What we’re taught, versus the real world

We are taught that when you graduate 8th grade, you are a 9th grader in high school.

But if we look at it like the real world, then it’s really a 2 year process.

7th Grade: You are performing at an 8th grade level, and learning to be a 9th grader.

8th Grade: After a year of performing at 8th grade, you have now earned the title of 8th grader. Now you are performing at a 9th grade level, and learning to be a 10th grader.

9th Grade: Congratulations! After consistently performing at a 9th grade level for a year, you have earned the right to be called a 9th grader. You are now starting to perform at a 10th grade level, and learning to be an 11th grader.

This is how it works in the business world. You don’t receive a job title until you prove that you can do it consistently. Job titles aren’t aspirational. You don’t get a job title because you have potential. You’re hired because you have potential, and your job title is based on your previous consistent actions.

I think the lesson here is that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, even in art. We need to prove our worth for 2 years before we receive recognition. Recognition only comes in hindsight, and you can’t wait for it. Don’t fall into the trap of letting recognition be the source of your inspiration.

The importance of being earnest

I try to stay away from making posts about the music business or marketing, but this post by Seth Godin really caught my eye.

He talks about what people find interesting, and how it’s easy to do things that our friends find interesting. But it’s much harder to do things that strangers find interesting.

There are so many bands that I’ve been in where I mostly just saw my friends show up. I was fulfilling the first part. The hard part is appealing to strangers, if that’s what you want to do with your music.

But the first thing to do is: be yourself. Be earnest.

When I think of “earnest”, I think of Mark Ostler and his Ivar the Boxer epic poem. The poem is about an immigrant to Seattle who falls on tough times. The fact that the story is written in rhyme, might be an instant turn off to many people. But if you were there at the reading, sitting (or standing at the bar in my case because the room was packed) in the dingy, poorly lit Funhouse, you would have heard a man who was completely absorbed in the art. On one hand, he was baring his own soul. A punk rock singer, speaking in poetry. A fragile moment. On the other hand, he was so incredibly wrapped up in the characters and the story, that he would pause and exclaim things like, “Okay you guys, this next part totally kicks ass! This is where Ivar kicks some butt!!” He was like a fanboy, but of his own work. It was infectious. That night, everyone in the room was caught up with Mark in the story, and we all lived the tragic life of Ivar together. Most of us where surprised to be there–we had no idea this punk rocker was even working on any kind of writing, let alone poetry. But Mark’s earnest reading of his very personal epic poem inspired our imaginations and suspended our disbelief. Mark cared, and so we cared. It did totally kick ass.

That’s one way to make strangers care about you. So focus on the art. Do what you love, be earnest, share with others–and strangers will have no choice but to notice and care.

Trying to learn like a child

Okay, so a deep thought here. Over the course of many years of tutoring and teaching on the side, I’ve noticed this pattern. I haven’t quite thought it all through to the conclusion yet, but here’s where I’m at.

It seems like children primarily learn in an intuitive fashion. They pick up on their surroundings and on what they’re doing, and soak it all in like a sponge. But this isn’t a deliberate action. It’s a matter of convenience. So they get really good at video games, and playground politics, and riding bikes. And they know all about what commercials are on TV, and who’s hot on iTunes, and the latest fashions. Ask a kid why or how they learned all this, and they will look at you like you’re an idiot. It’s because it’s all part of life, as far as they are concerned.

Then at some point in the course of our lives, it seems like most people start to disconnect and live in two worlds: work and life. And we have to deliberately choose what to learn about, and go and execute on some kind of plan to do so.

I don’t know if this evolution in people’s life is necessarily a bad one. Being deliberate is certainly a sign of maturity. Yet, maybe the things that matter to us should feel more intuitive, and should just happen automatically. If you have to go out of your way to learn something, then maybe you’re out of balance or disconnected. Maybe you have the wrong priorities, or maybe you’re unhappy.

Like I say, I don’t know where this thought is going. It’s just an observation.

Great Moments in Live Music from 2012

I was lamenting to Jake Weller the other day that I was jealous of people who can make Best Shows of the Year lists, but then he retorted that it was because I was playing shows and not going to shows. We-he-he-helllll, good point there Jake, and so it was that he solved a conundrum. So here’s a list of shows that held some level of personal awesomeness for me. Maybe this will mean something to you, too.

