Before I jump into my random memories as an aspiring Christian musician, just wanted to thank the good folks at Ex-Christian.net and The Wartburg Watch. It’s been a hectic, but truly interesting week as I fielded questions at both sites. Thanks again for allowing me the chance to interact with your readers!
Are you ready to rock?!…..let’s go…
So after a year of beating it out, trying to get some gigs, we actually were starting to gel as a group and had some potential hit songs up our sleeves. Somehow, we ended up being contacted by a guy who said he’d heard of us and wanted to meet the band. We had no idea who or what he was about, but anyone who showed interest was worth meeting, right? Anyway, this guy shows up at our rehearsal studio (it was really a basement with 2 tiny windows, but to us, it was musical paradise) and starts talking about recordings, flying to California to make the scene, concerts, contracts, gold records….this guy certainly had enthusiasm and it was contagious.
Turns out, that our mystery man had been a sound engineer at a major studio in California, and had just finished up recording sessions with Elton John. Considering Elton John was still reigning in the top 40 pop charts, we were very impressed and flattered that a true bona fide music industry guy was taking a look at our little rag-tag Christian band that could. He pretty much became our de-facto manager and musical guru overnight. He started taking us to studios to get us prepped for flying out to California and “making it” in the business. We were sure that this was God’s way of providing us a fast track to stardom, top 40 hits, and spiritual impact as the coolest Christians to ever represent Christ to the masses.
At this point, the main songwriter and leader of the band pretty much issued an ultimatum. We had to raise something like $10,000, so that we could book a studio in LA and fly out to make musical history. He was positive that this would be the outcome, and we were pretty sold on the idea, as well. Why else would God have dropped this music industry insider into our rehearsal studio? We were still only getting scant gig time, a youth group in the Appalachians wanted a band for an outdoor event, the local high school needed a band for the school musical cast party, etc….but nothing big yet…but we had faith, hope, and some guy who kept telling us that we could be great! But like so much in life, even the best laid plans can go awry….
It started during a hot summer night in a local studio….we were jamming our hearts out and recording three of our newest songs with our new-found friend. He pushed us hard from behind the sound board, he told us we were sounding better than we ever had, and we were genuinely having a blast jamming and learning about the recording process. But things went quickly sour after this night….
Our fundraising efforts were not going well, so the main songwriter started chiding us that we needed to bug our relatives for the money. We even had a 10 page presentation packet that we were handing out, explaining our “vision” as a band, and the fact that investors could use the investment as a tax write off. Yeah, for some reason not too many people wanted to give a bunch of late teens $10,000 to go to LA…what’s wrong with you people? Can’t you see that this is what God wants us to do…just trying to be famous for God here and all you have to do is give us your money! Geesh-some people just don’t get it……………The final blow came when my well to do Grandparents said they’d take a pass. It looks like we were going to be stuck on the East Coast for the foreseeable future.
Then came the final mix from our summer jam session. We had been waiting for almost a month as our musical guru spent his time mixing down the final takes. He finally finished and said he’d drop by with a cassette for us to hear. We could hardly wait! We were sure we had just laid down the tracks for the next big musical revolution. On top of that, we were on the verge of making it big for God!!!!
But the truth hit us after about 30 seconds into the recording….we didn’t sound all that good. In fact, two of the three songs were down right awful. I mean, singing off-key awful….The only song that was even interesting ,was a darker sounding tune that had a Pink Floydish type of feel. The music was genuinely good, but as soon as the vocals started, it was sunk. Our only male lead vocalist was a good song writer, but he sounded like he was singing with a clothes pin pinching his nose shut. This was not going to end well….and it didn’t.
Most of the Band’s reaction was to blame our new-found musical guru for not mixing it well. He tried to defend himself, saying this was just one night of recording and a rough mix at best. He felt it could be used as a base line to make better recordings….I wasn’t sure I bought into either side, so I stayed out of it. Truth is, I thought we needed more practice and a couple of singing lessons, but now was not the time to offer such a practical suggestion.
The listening party ended in a very terse goodbye in which we (the band) essentially told our new Guru to go talk a long walk off a short pier…in Christian love, of course. Not long after this whole kerfuffle, our drummer called it quits, saying he was done with rock bands. He wanted to finish his college degree and move on. But this was bad news for us, because he was the best musician (and singer) in the band. We pretty much thought he was an idiot for quitting. How could he quit when we were so close to becoming rock stars for God? That just doesn’t make sense! Oh well, his loss…because we were far from finished. Someday he’d be sorry he quit.
So, what does an aspiring Christian band do, that has just fired their only contact in the music industry, after pumping out a God awful recording? They go and hire an image consultant…
The Image Consultant
Ah…well…yes, makes sense right? Bad recording, bad singing, etc…probably means we need a new pair of Guess jeans? Oh well, we weren’t peddling in logic, and paying someone $350 a month to tell you you’re cool and could be even cooler, is the way to put a bad record behind you, right? Well, it worked for us…
Looking back now, I honestly have no idea how we even found this person, or how they found us? I mean, how many people at your local mega church on the main line, are out there peddling their services as an image consultant? But here he was, and there went our money.
You may ask yourself, what exactly does an image consultant do? Well, the first thing he did was tell us to go downtown to the hippest alternative fashion shops in the city and shop for a new look. I have to admit, it was kinda fun to go downtown with the only goal of finding a cohesive and convincing look that said “look at us, we’re a cool rock band!’. In other words, we enjoyed being flattered. We did as he suggested and spent way too much money (almost $1,000) on new clothes for the band. We had been banking some money from some recent gigs, so we shelled it out to find the new us.
