A brief trip to Musician's Hell

Sunday. Time was I'd wake up after noon, roll down to King's Road Café or some other amazing L.A. breakfast joint, have my people bring me a bowl of coffee and some carbs, and read Rolling Stone. Maybe I'd go program a synth or play guitar later. Relax and enjoy the day. But that was a long time ago.

Today, I have to get microphone stands for our rehearsal room. No more fancy catered rehearsals with roadies to get all the rented gear set up. Our current set of mic stands has seen better days. I'm one of the only Pants that has both a valid credit card and is allowed into most music retail establishments.

I drive down to Guitar Center. This is akin to Orpheus descending into Hades. No musician I know enjoys going to Guitar Center. During the best of times, it has an ambiance that makes Best Buy feel like Tiffany's. And there's a vibe worse than a used-car dealership: You know you're getting ripped off, you're just not sure how. Then there's the "help". As in no help.

I've posted other videos before, but this one succinctly captures the essence of what I'm trying to convey as few others could:

Now imagine spending 30-60 minutes there.

I end up parking several blocks away. San Francisco. Love it. As I stroll uphill, I pass several tour buses. Apparently some artist must be playing a nearby venue.

As I walk, I pass by a long line of pasty, black-clad teens. OK. Must be some sort of doom/goth/metal/industrial outfit. The kind with long hair, distortion, and Cookie Monster vocals. Piercings and dyed hair. Fat dudes standing next to waifish girls with incredible racks. Bulky dudes with "Security" windbreakers stand on the corners and help the guys with the laminated passes find the side entrance.

I sigh. The good old days. I remember being the kids waiting in line. And I remember being the guys on the bus, too.

Into Guitar Center I go. I figure I'll go check out the state of the art in synthesizers. They're kept in the back room. Where apparently a single light bulb is working. Recession, I guess. In this black pit, there are no fewer than 3 keyboards with chattering, cheap-sounding drum loops spinning out of sync. I turn them off.

There isn't much to see. There are a few really nice boards set up, and a plethora of cheap synths that feel like toys but are priced under $500. Naturally, they're all missing knobs and still have the packing plastic stuck on top of their buttons. It's just depressing. I bust out some Erik Satie on the Nord Stage Piano.

Time to go, I have to get to the gym, and this place smells like old socks and flop sweat.

The mic stands are up in the front, by the guitar pedals. Guitar Center carries 3 different mic stands, priced at $39, $49, and $59 each. The difference? Well, it's hard to tell, because they're all in boxes. Ask the help? They don't know. But I do.
Pro tip: Cheap mic stands aren't worth it. Pay the extra $10 or $20 and get something that will last. The cheap mic stands will strip their screws and leave you with a floppy boom that no amount of Viagra or duct tape will fix. And don't over-tighten them.
I load up with 3 mic stands and flop them on the counter. Which is when the longhair behind the counter asks if he can help me. "Yeah, you can ring these up for me." We move to the other register on the other side of the store. Why? I don't know.

I am subjected to the "receipt check" and allowed to leave the store. Now I have to carry these mic stands back to the car. I pass the kids standing in line for the metal show, pass the tour buses all in a row. My arms are tired.

I miss the days when I didn't have to deal with this stuff. When I had people. Walking by the kids and the buses, I just feel old. Another weekend musician dropping cash on the boring stuff: Mic stands. Guitar strings. Cables. A strap.

It's like that sometimes. The road isn't easy, but it's the one I'm on.

Humans and Bands

Jay Reatard fired his whole band. As you can see, Jay's a class act.

Been there, though. Sometimes you gotta give 'em the boot. They have a job to do, they're supposed to do it. In Jay's case, they're not "contributing". Jay writes the music. The band is named after him - it's his group.

It's not easy managing a band. It's somewhere between running a volunteer organization and being married to multiple partners. A tricky balance, requiring a wide personnel/personal skill set.

Many bands like to talk about how they're "democracies" where everyone writes and contributes to the music, vision, etc. It's true some bands do work this way, but very few. Or at least very few successful bands.

Look, Picasso didn't have a bunch of other people coming in to doodle on "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon". Shakespeare and Stephen King didn't have some of their teenage school friends dropping by to scribble a few lines or tell them they didn't think the second verse "worked". Frank Lloyd Wright didn't bring in some "session architects" to add some parts to the Johnson Wax building.

Heard of "the auteur theory"? It applies to bands, too. I've met a lot of band members and musicians in my day. Hell, I've been a lot of band members and musicians in my day. Mostly they want to stand in the back and play. And sleep with the significant others of the rest of the band members. Sure, they're all egomaniacs, but not all of them crave the spotlight enough to do the work.

But they're still people. Messy, fucked up people. So here's the inevitable solution.

To be honest, this isn't exactly new. When The Pants were touring through Germany, Florian from Kraftwerk got a little tore up on schnapps and gin and started talking about how he was going to replace his whole band with what he called "Bandroids".

Typically, he was overreaching and way beyond what the technology could deliver - he talked about creating an entire label of Bandroid acts, eventually evolving things to what he called "maschine für maschine" - music by and for machines. Then he started talking about robot bicycles. I left him with T What?! and went back to the bar. That's all I remember.

Anyhow. Bandroids replacing humans - it's closer than we think!