10. Primus

Ha ha, this is kind of a joke… but only kinda. I actually opened for Primus! Kinda. So the story is that I was in a band, Smidgen, back in the early 90s. We played in Southern Oregon, where we were going to high school and college. Well, fast forward 20 years, long after we had split up and gone our separate ways, and the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, OR, is looking for bands for their new second stage… and they actually contact us! To play with Primus! So we reform to play for that one show. It was awesome. A bunch of our friends showed up, and we all totally dorked out all night. Really fun and, of course, Primus put on a great show as always. Random note: they played an obscure King Crimson song during sound check. Later, I read that Les Claypool recorded some music with Adrian Belew, so there you go. Smidgen was (or I should say IS) huge fans of Primus and King Crimson, so this was one of those great alignment-of-the-stars sort of thing.

9. Metameric

These guys are just super cool and nice people. Shiplosion first played with them last year at the Blue Moon, and they were totally okay with us throwing a massively chaotic balloon party. The staff was Not Happy about the massive mess, constant popping of balloons, and all that, so we really really had to clean everything up spotlessly to make sure we’d be invited back. I think the staff was okay with us after we left the place cleaner than when we arrived. But hey, it’s the Blue Moon. No one goes there because it’s clean. I digress. The point is that Metameric is really thoughtful about their music. They’re a good balance between proggy elements, and just good overall solid metal songwriting. So it’s great that they were good sports about a dorky balloon party going on around them. A lot of metal bands are just too self-concious about that kind of thing, but not Metameric.

8. Nu Klezmer Army

Dude, the night that we played with them at the Conor Byrne, these guys were on another plane. Some of the most soulful klezmer I have ever heard. Bucharest Drinking Team had been playing a few solid days of Folk Life Festival, and then we went up to Ballard for this afterparty. I was exhausted, and I was setting up my drums on the side of the stage in a completely packed room–when the Nu Klezmer Army went on stage. I literally stopped and just stood there transfixed, while they proceeded to tear out my heart with their soulful klezmer crooning. I looked around frantically to see if anyone was getting this. They were. The room was completely in their clutches. I had to force myself to choke back tears and continue to set up my drums. Five days later, their bass player, Joe, was killed by a gunman with untreated mental illness. We will never be the same. Later, some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking music I’ve ever heard was to be heard in the intersection outside the front door of Cafe Racer, and then later at the memorial. It’s a shame that it’s in times of mourning that there is some of the most amazing music–but it’s probably of great importance to those who need comforting.

7. Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band

The night after the Cafe Racer shootings, Bucharest Drinking Team played a fundraiser for Honk Fest West. It wasn’t until much later that night, when ENSMB hit the stage (I’m reasonably sure it was them) and proceeded to play some kind of insane New Orleans funeral dirge, that I finally broke down in sobs.

6. Colin Ernst

At the memorial that I mentioned earlier, he sang a new song entitled Assholes and Fuckheads. I’m trying to get someone to record it so that this masterpiece can be shared with the world, so that the world can be a better place. Any time that life screws with you, you will sing this song and feel better.

5. Bucharest Drinking Team

It’s selfish to mention my own band, but grieving can be very selfish and that’s perfectly fine. We were playing a fundraiser for the family and friends of the victims, and we got permission to sing some Circus Contraption lyrics that Drew would sing, and I look out into the audience at the Tractor and people are arm in arm, swaying back and forth, and kicking their feet a little, and I can’t say how relieving it was in that moment to see all the camaraderie and love in this strange and quirky and excellent community we have, and I knew at that moment that we’re okay. It’s moments like this that are why I play music.

4. Fabulous Downey Brothers

Frenetic. Blue. Dorky. Numerous. Hilarious. Captivating. Fun. Electronic. Very, very blue.

3. Carnotaurus

Before the last song of the night, at the 2 Bit Saloon, the singer remarked, “This song is about a man being crushed inside some giant gears!” That was totally metal.

2. The Funhouse

This is not a band. This was a lifestyle, that is now part of the never to be forgotten past. It was a club that was shut down to make room for condos. I am all for city density, but I am more for community. Condos aren’t community. In October, 2012, I reached some sort of codependent peak where I played at the Funouse 4 times in the same month with many of my dearest friends. Then, on Halloween, it shut down forever. That night was a crazy party, where we proceeded to drink all of the remaining booze in the house and party until close. At the end, some new reincarnation of Titanium Sporkestra marched in with their all brass and percussion band and proceeded to show how heavy brass bands can get. I started throwing money at them. I couldn’t help it. Good thing I only had singles in my wallet, because it was quickly empty. Then they marched out onto the street, as everyone said their last parting farewell to an era.

1. Operadesiac

They host a monthly variety show at Cafe Racer now. I’ve seen almost-nudity, Microsoft Word art, people in chicken suits, a binder full of women, an accordion, a turkey baster being played as an instrument, elf performance art, puppet shows, accoustic guitar rock, shredded ballots, peep sculpture, and much more. It’s a great time. You should check it out at least once.

