old guy in the back of the bar still trying to rock. That song may claim life is a highway, but it doesn’t mention how the exits start getting farther and farther apart. The Atomic Numbers frontman now works at a Guitar Center in Denver, the guy from Rex is a caretaker at a museum, the guy from Assassins makes commercial jingles, and The Chamber Strings’ frontman died of a heroin overdose.
As for me, I rarely pick up my guitar anymore. My fingers used to be completely calloused, but now my skin’s too soft and it hurts when I play.
In the beginning, pistons fired. We played venues like Empty Bottle, Schubas, Lounge Ax, and Double Door. We bought albums at The Quaker Goes Deaf and Reckless Records. We drank at dive bars named Rainbo, Club Foot, and Gold Star (requirements: a good jukebox and cheap drinks). On Wednesday nights, we went to Smart Bar and played the Guns ’N Roses pinball machine (Axl screams “You’re gonna dieeeeee!” every time you get multiball). After shows, we got drunk and ate at Flash Taco, the local gyro joint, or a hole-in-the-wall Philly Cheesesteak place. The latter eventually put our 8x10” photo up on the wall, next to the local weatherman’s headshot.
We gigged on weekends throughout the midwest: Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, St. Louis, etc. Every time we headed east on the Chicago Skyway, we’d laugh at the road sign in Indiana that shows Whitestown to the left and Brownsburg to the right. And every time we’d return, we’d crank the stereo while watching the Chicago skyline emerge on the horizon like a steel sunrise.
Occasionally, we’d embark on longer tours. We got kicked out of a motel in upstate New York for having too many people in one room; the manager chased after us as we climbed into our rented van and sped off like the Duke boys crossing the county line. Another time, we met Robin Williams in Chapel Hill when he was filming a movie. In between takes, he worked the crowd that had gathered (when he got to us, it was an extended riff on the mustaches we had grown for the tour). I thought his boundless need for adoration from strangers seemed rather sad until I recalled that I had just driven halfway across the country to perform that night for a few dozen apathetic college kids at a burrito shop. After that gig, we drove to Nashville and spent an hour behind the drunkest driver any of us had ever seen. It was mesmerizing watching him swerve from one side of the highway to the other before exiting, not knowing if he ever managed to make it home.
All that time together made us feel like a unit. That’s the beautiful thing about being a band. The mere fact that you have three other people who also believe in what you’re doing feels like a victory in and of itself.
band (Merriam Webster definition)
1. (noun) something that confines or constricts while allowing a degree of movement
2. (verb) to gather together : UNITE // banded themselves together for protection
3. (noun) a group of persons, animals, or things especially : a group of musicians organized for ensemble playing
We shared a secret language too. One look contained an entire sequence of actions. A raised eyebrow would lead to a cascade of actions. I’d count off the song and it felt like detonating a bomb; the drums kicked in, the guitars crunched, and everyone in the room had to shut up and listen. 1-2-3-4 and, voila, we were greater than the sum of our parts. Four minutes later, a big drum fill would meet a tilted guitar and the song would land like a 747 on a runway.
Offstage, we conversed via inside jokes. “What if the drums were like Ringo in ‘Rain’?” or “We don’t want to use all our tricks in one show” or “20% of nothing is still nothing” would result in uproarious laughter while everyone else in the room just stared. When you think about it, inside jokes aren’t jokes at all. They produce laughter, but there’s no setup and punchline; the setup is just how well you know each other. Inside jokes are connection manifested as humor, a way to revel in shared history. We were there together. Remember?
The first thing a band needs is a good name. Unfortunately, ours was rather lame: Plastics Hi-Fi. The original name was Plastics, based on a line from my favorite flick The Graduate, but one week before our first show at Cabaret Metro, the biggest venue in town, we found out there was a Japanese punk band called The Plastics. Fearing future legal issues, we added Hi-Fi to the end of our name. Unfortunately, this resulted in years of people mishearing it whenever we said it aloud. “Plastic Sci-Fi?” they’d ask. It’s a bad sign when you have to repeat your band name slowly three times before people can even understand it. A band name is like a tattoo and we were stuck with this unfortunate tramp stamp.
