I suck.

DisplaySomaLucas

Disclaimer: I’m late with this post. The following events refer to last week.

Sunday morning I woke up feeling like a crumpled piece of notebook paper— four hours of sleep is not enough to relieve the effects of a night of steady debauchery. Yet at the sound of my 9:30am alarm I dutifully unfurled my limbs and stood up to prepare for my solo guitar gig at the Afterthought’s Sunday Brunch. During my performance, I focused intensely on the music, and performed with a loose, expressive, nuanced delivery — yet I also made a handful of stupid mistakes (missing familiar passages, dropping the tempo, blanking completely, etc…), undoubtedly a result of copious amounts of shenanigans the night before. I do regret perpetuating the stereotype of the partied out musician, but sometimes I just like to cut loose with my friends. I disagree, however, with the myth that musicians play or write better when they are drunk or high; and I reject the romanticized image of the freewheeling artist who sleeps, eats, drinks, smokes, writes, performs, travels, and has sex simply whenever the spirit moves him. Believe me, I’m as attracted to this picture as anyone, but it isn’t real. Life lived in an unbroken stream of creativity would be incoherent— musicians (like everyone else) benefit from structure and routine.

With this fact in mind, monday morning I woke at 6am, loosened up with a chi-kung routine, drank a cup of tea, and practiced Jazz guitar for an hour and a half. I ate breakfast and then worked on the drum and guitar tracks for a Pop-Rock song I’m recording. After Lunch I took a long siesta, and then drove to River City Coffee to drink a cup and begin writing this blog post. Lastly, I enjoyed a pleasant dinner date with a pretty girl I met on Tinder (I’m not ashamed). On paper, this was my perfect work-day: I woke up early and engaged in the art (recording), craft (practicing), and critique (blogging) of music before some relaxing social time. In reality, I wasn’t all that effective at any particular task; I went through the motions during practice, didn’t record any great guitar tracks, and wrote a grand total of four sentences of this blog (easily distracted by fellow coffee shoppers). Overall my brain was sluggish from little sleep and I was creatively uninspired, yet I am happy with this day because I made myself do the work that I’ve set out to do. I know that I can’t practice only when I have a gig to prepare for, or write/record only when I am inspired, or blog only when I’ve had a great idea or experience. If I wish to make a livelihood out of the art, craft, and critique of music, I must make a habit of practicing these things.

Tuesday morning I woke again at 6am and repeated my morning routine of chi-kung, caffeine ingestion and practice (this must be a habit now right?). After breakfast I worked on this blog post, writing most of the previous two paragraphs. I ate lunch, took a nap, and then gave three guitar lessons in the evening. Done with work for the day, I went to Allsopp Park to play basketball and workout with my roommate Read (insert shameless plug for Read’s awesome new composting business here). I finished off the night by drinking beers and admiring the full Strawberry Moon with a fond friend. Another perfect day.

Wednesday morning I meant to wake at 6am again, but instead I pushed snooze a thousand times and slid out of bed around 10am, disappointed in my lack of willpower. I did some chi-kung, journaled, and ate breakfast while talking about the stages of life with my other roommate John (insert shameless plug for John’s awesome music here). I reluctantly practiced classical guitar for an hour and had planned to work on this blog, but my practice session flowed into a songwriting session instead. After finishing the song, I ate lunch, took a nap, and then gave a guitar lesson. I finally worked on this blog post starting around 9:30pm. Thus, I didn’t follow my routine. I was slow-witted and weak-willed all day, easily distracted from my work by internet articles and endless Tinder swipes. But ultimately, I did everything I set out to do: I practiced/taught (the craft), wrote a song (the art), and worked on this blog (the critique). I may have been disappointed in myself during the day, but ultimately this is a positive step. It offers nothing for me to be disappointed in. I am here to build habits, and even when my schedule gets thrown off a little, I know that if I am working on the art, craft, and critique everyday, then my work will bear fruit. Good job, Lucas

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” As I sit here and congratulate myself for my efforts at being a good musician, I can hear this quote spoken by Terence Fletcher in the brilliantly unnerving film Whiplash. While I don’t ascribe to Fletcher’s brutal motivational tactics (if you haven’t seen the film, here’s another quote demonstrating Fletcher’s pedagogy: “Nieman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drumset.”), I do understand this sentiment. To stop and congratulate yourself at any moment, especially early on in your musical development, is to lose the edge that could make you great. The combination of desire for mastery and awareness of where you need to improve will lead to growth. By contrast, contentment with your skills and ignorance of your shortcomings will lead to stagnation.

