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Things I Have Learned

Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: The Critic's Guide To Being In A Band
Andrew Mueller , March 16th, 2016 10:19

Andrew Mueller is a travel writer, foreign correspondent, columnist, pundit and author. He has also been a rock critic for donkey's and has been in a country rock band The Blazing Zoo for nigh on a decade. We asked him if the former had given him any insights into the latter...

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When Theodore Roosevelt unburdened himself of that oration that is forever being quoted by pompous, self-pleased blowhards – you know the one, about how it is not the critic who counts, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, spending himself in a worthy cause, etc – he wasn’t thinking about the relationship between rock journalists and rock musicians (like, self-evidently – he gave the speech in 1910.) But the United States’ 26th president had unwittingly presaged the annoyingly persistent wisdom that rock journalists are nought but frustrated musicians.

This is not only untrue, it’s also a false opposition, as if any and all music is inherently superior to any and all writing about music: it seems obvious enough that the best writing about music is of considerably greater value than the worst music. But for those of us who have attempted to both write about music and make it ourselves, it’s worth at least considering if the one teaches you much about the other, and vice versa.

I’ve written about music for ages, for a variety of publications. For a little less than the last decade, I have also played sporadically in a country-ish band called The Blazing Zoos. Our complete foundation myth may be gleaned from the most recent reissue of my still-available book, Rock & Hard Places, and a rollicking read it is, as well, including exotic locations (Nashville, Libya, Cameroon, Albania), an unlikely cast, and an honest-to-goodness car chase.

But the eve of the release of our second album, Chocks Away, seemed a good time to consider what I’ve learned about being a guy in a band which may be/might have been of use to a guy who writes about bands.

Soundchecks Are Bullshit

There really are few joys to compare with a suspicion confirmed. I refuse to even start calculating the cumulative hours I’ve logged, as a touring rock journalist, idling up the back of some empty, echoing venue in the drab pre-gig hours, as some or other drummer hits their floor tom three million times to confirm that it sounds like a fucking floor tom, or a guitarist fidgets interminably with his pedals to make adjustments to his sound which would not be noticed by any passing bat. Here’s how to soundcheck. Step one: plug everything in. Step two: confirm that it all works. Step three: take a couple of whacks at that intro you all keep ballsing up. Total: ten minutes, tops.

Rehearsals Are Fantastic Value

Suppose you wish to spend an evening with three of your friends, and suppose you have each allocated a budget for this in the vicinity of twenty quid. You’ll all get to buy one round, and perhaps split a packet of crisps, in some ghastly pub. That same money rents you a top-notch rehearsal room for four or five hours, and the attendant license to make as much noise as you like, attempt ill-advised cover versions (“Could we try Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted: Dead Or Alive’ as a sort of grunge rockabilly thing?” “I quit.”) and if all else fails, get some constructive work done.

Drummer Jokes Aren’t Funny

I mean, they are, but they’re rooted in a grossly erroneous assumption that drummers are dispensable, interchangeable, trivial. Drummers actually have the most important and most difficult job in any band, on the grounds that while anybody else on stage can style out or otherwise obscure a mistake, especially if the songs aren’t familiar to the audience, if a drummer loses it, the whole room knows instantly.

Our drummer not only never loses it, he also owns a van, so Jesus Jones better give him back when they’re done with him.

Having A Woman In The Band Will Make You Hate Men

The Blazing Zoos’ bassplayer is female, a fact which has not been lost on certain attendees of our shows. We have curated a rich and treasured, if entirely horrifying, catalogue of Things Blokes Say To Lara. All-time favourite was, in fairness, an attempted compliment: “There’s men who couldn’t have done what you’ve done tonight. Men.” (And technically accurate, one supposes, given that the overwhelming majority of men cannot play the bass at all.) The close runner-up is the breezy one-two: “You know, when I saw your band had a girl bass player, obviously I thought you’d be terrible, but you’re pretty good. Word of advice, though – lose the Ugg boots.” Similar bleak insight into the human condition may be gleaned by deploying, as we occasionally have, a black keyboardist. This will enable you to learn that in the Wiltshire hamlet of Chippenham, “Hey, I’ve been to Kenya,” serves as an introductory chat-up line. Norman is from Hastings.

