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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.
We welcomed two new additions to the Short Punks family (and no, not kids — you wish): a harmonica player and a Gretsch.
The harmonica player is named Bob Kessler, formerly of Bakelite 78 and a member of the Buddhist temple I attend in Chicago. Our first “gig” with Bob was at the temple’s Holiday Auction when Bob sat in on a song. It was an impromptu idea on our part, and we had 15 minutes with Bob before the show to give him the chords and run through the song at a short sound check. Even in those few minutes, Brian and I knew Bob was a winner. Bob studied clarinet at the Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago and that training really shows. He can make complementary melodies to supplement Brian’s singing and falls into a groove like a duck sliding into a lake.
Our next gig was at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in January and in an amplified setting Bob sounded even better with us. What I noticed is that I didn’t have to work as hard to keep the music going, and for the first time, I could lay back a little and enjoy the music. In a duo, both people are working really hard the whole time to keep a momentum going, but with an addition of a third person both Brian and I can function as a kind of rhythm section for Bob’s harmonica which gives us moments of rest in what can be an exhausting forty minutes or so.
Our next show is on January 24 at the The Bottom Lounge in Chicago, and Brian and I are excited to continue to explore how our sound changes with a harmonica player.
Not long after that show, Brian and I were commuting home after a day at school and in break between snow storms. We had a long day, and both of us felt mopey and tired. In moments like these, I like to make suggestions to Brian which will cheer him up. And one thing that always make Brian happy is a new guitar. I suggested we stop at Midwest Buy and Sell, Brian’s favorite guitar store and “check out what they have.” We went in thinking that Brian would pick up a Gibson SG (“the guitar with the horns” I usually say), but there’s the idea of the guitar and then there’s the actually playing of one. The SG is a great guitar, but every time Brian picked one up and I listened to it neither us felt that spark, that click in our heads when we think “Oh yeah, that’ll sound great on stage.” After forty minutes I was ready to go. I was cold, hungry and I had to pee. While I waited for Brian to try guitars Iwandered around the store. On the top of row near the ceiling, I caught a flash of orange. I noticed the color more than the guitar. I noticed how it felt warm and cheerful. How it reminded me of candy corn and pumpkins, and how it made me think of Halloween and Fall and warmer seasons. I saw it and thought all this in a second, then I went back to feeling bored and tired and wandered on. Just as I was about to tell Brian I would meet him at the deli across the street, he walked up to me with an orange Gretsch in his hand — the one I had noticed a ten minutes before.
“What do you think of this?” He asked.
“I didn’t think you liked hollow-bodies.”
“I like the color.”
“Well, try it.”
Brian plugged it into an amp, and played one chord. In our heads, a switch seemed to flick on. Click. Oh yeah.
It was love at first strum.
So the Gretsch came home with us and now we’re listening to CD after CD of rockabilly, Elvis, and Eddie Cochrane. Who knows what will happen next?
I live in Chicago, for those of you who did not know, and Tuesday night the city exploded. Cheers rose up as thousands upon thousands celebrated the state’s favorite son and his victory.
“Were you in Grant Park?” an enthusiastic friend e-mailed me this morning.
I would love to say I was in thick of the crowd, but I was not. I was working — proctoring an exam in my evening class. School was in session. Students were in class at 8:30 PM and I passed classrooms with students in various states of attention. Some slumped down so far that their hats nearly touched their desks. Others sitting in front, upright, attentive. And the professors talked on. Except for one professor who was projecting election results on a screen at the front of the classroom, I would not have know history was being made.
I remember a story someone once told me about what they were doing the day man first landed on the moon. “I was watching it on TV,” he said. “While I finished typing my dissertation.” And, I have to admit, it was like that for me. A black man became president and I was proctoring an exam. But, he was not becoming president in that single moment on Tuesday night. He was becoming president in all the moments before when we did not know him, when he lived in Hyde Park just blocks from where I used to live ten years ago. He was becoming president when he ate breakfast at the Valois on 53rd street that has the great sign advertising its cafeteria-style dining: SEE YOUR FOOD. He was becoming President when he was still teaching law at the University of Chicago, proctoring exams like the one I proctored on Tuesday night. He was becoming President when he wasn’t famous, when he walked the streets in Chicago’s bitter winters and brutal summers.
Chicago is an amazing place. For me, it is no coincidence that he came here after college. Chicago is large enough for someone to grow into himself. Brian and I know this when it comes to being musicians. We have been playing here for three years already and in this vast city with its numerous art scenes and music communities, we can grow in relative obscurity and yet hone skills. And the audiences here are still generous — people still open to listening even in the worst venues. In the dirtiest, the roughest places we have found the odd supporter who raises his head from a glass of beer and nods, “Hey man, that was pretty good.” Then turns back to the TV screen to watch the game. Chicago is an incubator. If you’re willing to grow here, this a place to put down roots and grow leaves.
