Archive for December, 2009

Reflections on Happenstance

Happenstance 2009

Last Saturday night I had the good fortune of performing music for The Happenstance at The Earl in East Atlanta. The Happenstance is an annual event held in Atlanta where 30 local musicians are chosen to perform in 6 randomly selected bands. The musicians meet at The Earl (the hippest venue in town) at 10:00AM. Six band leaders are chosen and each of them randomly pick musicians from a hat: a guitar player, a bass player, a drummer, and a grab bag player. The spirit of randomness is taken seriously, and no two musicians who have played together prior to the proceedings are allowed to play together for The Happenstance. After the bands divide up, each go their separate ways to their respective drummers’ practice spaces where they are required to come up with a set of four songs, three originals and one cover. The set is to be performed the very same night at 9:00PM. Any songwriters reading this, of course, know that this is a ridiculous amount of material to come up with in such a short amount of time. The creative pacing and stamina is brutal. The idea is simple enough but brilliant.

The following is a loose recount of events and my reflections on these events:

10:30 – My group quickly assembled, made a few minutes of small talk, and then disassembled to pick up the equipment we planned on using. We met back up about an hour later and started writing. My greatest fear going into Happenstance was not being able to find the common ground between the five strangers that were just forced into a 14’x14′ practice suite. Even though this group was composed entirely of late twenties-early thirties white boys, the diversity quickly became palpable. Prog rock, Electronica, Indie-flavored rock and the undefined genre of a band called Tone Deaf Pig Dogs were mentioned in our first thirty minutes of conversation.

11:30 – We started down two dead end paths. First, the cover song of choice was Outkast’s Bombs Over Baghdad, a local favorite that would have been sure to bring the house down… if only any of us could rap half as fast as Andre 3000. The song choice was a bust, and so in order to keep momentum going, we scrapped that cover and moved on to originals. I have always thought of soul as the great unifier. Who doesn’t like soul? But liking soul and playing soul are two separate things, and so our soul song was cast away along with our Outkast. Two up and two down.

The next path probably should have been our first. The Earl, white boys who were 1990s kids, Tone Deaf Pig Dogs… clearly, rock was our unifier. I was reluctant to go too punk, knowing that every Happenstance band was more than likely to go this route, but there I was starting off with an uptempo E drone. And before too long a melody was written. After that, we thought of dynamics, and an arrangement happened really quickly, despite the democratic nature of the thing. One down and the mood lightened considerably. The next song came out in the same vein and rather quickly.

2:00PM – We got a bit cocky. Time signature changes and an A Capella vocal riff with three part harmony somehow made it into our second song—even though one singer had never sung harmony with a band in his life. It was an unwise move, and we were clearly getting ahead of ourselves. But nonetheless, a couple of exhausting hours later we had two songs completed with chord changes, time signature switches, dynamic swells, melodies, and harmonies (sans actual lyrics). Time for lunch.

3:00PM – On a day this short creatively, even lunch time is work time. While chowing down at Eats on Ponce de Leon Ave., the “grab bag” utility man broke out a piece of paper filled with really great band names…. we christened ourselves Golden Rods. Our new choice of cover song, The Who’s Armenia City in the Sky, was decided on as well. A much better choice for this group. After a delicious and much-too-filling meal and our mini-production meeting, we were back in the practice space—and thoroughly exhausted. While still beaming from our early successes, I started feeling daunted by the second half of practice, not to mention the performance, that lay in front of us.  That lunchtime beer was clearly a mistake.

4:45PM – We tried out The Who, and things quickly took a downward turn. None of our ears seemed to be working properly, and the simple song was giving us all kinds of troubles. Frustration trying to learn the song kept building and building, finally climaxing when our guitarist declared he was “going to sit this one out.”

No one understood at first that not only did the guitarist mean he would be sitting out on our cover but that he would be “just watching from the audience” for the entire show, rendering the first six hours of work that we had put in utterly useless.

It was amazing. My head filled up with curse words right along side thoughts of wondering what the hell I was doing there. I’m not sure how many other people had these sort of crossroad moments during their rehearsals, but I still can’t figure out why anyone who would get so easily flustered would sign up for an event like Happenstance. What’s even more confusing is that this guy kills it on guitar, coming up with raging solos on the spot with a lot of grace and ease.

After twenty minutes of passive-aggressive ranting, we convinced the guitar player to play the simple keys line I was playing, and I would just sing—another first for me; I have always been able to hide behind an instrument while singing on stage. This prospect brought out the fear in me a little, but by this point, I barely cared.

6:30PM – The Who song somewhat learned, we moved on to our last composition. I played a riff on keys that was a straight knock off of a Zeppelin synth line, but I’m too tired to care. It was fun as hell to play.

7:10PM – We ran through the set once all the way through and didn’t screw up too many times. We decided it was time to go get some coffee, or anything else that might cure us of exhaustion, and meet back at 8:00PM for final run-throughs. After getting lost a couple of times on the way to Cabbagetown, two of my band mates and I found ourselves at a bar, and the idea of coffee was scratched for liquor.

8:00PM – Still at the bar, we realized that it was already 8:00PM.

8:30PM – We arrived back at the practice space and decided that we have time for one more run-through even though we clearly don’t. The liquor has helped, and we approached everything with new energy. The set went relatively well.

9:15PM – After arriving at The Earl, we learned that we would go on at 10:55. We’re third in line. Time to sit back and have another drink. The bands were amazing. Some of the material is better than other material, but realizing that all of these musicians had gone through the same grueling day that I had made it all sound amazing. Pulling off the feat is tremendous, and all of the bands were able to do it.

Golden Rods

10:50PM – Our turn was up. The audience and the energy were amazing. The liquored-up crowd had had two bands to warm up to, and our set fed off the leftover vigor. But right before we started playing I had no idea what we were about to play. My brain was overloaded. So, I just started playing an E, and that E triggered it all. “Golden Rods” played. The set overall was pretty good considering. There was some sloppiness and misses (our The Who cover pretty much crashed and burned), but it felt good. And before I knew it, the show was over..

Overall, the experience doing Happenstance was amazing. Before participating, I honestly did not see how it could be done. Writing one song for me has traditionally consisted of endless tweaking, recording, rewriting, doubting, etc., but this format did not allow for any of that. Getting through it was an educational experience.

My other two favorite moments of the show: Matt Jarrard, member of Oryx & Crake and Cousins, playing with the “Arkadelphian Thieves” and the “Edgewood Globetrotters” who found time to hit Target for a costume change.

Matt Jarrard

Edgewood Globetrotters

For anyone who lives in Atlanta and did not come out to Happenstance, shame on ya, you really missed out. For any musician who lives in Atlanta and did not sign up to participate: Why? I can understand being a little bit nervous. I certainly was. But what you take away from the experience made it indispensable to me. Sign up next year! If not for the rule that restricts musicians to only signing up every other year, I’d be playing right along side you in 2010.

Visit The Happenstance for more info.

Music in New Media

The link I have provided here is to an insightful essay about the state of music and music sales in the world of new media by Dave Allen:

Dear Musicians-Please be Brilliant or Get Out of the Way

Allen gives good advice when calling for musicians to push boundaries or perhaps create new systems of getting music heard and sold, but does not go into any specifics.  I like the idea of making events out of the music.  The state of music is that it serves as part of a larger system or culture.  Bands and other creative musicians have to figure out ways to sell the cultural ideas driving their music in order to make any kind of impact any more.

But this advice should not only be sought after by musicians.  Producers and even engineers should be cognizant that they are creating part of a larger whole and should understand the whole before recording and distributing any band’s material.