All Bands Have Their Own Dialect; Most Are, However, Very Similar

Before forming my own band, I had spent time with many others, and had observed that they all communicated with each other in a language largely comprised of sitcom quotes and abstruse in-jokes – and, in an especially meta phenomenon, excerpts from This Is Spinal Tap. I am able to report that even with the loftiest of intentions, this appears to be inescapable. We are four erudite, thoughtful people nonetheless capable of spending hours playing a driving game called “Horse!” – it involves shouting “Horse!” when you see a horse, for which you get one point, though you lose a point if the thing at which you shouted “Horse!” turns out not to have been a horse – and of naming their new album after a line from Blackadder Goes Forth.

It’s Perfectly Possible To Play A Great Show In An Empty Room

We have, several times. And you wouldn’t know if we hadn’t, because you weren’t there.

You Can Get Really Sick Of Your Own Songs

Yes, yes, and so can the audience, but seriously. It comes and goes, but there are times when, far from reconnecting yourself with the sentiments that inspired the work in order to ignite the performance, and so on, your internal monologue as you sing consists largely of, “Christ alive, who wrote this crap?” We possess the advantage, obviously, that nobody much cares if we ditch one or two which are annoying or boring us. Many artists do not have this luxury, and many must be the great name singing their great songs while thinking, “Fuck me, not even halfway through this overwrought mawkish hogwash yet,” and, “I wonder if the hotel bar is still open.”

It’s Probably Best Not To Over-Explain Things

There’s a song on the new album called 'Bob Chitty’s Blues'. It’s an imagined internal monologue from the perspective of the titular Australian Rules footballer, who captained Carlton to victory over South Melbourne in the 1945 Grand Final. This match has passed into legend as “The Bloodbath”, an exposition of violence sensational even by the formidable standards of my home country’s national game, and Chitty was the principal orchestrator of the mayhem. One popular explanation for the carnage is that most of the players had not served in the recently concluded Second World War, but many of the khaki-clad crowd had – and the men on the field felt they had something to prove.

None more, I decided while writing it, than Chitty. While he stayed in Melbourne playing football, four of his brothers went overseas. One was killed at El Alamein, two were captured by the Afrika Corps, and another survived the fall of Singapore and the Burma Railway, along the way winning not only the British Empire Medal for carrying a malaria-stricken comrade along 200 kilometres of track, but the medal awarded to the best player in the football league convened by Australian POWs in the Changi camp. You can see how this could give a chap conflicted feelings about his worth as a man.

It has been quite the struggle, as my sighing, fidgeting, eye-rolling, clock-watching bandmates will attest, to settle on a form of words which will bring baffled London pub audiences up to speed on the back-story. There are times when there’s a lot to be said for “Here’s another song,” and hoping they’ll look it up later.

It’s Impossible To Tell Whether Anything Sounds Good From The Stage

A corollary of the Soundchecks Are Bullshit rule. Some nights, you hear choirs of cherubim while noticing blood coming out of the ears of the front row. Other nights, it’s tough to understand why people are dancing gaily to what sounds to you like a garbage truck being backed into a chimp enclosure. On all nights, you will realise that people who can be honest in sign language during the first minute of your performance are your best friends.

The Crowd Is Basically Yours To Lose

They’re there, is the thing to remember, to the exclusion of the infinite everywhere elses they could have chosen to be. Whether they’re your crowd or not, they are not merely hoping you don’t suck, they’re willing to help you not suck, as their interests would not be served by you sucking (unless, arguably, they’re music journalists hoping to make an impression.) So work with them – look them in the eye, talk to them, encourage any engagement (this is where you learn that while this life contains few greater irritants than people who sing along while you’re in the audience, there are few more blessed thrills when you’re on the stage.)

If, of course, the crowd do just sit there and seethe at you with passive-aggressive resentment, as they did in that marquee in Monmouthshire that time, you have the option of writing a song about them called 'Room To Drop', and putting it on your next album.

Making Records Is Really Easy, Except When It’s Really Hard

'Chocks Away', like its predecessor 'I’ll Leave Quietly', was produced by Mark Wallis. Mark has produced and/or mixed and/or engineered everybody (The Smiths, Talking Heads, R.E.M., U2, etc ad infinitum) but most impressively from my perspective, at least, made several albums with The Go-Betweens, who remain my favourite band ever.

