Fast Times: The Last Gig

It went well. Since it was my last show, all the little less-than-glamorous things that any gigging band has to do were amplified — can’t find parking, load-in is a hassle, small dressing area, not enough space to store gear — and I re-injured myself right before the gig, so I had some trouble moving around and really pulled a whole network of muscles on my left side on a guitar jump, which may or may have been evident. But I have no doubts that the audience had a good time, and I truly believe we put on a show worthy of a rebooking. That was kind of the point of this gig; before I decided to depart, it was to be the new beginning, getting out into SF clubs and rebuilding our reputation as a great live band worth booking. We’d kind of gotten so into doing weddings and casinos that we lost recognition around town. The band had snap bracelets with our URL made up to give out the crowd, and the crowd loved them — smart marketing when everybody’s drunk. You wake up the next day and you remember who you danced to. So we left a good impression and set up for future gigs — can’t ask for better than that.

It was also nice that so many friends were in the audience. I didn’t want to market the show as my farewell for the marketing reasons stated above, but I did let folks at work and in the industry know that this was sort of the last chance. Andy, Bissy, and Meghan have always come regularly, so it wouldn’t have been the same without them; Chris Kohler was there, who not only genuinely seems to like the band but has dragged friends to see us as well; I heard that Will Smith (the other one) and his lovely wife Gina were in attendance, but I didn’t get to see them; and the happiest surprise was that ex-FT bassist Tim (aka Chewie) and his wife Susan showed. Tim’s been understandably shy about seeing the band after leaving it, so it was a nice moment.

Kimzey made cupcakes for the occasion. They all had frowns on them. Six of them were decorated with faces of band members. The only smiling one, she said, was supposed to be me.

That was sweet on many levels. And I was delicious.

Fast Times: The Long Goodbye

This Friday, November 7, is my last gig with Fast Times. I thought about it a lot before deciding to go, and since I announced I was leaving about six weeks ago (giving five gigs’ notice), I have thought about it even more. Is this something I really want to do? Am I making a mistake? Will I miss it when it’s gone? What’s worse, abandoning my bandmates or staying and phoning it in? But these past five gigs have really represented the best and worst of what my time with the band has been about, and I feel I’m making the right decision for several right reasons — and one really big one.

On one hand, we played Black Oak Casino and I think it was one of my best shows ever. The energy was very high, I was in good voice, the audience was totally into it, and the mistakes were minimal and trivial. I had friends in the audience and I felt it was a pretty impressive show for what we have to offer. I love being on stage and playing songs with talented musicians; we really do complement each other well in the band and I trust my bandmates. If you’ve ever been in a really good band or a great sports team or some other group effort where everybody pulled their weight and relied on each other to take care of their part of the deal, then you know what it feels like. It feels kind of like invinicibility, like this is the way the universe is supposed to work.

On the other hand, I immediately realized…there’s nowhere to go after that show. I wish Black Oak had been my last gig. That’s as good as it gets, and in terms of my singing, there are no more goals in Fast Times. I can do all those songs again, but I doubt I can do any of them significantly or noticably better than I’ve done them in the past five years.

What’s more, this weekend largely illustrated some of the things I won’t miss. We played back-to-back shows on Friday and Saturday nights, which is something I’ve repeatedly said I do not want to do, because it’s murder on my voice and I usually can’t sing as well on the second night — I lose entire chunks of my range because I’m not singing from the diaphragm when I’m mimicking the original singers, I’m singing out of my throat, and I growl it up and belt and push and all that stuff, without properly training or warming up. That may not be the right way to do it, but it’s one of the reasons people like our band — “he sounds like the record.”

We played a Halloween show at a venue not known for live music; fearing that nobody would come and it would not help the band’s visibility in the long run, I voted against taking the gig at all. (I would rather stay home and watch horror movies with Kat on Halloween, or walk around the neighborhood dressed as a Ghostbuster). I was outvoted so we took the gig. About 25 people showed up to see us, 11 of which were friends of mine. It was embarrassing as well as stressful, having to load gear into the city on a busy street with cops everywhere and an active campaign by the city of San Francisco urging people to stay home for Halloween and not cause trouble in the city. This was successful, which means we played to an even smaller potential audience than on any other given night. We were effectively penalized for taking a holiday gig.

We then played a wedding in Palo Alto the next day. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was uncomfortable/exhausted and stressed. We were all tired, I was congested and my range was not complete, and it was raining all night. I wound up slipping in the rain and wiping out on the cement driveway. I narrowly avoiding hitting my head, but went down flat on my back. It’s hard not to think “I didn’t want to do back-to-back gigs” when random, painful misfortune like that hits, even if it’s not logical or fair. I found out when we got there that I had to play emcee after we’d specifically asked and had it in the contract that I would not need to do that. It all turned out okay, but…extra drama, extra stuff I don’t want to do, extra stuff that isn’t showing up and singing. And even that’s lost its luster.