And then Chicago has that cranky side. That side that says: “Oh yeah? Whachugot?”
I was reminded of this in Reckless Records on Broadway when I walked in and passed a stack of newspapers. The Reader, the free weekly alternative paper, had a color drawing of Obama on the cover with a headline that read:
Don’t Screw This Up.
We live near a large body of water in Chicago and because it is a large mass of water, the city, inevitably, has seagulls. At least, I think they are seagulls. They sure look like them.
When Brian and I ride to the lake and lounge on the concrete steps and watch the water seagulls are a part of the moving landscape. In the city, they can pick at the garbage that floats on the water, and they hover above trash cans. In an urban center, seagulls can seem like the other flying pests which include pigeons. In this environment, it can be hard to appreciate a seagull. It may be hard to see the precision with which they target food. Or, to see how they seem to nod and wink at each other as they flock together in groups on the sands of North Avenue beach. It can also be difficult to see the grace with which they hover above you in one spot, riding the air currents like a sophisticated piece of machinery. It can be hard to see all that when seagulls are one of the many animals (rats, pigeons, roaches) that we in the city try to avoid or exterminate.
This changed for us recently when Brian purchased a new acoustic guitar, called — you guessed it — a Seagull. Actually, we liked the first one so much, we bought a second one the next week (and thank you Bush for that economic stimulus package, for like other loyal Americans, we spent it). seagull guitars are made in Canada of trees that have already fallen, rather then been felled to make guitars. Thus, they are environmentally and economically responsible. Brian likes this a lot. He’s eco-conscious and feels slightly guilty all the time for most of the injustices of the world. Knowing his guitar is not contributing to it helps him sleep better at night (and I’m totally serious).
I, however, like best the little drawing that sits on the headstock. It is a bird in flight. It’s a nice metaphor for a lot of things that have to do with singing, writing, and music. It suggests freedom, possibilities, determination, quickness, wit, smarts, and … balls. Ever see a seagull steal a fish away from a half-witted duck? It’s quite a sight and the duck comes off looking like a twit.
So, we like the new guitars (one six-string, one twelve) and we like the seagull on the headstock. And, of course, where there is new gear there are new songs. So, stayed tuned…Short Punks could be doing Simon and Garfunkel in the near future….
Singing is much much much much harder than drumming. I sang at the last show and while it did not go badly, I felt in my voice a hesitation and in my head I heard a voice that screamed: “OH MY GOD!! YOU’RE SINGING IN PUBLIC! STOP!” I kept singing and the two brief songs I sang were over before I knew it. So, to the voice I said, “Relax, it’ll be over in a second.”
I so admire singers. And not just famous singers, everyday singers. People who sing songs while they do the dishes or go for a walk. I admire people who sing whole choruses and verses of their favorite song. I have favorite songs and singers. I like the way Nat King Cole sings “Mona Lisa” and the way he lingers on the “m” so that it’s sounds like “yummm…”. I like Etta James when she sings “At Last” and the way she sings the “at last” so that you really can feel her exhale a sigh of relief…at last. I like even (or especially) Astrud Gilberto because of how she sings slightly off-pitch, no so badly that it’s unlistenable but just enough so that it’s charming, fetching, as if she were a child lisping. I love that she is singing and she’s not a perfect singer. And I have discovered (re-discovered, really, I’m old enough to have heard her songs on the radio in the 70s) Karen Carpenter and how she sings with a very short range but every note and breath counts. Every time it rains, her song about rainy days and Monday seems to fall with each drop. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down. Sing it, girl. You speak the truth.
So, I am in awe of singers: the great ones, the flawed ones, the affected ones. I admire them because more than any other instrument I have learned to play (piano, violin, drums), the voice is the one that asks you to be vulnerable. When I sing with my voice, I am making music with my own body (flawed, imperfect, limited) and I’m singing (ideally) with my emotions (sad, angry, happy) and there is no object in between me and the sound an audience hears. There is no instrument under my chin or a wall of drums to hide me from the audience. It is just me and my voice. And when I sat on stage singing I felt as naked as I could feel, despite the wall of drums that sat in front of me. God help me the day I walk out from behind the drums to sing in public.
Singing makes me grow. I have to learn how to find intervals with my voice, which is a matter of teaching the muscles in my throat, mouth, chest, diaphragm to recognize an “A” and know how it’s different from a “C.” Needless to say, I’m still teaching myself those things so by the time we played last week, I still couldn’t pitch myself very well, especially when I was drumming. There was one moment in the chorus of “Rosie” that I knew I wouldn’t hit a low note. We had discovered in rehearsal that fell below my range and that I should go an octave or a third up instead. But, because it’s all new to me and a third up might as well be a universe up, I didn’t quite have it down when we went to the show. And during the song, I tried not to anticipate it. I tried to just let the moment come and accept whatever happened when we got to the chorus.
