Oh Canada

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Well.  I mean, I like adventures as much as the next guy, but border crossing is unnerving even when it goes smoothly.  Which it did not.  They got us all off the bus.  But four and half hours later we were on our way and now here I am, blogging from Toronto.

It’s been a few days and a few shows since my last entry and I must say I’m much recovered since my “Beat Up” post, or as much as I can be.  Still having minimal sinus issues and I can’t totally straighten out my knee, but still faring okay.

On the music side of things it’s all getting much deeper and much tighter.  It’s an interesting thing to be in a group that has such a strong improvisational foundation.  Those are almost contradictory terms as improvisation is pretty much leaping away from any foundation… in most cases.

One of the things we discuss a lot is about how we want the improvised jams to go.  We have specific goals in our jams as well as some “anti-goals”; pitfalls we try to avoid.  The whole thing is a study in contradictions.  We try to let go and allow the “music to play the band” while at the same time connecting to each other.  We try to compose on the spot rather than just improvise.  I guess that means creating melodies and song structures without having any preconceived notion of either.

And when it’s happening, wow… it’s really happening.  We turn on a dime.  It’s like we all fall into a thing together and we all realize it’s a thing and then without warning we all change, all at once.  It’s incredible.

But there are risks.  When it’s not happening, wow.  It’s incredible in the opposite direction.  The other night we hit the jam in “Jumping” and it seemed to go on forever.  Numerous times I tried to bring it to a climax and end but it seemed like nobody else was ready.  Afterwards we were discussing and everybody was feeling the same thing, like, “When the hell is this jam going to end?”  So in a way, we were all connected to the failure of the thing.  I guess that’s still a connection but it yields the antithesis of what we’re aiming for.

Another interesting aspect as what happens when we get comfortable with the new material.  It allows us to dig into it more and I find that my tastes are changing about which songs are my favorites to play.  Amazing what happens when  you take the fear out of the equation!

But I’ll dig deeper into the songs in a later entry.

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Beat Up

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Three shows in and we get to the much needed day off.  In Richmond.  Finally.

I’m not sure people understand how much this gig beats you up.  Obviously playing the show is a physical thing…. I mean just standing for three hours is a physical endurance test.  Hang a twenty-five pound guitar around your neck and stand for that long.  Then there’s singing.  And in my case, screaming.  Then there’s jumping.  Every time that jumping stuff starts I’m thinking, “This could be it right here.  The last hurrah.  The final frontier.  The buying of the farm.”

I know this is going to sound like the wimpiest thing in the world, but there are two Victim songs where I wakawakawak the wah-wah pedal all the way through, so I’m basically standing on the other foot for the whole song… and my calf is killing me half-way through.  And my wah-wah foot cramps sometimes.

First world problems, or what?

On top of the three hour show there’s at least an hour of sound check as well.  And the in-ear monitors on the third day are like twisting thumb screws into the side of your head.

But hey now that the gig is over we can relax on the bus… which means sleeping in a box that’s exactly as long as your height (in my case anyway), that’s too small to sit upright in, on a two inch mattress that’s no more than a few inches above the rear tires which roar at about 80 db.  Every exit ramp, or rest stop, or traffic light is a wake-up jostle.  The temperature inside can vary anywhere between 50 and 80 degrees.  It’s like a road case for the musicians.

I’m not whining.

Okay, maybe I am a little bit.  All I’m saying is that the day off is welcome.  My body is beat up.  From the outside touring may seem like all sorts of glamour but it’s hell out here.  🙂

That said, the show last night was way more comfortable.  Being the third night it was the second time we played a lot of the new tunes and as such there was less concern about getting them right and more ability to relax into the cool stuff they have to offer.  And it’s only going to get better in that regard.

Okay, I need to sink back into my coma.  Only a few hours to go before we start all over again!!

Did anyone watch the new Star Trek Discovery premier?

Opening Night

More coffee needed!!

I will say this: It’s all about preparation!

Ok, so let me back up.  The first show of the tour is especially nerve wracking.  And last night’s show included the debut of eight new tunes.  Couple that with the technical glitches that are bound to happen on the first show, especially one with this much specialized equipment.

So back to preparation.  The days before tour, or rather, the weeks before tour, are usually hectic.  Being away for three weeks usually means getting my life squared away before I go, as well as getting everything I need for tour squared away (see my Time To Pack entry) and that means my time is limited.  And there’s a huge difference between knowing songs and REALLY knowing songs.  Because when you really know a song there’s no brain activity involved.  It’s that muscle memory thing I’ve blogged about before.  But at this point, there’s no way that’s going to happen yet with all this new material.  So I have to rely on my brain.