Both nights we used different substitute keyboard players; this is a change from when we used to have a “no subs” policy in the band. In many bands, subs are common, so maybe it was only a matter of time before our rules changed. But I know from experience that if you want to be a tight band, you have to play with the same people. When you start using subs, it’s less about performance and more about survival on a gig-to-gig basis. Working with subs also adds rehearsal time as you train and retrain new people for one-off performances; I’ve always felt you should only use subs as a CYA move for gigs you’ve already booked where scheduling conflicts with the main players arose after it was too late. So naturally, I don’t think taking a gig where you know you’re going to need to hire a sub to complete that gig are worth it. It makes the band money — and I do like money — but gig money is a nice by-product of that band dynamic thing, and while it became a motivator, it was never my goal when I joined. It’s nothing against the individual players who sub in; it’s just counterproductive to me, and actually makes it less fun and more work.

“Less fun and more work” is pretty much the key phrase. I have been in this band for five years or so, on and off. I joined to have fun, and I accepted the work as a necessary part of having it. But when I started wanting to say “no” to all potential gigs, I realized the whole thing was work to me now, and the fun was increasingly minor. I’d gotten super picky to the point of no longer really being a team player. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. So I’m gonna go and do that and not inconvenience, hassle, or restrict anybody else.

But things like “no more subs” and “no Friday night shows” and “no more lugging heavy gear” and “no more not seeing Kat on weekends” are all small perks of leaving rather than reasons to leave. The main reason to go is that I feel like I just want to spend my energy somewhere else. The core truth is that I have nothing else to prove to myself in FT, and six weeks of ruminating has only solidified that belief. Failing on an original musical idea is way more interesting than succeeding at “You Spin Me Round” yet again. I proved to myself that I am a singer; now can I be a musician?

It sounds horrible to say, but I don’t think I will miss Fast Times. I do not say that out of bitterness at all. I could not have asked for a better cover band. But I’ve got a bunch of songwriting ideas that interest me, I have bought the URL paletteswapninja.com as part of a renewed commitment to that, I have a long-suffering personal project that is tantalizingly close to completion, a new business idea to explore with Kat, and I am trying to put in more creative effort at work. A lot of things are asking for my attention and they are all inspiring me more right now.

I left the band once before out of panic, and then I came back when invited because it felt right. I am in a very different mindframe this time, and leaving feels right instead. So, if it feels right to you, come see Friday’s show in San Francisco and help me close the book. No cover. Last call.

Fast Times Live!

I have had several thoughts that I wanted to share but don’t have the time to blog about. Twitter is becoming more and more useful for that stuff.

But a few folks recently said “I am sorry to hear you’re leaving the band, I never got to hear you sing live.” Well, there’s still a few chances — notably a Halloween show at Jillian’s at the Metreon in SF — and of course, the whole point of leaving the band is so I can focus on other musical stuff, so I’ll likely still be inflicting my voice on you in recorded form instead of in a club or at a casino. If I make anything I’m proud of, I’ll post MP3s.

But for those of you a bit further away who still wish you could have made it to a show, here’s a live medley I edited together, which was part of the band’s recent media kit refresh. This is straight out of the board at Club 88 at Cache Creek Casino from a two-night stand this summer, so it’s a pretty accurate representation of what we’re like live (though we couldn’t control the board mix and I was hoping a few things would be a bit more balanced). And now, it makes a nice audio time capsule for me as I exit.

Fast Times – Live Sampler 2008

Knocktoberfest

Tonight is a big charity event — Knocktoberfest, a hybrid show of live 80s music and burlesque dancing to benefit the fight against breast cancer. Kat and Kimzey did most of the heavy lifting, but it has been neat to be involved at the ground level of a charity event.

Full details on the event are here. And if you are inclined to throw us a PayPal donation, that would always be appreciated. Hopefully I’ll have some incriminating photos to share in the coming week.

Finding my other voice

When I was a kid, I grew up listening to the Beatles. My sister Denise, older and wiser, exposed me to a lot of classic rock, but the Beatles were, by far, the toppermost of the poppermost. I found I loved the middle period the most — A Hard Day’s Night and Help! through Sgt. Pepper. When I taught myself to play guitar, it was with a Beatles songbook that I’d found at a neighborhood yard sale. Seven chords unlocked a full third of the Beatles’ entire recorded output — what a thrill! Pete Townshend and Billy Joel offered even more polished songwriting examples; I particularly liked 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, which wears its Beatles influence on its record sleeve. Side dishes of novelty acts like Spike Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Tom Lehrer (in that order, from grade school through high school) gave my musical outlook a funny spin.