I had a wonderful guitar teacher at UALR named Michael Carenbauer who approached this point in a more humorous mood than the surly Spencer Fletcher. When I arrived at UALR I thought I was pretty good at the guitar— I could play fast and people seemed to like how I sounded. Yet in an early lesson Mike described what our goal was for learning any Jazz tune: be able to play the chords/melody, know what scale to use for improvising at any moment in the tune, and don’t get lost, all without looking at the music (things I couldn’t yet do). He said that “when you can finally do all of that, you suck.” There I was, a 19 year old who had been playing guitar for nearly a decade, being told that I wasn’t even good enough to suck yet. I was below the suck level! Up until that point, I had always been told I was really good at the guitar, and I think it was no coincidence that I never really practiced very hard either. Determined to at least suck, I consequently practiced and practiced until I could accomplish those tasks. Yet what I learned in the process of practicing hard, is that there is always something else to learn; there’s always something I suck at. This is what is beautiful and frustrating about music: the journey is never over. This is what leads some musicians to such great heights and makes others give up completely. I know that I couldn’t give up music if I tried, thus the only way I can be satisfied is to be conscious of where I can improve and continue to take on the next musical challenge.

I began this post thinking it was going to be about the importance of routine, and it would have been had I kept it up. Having lost my focus and abandoned my routine, I am obviously in a better position to write about how much I suck. The awareness that I suck is after all what compels me to wake up early and practice. What is often unacknowledged is that all great musicians, artists, and writers sucked at one point. Bob Dylan sucked, Aretha Franklin sucked, Picasso sucked, and Shakespeare sucked, but they all stuck with their craft long enough to become great. I suck too, but dammit I’m going to stick with it.

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Punks and Film

Last week was the Little Rock Film Festival (May 11th-17th) — the annual event in which the city’s cultural movers and shakers come out to socialize and see independent films. I put my normal routine on hold (as I am wont to do) so I could attend a handful of the festival’s films and parties, justifying it as a networking opportunity. Though I probably just wanted to get out of the house and see people, I did in fact end up meeting or reconnecting with a number of writers, musicians, actors, directors, program directors, and venue owners who were eager to talk about their craft and mine; cards were exchanged, facebook invites were sent, and gigs were offered. Little Rock is a small pond— if you want to get plugged in to the music and arts community here, it is relatively easy to swim around and meet the right fish. I can’t expect for my music to be supported unless I too am supporting the arts and investing time in meeting my audience and potential collaborators. So in the spirit of mutual support I’d like to express my appreciation for a handful of things I experienced during the festival:

  1.  The short film “The Dealer’s Tale”— a sleek and enjoyable adaptation of a story written by my friend Frank Thurmond.
  2. The short film “Monotony Broken”— I had no prior connection to this two person silent film, I just sincerely liked it and ended up having good conversations with both the director JC Cocker and the male lead Kristof Waltermire (it wouldn’t hurt my feelings to talk to the female lead either).
  3. The KUAR radio program Arts & Letters— I met the host Brad Minnick at the premiere of the previous two films, and he told me all about this wonderful radio show which features local artists, musicians, and authors.
  4. Cache Restuarant and Lounge— the location of the film festival’s opening night party, and consistent host and supporter of local musicians.

But most of all, I just want to talk about punk rock.

On Monday I saw the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990) at the Ron Robinson Theatre. True to it’s title, the film documented the rise of such DC punk bands as The Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man, and Fugazi, most of whom released their records on the local independent label Dischord Records. Some people sitting in the theater with me were audibly nostalgic, greeting certain people, pictures, and comments in the film with warm knowing laughter; many of them lived through the period, collected the records, and perhaps even saw some of these bands live. I on the other hand, having neither lived through this time (I was born in late ’88) nor listened to the music, approached the subject as an outsider eager to learn about a musical culture different than my own.