And so I have a technique.  It’s a little time consuming but it definitely works, at least for lyrics.  I take each line and close my eyes and create a visual image of the line.  And I try to tie each phrase together… in the weirdest way possible!  Because you can remember bizarre stuff so much more easily than normal stuff.  So the weirder the better.

So.  I forgot some stuff.  But not a ton.  I got through it.  And it was a good show.

But the thing that worked for me was that on the second tune Robert took a solo and he just went off!  And kept going.  And kept going.  And I laughed.  And that was all I needed.  Now I’m relaxed.  And then a few tunes later my chops woke up and I was able to play whatever came to my head.  That’s the goal.  Relaxed and able to go anywhere.

And it’s so good to get that first night out of the way.

More coffee needed.

Oh, some people asked what I was reading and listening to.  As far as listening, it’s been all homework.  But after the show, Robert has the absolute best playlists.  It’s like a zillion old funk bands that you never heard of that are off the hook.  It’s great!

I’m currently reading Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, for the second time, because I want to read the next two in that series.  And now I guess some other author has continued that series?  I wonder how that is.

And I’m reading The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Strawb.  I just read 11/22/63 by King and absolutely LOVED it and wanted some more King, but the Talisman isn’t holding my interest.  I read it years ago and really liked it, but it’s not doing it for me this time.

So, question of the day: fiction or non-fiction?

 

Time to Pack!

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Rehearsals are over.  Time to pack!!!

So what do you pack for three weeks on a bus?  I mean besides the essentials. (I’ve forgotten toothpaste before!)  It’s actually a few days more than three weeks.  Maybe twenty-four days.

I mean, my gear’s already shipped.  So I don’t have to bring a guitar, amp or pedalboard.  Even strings are already on their way.

Picks!!!  Those live in my left rear pocket.  Always.  And I go through batches.  I use Dunlop 500 2.0 mm glossy so they never break.  But they wear down.  And so that’s on my list: refresh the batch of picks!

I’m bringing two book readers.  I’m reading books on both right now.  But reading on tour?  Does it happen?  Will it happen?  Probably.  I think I’m in the middle of three books.  And my lyrics are available on my Kindle and my phone!  A necessity!!

Tour buses are funny.  It can be state of the art regarding the entertainment systems, but it can also be a half a decade behind as well.  There’s always the question of how we’re going to hook up our tunes to the system.  So I bring a variety of connectors and adapters.  And even if you get everything plugged in it might not work.  I’m telling you, sometimes you need an engineer just to get tunes on the bus!!

Contacts!!  I’ve forgotten those, too.  THAT sucked!

As I’m typing this I’m organizing.  Three piles: suitcase, carry-on, and no-bring.  Plus, I have an ever-expanding list on Wunderlist.  Half of the anxiety of traveling is on my end.  Getting there and bringing everything are two anxieties that I can take steps to alleviate.  So I do.

Not to mention the anxiety of playing new material.  Lots of new material.  But that’s also the thrill of it.  New songs.  New sonic landscapes.  Pushing the stylistic boundaries…

… Remembering lyrics.  Remembering changes. Remembering harmonies.  Now relax.  Have fun.  Express.

Oh yes, and don’t forget to kick total ass and take no prisoners!!

No pressure.  😉

Now back to packing…

The End?

This could be the last blog from this tour.  Sad, I know.  To answer a few of the questions I’ve received, yes, yes, no, 167, absolutely! and I came in second place.  Our tour manager, Chris, won but he’s a league bowler.  But for a league bowler he looks more like he’s playing volleyball than bowling!  He put a couple of divots in the lane!

Someone asked about the typical day on tour, so I think I’ll use today as an example, but first a bit about the bus environment.

The bus is divided into three sections separated by sliding doors.  The front-most section is a lounge with a kitchenette that has a fridge/freezer, a microwave, a sink, lots of cupboards and drawers and a small bathroom.  The second section is where the bunks are, twelve of them, stacked in threes from floor to ceiling, six on one side and six on the other.  Each bunk has a reading light, an electrical outlet, a few USB charging ports and on the ceiling of each bunk is a DVD player with a screen that unfolds down.  The bunk is just over six feet long, maybe 24 inches tall, and maybe 36 inches wide.  Then the rear-most section is another, smaller lounge that has an ice chest and some couch type seating and a few closets.  Each lounge is equipped with an HD TV attached to a very nice 2.1 sound system.