I was definitely the least talented musician of the four; if music was typing, they could touch type while I had to hunt and peck. I could come up with interesting, melodic solos if given enough time, but I mostly played rhythm guitar (a Gibson 335 or Fender Strat plugged into a Fender Concert Deluxe amp) and, after some initial wrangling, became lead singer.
I wasn’t a great vocalist, but I had shaggy hair, weird clothes, and chutzpah. My voice had a rough Lou Reed-ish quality and, for some unknown reason, I occasionally broke into a British accent when singing. I quickly realized that songwriting was the best way for me to earn my keep in the band so I got to work. I jotted down lyric ideas in a notebook, filled up cassettes with song sketches, collected poetry books, took voice lessons, studied The Beatles sheet music book I owned like a treasure map, learned major 7th and diminished chords, and decoded the architecture of bridges and song structures I loved. I holed up in my room playing my acoustic guitar, flipping through pages of lyric snippets, and experimented with various chord progressions and melodies in an attempt to fit the jigsaw pieces together. Every once in a while, something would just pour out that was good and I’d think, “Where’d that come from?” Then I’d hit record on my tape recorder to capture it before it evaporated and bring it to the boys.
I didn’t hide my influences well, but I figured no one else was going to mix them all together in quite the same way. For example, one song we did (“Walk the Walk”) had a chord progression like Luna, lyrics like a W.H. Auden poem, a surf sound in the pre-chorus like The Ventures, vocals that sneered like Iggy Pop with a slapback echo a la Instant Karma-era John Lennon, a fuzzy guitar solo like Television, and a hooky chorus like The Raspberries. Each ingredient on its own may have been derivative, but mingled together they formed a unique stew.
I knew I had a hill to climb. When I was growing up, my mom, a bohemian artist/seeker type, was always listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. How could I ever write lyrics like them? They were worldly troubadours, I was just a suburban brat with no life experience or wisdom. I wanted to have “something to say,” but you have to live a real life to do that. So I crawled out of my introvert’s shell and put on the mask of a seeker. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” they say. Behind every great rock band there is a disguise.
My mom never got to see us play live, but she listened to our albums and had lots of photos of the band on the wall that faced her bed. (Due to a disease, she spent most of her time bedridden toward the end of her life.) Before she passed, she told me she felt I was carrying her artistic spirit forward in the world. Until she said those words, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to hear them.
At this point, I’d like to acknowledge the old straight white dude-ness of all this. I realize growing up on classic rock makes me a dinosaur in the eyes of many. However, Lou Reed taught me about drag queens (“plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she”), The Kinks taught me about transgender women (“girls will be boys and boys will be girls”), David Bowie and Marc Bolan taught me about gender fluidity, Bowie/Mick/Angie and Clapton/George/Patti taught me about polyamory, Marvin Gaye taught me about "trigger happy policing," and John Lennon taught me about the healing power of psychedelics (“turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying”). I learned more about being progressive from listening to WNEW-FM as a teenager than I ever have from social media. And weirdly, the morality crossing guards of today often listen to music that focuses on how the best things to do in life are make money and buy stuff. I guess it truly is a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.
I never saw Kevin’s feet. He lost a toe in a freak stationary bike accident when he was 7 years old. We were roommates yet I never saw that missing toe. Even at the beach, he would wear shoes.
Kevin was rail thin, from Akron, Ohio, had long, curly hair, and played lead guitar, mostly a shiny black Gibson Les Paul guitar he got for his bar mitzvah (occasionally a Rickenbacker or a Gibson SG instead) plugged into a Mesa Boogie stack. He was the top chemistry student in his college graduating class (Phi Beta Kappa!) and worked as a scientist at a lab. He was too smart to be in a band, yet there he was. He was a child of divorce and was perennially silent.
Kevin could replicate any Pink Floyd guitar part, shred like a metalhead, and play tasteful licks like George Harrison or Brian May. However, skill like that can sometimes be a hindrance in rock ’n roll; technique can be the enemy of soul. I think that’s part of why we worked well together, my angular sloppiness contrasted nicely with his smooth technical skill.
Kevin was hungry to learn about production so he bought a Sony Minidisc portable studio that let us record digitally and bounce tracks at home. Although it’d seem archaic now, it was cutting edge at the time – and we really pushed it to its limits too. Kevin’s scientific approach, our outsized ambition, and the limited technology combined to create a unique sound.