0. Secrets

I have to hold some moments just for myself as a secret. Sometimes music is not about community, but a much deeper, more personal moment–never to be shared.

Thanks for reading. I left a lot out. But this is what came to mind at the moment. Here’s to a year full of success and more excellent live music to feed the soul! And maybe a little less tragedy, this time around, please??

The Melvins: A Novel

Because my close and dearest friends hate me so much, no one told me about the Melvins tour diary until yesterday. While I think of the best way to exact my revenge, I will be reading each and every one of their posts.

A few observations within the first few minutes of random skimming:

1. I’m pretty sure I stood in the same spot as the Hawaii photos, just days ago. I felt the same way they clearly look: hot, sweaty, and misdressed. Right, misdressed.

2. I immediately skipped to Trevor Dunn’s last post, and was not surprised to find a passage as devinely written such as this:

She yells again, “Is that a vaaaaan or a buuuuus??” I continue to gape in her general direction completely confused by this question until it finally dawns on me to respond. “It’s a vaaaaaan,” I holler. She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts in a barely discernible drawl, “We were all of us inside tryin’ to figure out wut it wuuuuuuz.” My expressionless face betrays the mild disbelief behind my eyes. A million images flash after a pale gaze. What was that discourse inside the Waffle House? Why is this an issue? Who cares? What is the meaning of life? Why are some people lucky when others are born into endless despair? Would I rather freeze to death or die in a fire?

I need to read everything Trevor Dunn has ever written.

Trying to prioritize

One of the metaphors I keep running across is the 80/20 rule. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Pareto Principle. Much like any number combination, I started seeing it everywhere. Actually, I first encountered it in the business world, relating to something only partially related: learning. If you search online you’ll see articles like Pareto Principle, and 80 20 Life, and 80 20 Learning. It’s pretty common. Of course, most simple number combinations are pretty common. Search for 70 30. You’ll find a new list of sites advocating the 70/30 ratio in life. Number pairs are everywhere in nature, and we humans just can’t help but try to seek out patterns in them.

I am more attached to 80/20, simply because it’s got an old dude’s name attached to it–and there is a long tradition of the rule in the software business. You can pick another rule. But here’s the point: it’s useful to devote resources toward more of one thing than another. Or conversely, it’s useful to expect results from more of one source than another. Not always useful, but useful maybe 80% of the time. See what I did there? The rule applies to itself. Meta.

Anyway, here are a few ways that I think it might apply to music.

Writing music by inspiration, not consensus

In the business world, you have 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work on a specific project. Then everyone gives feedback, and that completes the remaining project. Of course, the original 20% choose what feedback is included, and politics can play a role there I guess. Hopefully, the good feedback is mostly taken and, more importantly, the original vision stays in place.

In music, you often have a different hierarchy, but I have found that it’s similar. If just 1 person in the band works on 80% of an arrangement, then the rest of us won’t mess up the source of inspiration.

The reason for this, is that a consensus is only best for finding the common denominator. Consensus is where everyone overlaps. It’s not interesting. It’s not provocative or inspired. It’s safe. It’s watered down. It’s already understood. It lags behind. It’s conservative. Music by consensus isn’t going to create something visionary and exciting. If you are a kind of band where all are creative equals, then consider each of you individually writing your own songs–and then getting feedback to polish each song a little. This is already understood in business.


There’s always something to work on and improve. It never ends. So do you work on everything at once? I would argue that you focus on one thing, knock it out, feel good about it, get that burst of inspiration of accomplishment, and then move to the next. On the other hand, you don’t want to go soft on what you already know. So… 80/20. Search up how to get rid of debt–you’ll see the same advice. Pay off one card at a time, but pay the minimum payment on the rest.

Last minute rehearsal

I was asked at the last minute to sit in at The Them’s final show, at the Funhouse in Seattle. So, I applied the 80/20 rule to make sure I was optimizing the resources I was putting toward the project. I think it went really well. That show rocked! Anyway, rather than memorizing and practicing 100% of all the songs, I put 80% of my resources into 20% of the songs–focusing on how songs start, the key transitions, and the end. I had a short amount of time to prepare, and I knew I could read my notes and look for cues on stage that would help me fake through each song… and it worked out really well! Oh yeah, and I also spent 80% of my time rehearsing alone, so that I didn’t waste the time of my bandmates who already knew the songs.

Cool stuff. Have you used this rule? What other rules are out there?