One thing struck me as encouraging: the idea that anyone can and should play music if they want to. The punk scene allowed young people a new avenue of musical expression that didn’t require one to conform to the pop-music standards of the time; you didn’t necessarily have to be an adept musician to play in a band or make a record— the DC scene offered a community of support for anyone who wanted to get on stage and make some noise. Furthermore, if you didn’t want to be in a band, you could make a fanzine, or engage with the band at shows— there was a way for everyone to actively participate in the music and lifestyle. One former punk rocker in the film insightfully pointed out that it is common in most musical cultures throughout the world for everyone to play or participate in music. In this sense, punk rock is perhaps more in line with the traditional communal functions of music than other Western music genres which essentially adorn certain musicians as untouchable genius superstar gods. I too believe that everyone should be given opportunity to play music, and any community or genre that allows for that is certainly doing something positive.

One thing struck me as interesting: almost every band member interviewed in the film defined themselves against someone or something else. There were few if any actual affirmative definitions of the music and lifestyle, but a multitude of “I am not them” definitions. Early on in the film, the first wave of punks defined themselves against the musical and societal norms of middle-class America. Henry Rollins, then front-man for the band State of Alert, recounted a belligerent confrontation with a muscle-car driving jock-type who was “probably listening to Boston or Kansas.” The implication was that this was precisely who the punks were not. As the punk scene evolved, bands began to define themselves not only against the music and behavior of society at large, but even against other punk bands. Ian Mackaye, founder of Dischord Records and then front man for the band Minor Threat, famously wrote a song called “Straight Edge” in reaction to the heavy drinking and hardcore drug use in the punk community— exclaiming in the first lines of the song that “I’m a person just like you, but I’ve got better things to do, than sit around and fuck my head, hang out with the living dead.” Yet shortly after the “Straight Edge” movement spread throughout the DC punk scene, other bands in the scene such as Black Market Baby arose in opposition to the straight edge movement, claiming the title “Bent Edge,” representing their open indulgence in drugs and alcohol. This trend of counter-definition (and subsequent counter-counter-defintion), continued as mini-movements like girl punk, positive force, revolution summer (1985), and emo ebbed and flowed throughout the DC punk scene; punks consistently defined themselves by what they were not.

This style of defining oneself and one’s music is ultimately neither good nor bad. Surely it can sometimes be counter-productive to be overly invested in trying not to be something, but deciding who you are not is a useful step in uncovering who you are (whether musically or personally). Furthermore, if you think beyond its capitalistic, religious, or cathartic purposes, Western Music has essentially been a progressive dialogue about what is possible in and good about music. Original music can either affirm a tradition or challenge and expand it; this has been happening throughout music history. So many of our culture’s great musical icons have engaged in defining themselves and their music against the trends of the time and were made greater for it (Beethoven bending the rules of the classical symphony, Bob Dylan adopting the electric guitar, etc…). And sometimes the greatness of an oppositional musical act is not measured in personal fame, but in the endurance of that act; e.g. the relatively unknown Grand Wizzard Theodore utilizing the turntable as an instrument rather than merely a passive audio player by inventing the technique of scratching. Music evolves through challenge and opposition to existing musical forms and methods. The DC punk musicians, with their many schisms, were simply continuing to do what countless composers, musicians, and artists have done or tried to do throughout the ages: challenge and expand music and art.

Either that, or they were just being punks. Which brings me to the one thing that struck me as problematic: most of the music was pretty bad, and some of it bad by design. In saying this, I do realize that musical taste is subjective and that many people sincerely enjoy what I am deeming “bad”— yet to me there are certain qualities that make some musical performances better than others (i.e. rhythmic accuracy, correct pitch, dynamic range, melodic and harmonic variety, etc…) which seemed to be lacking in most of the songs I heard in the film. So often drummers sped up past the starting tempo, guitars were out of tune, band-mates were not synced up rhythmically with each other, and there was essentially no dynamic variation (abrasively loud was the preferred volume). It was a deep breath of fresh air when the film explored the punk fascination with Washington DC Go-Go music, and I got to briefly listen to danceable grooves and accurate melodies. I understand that punk is deliberately rough around the edges, yet I disapprove when some members of the scene deliberately eschew technical proficiency in music. One former punk band member stated in the film that “there was this idea during the time that you had to be like Jaco Pastorius to be in a band. Well we knew we weren’t very good, and we didn’t care.” This statement does partly articulate the inclusionary nature of the punk scene (which above I claimed was a positive trend), but it also ignores the legitimacy of trying to improve at the craft of music. I am not indicting punk as an entire genre; of the DC bands featured in the film, I do really enjoy Fugazi. Yet I don’t think it is a mistake that they became the most famous and successful of the bunch; musically they were the best band. Their bass player and drummer (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty respectively) each had great musical chops and locked in with each other to form the tight rhythmic foundation of the band, and singers/guitarists Ian Makaye and Guy Picciotto were veteran punk rockers of over half a decade when Fugazi was founded who each wrote and performed songs with catchy hooks and dynamic changes. Some punk bands may embrace shoddy musical performance, but those are not the bands which succeed. Regardless of the genre, if you want to be a good band, you have to play music well.

