Getting a Great Show

When I did the Landmark Forum (and if you like I can rant about that for a page and a half) there was an exercise we did where one person talks about a topic they’re passionate about, while their partner makes a point of ignoring them. It was amazing how difficult it was to put a complete sentence together in this scenario. When the exercise was repeated only w/ the partner actively listening, speaking became an effortless flow.

I’ve noticed this effect when performing music, with a bit of a twist: the more people that are listening, the easier it is to perform well (and the better my performance is) and the more people that are there but not listening, the more difficult it is to play well (in fact, there have been times where my playing has approached “sucking”). I feel bad when there’s a few people really listening and wanting to enjoy the show but two dozen people actively ignoring the music and that taking it’s toll on the band (btw, it does help to have a band that’s listening to each other. One of the reasons why I enjoy performing w/ the likes of Matt Baranello and Big Time Matt Klein so much).

To drive this home, let’s say you go to see a hypothetical national act, let’s call them “Aerosmith”. Well, if you’re in a stadium w/ thousands of people listening, it enables this fictitious group to do a fantastic show, seemingly effortlessly (which it kind of is, in that a lot of the effort in putting on a great show is dissipated throughout the audience). Now let’s say the next week you go to see a hypothetical local group, let’s call them “John Wilkes Booth” (and they’re performing at a hypothetical venue called “Mr. Beery’s” in an imaginary location we’ll call “Lawn Guyland”). And what if there are only 30 people in attendance, and only ten of them are actually checking out the band. It may appear that this group is not as good as the stadium act, but that would be inaccurate (in my mind) as this second act has to fight through the resistance of most of the audience (though they shouldn’t really be called an audience if they’re not paying attention). I would even argue that if John Wilkes Booth does manage to pull off a good show (which they have done) the effort required to do that puts them in a category above Aerosmith.

But here’s the more important thing: if you go to see the first band, you’ll probably pay at least $50 for a ticket, so you have a high incentive to really listen. If you go to see the second group, it may be a $10 cover at most, and so you may not be as motivated to really pay attention. But from an economical point of view, you’d serve yourself better by skipping the first show, and treating the second one like it was a $50 show. In fact, if you really want to get the most out of local shows, bring a bunch of friends and make sure they understand that you’re there to hear the music. If you can get them to follow your lead (I don’t know what kinds of friends you have and what the dynamic is in your relationship, so you’ll have to determine how possible that is) you will get a $50 show out of a $10 band. Can you turn down a bargain like that?



On Composing


When I was in junior high I took an elective class on creative writing which at the time I found fairly disappointing. The class consisted of students bringing in whatever they had written and the teacher and class critiquing it. I was more interested in the question of what the genesis of these writings was. How does a person come up w/ and idea for a poem (or song, or painting, or whatever)? This was never addressed in the class (and the teacher didn’t seem too pleased w/ me for bringing it up).

When I first got into music, the rock and roll bands I admired all wrote their own material, so I figured that was a requirement, and I tried to write songs but quickly found I was terrible at it (very quickly). Later on, I became more interested in jazz and blues, and there are plenty of famous folk in those genres who don’t write their own material, so I decided I would concentrate on my playing and I could always play other people’s songs. Ironically, it was soon after that that I started composing my own music.

But saying “composing” may not be putting it quite right. It brings up the image that I donned a powdered wig and pulled out a quill and some parchment and started the work of “composing” a piece of music. That’s not how I do it at all. Unfortunately, it’s a lot less theatrical. Musical “ideas” kind of just appear in my mind (and I’m still not sure where they come from. Now I’m able to appreciate that teacher’s annoyance w/ my query). In the early days this would very often happen while I was doing something else, like bicycling (which is annoying when you’re trying to pay attention to traffic and such, but are also giving attention to this song in your head, trying to figure it out). A melody would just “happen” in  my mind. Or it might be a set of chord changes, or a rhythm (many of my tunes have started w/ a drum beat that I heard, which is considerable amusing as I don’t play drums at all). More recently I might hear a lyric, or some combination of lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, or whatever (pick any 1-3 of the above). There was one time I had just heard a grad student (at Stony Brook) perform an Elliot Carter piece for percussion, and after it concluded and the audience started applauding, I heard the entire “the Maginot Stomp” (early Piltdown Man number) and had too rush home (missing the remainder of the concert) and stay up until dawn figuring it out.

I’ve even “dreamed” songs, or at least I assume I have. On at least two occasions I have woken up w/ a song fully finished running through my head. So where did it come from? I’m very often concerned when this happens that I’m plagiarizing someone, but so far no one has heard one of these songs and told me “you just copied X”. Could be that I’m stealing from obscure sources, but I would’ve expected someone would have caught me by now.