After the show we get on the bus and hang for a bit, with friends if appropriate.  Usually there are tunes cranked in both the front and rear lounges.  Eventually the party dwindles down to just band and crew and people start heading to the bunks.  Last night the bus call was 7 am meaning that’s when the bus will start heading to the next city, in this case Albany.  So my experience is that I hit the bunk while the bus is stationary and fall asleep.  It’s pitch black in the bunks; there are no windows and no way to tell what time it is unless you have a cell phone in there.  Eventually I wake to the bus starting to move.  The ride through the city is pretty jerky in the bunk so I’m usually awake until we hit the highway, then I fall asleep again and stay asleep except for the occasional rest area stop.  The next time I wake up, we are driving through the next city and the jerky ride has woken me up again.  I stay awake until the bus stops, usually I’ll check the time.  In this case I think it was about 9:40.  Back to sleep.

I woke up about an hour later.  Again, it’s pitch black in the bunk so I have no concept of where we are or what kind of day it is.  Typically I’d check Google Maps on my phone while I’m still in the bunk to figure out where we are, but today I roll out of the bottom bunk into the hallway and head to the rear lounge and I’m surprised to see that we are parked right in the middle of a very busy plaza near The Egg with lots of official-looking buildings around, fountains spraying into the breeze and picnic tables full of people.  There are food trucks parked around the perimeter and office people and construction workers lunching.

So imagine you’ve just rolled out of bed.  You’ve standing at the window in your underwear, hair standing straight up, sleep crust in your eyes, wool sweaters on your teeth and breath that could kill.  And you’re in a plaza full of office workers!  Nice!  Hi everybody!  Fortunately you can freshen up somewhat before you leave the bus, but you’re still in last night’s clothes.

Anyway, at this point I brush my teeth and make some coffee and check email, still on the bus.  Oh, we have internet on the bus.  Very cool!

This venue is one of the ones with showers, so I creep out of the bus and open the bay where my suitcase is, grab some clean clothes, and head inside for a shower.  Ah, much better!

Typically at this point I would head into town to find a coffee shop to blog from, but this plaza has such a nice vibe to it I’m blogging from one of the picnic tables.  This is also when I might find some food.  This is my free time so once I finish blogging I might walk around town, window shop, or head back to the bus for a nap.

My work day begins at 4 PM usually.  The crew has been working since 10 or 11 am loading in and setting up the show.  It’s an amazing production and as such it is quite complex.  The stage is a maze of gear and wires.  It’s like the inside of a space ship.  There are weird looking antennas and devices all over the place.  So at four o’clock I walk into the maze with my in-ear monitors.  I’m handed a receiver pack that I plug the in-ears into and then attach to my belt.  I put on the guitar, switch the pack on and I’m ready for sound check.

Sound check is just that – making sure that everything works and sounds okay.  Everyone is adjusting their in-ear mix and Rachel, our front-of-house engineer is tuning the PA to the room.  Typically Mike will have a punch list of things he remembered from the last show, just little improvements or suggestions specific to certain tunes, so we’ll run through that list.  I may also have a couple of things as well.  Then we do an EEL test to make sure the audience interaction piece is working.  Then we play something very loud for Rachel.  We may or may not do a listening exercise to make sure everyone can hear everyone else.  And lately we’ve been doing a “trance jam” where we create a jam by each repeating a single phrase over and over again for about ten minutes.  Something about this is very… hmmm… enlightening.  I’ve heard of people doing this for hours at a time and reaching some sort of nirvana and I can see how that would work.  For us it opens up this door and creates a realization that being hypnotic is much more interesting than always changing what you’re doing.

When sound check is over we have one to two hours to have dinner and get ready for the show.  I like to change into whatever I’m wearing for the show and put my contact in so that I can eat dinner without feeling too rushed.  I try to eat more in the afternoon and keep dinner light since I’m usually not that hungry before I play anyway.

After dinner we gather in the dressing room and maybe talk about any special things we’re doing in the set, or not.  Then the huddle and we hit the stage.  (See my blog entry about that!)

After the show we head to the bus and start all over again!!

All in all, this has been a great tour!  It’s such a fun band with very good, caring people in it.  It’s not all glamor and party; in fact it’s a shitload of work, done on very sketchy bus-sleep.