As I said at the beginning of my philosophical foray into DC punk territory, I am an outsider. I’ve attended some house parties with punk bands, and even briefly performed with a punk-ish band, but I’ve never been immersed in the community. I admit that my opinions on this issue do not come from a place of deep experience or emotion. It is clear to me that punk rock is meaningful to a large number of people, and I invite any of those people to talk to me about what they feel I’ve missed or misunderstood about the scene. I don’t mean to temper my stance too much— I still believe everything I just wrote is true and am ready to defend it, but I recognize that my education is incomplete. I would love to hear from anyone with different theories about punk— feel free to drop me a line.

Killing Two Birds

At the dawn of this blog, you’ll remember (well, I remember) that my mission statement was to pursue the art, craft, and critique of music. Throughout my two year span of being a full-time musician, it feels like I have greatly succeeded in my goal of working at the craft of music; I’ve consistently practiced Classical and Jazz guitar, learned an enormous number of songs, played countless gigs, and continually taught private guitar lessons. I feel I’ve failed in the areas of art and critique; I’ve been terribly inconsistent in keeping this blog, and have virtually no original works or recordings to share.

I see clear reasons for this. There is a direct incentive for me to learn songs for gigs, and to teach guitar lessons— this is what people pay me to do (the craft). Conversely, I’ve yet to be commissioned to write my first Symphony (the art), nor have I been approached by any publications to write music reviews (the critique). Practicing the craft of music is essentially the entirety of my job at this point. After I’ve done my job for the day, like many other people I know, I’d rather watch a TV show, drink a beer, or go on a date than try to write a song or an essay. Furthermore, I have a habitual tendency towards learning songs and practicing guitar— these were consistent parts of my former life as a full-time music student from 2009-2013. During this period, I developed no such habits towards recording original music (the art) or expounding my own opinions on music (the critique). Simply put, money talks and habits are hard to break.

My desire to write music is motivated by something more abstract than money or habit. Although I’ve certainly fantasized about getting rich off of my own original music, there is actually no guarantee that I will make any money writing and recording original music. Yet even faced with this possibility, I know that I still want to make music.

My best evidence for this is the fact that my most prolific recording period occurred when I was in high school— a magical time when I wasn’t worried at all about money (my parents had me covered). Weekends and nights I would spend hours on end recording and re-recording parts on my red Fostex 8-track digital recorder for whatever song of mine I was wrapped up in at the moment. I didn’t do this because I thought it was going to make me rich and famous (I barely let anyone hear my songs). I did it because it allowed me to explore and release thoughts and feelings that were deeply personal to me; my songs were typically concerned with girls I liked, frustrations with high school social life, and my semi-secret spiritual yearnings. I remember writing during this period that I was so thankful to have music as an outlet for these difficult and sometimes dark feelings and wishing that everyone could have something similar— I wondered how anyone could be sane without an art to pursue. In addition to the psychological benefits I reaped from it, recording songs also satisfied my basic need to tinker. My recording process was essentially an extension of my childhood fascination with Legos: I would record the foundation of a song (most often guitar and vocals), then add another piece— perhaps a bass-line, then another— a drum track, then another— maybe a guitar solo, then another— a vinyl sample, all the while listening to the work over and over until I was satisfied with the pieces in place. I’d be so wrapped up in these sound-experiments that I would sometimes forget to eat all day.

