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I jumped on a bandwagon recently and started watching and admiring an HBO series called Flight of the Conchords. The premise of the show is described succinctly on their website: “Bret and Jemaine have moved to New York in the hope of forging a successful music career. So far they’ve managed to find a manager (whose “other” job is at the New Zealand Consulate), one fan (a married obsessive) and one friend (who owns the local pawn shop) — but not much else. ” The premise is intended to create a humorous atmosphere, and if you’re not in a band, then it is hilarious. However, if you live a life even remotely like the Conchords’ then the show is less funny and more a tragic reminder of how pathetic a wanna-be-rockstars’ life really is.
Tthis “digi-folk duo” lives in a small, crappy New York apartment filled with music gear and they do lots of crappy gigs. In one episode, their “manager” (whose day job office sits in the same building as a business called “Asian Massage”) takes them on “tour” (notice how many quotation marks we’re using here?). Jemaine, one of the musicians, reads the contract outloud in the backseat of the manager’s car, and says, “It’s says here we’re going to have a tour bus.”
“This is the tour bus,” says the manager.
“This isn’t a tour bus.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“You’re only two people. What do you need a whole bus for?”
I have paraphrased the conversation, but the gist is the same. It was funny until Brian and realized that (we, a duo with a harmonica player) will no doubt be touring in our Nissan Sentra. This scene just reminded us of this fact, and what began as a funny show laughing at a the adventures of a pair of naive musicians, became a not-so-funny mirror or our own lives.
The scene, however, which really stopped us from laughing, occurs at their first gig in the tour. They’re playing the lounge of a airport motel. In the corner of the restaurant, they’re completing their set, and one of them says, “We’d really like to thank you for having us. We have CDs and t-shirts for sale.” Then the sound of one or two aimless claps resounding in an empty room. Brian and I sat quietly through the scene until I said, “God, that is so not funny.”
“I know,” Brian said. “That happens to us all the time.”
And indeed it does. We’ll be completing a set at a nearly empty bar, but I will still declare cheerfully into the mike: “Thanks for coming everyone! We have free CDs and pins!” And just like in the show, I hear solitary claps echo through the room. The same scenario is funny in the TV show, but is depressing in real life. The myth of the musicians’ life is hardly ever explored, but what I like about this particular show is that they don’t embellish their lives. It is pretty funny to hear them thank everyone for coming to the show, when the joke is that the audience is there because they’re waiting for a flight out of there.
Brian tells this story (possibly apocryphal) about Eddie Van Halen watching This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary about a rock band. In Brian’s story Eddie Van Halen had to leave the screening because it wasn’t funny. “It was just too real,” said Brian. We have a similar response watching Flight of the Conchords. What should be hilarious scenes about lonely gigs, strange fans, and band drama (one member “quits the band” weekly) for us seems like a sobering Oprah episode on something like identify theft: “this could be you”. And like an Oprah viewer, we recognize ourselves. “Hey, you have that synthesizer!” I’ll shout when it appears in the background of the band’s apartment. Or, “God that happened to us,” Brian will say of the Conchords’ Open Mic gig when the announcer (in the episode, Daryll Hall) used the wrong name to introduce the band: “The Flutes of the Commodores.”
That was the other thing that shocked us: the band’s name is like our band name. Flight of the Conchords sounds a lot like Short Punks in Love. It makes me wonder if we’re not some unrevealed joke. Two mid-thirties to early-forties musicans have day jobs as community college teachers while they pursue a rock-n-roll career in Chicago. Actually, that does sound pretty good. If HBO only knew about us.
Our first CD was recorded in the spare bedroom that housed the cat litter box and the drums. The second CD was recorded in a make-shift studio in a rehearsal space on Chicago’s West side. And now, the third CD, which we had been saying we would record but never did, is being recorded back at home. In the living room this time instead of the spare room, because that room was taken over by our rabbit and her cage. In this third recording endeavor, I have finally realized with a clarity that I had not realized before that I hate recording.
In the beginning, I thought I disliked recording because I was new to drumming and playing drums by at itself was stressful with or without recording. During the second CD, it was less agonizing, although still taxing. We were in someone’s studio space who took care of the details of miking the drums and running cable and setting levels, and helped to make the experience less stressful for both of us. Despite the success of that, we missed the intimacy of the first CD, the spontaneous, recording-by-the-seat-of-your pants quality. And, well, let’s face it –recording at home is free. Recording in a studio costs money, and we’ll need that to duplicate the disk and pay for the covers. So, we’re back at home. Mikes and cables over the place, rabbit locked away so she won’t eat hundreds of dollars worth of cable, and now, Bob, the harmonica player, squeezed into the living room with us.
The addition of a third person has done a lot for us. We argue less because there’s company. I work harder at not being sarcastic or snide or looking outright bored, which I often am while I record. And, more importantly, because I don’t like recording, there’s someone there to be excited with Brian about recording. Bob likes it, too. In our sessions with Bob, I realize how much of a downer I must have been for Brian during the first two CDs. I think it’s because recording is nothing like the experience of playing live (at least for me). Drumming live, from my experience, is like being a racehorse in the paddock waiting for the race start. We want at those drums. We want noise, and the pure adrenaline of letting loose. Meanwhile, recording (at least for SPiL) is about restraint. It’s about me holding back and laying out an even rhythm that Brian and now Bob can overdub. Drumming in this situation is more about staying out of the way and less about driving the band. So, it’s not as much fun and it requires more concentration. I have to listen more to myself (which I hate) and hear whether I’m rushing the beat or whether I’m playing too loud. It’s about maintaining an openness and tranquility, which, frankly, I suck at most of the time. And when I record, I realize just how much I suck at it. I realize that practicing and music training is what helps with this. The violin training I had as a child, I now realize, was about being calm when I was nervous. About playing when I did not want to, and about focusing when I was agitated. That may explain why at 15 years-old I gave up (or gave in) and went with the messiness of my personality. I went with the unease, the activity of mind, the itch to move.
It’s only now, in my forties, having exhausted a life of constant change and movement that I see the value of just sitting still on the drum throne and tapping a constant beat, something even and consistent, undramatic. Calm.