When I am “composing”, it’s really more like I’m editing, or figuring out a song off a record I heard once. There’ll be this “idea” that appears, and I’ll be playing w/ it and trying to get it right, (or trying to figure out how to make it work for whatever group I’m currently playing w/). Like if you told a group of artists to paint the lawn (a representation of it, not to actually paint over the grass, you silly goose). Each artist would likely approach it differently (and may have even thought about varying options for this particular landscape), but the “idea” of painting the lawn was the given. That initial inspiration is the fleeting thing that I still don’t know where it comes from. And sometimes it’s a very specific and complete idea (these chords w/ this melody w/ this lyric and this bassline), or it might just be a guitar riff that I have to do something w/, and other times it’s just a kind of vague sound (which it’s hard to put an example of, as the sound can’t be put into words. That’s why I have to figure out how to make it into a tune).

When I get these incomplete ideas, sometimes I get so excited that I force myself to complete them straight-away. I’ve discovered over the numerous times I’ve tried this that it always turns out terrible. When I first came up w/ the guitar riff for “Forsaken?” (on the Coincidence Machine Bandcamp page) I dug it so much that I immediately set to putting lyrics to it and recording it. It was truly awful. It was years later that I was just waking up one morning and heard these blues lyrics in my head. But as I thought about them I noticed they were a blues w/ different chords than a blues usually has. Suddenly it hit me that these were the lyrics for that guitar thang I’d written (and ended up hating). So over the years I’ve learned to be patient, and let these songs finish themselves. (This can be rather frustrating. I have this very Rush inspired double-neck thang that I’ve been playing around with since I got the instrument, and I’d really love to perform it, but no lyrics have come yet. I guess I’ll just keep waiting).



When I was in College out in StonyBrook, me and some other folk would trek into Manhattan every month to see Defunkt at the Knitting Factory. This group had a fantastic bassist (Kim Clarke) and I also got to witness her w/ the trio Bigfood, and was even lucky enough to chat w/ her and guitarist Bill Bickford at the bar between shows. I remember feeling like “Wow, I’m actually hangin’ out w/ Kim Clarke and Bill Bickford! How awesome is this”, even though I probably came off as some starstruck kid.

Last Thursday, it turned out that Kim Clarke was performing w/ the Agave Quartet not too far from where I live. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity (to see what looked to be a great show for no cover) and of course I was there. Debbie Knapper was the guitarist, and she had been kind enough to allow me to sit in at her jam at the Proper Cafe a while back. In the second set, the group started calling up folk to sit in, and as an upright bassist took the stage, Debbie asked me to come up and play guitar. I got to play some jazz w/ a couple of cats, and then, to my amazement, Kim Clarke came back up and I actually got to jam w/ this person who I’ve been listening to since I was around 17.

Afterward I thanked Debbie profusely for giving me this experience, and then proceeded to annoy Ms. Clarke by telling how much I admired her playing and how many occasions I’d seen her perform. She replied with “How kind” and then went off to do something more important that dealing w/ my praise (I would’ve done the same) and I realized that a couple of decades later, I’m still the same starstruck teenager.

But after a bit I thought: “Well, why not?”. I mean, would it be better if I’d turned out some jaded and bitter adult? And besides the fact that at least I still retain the passion for this music from my youth, I also think it’s good that this music and people like Kim Clarke (who I bet most of you have never heard of) have a champion that really believes that what they do is important and invaluable to this world. So maybe I come off as a bit geeky and annoying at times, but screw all of you. at least I live w/ passion, and can still get over-excited about a brush w/ one of my heroes.




384902_815045834815_1090059074_nSo I’m performing w/ Piltdown Man this evening, and I’m spending a portion of the day warming up (just like if you were a runner you wouldn’t just jump out of bed and onto the starting line. Well, maybe YOU might). This consists of doing some silly sounding voice exercises (which I do while cooking and doing dishes. Of course I have to stop when the cooking is done as it’s difficult to eat and sing simultaneously), and some instrumental practice and maybe singin’ and playing some songs. I usually do stuff that I won’t be doing at the performance, so that when I perform it’s fresh (to me). I always hated when bands I was in would rehearse the set on the day of the show. It’s harder for me to get into playing a song for an audience when I’ve already played that same song 3 times that day. Sometimes it was unavoidable, so I dealt with it, but it’s not preferable.

