Trying not to overthink

The other night I went to see Faun Fables at the Mix in Seattle. They are Dawn the Faun, and Nils from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Both have a commanding stage presence, and strong voices. Together, their music can be very hypnotic. Their voices are very different, one high and sweet, the other low and a little raspy. But together, it blends. These are musicians who have spent a lifetime on the road, and live a life of performance, and it shows in the magnitude of their personality.

What stood out to me that night, was the fact that they could enrapture the room with just two people. Whereas most bands would have at least 3 or 4 people on stage, they kept us transfixed with the two of them. Sometimes just one person on guitar. Sometimes Dawn played a bass drum. Sometimes Nils would play a flute or a bass. Each song had its own personality, but with an amazing minimal simplicity.

I had to ask myself, can I do that? As a percussionist, it’s going to be a little difficult. But what would it take? A strong voice, compelling lyrics, a heartfelt performance, and some percussion accompaniment. It’s tough, but doable. And in fact, this takes me back to the first Shakespeare on the Troll performance in Fremont. They asked me to come in and provide sound effects and entertainment between scenes. That was a huge challenge because there was no music accompaniment, and I had the keep the volume very low with just a snare, a tom, some brushes, and a variety of percussion doodads. That was a huge challenge, and just as much of a reward whenever I did have a breakthrough. I had to think more about percussion as melody, and it was enlightening.

Could your music be distilled down to the very basics like that, and have it still be compelling? I’m not saying that it should be, and I certainly play in bands that have a lot of complexity. But these are the moments where I have to ask: is it a bunch of bells and whistles? Distraction?

At the very core, I think music must be able to stand on its own. Something in the very core must inspire something deep inside the listener and stir them. I’ve never seen Dragon Force live, but I wonder if one of them could play a song with the same intensity on accoustic guitar on a street corner? Hopefully someone knows the answer, and the answer is yes. My point is that I think this is a pretty universal exercise that you could employ, the test being: try to play your song on a street corner with one or two people. Could you draw a crowd of passers-by? If not, then you’re in luck! Why? Because you just discovered something important to work on. I certainly just learned that lesson at that Faun Fables show.

Trying to have some personality

I think personality is more important than technical ability. A lot of times it takes a lot of technical ability to truly express your inner personality, but I just find myself more drawn to the kind of art where the personality transfixes me. Sometimes an aspect of that personality can be really sloppy, or can be something that borders on a train wreck but not quite. Tom Waits just can’t be compared to Pavarotti, but you know what? They both have a magnetic personality. Or take Madonna: she has fully admitted that she’s not the best singer. Adele has both personality and technical skill, but I think people mostly just care about her personality. I can think of some bands that just suck, but they are all technical virtuosos. I won’t name them here. :) Or take the entire hard core movement. It was about energy, it was about substance, it was about the scene. Not about hot guitar riffs.

Don’t get me wrong–I think you have to have technical skill of some kind in order to express what’s in your soul, and anyone can be technical with enough practice. So there’s some balance here. It’s a skill to be able to express yourself properly. And that is above and beyond learning to play a bunch of fast notes in a row.

I’ve played in sessions where I’ve felt my soul getting crushed because I felt like I was under the microscope, and it made me self-conscious. And I’ve seen it happen to others. They focus so much on playing notes perfectly, and then the life gets sucked out of the finished recording.

I was just listening to some rough mixes from Bucharest Drinking Team. We recorded a couple songs completely live at Vera Project. No individual tracking, and not one instrument at a time. We just went in for a few hours and recorded live whatever happened. The Drinkies are the kind of band where the live experience is so much of what they do, so I  couldn’t imagine recording any other way. There were some sour notes. I overplayed on the high hat. Whatever. The personality is shining through, and I’m completely happy about that. So I hope I’m making some progress with that, finally. It wasn’t until I went to get some drum lessons that I truly appreciated this.

So what’s important to you? Personality? Something else?