To be honest, most of the songs I created in high school are not very good (I have the recordings to prove it), yet over the years I’ve also produced enough music that I actually thought was good (and enough is a relatively small amount in this case) to be encouraged to continue writing and recording. Most importantly I still have the burning desire to create and tinker with music that is emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and bodily meaningful to me. If it were not my job to play and teach music, I would still wish to write and record songs. I can sometimes get complacent, thinking that because I am getting paid for musical activities that I am following my adolescent dream of being a musician. Yet the truth is that my deepest aspiration all along has been to write, record, and perform my original music. I am lucky that both my college major and my current job have made me more capable of creating higher quality music, but I won’t at all be satisfied with this fact unless I actually make the music! I don’t need to make money doing it (even though yes I would like to); I simply need to do it.

And last week I did it; I completed a song for the first time in over four months. Furthermore, I’m going to share it with the internet world— something I truly haven’t done since I had a myspace page in high school. I’m not putting this work in the public space because I think it is particularly special (it’s not bad, but it’s not great); I’m putting it out there to hold myself accountable to my goal of writing, recording, and sharing my music. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the school of thought that would have aspiring artists only share their best work. My strategy is to share music as it comes and as I create it, despite it being less than perfect. With the knowledge that my music is available to the public,I hope to be pushed by a constant sense of “I can do better than that last song” to continue to write and refine my work. Furthermore, as an artist you never fully know what your audience will respond to— a track of mine that I think isn’t particularly good may end up being meaningful to someone else listening to it (or vice-versa). I certainly have my tastes and opinions about music, but I can’t pretend to be the ultimate judge of what is good (even regarding my own work); musical taste is about as subjective and personal as it gets. So right now I think I just want to try to throw a bunch of darts at the board and see what sticks.

So perhaps you’ve picked up on the fact that I am killing two birds with one stone with this blog post. My two failed musical missions (the art and critique of music) are now being resumed. I’ve shared a song (the art), and I’ve written about it (the critique). I should note that I am using critique in a very loose way for my purposes. I am not talking about a formal academic critique or music reviews. I reserve the right to do those things if I wish, but when I say the word critique in the context of this blog, I am really talking about simply writing about anything pertaining to music, and most often pertaining to my own musical life. I wish to use writing as a tool to explore and expand my musical life; perpetual writing prompts for myself are “what am I doing with music?” and “why am I doing it?”. Similar to my logic for sharing my recorded songs, I believe that sharing my musical life via writing will hold me publicly accountable to doing meaningful musical work.

I’ve recently picked up a small collection of Henry David Thoreau’s writings entitled “On Nature and Man.” In the section on aspiration, I read the following:

“Do a little more of that work which you have sometime confessed to be good, which you feel that society and your justest judge rightly demands of you. Do what you reprove yourself for not doing. Know that you are neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with yourself without reason. Let me say to you and to myself in one breath, cultivate the tree which you have found to bear fruit in your soil.”

Writing words and music are truly what I reprove myself for not doing. When I am doing it, I am happier, and my whole world feels more complete; when I am not doing it, I feel I am missing something, and almost everything else feels either subtly or overtly like a distraction. Given my long history of not doing these things, I am honestly a bit skeptical that I will indeed continue to write music and keep a blog. Yet I know that I desire it more than anything right now and I know that I have the ability to do it. I pray that acknowledging these facts will push me towards doing what I know that I need to do— and if you see me in the street, feel free to give me a little push in that direction as well.

So everybody, this is my blog and so I can present myself however I want. The temptation is to conveniently omit all my warts and ulterior motives. But I don’t think doing this will ultimately help either myself or my readers as much as if I am being completely honest. Throughout this blog-post I’ve naturally been showing myself to be pretty noble in my pursuit of music, and indeed everything I’ve written above is true— part of me loves music in an utterly pure way. Yet I’d be lying if I said there weren’t vain and superficial reasons that I do what I do. Part of the reason I want to write music is that I think it is a cool thing to do, and I want to be a cool guy. My ego loves the identity of musical artist and I want you to love me for it too. The same is true for writing about music. I certainly care about what I write, but I also think it is cool that I write and love getting complimented by people who have enjoyed my writing. Being a musician, an artist, or a writer all fit perfectly with what I consider to be an attractive image, and perhaps even more dangerously, they seem to fit many other people’s idea of what is cool and attractive. If I am not careful and self-aware, I know that I can begin to love the image more than the substance (we’ve seen it happen before). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. So again, if you see me in the street, and catch an all-too-princely pep in my step, feel free to tear me down a few notches with a swift verbal jab— not out of hate, but out of love for what I really am: just some dude.