I once again have to shout out to the crew, in particular Chris Friday, our tour manager who takes care of everybody and everything on this tour and still manages to make me laugh my ass off;  Trey Kerr, our guitar tech, bass tech and everything else tech who sets up my rig and takes care of me while I’m on stage; Rachel Capobianco, our front-of-house sound person who makes us all sound amazing in every venue; Jamie Capobianco, our keyboard tech and other stuff tech who sets up and takes care of Robert’s keyboards as well as a slew of other stuff; Jason Liggett (Liggy), our LD who makes us feel like we’re tripping balls every night with his phenomenal lighting; Walt Westinghouse, our monitor guy, who makes the in-ears sound unbelievably good every night; and Max Cohn, our EEL tech, who sets up and runs the EEL every night and does hours and hours of programming every day.  These guys work ridiculously long hours every day and still manage to take exceptional care of us while maintaining a super fun and happy atmosphere the entire time.

I also have to shout out to my band mates as well.  Johnny Kimock who kicks my ass every night and does so with a smile; Robert Walter who blows me away reaching into the depths of his being with every note he plays; Craig Myers who’s joyous attitude radiates outward from every creative thing he does;

And most of all to Mike Gordon, my partner in crime whose vision has opened my mind to the limitless possibilities; whose bass playing interweaves with my guitar playing as though there were coming from a single mind; and whose unrelenting faith in all of us allows us to be the creative people we want to be.

Eh.  Maybe this ISN’T my last entry! 🙂

PS: I have to give another shout out to Brad Sarno whose sound expertise and Earth Drive pedal helped to make my guitar sound the best it could be!  http://www.sarnomusicsolutions.com/

The Mythical Broomstick

It’s when you see that the red recording light is on.  It’s when the TV camera is pointed at you.  It’s when you know this is the one that counts.  It’s the broomstick, or at least that’s my expression for it.  It’s when everything is on the line and you’re nervous, and you’re trying so hard that… you try too hard.  You’re so concerned with being at the top of your game that you forget that the most important things are to relax and listen.

Where the hell was my placard when I needed it?

But that broomstick stuff is all a myth.  Of course I’m referring to our Cleveland show that was webcast.  It was our fourth night in a row and I was tired.  My voice was shot and kept faltering unless I pushed it too hard.  And I wanted to make these sets the absolute best because I had a lot of friends watching as well as a lot of new people.  And that attitude is a formula for disaster.  I didn’t feel great about the sets after they were done.  I got lots of good feedback from people watching but that doesn’t change my own impression of what happened.

But later on the bus we listened to the show and watched some of the video.  And you know what?  It was great.  Much better than I thought it was.  It didn’t sound like I was trying too hard.  It sounded relaxed and creative and fun and hypnotic.

I had a similar experience recently taping a video with Max Creek.  We did “Playing In The Band” for Telefunken’s Song Of Their Own series https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYQXW4KMIh0 and I did the first pass of a mix for it.  And at the time I thought we were stiff and self-conscious.  But watching the video now I can see that we were on top of our game.  We were relaxed and patient allowing the jam to ebb and flow naturally and we hit some amazing space considering we were only playing to the cameras.

I guess the point is – if you find yourself in that situation, where it’s all on the line and you have to be at the top of your game, don’t sweat it.  Pull that mythical broomstick out of your ass and do what you do.  Get your swagger on.  And don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you choked.  Chances are you didn’t.  Chances are it came out much better than you thought at the time.

Fly On The Wall

I would say that I have my sound and my IEMs figured out, and so I’m wondering what to write about.  Or maybe more accurately, what would be interesting to write about?

About 30 minutes before the show starts I start prepping to hit the stage.  I figure out what clothes I’m wearing and I put in my one contact (so that one eye can see far and the other can see near… I need to see close up if I break a string).  And about ten minutes before the show I put my IEMs on and feed the wire down the back of my shirt.  Then Walter gives me my IEM receiver which clips onto my belt.  The actual ear pieces I let sit on my shoulders until we’re about to walk on.

Right before we walk on, I put the IEMs in my ears and turn on the receiver.  At this point we’re on stage right behind the screens and in the IEMs I can hear the ambient mics picking up the crowd noise. We have a little ritual we do right before we walk out, the “band huddle,” just a little check-in before we walk out.

Then we walk out.  The stage is very dark and you have to be careful because there’s lots of gear and wires up there.  I pick up and put on the guitar which has no cable attached, but it’s tricky to get the strap over my head because of all the junk taped to it.  There’s a transmitter of the guitar’s audio, a battery pack for the lights, and a DMX receiver that receives light information from Liggy, our LD.