College brought Kat, and Kat brought Barenaked Ladies. This was the first potent mix of my influences — funny pop culture and brilliant pop songcraft. Every time I heard a song like “If I Had $1,000,000” or “Grade 9,” I said “I wish I’d written that.” I didn’t necessarily think I could; I just wished I had. Most people found BNL through “One Week” but I’d been following the band for almost 10 years by that point; that was the least of their accomplishments to me. Meanwhile, I finally got to play live with a band of friends, doing covers at backyard parties.

California brought Andy, who shared my love for the clever pop songwriting in bands like Toy Matinee (another of my sister’s recommendations) and Fountains of Wayne (which I didn’t take to right away, but Andy got immediately). And more and more, I found myself thinking, “God, I wish I could write that.” And I realized I had not only a dusty four-track, but a folder full of half-written songs, half-baked ideas, and half-clever turns of phrase. And there it sat, because I was afraid of it.

Soon it became a question — or rather, an excuse — of gear. “Oh, I can’ t write my own stuff because not only will it suck, but this four-track is nasty! I don’t have a good microphone! I need a mixer! I don’t have a good way to record my guitar!” So I made that last as long as I could, and extended it even further by focusing on Fast Times — a gigging cover band with good shows and enough additional income to feed the gear addiction. As a cover band, FT gave me everything I wanted.

I joined Fast Times to prove to myself that I could do it. I lost confidence in my voice after high school and didn’t get it back until I started screwing around with karaoke. Could I sing in a gigging band? With enough practice and the right people, the answer turned out to be yes. And it turned out to be yes a long time ago. In fact, I left the band about three years ago in a life panic, then came back 10 months later when invited to return. (It got comfortable enough that Jude and I spun off another cover project, Palette-Swap Ninja, which I still find creatively rewarding.) All told it’s been four or five years.

In that time, I’ve heard even more Fountains of Wayne, plus Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, OK Go, Jonathan Coulton…power pop, pop-punk, clever songwriters. More talented people I wanted to be, more inspiring songs I wish I had written. And that includes creative personal friends like Chris Mitra and Joe Iadanza, both of whom I made music with casually and socially, and both of whom sat down and did exactly what I have always wanted — but been too comfortable, distracted, or simply afraid — to do.

So I guess it’s time to try. I’m stepping out of Fast Times because I do not want to be buried with a folder of ideas; I want to be buried with a CD of them. I proved what I set out to prove to myself with FT and I feel like it’s just time to prove something else. As my gaming friends will understand best: I finished the campaign and I got all the Achievements I think I’m going to get. It’s a great game; I just would like to play some other ones now. I’ll let you know when my last full-time gig is, and I’ve been invited to sub with the band when they need a male vocalist, which sounds good to me.

I have a good eight or nine song concepts that are ready to go without even digging through the scraps in the folder; I have all the gear I need (and then some); and now I will have the time — and more importantly, the mental space — to make my own music.

I don’t really care right now if other people like the songs I wind up writing. I just want them to exist.

The Nomad returns

The little blue Fernandes Nomad Deluxe that survived our studio fire is finally back in my hands. I think the only reason it survived is its hardshell case, which I didn’t get until two years ago. The guitar’s electronics and built-in effects and speaker are just fine; you’d never know it was through such an ordeal. Bistie cleaned it up a little bit for me, which was very nice of him, but it still needs some love and TLC. Seems that when you combine the oils from your hand with the water from the fire hoses, well, you get rust.

That’s both on the strings, which are obviously easily replaced, and the frets, which are obviously not. Plus, that wood needs a good cleaning.

I called Greg, who has always been cool about sharing guitar knowledge, and told him what I thought I should do. He confirmed: Tape the fretboard off with masking tape so the frets are the only things showing.

With the strings removed, you can see the rust pretty clearly, along with just dirt and residue that has collected around the strings. But with some 0000 steel wool and very little elbow grease, the frets clean up pretty quickly. Compare the scrubbed ones on the right to the ones I haven’t touched yet on the left:

If they shine, they’re fine.

Studio fire aftermath

If you’d like to see a miracle, I have some photographic proof. This is our gear, after a fire:

That’s our PA and power amps, powered up and working. You can see from the road cases that they’ve been through something nasty, but they did make it through. We’re floored and very grateful. This would have been the toughest to replace.