I also will even try to play different instruments that I’m playing at the show. E.g. prior to a Coincidence Machine show I will probably spend most of the day on the string bass. I figure I’m playing a manual (w/ the hands) string instrument, so even though it’s not exactly the same as what I’m dong at the show it’s still similar motions and muscles, and I’m more excited about playing something else at the show. Some of you may disagree with this, and you’re welcome to leave your comments at the bottom of this post so I can ignore them later.

W/ Piltdown Man, since I predominantly play string bass, and it’s the most difficult instrument I play, this doesn’t always work, so I will probably do a little work on that instrument, but I’ll try to make it something that has little or nothing to do w/ what I’ll be playing later (which can be difficult considering how diverse our sets typically are, so I expect I’ll just read through some classical music). I also try to knock off at least an hour before I leave for the gig, and maybe just do something mindless like watch TV so that my mind is clear(er) when it comes time to hit.

That’s how I do it. How do you prepare for a performance?


Origin of the Beast

Cinema Arts 2-13 1

At our last two performances a number of people asked me about how it is that I’ve come to play this double-kneck guitar bass contraption ( I call it “the Beast”). I figured I’d blog on it so maybe I won’t have to tell this story so much in the future (though I’m still happy to if someone asks).

When me and Matt decided to put together a group to play more rock & roll material, we put out ads looking for a third member. With me being a bassist and guitarist, we thought maybe an instrument that could also fill multiple roles, like an organ or cello, but we tried to word the ad so that most any musician could respond and be considered. We posted it on a few sites that catered to musicians searching for other musicians, and waited.

We received a response of exactly no one. Not even any tire-kickers just curious about what this project was about. Though this was disappointing, I put forth the idea that there are other groups that are duos, most notably the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Clatter, and Om. And my ability to play either bass or guitar should add more variety than those acts have. I had a small loop pedal that I’d been using in other contexts, and figured I could also use that in this group to also help fill out the sound.

We’d been rehearsing for about a year when one day  was talking w/ Josh Berman about what we were doing, explaining that “I play bass and guitar thru a loop pedal, layering loops to play on top of” and he responded: “Oh, like El Ten Eleven”. My reaction was: “Who’s that?” They happened to be playing in NYC that month (or the next month, I can’t remember exactly) so I went to see them and Kristian Dunn was playing a double kneck guitar and bass, layering loops with both instruments. I immediately thought “That’s what I need for Coincidence Machine”.

So I scoured the internet looking for one. They’re not readily available (how many people are in situations where they could use one of these?) but on Ebay I did find a chinese luthier who had some, but with the bass on the wrong side. Since bass guitar is played with a more extended right arm, and plectrum guitar with a bent elbow (at least that’s the way I do it) it doesn’t make sense to have the bass on top. I wrote to him and asked if he could reverse them. He said fine. So then I asked if he could make it w/ separate outputs and humbuckers in the guitar. He again agreed, though I was starting to feel like I was pushing my luck.

When I got it, the jacks and wiring were a mess, but it made more sense to just have the Guitar Museum rewire it and replace the jacks rather than ship it back to china, and I’ve had no other issues w/ it since.

Well, one other issue: learning to fully use it within the context of Coincidence Machine.


Re: Action

I heard an old interview w/ Adrian Belew where he was fretting about knowing whether anyone was interested in his music. This is a feeling I believe most of us artists share (at least I know I do); wondering as you’re creating something whether anyone will even hear it, much less enjoy it.

In the old days you had to wait for record sales and concert attendance to determine if your art was appreciated, but nowadays, with statistics available on many websites, you can find out immediately. But somehow this doesn’t fix the issue.

To demonstrate: YouTube will tell me how many views a video gets, and when. And when I first put up videos, every single view was cause for celebration. But after a while that joy starts to wane, and I started looking at other stats: “like”s, for instance. And even though I was happy about the views, there were videos w/ over one hundred views but only a few “likes”. So were these videos valuable to people or not? There weren’t many (or any) “dislikes”, so it’s hard to say.

Another stat that YouTube provides is “estimated minutes watched”. But this is a perplexing statistic for me, as sometimes a 5-minute video that has 10 views for a certain time period shows only 2 estimated minutes watched. So is this minutes per view or total minutes?  If it’s 2-per, does that mean that two people watched it all the way through and the others skipped it immediately or did everyone only make it about 2-minutes into it before they ceased watching? (These same issues occur w/ sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, who give similar statistics). These things can all contribute to the erosion of an artist’s self-esteem.