Mark, aware that neither our sound nor our budget encouraged untoward buggering about, recorded most of the backing tracks live, which meant that initially – given that Gen, Jeremy and Lara get everything pretty much right the first time – a lot got done quickly, the only hold-ups being retakes of your correspondent’s arrhythmic guitar parts. (Before producing In Utero for Nirvana, Steve Albini famously laid down the law that, “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up.” In this context if no other, I am somebody.)

The cake, then, is no trouble. The icing is where you can drive yourself loopy – and where you start to understand the value of great producers, who will diligently fiddle with the relative volume of a pedal steel part far past the point at which you can hear any difference, or still care whether there is one. Then there’s the infuriating faff of mastering, as every combination of format, device and headphones/speakers through which you play the finished product makes it sound completely different.

You end up thinking about great albums in a whole different way, realising that they are products of hundreds of tiny decisions, all or at least most of which had to be the right ones. It’s also humbling to imagine the point in the creation of the most imperishable masterpieces at which someone took off their headphones, exhaled, and said “You know what? Fuck it, that’ll do.”

People Are Often Pointlessly Nice To Bands

Journalists, as a breed, tend toward the sceptical, if not cynical. Being in a band has been a useful and heartening reminder of just how many people will do just how much for no imaginable personal gain. People we barely know, and for whom we can do almost nothing, and will likely never profit from their association with us, have offered us shows, lent us gear, carried our stuff, provided valuable advice, and helped out above and beyond the call.

One song on our new album, 'Still Up At Five', is a homage/sequel to the great Jerry Chesnut’s 'It’s Four In The Morning', best known as a 1971 hit for Faron Young. In the coda of our song is a quote from the original. I thought securing licensing for this would be no harder than getting permission to do any other sort of cover version. I was very, very wrong.

Here’s a way to give yourself a constant, knelling pain in the knackers for weeks and weeks and bloody weeks: attempt to chase down the rights to use a bit of a song which has been traded among different publishers for decades, few of whom who can be arsed to reply to you because why would they.

Eventually, in neither hope nor expectation, I tried writing to Jerry Chesnut directly, via a personal website which appeared not to have been updated since whenever the internet first reached Tennessee. Jerry actual goddamn Chesnut himself replied in minutes, and despite being duly warned that the chances of him ever seeing a bean for his labours were infinitesimal, sorted out all the paperwork for us – and did us the immense honour of asking for a split writing credit. I am unlikely ever to be prouder of much than sharing a song with the composer of 'A Good Year For The Roses'.

To Form A Band Is To Dare The Universe To Do Its Worst

It’s a daft thing to do. Of course it is. Unless you’re extraordinary and/or lucky, it will cost you far more money than you’ll make, and cause you to spend hours of potentially useful time trying to marshal schedules and logistics so four people can play to three people on a rainy Tuesday night on the same bill as a performance poet with a keytar.

And/but. You can end up opening for some of your favourite artists (and we have, among them Drive-By Truckers, Corb Lund & The Hurtin’ Albertans, Chuck Prophet.) You can receive inexplicable airplay in Poland (and/or on Radio 6.) You will go places and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t have (often with good reason, but still.)

And you may grasp, most crucially, the peculiar contentment of having created something which you believe to be good, whatever anybody else may think of it, or indeed whether anybody else thinks of it at all.

The Blazing Zoos' Chocks Away is out now, more information here

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Mar 16, 2016 8:35pm

So the comments section is open again?

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Johnny Nothing
Mar 16, 2016 9:06pm

All things must come to this. “You know what? Fuck it, that’ll do.” The great leveller. Thanks for a fun read, Mr Mueller.

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Andrew K
Mar 17, 2016 12:03am

Great article Mr. Mueller - spot on in so many respects. The times I've been in a band have been THE most fun, and also, often, the most gut-wrenching, tear your hair out frustrating. There's a reason I keep going back.

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Mar 18, 2016 2:17am

This is so sweet, from a notoriously, um, unrespected critic who mistakes his hobby for a vocation, and is so naive he doesn't realise that Albini is paid per job not by the hour.

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