Next, our image consultant set up a professional photo session. He told us he was hiring a freelance photographer that had done some photo sessions for Rolling Stone Magazine. I don’t know if it was true, but we took it at face value and it stroked our egos a little more. Our photo session was during rush hour, in a semi-underground commuter railroad tunnel. I have to admit, the pictures actually came out looking cool. Even if we didn’t always sound good, we were at least starting to look good…style over substance, but hey, it WAS the 80’s.
After blowing the wad to find the new us, our image consultant then spent the next month at rehearsal. Sometimes he would show up with this favorite record, make us listen to it in its entirety, and then break it down and point out to us why this group or recording epitomized cool. I guess it was supposed to inspire us in the way that authors find inspiration in the classics. I’ll admit, he turned us on to some artists that I still enjoy to this day, but at $350 a month, these were some pretty expensive listening parties. Other times he would just goad us on to be “sexier” with the microphone (a little risqué for a Christian band). “Be more intense when playing your solo!”-he would coach me, as I learned to look even cooler during my musical riffs on the electric. He even tried to get us to do some synchronized dance moves, but that didn’t go very far. Dancers we were not….but after a couple of months of working on our image, we were ready to go after the big time again….watch out world, we’ve had a makeover!
Some Big Breaks
Amazingly, we managed to scrape together a pretty decent recording session, in a studio associated with a regionally televised dance show. After getting a couple thousand copies pressed to cassette, we began sending them out to concert halls, music reviewers, and the big local FM stations in the area. Something unusual happened, we started getting good reviews in local music columns, local concert halls were calling to book us, and then the most amazing thing occurred….the biggest FM station in the city began spinning one of our tunes on their local rock show. I can not tell you how amazing it felt, to be called in person by the station DJ and told that she was 60 seconds from playing our song for millions of listeners! Most of the band lived together, we quickly called everyone we could and turned up the radio to full volume…and for 3 and a half minutes, we sang along, jumped on furniture, and played air guitar to ourselves blasting over the airwaves of the biggest FM radio station in the city . It was an exhilarating moment, and we all took it to mean that we REALLY were on the edge of something big-something big for us and God…
And the good news just coming…a few weeks after our radio debut, the same FM station called to book us for a lunch time concert that they sponsored in the city. This was it! Thousands of people down town, and they’ll hear our God anointed pop rock, to soothe their souls.
And then the bad news….our new drummer was going to be unavailable for the gig downtown (what is it with drummers?). We begged, we pleaded, but he said he could not get out of whatever it was he was doing. I think his folks were taking him to visit a college…for Christ sakes man, where are your priorities? We are on the precipice of major rock stardom, and you’re off and running to look at colleges? Whatever….
And then some strange news, somehow, someone put us in touch with the drummer from the Hooters. No, not the semi-strip club excuse for a wing place type of Hooters. No, this was the Hooters– a genuine top 40 sensation with a string of hits, Gold records, and world tours to prove it. Amazingly, their drummer lived in our home town and was not touring or recording at the time. For a very modest sum, he agreed to play for us, if we would provide him a recording of the songs we planned to play at our huge breakthrough gig! Of course we jumped at the chance and booked the gig….world, watch out!!!!!!
Why Do Bad Gigs Happen to Good People? (or how to go down in flames in front of a whole city…)
It was a perfect sunny day, warm, with just a touch of that east coast humidity in the air. We arrived with the biggest of expectations. We had been praying and practicing all week. We were convinced that this was it, the day we started to climb to the heavens and shine as rock stars (who also happened to be Christians). We were ready to rock!
As we set up, the drummer from the Hooters showed up and began to prepare and go over some of the songs. He was good, real good. I was also impressed with how humble he was and how genuinely interested he seemed in getting it right, so that we didn’t have to worry about the drumming. We did a sound check and the guitars were screaming, it didn’t just sound good, it sounded great.
Finally, the moment of truth had arrived. One of the DJ’s from the station introduced us to the lunchtime crowd that was gathered in the plaza. I have to admit, I was almost as nervous as the first time I had ever played… it was a big stage and there was a decent sized crowd mulling about on their lunch hour. Our fill in drummer was solid and we launched into our set. The first couple of songs went ok, but I could tell from the crowds reaction (or lack of reaction) that it wasn’t going great. At one point I was just shredding a guitar solo, but when I looked up, there was almost nothing but blank stares from the crowd. I learned later that our sound person had not been properly informed about my solos and had missed raising me above the mix…no one except the band had heard my solo.
After some polite applause, we started our only ballad of the set. Somehow, our lead singer got confused and began singing before we were done the intro to the song. This threw our replacement drummer off, because he only knew the song from a recording, which we had now deviated from and he was seeking an answer as to where he was in the song. Because the lead singer was dating the lead songwriter/keyboardist of the band, they did what all couples do best, they began to fight in the middle of the song. Yes-hundreds, if not a thousand people listening, confused professional drummer struggling, and our two lovebirds are exchanging dirty looks and barely off microphone arguments as we struggle to recover the song. Of course, fighting during a song means you’re not paying attention to the song, so more mistakes were made, which just sent our keyboardist through the roof, and our on loan drummer from the Hooters wondering what was going on. It was not a pretty picture….
We finally trudged through the rest of our songs. But the fighting and embarrassment had taken its toll, we were awful and there was no way to salvage the set. I remember thanking the drummer from the Hooters and trying to apologize for what happened. He was more than gracious, but I was pretty sure, we wouldn’t be getting any calls to go on tour with his band. The radio station never called us again and the enthusiasm for our band died down pretty quickly. Not long after, I realized that the dream of being a rock star for God was not going to be happening any time soon, so I quit and concentrated on my studies and on being a Young Life leader.
If there was anything I took away from the experience, it was that flattery and self-delusion can carry you a long way. It can also cost you a lot of money, if you’re not careful…at least I still had a cool pair of Guess jeans.