That Band Post

A fine-lookin' shoegrass band

A fine-lookin’ shoegrass band (photo by Natalie Kardos)

I fucking love my band.†

We just released our first EP back in September and played our CD release show at the Whistlestop a few weeks ago now.

I never thought I’d be in a band. I’d actually given up on ever playing music in front of people again when one of my best friends from grad school, Natalie, asked me if I’d be in a band with her and the former drummer from Swim Party.

Writing, science and music are the three things that make me who I am. And music was the first thing I ever feel deeply and madly in love with.

I remember seeing the cover of U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky and thinking, “Holy shit. That’s exactly what I want to do.” I was eleven at the time and I asked my parents if I could get a guitar for Christmas.

Much to my surprise and delight, they did. It was smaller than a standard guitar and was mostly held together by lacquer, but I played that thing until the neck came off it (and got to smash it on the roof of my apartment building when my parents got me a “real” guitar for my birthday a few years later).

I so wanted to be a rock star – more than anything else I’d ever wanted to be. As a depressed kid and teenager, I felt like music was all I had. All through high school, it was my sole catharsis and my most trusted friend. It, like fiction, told me I wasn’t alone, that pain could be as beautiful as it is terrible. So I played and played and played until I could play along to my favorite bands (Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) flawlessly. After a while I could pick up most things by ear and translate them to the guitar neck.

But I didn’t know how to solo. My fingers were too slow. And I didn’t know how to write songs. I tried, but they came out boring and repetitive. I was too shy to sing my horrible lyrics. Too embarrassed to even play in front of others.

When it came time to think about colleges, my first instinct was to go to school for music. But when I tried to put together an audition tape I knew I wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

So I gave up. I found something else that grabbed my attention and went to school for that. I still played my guitar, just not as much as I used to. I eventually found science and threw myself full bore at that, and I forgot about music for a while.

It wasn’t until grad school when everything started falling apart that I turned back to music. I tried to write songs again, to use music as as I had in high school – as a carrot to get me through the really hard days. Part of me still wanted to be a rock star, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the work – to learn the theory behind the stuff that was mostly intuitive. I tried to join bands to varying disastrous effect. I beat myself up for having played guitar now for over a decade and not being better than I was.

I turned back to writing, which I’d always done but never considered doing seriously because music had overshadowed everything else for so long. I made writing my carrot to pull me day by day out of grad school and depression, and set about figuring out how the fuck to do that.

A wondrous thing happened: for the first time ever, I was playing music without any kind of end goal. I started playing in front of other people more. I sang in the car constantly, and would occasionally surprise myself at being able to sing along to somewhat complex songs. I started singing in karaoke bars in LA for shits and giggles. I bought a ukulele after being handed one in Australia – it had been so long since I’d had an instrument in my hands that I didn’t know how to play, I became addicted all over again. I learned how to play it. I brought it to parties and sang songs with friends and for friends. I bought a banjo on a whim after overly romanticizing a scene in a movie. I learned to play that by kidnapping a friend/coworker to write a bunch of ridiculous songs* for folks who donated to a Clarion fundraiser.

Ooooooh, tip-me...

Ooooooh, tip-me…

I coerced two near-strangers into learning all of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so we could street perform it outside of comic con. And at the Adam’s Avenue Fair. And at Porter’s Pub. We did. The pub owner asked me to play again. I did a solo set of early 90’s ukulele covers.

I was having fun with it for the first time in my life.

Swim Party broke up. Petro wanted to make a new band with Natalie. Natalie asked me to come to brunch with Petro (whom I’d seen at Swim Party shows before, but had never spoken to since he always had his hood over his face staring down at his beer before going on stage). Petro and I talked about science and soccer and comics. He was friends with one of the guys I coerced into the street performing band. I mentioned that. Petro asked me what I played. I told him banjo, ukulele and guitar. He said, “You’re in the band.”

That was three years ago.

Between then and now, we’ve played dozens of shows all over San Diego. All of them small – mostly packed with friends and family.

We practice once a week in Petro’s garage (which he’s converted into a really sweet recording studio). He’s the songwriter and plays guitar and sings. Adam plays keyboard (who took over for Natalie after she moved to Seattle). I play banjo and ukulele.

We’re a weird little band where none of us have any idea what we’re doing. Petro’s a drummer. Adam and I are guitar players. But it works. Partly because we have so much fucking fun just hanging out and teasing each other when we practice (ask us sometime about all of our post-modern art contingency plans). Partly because none of us have any expectations about where we want this to go.

Tuning isn't an end state - it's a forever thing.

Tuning isn’t an end state – it’s a forever thing. (photo by David Crane)

In a way it’s the kind of band I always wanted. We’re not in it to make it big, or even scrape a living off of it. We just want to play stuff we like listening to for people we like hanging out with.

We’ve got a couple more gigs before the end of the year. After that we’re gonna start recording our next EP.

I still kind of want to be a rock star and jump around on stage and break instruments and work myself to exhaustion so all I can hear is the sound of screaming voices and sweaty bodies crashing together.

But that’s what SF conventions and my friends are for.

†I know I said I was gonna post updates about NaNo on here, which would have involved me writing a bit long blog post about the Cognitive Neuroscience textbook I read over the weekend, so you’re getting a post about music instead.

*I know I’m gonna regret linking to that, but it exists on the internet and I’m responsible for it, so there.

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