Oddly, when we got there, a solution presented itself. We were singing in unison and as Brian’s voice dropped down to the unreachable note, I could feel that I wouldn’t hit it on key, and my hands and arms with a mind and brain of their own took over. Instead of singing that note, I played two loud hits on the snare. My voice didn’t sing it but my arms did. The result was that it sounded as if I was punctuating on the drums the idea of the word that Brian was singing. Problem solved. Life is awesome.
Last night we rehearsed again and in order to work on vocals we left all the big gear at home. No big amps, no drums: just Brian and his telecaster and small Fender Champ and me and a snare. A thirty-minute set-up with full drums became a five-minute set-up without them, and within minutes of arriving at the rehearsal space we were ready to practice.
We spent the next hour fighting. I wanted him to turn down. He didn’t want to. I wanted to sing it one way; he, another. He felt invalidated; I was angry. For an hour we stopped and started the same song. We fought about line breaks and fell into angry silences. After an hour, I stopped and did something I learned to do at the last buddhist retreat. I put my hands together, plam to palm, and inhaled and slowly, I counted my out-going breaths from five to zero. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Zero.
“Why don’t we just relax and do what we like?” I said.
Brian sat still, not moving, slumped over his yellow guitar like a puppet without a master. “Okay,” he said in a mutter.
We kept playing. Over the hour the angry stillness seemed to lift and as we got out one good rendition of “Twilight. We seemed to lighten up even more and tried another song. Eventually, we both apologized and began talking about other songs to work on.
There’s an idea, a stereotype really, of a temperamental diva-singer in a booth hurling insults at producers and creating tantrums. It’s a cliche, but I have discovered there’s a reason why it happens so often. Singing is hard. Even when you’re good at it. You are vulnerable in a glass booth with groups of people watching you sing. You are there, naked, in front of others while they drink coffee and stare at you with detached disinterest. You are out there — and here’s the kicker — no one else is.
If you’re on the mailing list for the band, then you have already received this notice about our show on Friday. If you’re not on the mailing list, then what are you waiting for? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add you.
So, we’re playing at Hotti Biscotti (see www.shortpunksinlove.com for more info) on Friday, April 11, which means that at end of a week full of teaching and grading exams, I get to be a rock star. The bonus side of having a “hobby” like ours. (I put “hobby” in quotes because Brian hates it when someone calls it our “hobby” as if it were to equate performing music with other hobbies like hummel collecting and bargain shopping. For Brian it’s not a hobby, but a reason to live. And he means it like that: a reason to live. But that’s another story, one I’m saving for a memoir.) Where was I? Oh yes, the up-side of playing out is that when you’re a teacher you spend your days in front of young people being looked at with the same amount of interest one gives a CTA conductor or a McDonald’s employee. You’re there, and yet not there. So, going somewhere to be on stage and have someone (anyone) give you slightly more attention can be a huge boost to one’s sense of existing in the world. Hey, I must exist: you can see me. For those of us who experience existential crises on even-numbered days, this can save quite a bit on therapy.
Meanwhile, the next show will be a challenge for me: for the first time, I’m going to sing. Really sing, not just sing the occasional line. It’s part of an agreement we made after the last show when Brian wouldn’t use his Les Paul Gibson (a great guitar) during the show.
“Why didn’t you use the Les Paul.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t get it. It’s a 1200 dollar guitar and you never want to play it on stage.”
“Look, it’s a lot of guitar, I’m not sure if I’m ready. Tris and Andy [former bandmates] used to say the same thing about my first Les Paul.”
“Okay, how about this? I’ll make a deal with you. If you play the Les Paul. I’ll sing.”
Brian’s eyes perked open. Sounded like a fair deal to him. We agreed. And I started singing at the next show and at rehearsal yesterday we worked on vocal parts for me. It’s a whole new world, playing drums and singing at the same time. The greatest challenge is not dropping beats while I sing. I have a whole new respect for Levon Helm, Karen Carpenter, and Phil Collins. It’s not as easy as it looks.
So, if you happen to be around and want to see me tackle this next challenge, then stop by Hotti Biscotti on Friday. We’ll save you a seat at the bar!
In the recent issue of Roctober, Brian found this short notice about our first CD.
Short Punks in Love. Moody indie with a nice balance of resonant guitar and spare percussion. Far less cutesy than the band name, but just as romantic (actually, more so).
“Spare percussion”!! Ha. I love that. It was our first CD, my first recording, and “spare” was all I could play. I only knew the basic rock beat so that’s what I played. We get compliments every now and then on the “percussive style” and I’m often embarrassed to admit to the complimenter (although, I do) that my “style” came from not really knowing how to play. Brian was so supportive, and actually prefers minimal drumming, that it actually worked with the songs he wrote. Now, we’re having another discussion. Since I have learned more I want to complicate the drumming patterns and he wants to keep them minimal. We’re working on that now.