So I’ve decided two things: 1. People in our culture (meaning our era) tend to be both lazy and easily distracted. It’s hard to hold people’s attention not because your (or my) work doesn’t have value, but everyone is so bombarded w/ stimuli demanding their attention that human beings may be losing the capacity to pay attention to anything for a reasonable length of time (or to listen deeply). This may not be true, but it’s a way for me to not feel like everyone’s skipping over my tracks ‘cos they all think my stuff sucks.

Also, I make a point of watching other videos all the way through, and listening to their tracks in their entirety. I don’t know if statistics affect other folk the way they do me (I’ve got a degree in psychology) but in case they do, I can at least do my part to let them know their expression landed w/ someone. Also, I try to put a comment whenever I can, since I know personally how much this means to any creative person. A positive comment is far more cause for celebration than any statistic.

Who was that guy?

I was listening to “Upside Out” (mostly to try and get to the point where I won’t forget lyrics in the middle of singin’ a tune) and I was struck by something: listening to some of the playing and writing on the recording, I have no idea who that guy was.

In an attempt to explain, I’ll use one example. There are these aggressive bass solos (on “the Price”, “She’s So Heavy”, “Wish You Were Here”) that seem so far removed from the way I play that to my ear it sounds like a different person. I mean, I know it was me, I have memories of playing those tracks, but listening back to them, I don’t feel that I could play like that guy (the previous me is the guy I’m referring to).

I started to wonder if other musicians go through this, and I recall an Allan Holdsworth interview where he claimed he can’t listen to his older recordings because of how bad he plays on them. To me, when I listen to any of his recordings, he always sounds like Allan Holdsworth. I wonder if other folks listening to me, whether from this most recent Coincidence Machine CD, or an old Piltdown Man recording, just hear me as sounding like me (Jimi Durso), even though to me these various eras sound like very different people.

On one hand, I know that I’m not that person. Shunryu Suzuki once said something to the effect that the person you were a year ago is dead, the person you were yesterday is dead. To believe that the person you are now is the same person who was in your skin yesterday is a fallacy. But at the same time, there is a consistency that we hear in others (like I was saying about Holdsworth).

I can’t say i have any explanation of this effect, but it does present me with a conundrum: do I try to play these songs like that guy on the record? Or do I just play them like the guy I am now? I expect that I’ll have to do the latter, since I am the guy I am right now (well, not anymore by the time you read this), but will that be a disappointment for those in the audience who are expecting the guy on the record, and instead get me? Or, if this discrepancy between that guy (the one who did the record for me) and the me of the now is only something I’m aware of, and the audience just hears some semi-permanent “me”, no matter what stage of my evolution that I’m in, then I’m making a big post out of nothing.



Set Lists

Set lists are always an issue w/ me (both in my band and other bands I see). We’ve all had the experience of seeing one of our favourite bands perform, but they left out that one song you really wanted to hear (at the Soundgarden reunion, they didn’t play “Switch Opens”, but I think I might be the only guy who wanted to hear that song, both in the audience and on stage). W/ Coincidence Machine, it seems that once a list is “set”, there’s all these songs I wish were there. But if certain songs were removed to make room for these wishes, I’m certain I’d start wishing the original songs were in the set. And the solution of putting them all in there doesn’t work very well, either, as to play all the songs I want to play would mean something like a 6-hour performance. I’m not sure I could even sit through six hours of me. Not because I don’t love the music, just ‘cos there are other things I like to do, like eating pizza, for example (mmmmm, pizza).

I try to keep track of what we’ve played, and more importantly what we haven’t at each show, so I can try to include songs we’ve neglected at the next performance. However, there are sometimes constraints, like the fact that we have a CD out, and feel obligated to play a lot of material from that to give folk an idea of what they’re buying (if anyone is interested in purchasing one). It must suck for a band like Rush, who is sort of obligated to play at least half a dozen of their “hits” every show. Also, the fact that on a tour they play the same set every night. That would drive me mad.

I always have the “missed opportunity” syndrome. If we play a set that opens w/ “Shine”, I worry that “what if there are people in this audience who would love “Snow Day”, but have already written us off ‘cos they don’t like this song?”, or f we play a set w/out “Swamp”, I think “What if that would be someone here’s favourite song, if only they had heard it?”.

I’ve come to only one conclusion: I’m unable to stop myself from worrying about stupid stuff like this, so I just don’t let it interfere w/ what I’m doing anymore.