We lost the rest of that drum kit, all our cables, our mic stands, mics, some amps, one of the subwoofers, our main 15″ speakers, our entire monitor system and wedges, and of course, all the banners, flyers, and memorabilia we’ve ever put up in the space to make it feel like home. Some items are still being looked at; Bistie’s POD may be operational if the water from the fire hoses didn’t damage it. But miraculously, guitars that were in cases — including my little Fernandes Nomad, apparently — survived. The cases are toast but that’s kind of their job, isn’t it? Disaster protection. If my case melted but saved the guitar in the process, I’ll be very happy indeed.

This weekend the band is cleaning everything. Tuesday we’re going to have a run-through with our recovered gear plus everybody’s personal replacement gear filling in what’s missing (I have a PA of my own with 15″ mains, so they’re going back into service for the band) and then we have a wedding gig on the 6th.  Not quite like nothing ever happened, but at least we’re not going to lose any gigs. And the gigs will pay for replacement gear.

I already ordered a new Nomad case. I’ll probably get a new mic too, ’cause I liked the old one.

And the beat goes on.

Our studio burninated

Our rehearsal space caught fire yesterday. Um, great catch?

Our guitarist runs the studios/owns the business. He doesn’t know how much of our gear is toast but we are being realistic and assuming it’s all damaged and needs to be replaced. I had one guitar in there — a Nomad Deluxe — which was there for utility and convenience. We aren’t allowed in so we don’t know what we’ve lost. Full drum kit, PA, monitors, microphones, keyboard, amps and guitars…gotta assume it’s all gone and consider anything that’s not to be a blessing. We’ll likely rent for our next wedding gig.

I guess I’m lucky that I’ve been playing as long as I have and I’ve never had anything like this happen before — nothing stolen, nothing burned, nothing run over, etc. I’ll take it as inevitable and hopefully we can rebuild and upgrade. I still have my old PA so we will probably use that to supplement the bassist’s PA.

As the Band Turns…

Did you ever think something was going to be an awesome idea, then once you started working on that idea, you totally lost interest and thought it was all a mistake? The Radio Waves was kind of like that for me. The concept was simple: All the people from Fast Times playing the best/most popular songs from Fast Times, plus big hits from the 70s, 90s, and now, packaged under a different name with a different stage look. That sounded awesome. We all like playing together, our experience is a huge benefit, and we’re remarkably compatible as musicians. It’s a solid line-up. And it frankly sounded like easy money, too — our agency was thrilled to hear we wanted to do it because they wanted to book us.

Then I realized, as we discussed the thing and got deeper into rehearsals…that’s a wedding band. And no disrespect to wedding bands, but there are a million of them, and they are all interchangeable. After working on RW for about three months, I simply realized I was bored and not looking forward to the end product. There was no creative challenge, nothing that set this band apart from any other band. I like disco a lot, actually, but the idea of playing it over and over again to faceless corporate clients and bitchy brides made me cringe — especially when I’m looking at all these other half-done projects on my plate. Palette-Swap Ninja is in need of my attention, as two song ideas are waiting for me to develop them.  I always have my own song ideas that I’m afraid to develop. And I have non-musical ideas that I’m working on that I really want to invest time in. All of those are more creatively rewarding than covering “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate.

So with a month to go before we are supposed to be gig-ready, I told the band I simply wasn’t interested any more. I figured they would kick me out but the guitarist said “I’m glad you said something — I’m not feeling this either. I don’t know what our vision is for this thing and it’s hard to motivate myself to learn the material.”

We had a big band meeting at the FT gig at Black Oak Casino last night and we discussed options. With so many other local bands starting out as 80s acts and expanding exactly the way RW was supposed to do…we realized, doesn’t that leave this niche to us? Why not be the best 80s act we can be, and finish up the half-done website, half-done demos, and half-done DVD to get ourselves out there as the best pure 80s act in the Bay Area? If that means less gigs, so be it — I have a lot going on and I’d rather feel fulfilled by playing fewer, better shows than dragging my ass around every weekend feeling a strange sense of dread about playing Beyonce and Neil Diamond.

So, hopefully I’ll have a new Fast Times website to share in about two months or so. And out of this discussion came the idea for another “extension act” from FT that, to me, sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. I won’t say anything else until we find out if it will work, but I feel like I dodged a bullet with Radio Waves. What’s the point of busting your ass to create a band you don’t even want to be in?

To celebrate the death of Radio Waves and the rebirth of Fast Times, we played “Copacabana” at the end of the night. That song, we nailed. You shoulda been there.