“Real” studios let you mix dozens of tracks at once, but this device forced us to bounce tracks (a studio hack that was popular in the 60’s) and make hard choices early in the process. We embraced those constraints and experimented with weird textures, panning, effects, etc. As a result, our recordings veered toward a trippy, headphone-friendly, bathtub symphony sound that stood in stark contrast with the bland production style heard on the radio.
I spent many hours sitting on the couch behind Kevin as he mixed tracks. We’d eat pot cookies, take a break from mixdown, and Kevin would geek out on songs played through the studio monitors (speakers that give crystal-clear separation to instruments). One night, he played me “With or Without You” by U2. I’d heard the song hundreds of times before and dismissed it as typical Bono schlock, but Kevin pointed out all the layered synths, Edge’s guitar swells, and how the multiple vocal parts weaved together. Then he’d have me listen to the Moog parts on “Here Comes The Sun” or how tight the Wrecking Crew was during an instrumental version of “I Get Around.” With Kevin, I heard all kinds of things I’d never noticed before. It was the aural version of reclining on a car hood on a summer night while an astronomy buff points out constellations.
We made good stuff on that crappy recording device because we had a secret ingredient: time. In a real studio, you’re on the clock. At home, there are no deadlines and you’re not paying by the hour, so you get to screw around and tinker endlessly. That can be problematic (think Axl Rose’s decade-long adventure to record the abysmal Chinese Democracy), but it can also free you up to go places you wouldn’t go otherwise.
I remember spending hours tweaking the settings on a stereo delay pedal so my guitar careened back and forth between two amps for a song titled “Mascara.” It didn’t feel like writing a part, it felt like I was allowing it to come to the surface. I began to understand the concept of “flow” down in that basement. I’d go down at 6pm and emerge at midnight and wonder where all those hours had gone.
We’d typically record tracks on a Sunday and Kevin would spend the next few nights mixing and adding effects. The other band members would come over, listen, make suggestions (“more me in the mix!”), and take turns adding harmonies, percussion, keyboards, etc. I’d often come home from my day job to hear the results, giddy like a kid on Christmas morning. “Ooh, you got me backing vocals, maracas during the chorus, and a weird synth part during the bridge. Cool!”
We released these tracks as an album called “Home Brewed” and it’s the thing we did that feels the most us, the thing no one else could have created. The way we hacked that cheap device made us sound peculiar and interesting. We’d go on to record at top-of-the-line studios, but we were never able to capture the same vibe we had on that little home rig under Kevin’s guidance.
He and I lived together for years but we never talked about personal stuff all that much. One night when we were walking home, Kevin told me he’d just proposed to his girlfriend. My first reaction: What about the band? A bandmate getting married is every rocker’s worst fear. It’s like a ticking time bomb on the whole operation. You don’t want girlfriends to be front and center like lead vocals; you want them low in the mix, panned hard left with lots of reverb, like a tambourine.
These guys are from Chicago and apparently home-recorded the album, which is amazing, as they have layered harmony vocals, blasts of Brian May-style guitar and production values that suggest long and intricate studio work. What separates them from most pop bands is their Beatlesque sense of melody - which comes in snatches, a background vocal line or guitar riff, rather than overwhelming their general sound. Actually, for some odd reason, the album feels (although does not sound) a lot like George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" album, meaning textured, but also organic. A beautiful piece of work.
-NY Press review of “Home Brewed” by Plastics Hi-Fi
I met our drummer Rich through my college girlfriend, Crystal. She worked at a copy shop and told us she had a coworker who played drums and liked The Flaming Lips. He didn’t want to join the band at first, but we eventually corralled him. Rich wore a leather jacket, read Scientific American, loved Ephedrine, always carried a one-hitter, drove an ancient Mercedes, covered his drums in velvet, and had chiseled features that made him “the good looking one.”
On drums, Rich was loose without being sloppy. At the rehearsal space we eventually got, Rich would mock the guy in the space next to ours for practicing one-handed drum rolls and other instructional video-esque maneuvers. I asked Rich what his advice would be for an aspiring drummer and he replied, “Smoke weed, read Aldous Huxley, and listen to Ringo.” Pretty good life advice, actually.
