Sunday, 18 February 2018

Things that happen when you're in a local band

Suit-clad, sat at a v-shaped table arrangement in a conference room in Holborn, discussing sustainability and the measurement of social value, with representatives of the NHS, various media organisations, and a sustainability certification company, I rambled my way through exercises with marketing heads, mingled with big-wigs, and exhausted my resources of charm and jargon-infused networking hot air.

Seven hours later I was knelt down in a photographer's studio in an industrial estate in the depths of Surrey Quays, head to toe in yellow, purple, and orange paint, gesturing longingly in a renaissance painting style pose towards a bandmate as if he was some kind of biblical figure, whilst a fashion photographer barked orders at me.

I'm in a local band. This is the kind of thing that might happen to you if you're in a local band.

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Sometimes of an evening I will perform music that I have helped to create, to a room of people who have come out with the intention of being entertained. But by day I sit in an office and write about housing and the energy market.

It's a rewarding thing being in a local band, but it can also be tough, and there's a lot of stuff that goes on that people don't see when they are sipping their £5 can of average lager, as you struggle through your new song. The kind of stuff that isn't the music stuff. The stuff that means more people might hear the music stuff. Marketing I believe is the term people are now using.

The problem is, from what I've gathered, it seems a band breaking has a lot to do with luck and perseverance, and not really much else. It's a process of feeding in a plethora of ideas into a confused machine, like a 1995 PC that is still struggling with basic algorithms and spitting out hopeful results. You never know what will come of these marketing ideas, but you have to do them anyway. You have to type in the commands, in the hope that something might happen, even if it's not exactly what you expected. Promoting your band is often tireless, confusing, and very much hit and hope. Like the game Minesweeper before you knew what the numbers meant.

And financially it's less like a 1995 PC and more like one of those surprisingly enduring 2p machines you get at arcades and travelling fairgrounds. You seem to be endlessly pumping money in, and eventually you might get some back, but you're only going to pump it straight back in again, with more money of your own, or money that you've just scabbed off your mate Dave, who seems to have endless change. What you really want is the Tasmanian Devil keyring hanging tantalisingly close to the edge. That's the breakthrough. But it won't budge. It's possibly even glued down.

You're probably wondering when I'm going to let go of the horribly dated metaphors. Well I'm not. Not for now at least. In terms of the creative process, that's another thing entirely. I imagine if you were a successful band with enough money for it to be your actual job and with people employed to do all the admin and promotion, you could sit there all day dreaming up the best lyrics and most iconic guitar riffs ever to be recorded into a handheld recording device. But as I mentioned earlier, I spend eight hours a day writing about housing and energy, concerning myself with whether OPEC are going to extend their oil cuts to raise the market price. And when I'm home I would rather have a can of Kronenbourg and watch Blue Planet again, rather than write the next Stairway To Heaven, or even come up with a better example of a great song than Stairway To fucking Heaven.

Which brings me to the aforementioned final (hopefully) metaphor. James, my partner in songwriting crime once informed me that Paul Weller compared songwriting to fishing. You may not catch anything for hours, but you have to keep your rod in, and eventually something will come out. Which is a fantastic metaphor, probably one of the best, but again, it applies mainly to professional musicians with an established audience. It doesn't translate so well to a man who only dips his rod in for a few minutes on his lunch break or on the bus, searching for a deeply rounded lyric with tragi-comic undertones, that will only be heard by a self-important sound guy and an Australian tourist who's wandered into the wrong bar.

Moments of inspiration become all the more precious for the local musician. You have less time to harvest it and a microscopic platform in which to orate it. Even now, the ideas for this article have been snatched at on a train between Thornton Heath and Wandsworth Common on my journey home from work, my plight completely encapsulated by my attire: worn denim jacket and charity shop jumper from which sprouts smart charcoal grey work trousers and a pair of black shoes from Clarkes. I'm half a rockstar. Both spiritually and aesthetically. I wear my juxtaposition as a uniform.

But this self-knowledge shouldn't stifle the creative process, or so I tell myself. Even given the relatively small platform the band has for its output, I still obsess over every nuance in every song. Every minor vocal phrasing is vital. Every note matters. Because regardless of scale, people do still hear it. If one person is at a gig, they deserve to hear us at our best. If nobody is at a gig, at least we deserve to hear ourselves at our best. Even now, despite being told that humans now only posses a mere 8 second attention span, smaller than a goldfish, I still have the gall to try and single-handedly bring back long-form journalism in a blog post which nobody is still reading, understandably, particularly after the second abstruse metaphor.

Let me illustrate this with a real situation that happened to me. Whilst in my previous band, we played a local music festival in Plymouth. Our slot was around 13:00 on the first day. Not a great slot, so the only people in the tent were the sound guy and four of our friends. Then, about halfway through the gig, even our friends left, to find a bar to get a round of drinks, leaving us playing to merely the sound guy. At that moment an actual dog wandered into the tent. Then, for whatever reason, the sound guy left! So for a good few minutes, as we were about to launch into an epic middle eight at the peak of our set, we were literally playing to a dog.

Until this day I have never since played to an audience that was 100% canine.

It makes me wonder. Did Prince ever rip out a mind-bending solo to merely a German Shepherd. Or did Ian Curtis ever write what he thought was to be his band's defining song, only to realise the lyrics were unintentionally comprised of energy market similes?

I'd hazard a guess at no. The music industry at a worldwide and especially at a local level is notoriously a lot less forgiving nowadays. Sometimes it's enough to make you wonder why you bother. But the fact that I still lug my guitar and pedal board around packed tube stations at rush hour, more than anything, is proof itself that it must be worth doing. The rewards are all the more rewarding as the hardship multiplies. The reward and toil are one and the same. An appreciation of the absurd that Albert Camus' writing once instilled in me, through a long-winded parable revolving around the myth of Sisyphus, has enabled me to appreciate every part of the process. Bands have to learn to love the rock which they are endlessly pushing up a hill, which in this case is a sound guy deliberately trying to make your gigging experience as uncomfortable as he possibly could without employing a team of people to repeatedly mess with your tuning pegs throughout the gig.

And you know what? I enjoyed Minesweeper more when the numbers were just blue and red nonsense designed to be ignored. That unparalleled feeling of randomly selecting a little grey square that opened up the entire mid section of the grid.

And what's more, I don't want the Tasmanian Devil keyring anyway. Cos you can't feed a Tasmanian Devil keyring back into a 2p machine.

A few more things:

Some of my best lyrics were dreamt up between Thornton Heath and Wandsworth Common train stations. In fact, some of the best lyrics ever written were.

Energy market lexicon and music go together really well.

New songs should be struggled through.

Smart shoes, trousers, and a denim jacket is a good look. Particularly for an older man.

I wouldn't have wanted to write Stairway To Heaven anyway. I don't even like Stairway To Heaven.

And most importantly, even though it was only a dog, I like to think it was having the best fucking time on its own watching my old band in that tent. I could see it in that dog's eyes, as we surged into that key change, lifting an already good song to the next level, a wall of shimmering chords and a howling lead riff. I could see through its slobbering open mouthed expression exactly what it was thinking. It was thinking:

“I know it's only 1pm on the Friday, but I'll be hard pushed to top this over the course of the next few days. These guys are sick.”

The day after the EP cover shoot I sat there at work picking yellow paint out of my beard, learning that Norwegian imported oil was short that morning. But I did it with a smile, knowing that if nothing else, I'm a weekend rockstar.

Mark Beckett

The Fabs first EP "Junction to the Jail" is out now on Ganbei Records, available to stream and download.