Spurious Comments

Me (Twang!, the cat writing these post, in case you weren’t aware) and Matt (the other member of Coincidence Machine) were commenting at the last rehearsal (well, complaining, actually) about the comments we’ve gotten concerning our music. Not that they were bad comments. It’s just that we’ve noticed that people do one of two things: praise our musicianship or: provide constructive criticism on our musicianship. No one ever comments on the songs themselves.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I assume it’s due to one very human trait: people our (possibly) trying to give us the responses they believe we want. Those who know us know how seriously we take our musical skills, so they figure that we either want to be praised for that (which is pretty cool, actually) or that we’re seeking advice on how to better ourselves (which I rarely pay attention to. I’m not sure about Matt).

But then it occurs to me that I may be bringing this about by behaving the same way. Like when I commented on the guitar solo in Orange Television‘s song “Bill Cosby” (which is incendiary) or Ronnie Lanzilotta’s bass line in Evolfo Doofeht‘s “You Light Me Up” (which is kick-ass). Both statements are true, but I think I may also be tempering what I say to try to give the listener what I think they want to hear.

(Amusing aside: I remember telling Howie of OTV how much I enjoyed his “Bill Cosby” solo to which he pointed out that he’s playing keys on that song, and the solo was the other guitarist. Kind of awkward.)

I think another issue is that in our culture there seems to be this idea that w/ regard to the arts one must justify one’s tastes. One can’t just say “I like the new John Wilkes Booth material”, you feel compelled to say “I really enjoy the more melodic direction Booth is taking, and the increased use of harmonic motion and modified tachyon emotions really makes their sets intriguing.” or some bullshit like that.

Why do we do this? We don’t do it in other areas, like w/ food, for example. When I say I like pineapple and ham on pizza, no one starts to explain about how pepperoni and onion is a superior pizza due to it’s combination of ingredients being more in tune w/ the frequencies of the cosmos (or some bullshit like that. At least they don’t say it to me.

So I guess the short of it is the next time anyone solicits my opinion about any music, theirs or someone else’s, I’m going to attempt to just let them know how the music makes me feel, and skip all the hyperbole.

If I’m able.


BTW: Coincidence Machine just made our new song available at our website. It’s here. We welcome all comments, including hyperbole.


D. Mystifying the Recording Process

Whenever I talk about recording I always feel that for the non-musicians I’m doing something akin to ruining the myth of Santa Clause for them. I feel like most of the public have this vision of a band getting together in a studio and just playing through their songs as a tape machine is running and the album is done. Some of you know that this is not at all what happens. For one thing, vocals are often done after the rest of the music has been recorded, due to problems with other instruments “bleeding” into the vocal microphone (especially if you do your recording in a studio that is just one big room, as Coincidence Machine does) as well as the fact that singers are so dreadful to work with that the rest of the band would much rather go out for a drink while the singer is doing the 17 takes to get their part (anther myth dispelled: quite often the vocal performance you hear on a recording is actually the combination of over a dozen performances used to create the illusion of a flawless take. Hope that doesn’t diminish your enjoyment of the next Muse record.) If there are backing vocals and harmony parts, anyone in the group not involved with these can usually schedule at least a week off while this is going on.

Guitar solos are also generally done later in the recording process. Mostly ‘cos guitar players are jackasses. Not in the same way as singers, who have to do 10-20 run thrus to have enough to patch together a complete take. Many guitarists I know can accomplish a good solo on the first take. But then they insist on doing 10 or 15 more, all of which are of the same quality as the first one. This could be considered a complete waste of time if it didn’t give the remainder of the ensemble the opportunity to go out for a drink.

We also live in an age where there are an unlimited number of tracks available, so in a studio situation there are always going to be members of the band who suddenly come up with the idea of adding a didgeridoo part to the song. Or how about putting glockenspiel in the second chorus? Or breaking bottle noises at the end of the solo. (These are always fun ‘cos someone in the band will smash a bottle in front of a mic, but then it won’t be “just the right sound” and there will be multiple takes of this. It’s a breaking bottle sound for crying out loud!) Usually after all these brilliant ideas are given their due and put onto tape (or hard drive) only a small percentage of them actually end up on the final recording. At this point it becomes hard to justify the hours of my life that have been spent sitting in a control room listening to breaking glass.

W/ Coincidence Machine we’ve worked out a good balance: “bed” tracks (drums and bass or drums and rhythm guitar, depending on the song) are done together, and then it’s usually up to me to take that home and do the sangin’, solos, overdubs, and sundry broken bottles on my own time. I then send these tracks to Matt, who then can spend as much time as he likes searching for the specific reverb that the track needs, or researching the exact compression the Living Colour used on “Information Overload”, deciding how much 3k hertz boost should be put on the second measure of the guitar solo, or floor tom, or whatever other nonsense I just don’t have the patience to be involved in.

Division of labour, just like Henry Ford intended.