In Rich’s mind, everyone has wronged or is about to wrong him: His boss was a putz, his girlfriend was a loon, the sound guy was talking shit about us, and the kids on his block exploded fireworks in his mailbox and set his car on fire. He was sure of it. One time, his upstairs neighbor kept making noise so Rich took one of his big speakers, placed it on the top shelf of his closet, pointed it upwards, cranked The Foo Fighters “Learn To Fly” on repeat, and left for the day.
His dad was a musician who took off when he was little. Rich rarely mentioned it or his family in general. His hometown was an hour away but he rarely went. I think he had a sister? One time, at a record store, Rich picked up a used CD and a photo of his dad playing guitar fell out of it. I’m still not sure how that happened, but weird stuff always seemed to happen to Rich.
Another time, we all took shrooms and planned to go to the Pink Floyd laser light show at the planetarium. Nice plan, but the shrooms kicked in and the idea of traveling anywhere seemed like a journey to Mars so we stayed home. During the trip, I called my mom and rambled about shrooms, life, and how going to the bathroom is actually a beautiful thing. At the end of the call, she wished me “a smooth reentry.” Rich told me I was really lucky to have a parent who I could talk to like that. Later, we put that “reentry” line into a song.
Rich loved a good pop song, even the cheesy stuff. It’s the craft of the thing he admired, and I got that. En route to practice, we’d crank Fastball, Sheryl Crow, and other stuff hip rockers weren’t supposed to dig. We agreed that the structure of a hit song should be admired and examined simply because it’s a hit. It worked. How?
He also encouraged me to be more confident about my songwriting skills, to amp up my stage persona, and to talk more between songs at shows. He was in my corner and I always appreciated that.
However, there was plenty of beef amongst the group too. Being in a band is like being married except there’s no makeup sex, just a lot of testosterone and resentment. It was a constant negotiation amongst people who knew how to push each other’s buttons. Rich would complain about Greg’s bass, Greg would complain about my vocals, and we all would make percussion suggestions that Rich dutifully ignored. Kevin, the quiet one, served as peacemaker during these arguments so everyone assumed Kevin was on their side, though I’m sure Kevin was terrifically annoyed by all of us. On tour, Rich sometimes listened to blaring static on his headphones (yes, static) because he preferred it to the conversations emanating from the front seat.
Rich and I were also the band’s de facto street team. Since Rich worked at a copy shop, we’d print huge posters (20’x10’) for free and then hang them up late at night on walls around town using a milky paste that stuck to our clothes for days. Once, we made one of these larger than life posters and put a huge image of Rich’s face on it. People drove around our neighborhood and saw Rich’s face everywhere; it was like he was a communist dictator reminding the denizens of his omnipresence. One day, Rich’s girlfriend’s mom saw his face on a wall and was impressed, so I guess Mao knew what he was doing.
After one of our gigs, I talked to the lead singer of another local band. He told me how Rich was a really great drummer. “Like, really, really good,” he said. And then silence. I was leery of this; I felt like a husband listening to someone talk about my wife’s ass.
There is an implied hierarchy of coolness in rock bands. The frontman is at the top of the pyramid. Then you’ve got the lead guitarist, Slash to Axl, Keith to Mick, etc. Then there’s the drummer because, well, chicks dig drummers. After that is the bass player. You don’t choose to play bass; you wind up playing bass. And at the bottom of the pyramid is the keyboard player (if there is one). It’s nearly impossible to meet the requirements of rock stardom while tethered to a keyboard. Keyboard players are stuck in place, like a dog tethered to a pole in the backyard. (You could make the same argument about drummers, but at least they get to hit things, and hitting things is empirically cool.)
So life wasn’t always easy for Greg, who played bass and keyboards in the band. Greg did not want to play bass, he wanted to sing and play guitar. But we already had two guitar players, so he accepted his role. One time we were interviewed by a college radio station and Greg told the interviewer he wasn’t a bass player, but “a musician who plays bass.”
Greg was 6’8” so people called him “Big Daddy” and constantly asked him if he played basketball, which aggravated him immensely since he didn’t like basketball or height-based assumptions. He was a sensitive guy and his tenderness belied his large frame. He consumed enormous amounts of both alcohol and calories; he’d often come home drunk and then hoover up pickle juice, ranch dressing, and anything else left in his fridge. He once got kicked out of an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet which led to endless jokes about how we assumed the server called him “the monster with a thousand mouths.” His parents were suburban, country club types who lived in a large house in a posh suburb of Cincinnati. They seemed to disapprove of his lifestyle, though it wasn’t something we discussed.
