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.

Muncie Madness and a Normal Day

The See on tour Day 6, on the road to Muncie, Indiana:

A couple nights ago we played at the Irish pub Murphy’s in Memphis on our drummer Tyler Nance’s birthday. Fortunately Memphis is Tyler’s hometown and he had about a dozen people come see us play. Unfortunately there were only about five other people in the audience. This is to be somewhat expected on a Tuesday night (and a Tuesday night in which we were competing with Bob Dylan’s AmericanaramA), yet it is hard not to wish for a larger crowd. A full room of engaged listeners is extremely energizing for a band, and by contrast an empty room can be utterly draining. On nights when attendance is not as high as we would like, our task is to avoid discouragement, and just focus on the precise execution of our songs. There is a strong temptation to not play with much effort or care when the audience is small, but to give in to this temptation is to give up a wonderful opportunity to improve the performance and, more gravely, it is to disregard the potentially life-affirming experience that can happen any time you pick up an instrument and perform music with others. I am happy that we did play well in memphis and generally do a good job of playing with high energy and focus regardless of our audience size.

Tyler told me he thought that it was the best show we had played yet. While I was generally satisfied with how we played, I felt like we rushed the tempo on a few songs and could have played with more dynamic flexibility— I definitely did not think it was our best show. Joe too expressed some minor frustrations with the show, and eventually we all began to talk about what went right and wrong and what each of our favorite shows had been so far. Jason thought that the night before in Nashville had been our best show; I thought the night before that in Chattanooga was the best; Joe hadn’t yet been completely satisfied with any show. It was strange to me that we all had such different opinions. Yet I realize now that we are all at least somewhat guilty of believing our own personal best show to be the band’s best show. It is a difficult but necessary step to take in performing music to focus less on your individual sound, and more on the collective sound. The worn out sports adage “there is no I in team” holds true for musicians as well: there is no I in band. As we get more and more comfortable and accurate with our individual performance, I will certainly be expecting us to improve the collective quality of our sound. This means adjusting our volume in real time (not with pedals or knobs, but through the tried and true technique of playing with varying strength/pressure) in accordance with what is the most prominent voice in the band at any moment— when Joe is singing, the rest of the band plays under his volume; when anyone has an instrumental solo, the band plays under that person; otherwise, our sound is balanced so that the audience can clearly hear everyone. There is no great effort needed to accomplish this— often the simple, but intentional act of listening more to each other than oneself will produce this wonderful musical effect naturally.

Last night we played in Louisville at a delightful little bar called the 3rd Street Dive. Though it was partially an open mic night, we and two other acts were considered the featured artists. The first two featured acts were an acoustic singer songwriter named Samantha Harlowe (who sung heartbreakingly vulnerable songs in a beautiful, powerful voice) and a great boy-girl folk-pop duo from Dallas called Zach and Corina. We were a little self-conscious about stepping on-stage and kicking up the volume after such a nice light-rocking, but we played through a short set and ended up being very well-received by both the audience, owner, and employees. A delightful couple named Darren and Valerie were kind enough to let us stay at their home.

Ok, so it has been about 24 hours since I wrote all that. Instead of trying to go back and pick-up where I left off, I’m just going to start with fresh thoughts from a new perspective. This may not make for the best narrative, but I had a long, weird, fun fourth of July celebration in Muncie Indiana and my mind is in a totally new place so…

The See on tour Day 7, in a laundromat in Normal, IL:

Did I just say I have fresh thoughts? Fresh is not the right adjective for my thoughts right now. Suffice it to say (I’m not going to go into incriminating detail here) that last night in Muncie was the first time on tour that I indulged in the proverbial “rock and roll lifestyle” and I’m now feeling the aftereffects. Obviously this “rock and roll lifestyle” is not a sustainable one, but last night was America’s birthday, and I am in a rock and roll band, and sometimes rock and roll works better with whiskey! I think it was a good moment for the band to cut loose and just rock out. Thus far we’ve been very deliberate and business-like (read: sober) in our performances and analysis of our performances. This has been extremely helpful in improving the technical execution of our songs, and should remain our standard modus operandi going forward, but last night was the right time to get a little wild. As far as I can tell, Muncie is a lawless land run by friendly, fun-loving, dirty hipsters— I didn’t see any police while I was there, but I did see plenty of thrift store-outfitted twenty-somethings drinking 24 oz. Miller High Life’s, playing tone deaf indie-punk rock, shooting off fireworks in the street, and smoking all manner of plant-life in the open air. Ergo, when in Muncie, do as the Munsters do. We did end up playing a great high-energy set and were very well received at the large quirky club Be Here Now. Unless you are my parents (who are probably reading this actually—hey M & D), please ask me in person about the riotous wilderness that is Muncie.

The See on tour Day 8, on the road to Chicago:

Last night we played in aptly named Normal, Illinois. With it’s clean, tree-lined streets, beautiful parks, and quaint restaurants, Normal offered a pleasant refuge from the Muncie madness. We took a much needed trip to the laundromat and then (because we were saturated with a good two-day bar-room funk, without a shower in sight) we went to a local water park, swam, rode some water-slides, soaked in the sun and showered/shaved in the locker room (all for only six bucks y’all). Feeling like a whole new band, we went to the venue, Firehouse Pizza & Pub, and unloaded our gear. The good folks at Firehouse then fed us all the free pizza we could eat, we listened to the two opening acts (an acoustic singer/songwriter with saxophone accompaniment, and Kyle from Normal band These Old Ghosts), chatted with some locals, played a stellar set, and came away with our biggest payday yet. We stayed at the home of two hilarious Normal residents and Nintendo enthusiasts named Jake and Alex. Jake, if you are reading this, I demand a rematch in Super Smash Bros. Normal was definitely the most materially nourishing stop on our journey thus far: we slept, we ate, we showered, and we were paid. Yet aside from simply receiving much needed sustenance, we were also introduced to a thriving community enthusiastic about art and live music. Normal, Illinois has been the most pleasant surprise of the tour thus far, and I can’t wait to come back.

Onward to Chicago!

Note: I had hoped originally that I would be able to post a blog everyday about the previous day’s show. But life is moving fast on tour, wi fi connections are few and far between, and hours when I could write easily get eaten up by naps, games of catch, picnics, pool-trips, warmups, and general socializing. I’m not complaining about this at all—I’m having a blast— but I do apologize to anyone who happens to be following this blog for the infrequent updates (I’m going to try to do better).