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.