Greg and I shared lead vocal duties in the beginning, but, as time went on, I wound up singing lead on most of the songs since I was the one writing lyrics and bringing in the bulk of the song ideas. This irked him because he was a “better” singer than me. Still, the general band consensus was that whomever wrote the words should sing them. At least I remember it being the general band consensus. Maybe my ego was in the way too. (The credo of every lead singer: “More me in the monitor!”) So we settled into those roles.
To his credit, Greg figured out a way to inject all kinds of interesting color to our tracks. He and Kevin added a lot of background vocals, coming up with neat harmonies inspired by their love of sixties bands like The Moody Blues, The Who, and The Byrds. He wrote ambitious basslines inspired by the melodocism of Paul McCartney and Motown’s James Jamerson. And he layered in all kinds of interesting keyboard textures, dialing in mellotrons and organs on his MIDI unit. Greg made it a point to sprinkle our sound with weirdness. He didn’t care about what was trendy or cool, he just liked what he liked.
But there was ongoing friction between us too. Eye rolling, occasional finger pointing, and general tension that grew during the band’s years until one night when Greg and I got drunk, sat in a doorway across from a hot dog joint in Lakeview, and went deep, talking about the band and our relationship for hours. We explained the respect we had for each other, our various frustrations, and ended the night in a hug.
His height made it impossible to find cool rocker clothes that fit him. “Why not shop at a big and tall store?” we asked. Greg explained that “big and tall” is just a euphemism for fat. So we turned to a mail order catalog and found white jumpsuits, the type worn by house painters. For the first few years, we wore them at every gig, giving us a vaguely Kraftwerk/Devo-ish visual aesthetic that worked well with the fog machine Rich activated from behind his kit and an oil lamp projector we set up that shot floating electric Kool-Aid patterns on us.
Onstage, I appeared tiny next to Greg. After shows, people were surprised to find out I was average height. Greg advised me to get platform shoes so I ordered a pair on eBay that looked like something Marc Bolan or David Bowie might have worn and donned them at every show. I realized the world treats you differently when you are 6’2” instead of 5’11”. It was like an A-B experiment on the treatment of tall people (more stares from girls, more respect from dudes). Those platforms also gave me profound respect for how ladies make wearing heels seem effortless. During one gig at Fireside Bowl, I did a high kick and fell over backwards into the drum kit. Through their laughter, my bandmates continued playing while I tried to emerge from the cymbal stand. I clamored back to my feet and finished the song, but it wasn’t the last time I keeled over mid-show.
Greg’s apartment was where I took mushrooms for the first time. A group of us sat there and listened to Pet Sounds with Greg pointing out the parts he loved. Then, we walked the path along the shore of Lake Michigan at dusk. I was tripping hard and freaked out when I heard a siren. A police cruiser rolled up on us and a cop got on the car’s speaker and announced: “The lake is closed.” I heard this, turned around, and looked at the turquoise body of water. The idea that a lake could ever close seemed preposterous to me. I just kept thinking over and over: “This lake is wide open. Just look at it. That lake is so wide open.” But I said nothing and hid behind Greg as he talked to the cops, reassured them, and then hustled us in the other direction.
While we were recording what turned out to be our final album (this time in a real studio), I got to know our producer’s girlfriend, who worked as both a nanny and a dominatrix. I remember thinking this was an odd combination of jobs until she explained, “They all want me to do the same thing: Treat them like children.” She revealed that her dominatrix clients were almost exclusively men who had powerful jobs: lawyers, bankers, business execs, etc. She said they spent all day bossing people around and that’s why they wanted someone like her to tell them what to do. I thought about how little I desire a dominatrix and wondered if that was because I didn’t wield power anywhere else in my life. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to be front and center in the band.
Speaking of relationships, Crystal and I kept taking breaks and getting back together throughout the band’s duration. One time when we were split up, the band played a show right near her apartment. After the gig, I drunkenly took a bunch of beers from the green room, put them in a basket, and walked to her place to offer them to her. She chuckled at my basket-o-beers peace offering and let me in the door and back into her life.