The strap is suede which I like because it holds the guitar still on my shoulder, but there’s a little adjustment period in there because when I first put it on, it’s pulled my shirt off my shoulder and bunched it up between my neck and the guitar.  So I do this thing where I pull the bottom of my shirt and adjust how the guitar hangs by pulling on the neck of it.  All this just to get the damn guitar on!  But it happens in a matter of a couple seconds.

I have to assume that the guitar is in tune.  My OCD wants to tune the guitar but I know the band wants to just play right away.  The tuner is on, so the guitar is muted when I walk up, so now I turn the tuner off and play a single note to make sure it’s all working.  Then I set my effects pedals to whatever is necessary for the first song and turn to face Johnny and wait for his drumstick count.  Click click click and we’re underway!

The receiver for the IEMs has a volume control so that I can control the overall volume of what I’m hearing and usually I have to adjust it during the first few seconds of the first song.  Usually it takes about three adjustments to get it to where I want it.

At this point it becomes all about the music.  There are so many things that I need to remember besides the music that I’m thinking of making a little placard to put on the floor in front me.  Like for vocals, I need to remember to sing soft, take deep breaths but not too deep, sing behind the beat a little when I’m singing lead.  And for guitar I need to remember to play behind the beat, play with swagger, and when I do a lead try to bend time.  This is all on top of remembering the arrangement, remembering the lyrics, and most most most importantly, LISTENING!!!

As the first song winds down I need to remember that the stage is very dark between songs and the set list is written in silver on black paper, so it’s a good idea to find the next song on the list while the lights are still up for this song that we’re in.  That determines what changes I need to make between the songs, like different pedals, different tunings, or even putting a capo on.

When I’m singing lead I need to remember to forget all the technical crap and think about the lyrics that I’m singing so that I can deliver them convincingly.

I’m going to digress a little.  Vocals.  Vocals are weird.  What I hear when I sing has very little to do with what everyone else hears.  Because the human voice-box resides near the base of the skull sound vibrations travel through the bones and cartilage to the ear drums.  The result is that you hear your own voice much differently than other people do.  This becomes evident when people hear their own voices recorded for the first time and say, “Wow, do I really sound like that?”  Becoming aware of this fact doesn’t change anything.  And having the in-ears in creates a similar effect of singing with your fingers in your ears which accentuates the voice-box/eardrum resonance even more.  As a result, I’m never satisfied when I hear recordings of my voice.  It never sounds the way it does when I’m doing it.  And so a large part of what I’m thinking about when I’m singing is how hard I’m pushing my voice.  It’s very easy for me to get too gritty because I can’t hear the grit in any monitor system, in-ear or otherwise.  And so I’m always conscious of that.

So at some point we are inevitably going to come to… “the jam.”  This is obviously the place where the whole band is improvising and is the coolest part as well as the trickiest.  This is what separates a great band from “Jamband 101” as I call it, that noodly, directionless “Look what I can play” crap.  And there are as many philosophies about how this is done as there are people doing it.  One good place to start is to shut the fuck up and listen to what’s going on WITHOUT your input.  This is another one for my reminder placard, “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” because doing that will inform you what your place should be.  Sometimes your place is… don’t play at all.  Everything that’s going on is enough.  There are four other musicians up there conversing.  You don’t want to turn this into “Dysfunctional Family Thanksgiving Dinner” where everybody is trying to talk above everybody else.  In a good five way conversation people speak one at a time.  It’s very much the same with jamming.  So I’ll stop and listen and rather than listen to what everybody else is doing, I listen for the silent spots.  IF they exist.  And if they do, that’s where I’ll place my voice.  And not in every silent spot.  Silence is necessary in order to accentuate where the sounds are so I leave some of them silent.

And then the next secret ingredient: REPETITION.  This is essential for a number of reasons.  First, it prevents “wanking” – playing a bunch of continuous notes with no focus.  It also give the listener something to latch onto.  I could write a whole blog entry on listening to music and the related psychology.  People like it when they can predict what’s coming.  Repetition enables that.  Also, people like simple melodies.  Repeating simple melodies grabs people.  And then once you’ve grabbed them, you can fuck with them by changing ever so slightly.  It’s like, “Ha, you thought you were getting THAT, but now you’re getting THIS instead!”  And the last aspect of repetition is HYPNOSIS.  Not only have you drawn them in with your repeating melody thing, now you’ve done it enough times that they’re mesmerized by it.

More later!