Whip It Out

Back in the early ’70s I played in two or three bands. Did a lot of gigging, made a little money, had a bunch of neat experiences. Both of the bands that I was most involved with were composed of people I had gone to high school with. That made it easier to put things together, I’m sure.

In the late ’70s I was working for a fledgling music magazine called Keyboard, and I had a look around in the South Bay to see if I could find a band to play with. No luck. I answered a few classified ads, but what I encountered were either wannabe’s — people who had a desire to play, but were variously clue-impaired — or gigging bands who were doing commercial music of a type that I didn’t care for.

So I bought a synthesizer and an 8-track reel-to-reel, and got into electronic music. That was when I started writing science fiction too, come to think of it.

Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to play some live music again — something besides the local community orchestra. So forgive me while I think out loud for a minute.

What I’m finding is that the scene is pretty much what I remember from 35 years ago. Today I was scouting through the musicians’ classifieds on craigslist. My favorite ad so far is headlined, “I want to start a band.” When you click on the link, the ad says, in its entirety, “My influences are Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac.” And you play … iPod? Air guitar? Wii?

Most of the ads are more serious than that, but there are still a lot of people nursing fantasies. Further on down the road, some of the bands seeking musicians have, like, MySpace pages. I click on a link to hear what they’re up to, and it’s nothing I would want to be associated with, let’s leave it at that.

Starting a band is a tricky proposition at the best of times. This is not the best of times. For one thing, I’m over 60, and I play the cello. Back in the day, I played bass guitar, but I have no desire to go down that road again. For another, the community where I live is not a hotbed of musical opportunities. The phrase “dead zone” describes it better.

I have a very nice electric cello (and an amp), and I can do the thing with improvising and learning tunes by ear. I’m not an all-classical guy. Even so, I don’t plan on driving over to Fremont to sit in with some stoners (do they still call them stoners? I don’t even know the slang anymore) whose influences include Foo Fighters. Also, I’m not interested in playing in bars. There has to be a better way.

Three years ago I put together some backing tracks of pop tunes, with the idea that I could take them into a club and play cello melodies while the laptop provided the “band.” This is not a bad concept, and might lead to something more in the way of a real band, but at the time I was intending to do a sort of lounge/restaurant thing, so the tracks are mostly on the mellow, ignorable side. Only half a dozen of the pieces stand up to any sort of artistic scrutiny. The idea of schlepping a bunch of gear into a club and then being ignored for two hours started to seem depressing, so I never tried to land any gigs. But I do have these backing tracks….

They were written, though, with the idea that the melody would be played on acoustic cello. The acoustic has a character that the electric lacks, but it’s more difficult to amplify. Also, the electric is more striking visually, what with the flying-V headstock and the fact that it’s just a plank. People see it and say, “What is that you’re playing?” Not quite the thing for a supper club, but definitely a plus if you’re hoping listeners will pay attention.

Maybe I’ll sit down and revise some of the tracks to be more assertive, or more creative. I have a fairly straight-up rendition of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a tune I’m quite fond of, but if I expect people to actually listen to it, it needs something more. Like a snake charmer episode. I wonder if I have any synth patches that have a good ethnic double reed tone.

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2 Responses to Whip It Out

  1. Ron Greenman says:

    Maybe you should talk to my son’s friend in Santa Cruz. He has a one man band/act called Nervous Energy. He does the music on what I suppose is a synthesizer (remember I play the audience) and is mostly, I presume, concerned with the songwriting, so a troubadour of this generation. I’ve seen this cross-purpose/cross-generation collaborations be very effective. A thought.

    • midiguru says:

      If he’s a songwriter, then he’s probably singing. That’s a very different gig, in terms of audience response. Doing an instrumental solo act with a synth or a laptop … I wrote about that a year or so back (https://midiguru.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/always-insist-on-live-music/). There are difficulties, and they’re deep-seated, having to do with human psychology. That’s why I’m thinking of pressing the cello into service. People want to watch you wiggle your fingers.

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