Meanwhile, that debut CD, now 2 years-old, is still our favorite. And, if you haven’t heard it and want a copy, send an e-mail to email@example.com and we’ll send you a copy for FREE!
Gigs look a lot more glamorous than they really are, and, more importantly, they last for about as third as long as an average rehearsal. For Friday’s show we rehearsed four and a half hours. The actual set lasted thirty minutes, but the whole time we were out amounted to seven hours from the moment we stepped out of our house to the moment we loaded the gear back in. Time is everything and yet, nothing. One of the greatest obstacles I hear from people who are older (I’ll say, over 30) who want to learn to play an instrument is that they have ‘no time.’ I often agree. It takes time. And yet, once a gig is over, I don’t often regret the time I spent preparing for the show or the show itself. It’s worth the time I spend on it. In general, learning the drums has taught me to spend the time doing things I love or want to learn. I used to spend a lot of time doing things I ‘had’ to do, but as I grew older, I learned to say ‘no’ to those things (you now, parties for co-workers or clients, obligatory visits to people I did not know well, shopping trips that I did not want to take, etc). Gigs have even offered”reasons” for not attending these social gatherings. “I have a gig” has saved me from more endlessly dull evenings than I can remember. But more importantly, the time I have spent on learning to play the drums, the hours in with the practice pad, repays me well in thirty minutes, a fraction of the time I spent getting to that stage.
Rehearsal at Superior Street
Friday’s show was not a bad show — it was a great one. The opening acts, Bill Liggett and Sam Saunders, did great sets that primed the audience for us. They were so good, that at one moment, when Bill was seeing a song he wrote for his son called “Number One,” I forgot I was playing later. Now, that’s a real gift in a night — to be able to enjoy the other musicians enough that I forget my own concerns about playing.
The other feature of the show was that we drew an audience. People who have heard the CD and know us came out to hear us play live. If you’re not a musician grasping the import of this may be difficult. This is what it means for us: for the first time in a lot of months, we played to people who liked us. We were not playing to people who had never heard of us before and didn’t care we weren’t playing. The ‘reality’ of gigging for your average musician is that most gigs are in small bars and clubs with little or no audiences. We’ve played just for a bartender more than once, so the gratification that comes with an audience is not missed by us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t think the empty room still isn’t in our future. It probably is, but at least, for one night, the first night in a long time, there was enthusiasm in the audience. We are grateful to everyone who came out. It gives us a hope. So, thanks.
We have a gig on Friday, a rehearsal on Thursday, and this means one thing: I better practice. When we took our short hiatus, Brian kept playing, “woodshedding” in the music room, trying new chords, writing new songs. Meanwhile, I pushed the practice pad into the corner and started leaving mail on it. And without even noticing, a month, even two months went by and I hadn’t picked up a drum stick. Hadn’t even really listened to drummers on CD. I just went and did other things.
I am not one of those musicians — one of those bio-pic musicians who “save” their lives with music. I am not one of those musicians who, as Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin (and yes, I saw that movie, and liked it) does, says that “one day I’ll be a star” (or something like that). I am not John Coltrane who practiced every moment he was awake. At night he would practice with his saxophone when others were asleep, his fingers working his horn while he had the reed out. I am not Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Nick Drake or even Brian Cremins. I am a regular person with an average amount of discipline who would rather write this blog, clean the bathroom, do a load of laundry, or shop on-line than practice. I’m THAT kind of musician. I’m the kind who daydreams of being magically a great musician without actually practicing. I’m the kind of musician who practices my tv screen pitter patter with Craig Ferguson while I brush my teeth.
“I’m so glad you liked the CD, Craig. Well, you know, we recorded it in the south of France, and that made such a difference to get away from L.A.”
And he would wink in that cute, Scottish, way and say “Oh yes! El Ay!!”
I am the kind of musician who still has to count my way through a song because I lose my time if I don’t.
I am the kind of musician who forgets whole songs that I have already recorded. I am the kind of musician who occasionally forgets how to assemble her own instrument. Does the drum head go this way or that way? I am the kind of musician who hasn’t taken a lesson in over year. I am the kind of musician who wonders how far I can get as a musician being this kind of musician.
We have a gig on Friday. I have to remember how to assemble my own drum kit. I have to practice and work the muscles in my hands and arms so that I can play a whole set without getting fatigued. I have to listen to our own CDs to remember the songs. I have to remember to breathe when I play or I get dizzy. I have to remember that if I want to be the kind of musician who saves his or her life with music, I have to forget that I’m the other kind of musician who would rather be at home with a box a donuts than on-stage with ten people staring at me blankly while I’m trying to remember all the things I’m trying to forget.
We have a gig on Friday. Did I mention that? We have a gig on Friday.