I remember vividly how her bedroom was a few feet from the L train, which came by every 8 minutes and rattled the entire apartment. She was used to it. It’s amazing what you can get used to. When you’re constantly next to the rumbling, you stop hearing it.
Once when our relationship was on hiatus, she had a party at her place. I went and hung out for a while, as did the other guys in the band, and then took off early. Months later, she confessed to me that she kissed Rich that night. I still wonder if kissed is all they did. Her version: She was drunk and he said, “We shouldn’t do this.” She insisted that was it and Rich corroborated the story. That all sounds true. Right?
When we made that last record, our aim was to make something that would get us signed and on the radio. We wanted to get rid of our rough edges (and our day jobs) so we hired a producer who’d made hits before and owned a studio filled with expensive gear. My hit-or-miss vocals were a big obstacle for radio airplay so he repeatedly punched in and out while I sang, going syllable by syllable in an attempt to get them perfect.
Upon completion, I sent the mix of the new album to an industry bigwig who really liked our previous record. He didn’t respond. I finally got him on the phone and asked what he thought. “I’m not sure what this guy did to your vocals, but they don’t sound like you. You guys had a weird charm on the last album. This just sounds generic.” I hung up dazed. It took so much effort to achieve that polished sound, aiming for rough and raw would have been so much easier.
We sent the album out to other folks in the industry too, but no one seemed too enthused. Now what? We didn’t have the energy to self-release another album and grind it out. A few months later, we decided to take a break. We never played together again.
In retrospect, I wish we had kept our unpolished, idiosyncratic sound instead of trying to make ourselves radio-friendly. The worst thing you can do is sell out without selling anything.
After the band split, I put out a solo album, moved to NYC, and started performing as a singer-songwriter which taught me an important lesson: I hate singer-songwriters and don’t want to be one. I liked being in a band, going into battle with three other guys.
Every once in a while, I’ll play our band’s music for a friend. They’ll reply with something like “Hey, you guys were actually pretty good.” I can’t hear the songs though, instead I hear the individual parts. I’m like a chef who can’t appreciate a dish because I’m too fixated on the ingredients. It needs more turmeric and less reverb.
As for my bandmates, we haven’t been together in the same room in years. They’re all married, though Kevin is the only one with kids. He makes guitar effects pedals and works in a lab in Minnesota. Rich stayed in Chicago and became an avid sailor. Last time I saw him, he talked about the freedom of being on the water and kept mentioning that he could just disappear and no one would be able to find him. Greg worked as an ad agency exec in Europe for years and recently returned to the states. As for me, I switched from music to comedy in what one might charitably refer to as a lateral move.
We occasionally trade emails but that’s about it. Even if we were in the same place, I’m not sure we’d still be close anymore; after all, few marriages can survive the death of a child; I imagine that’s because seeing each other becomes a constant reminder of what you lost.
The four of us share a secret though and we don’t need to talk about it. We were never big on discussing feelings or emotions anyway. “You can tell me anything” may be a popular relationship trope, but with us it seemed more about the things we knew and didn’t talk about. We didn’t mention missing toes or fathers. We didn’t talk about divorces, illnesses, girlfriends, drinking problems, day jobs, or the various holes we were trying to fill. We focused on the music. It gave us all something to love so we didn’t have to talk about loving each other. Young men don’t talk like that; we need a platoon, a team, a gang, or a band to revolve around. We’re not intimate, we’re on a mission.
These days, I think more about what the four of us went through together than the music itself. Time has told me how difficult it is to connect deeply with even a single person, much less three. I used to obsess over our lack of commercial success, but now I celebrate that we did something beautiful and hard, we did it together, and the purity of it all. There are certain things you only get to do once in your life; they require an engine that burns on naivety and youth. Older and wiser may be more sustainable, but it’s less combustible.
Rock’s been called “the devil’s music,” but faith is actually a key element of being in a band. Evangelicals go to church, pray, follow the teachings of Jesus, obsess over the Bible, and devote themselves to a higher power. Someday the messiah will return. We would go to our rehearsal space, play, follow the teachings of David Bowie, obsess over The Beatles Anthology, and devote ourselves to music. Someday we’ll be on the radio.
Faith is hard to explain to outsiders; they always wonder if what you believe in is true. They’re looking at the wrong thing though. The object of belief usually isn’t the actual point. The point is how it binds you together with your fellow believers.
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