Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio 2015
Ashtray from Alan Cristea Gallery Twentieth Anniversary Portfolio
2015

Yesterday I went on a Tinder date to the Museum of Modern Art. There’s no real reason for me to tell you that I was on a Tinder date except for the fact that I probably just won a few more readers who are titillated by the phrase “Tinder date.” And now, despite the fact that I keep repeating the phrase Tinder date, I’d like to direct your attention more towards my experience of the MoMA and less on the Tinder date. I confess that at the MoMA I felt a lot like how my German friend Dierk feels feels when he watches a Richard Pryor standup comedy special: “I don’t get it!” (please imagine a deep-voiced German man saying that). I could chalk this up to the fact that I am not well-educated and up to date on the trends of modern visual art, but I actually experience this same feeling when listening to some modern musical art (a field in which I’m at least relatively well educated and up to date). The truth is that some art and music is simply more intelligible than other art and music.

For instance, I had a wonderful experience of perfectly intelligible music last Saturday at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. At the classic venue, looked after by a suspender-clad waitstaff, I saw the one and only Bill Frisell play alongside Petra Haden (vocals), Thomas Morgan (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums). With his trademark reverb-laden telecaster tone, Bill and company played arrangements of classic film and television music from their album When You Wish Upon A Star. They put a haunting and spacious twist on classic movie songs like You Only Live Twice, The Windmills of Your Mind, and the theme from Psycho. Yet for all of the unique character that they infused in each song, they never sacrificed clarity for the sake of novelty. I walked back to the subway feeling uplifted, whistling the tunes that I had just heard.

Conversely, on Tuesday night I took a stroll to a new venue called Nublu— this is likely a stretch but I wonder if the phonetic pronunciation of the club (“new blue”) is an intentional nod (or perhaps even a jab) towards the long-standing Blue Note. Nublu, with it’s darkly lit industrial aesthetic, glowing bar, and psychedelic tapestry of light projected onto a large wall, was clearly much more modern than the Blue Note. As I watched the band tune up and prepare to play, I realized that this was one of the most talented collections of musicians I would ever see perform together (Dave Binney-sax, Chris Potter- sax, Adam Rogers- guitar, Matt Brewer- bass, Craig Taborn- keys, and Justin Brown- drums). Between the sleek setting and incredible musicians, I had a giddy sense that this was one of these “only in New York City” kind of moments. And yet after thirty minutes of hearing them play relentless, high energy, complex, and sometimes atonal music, I was ready to leave. There was no doubt of the skill onstage with each performer playing blistering solos— there was simply little for me to latch on to and enjoy. I left with nothing in my head that I wanted to whistle.

“What ever happened to melody!?” This was a question my film scoring instructor Chris Hajian asked me this week in our lesson, and a question I was asking myself after the show at Nublu. For the past couple of decades or so (and probably much longer), whether in jazz, or film scores, or pop music, the importance of melody has undoubtedly waned. For example, what’s the billboard number one song right now? Don’t worry I’ll look it up— ok it’s a song called Closer by the Chainsmokers. Now I just really hate this song already, and I’ve only heard it once, but let’s identify what is important and prominent about this song: the beat, the timbre change from the male vocals to the female vocals, the distinct intentionally lo-fi sound of the synth, and of course the corny, cliché, stupid ass lyrics. It is certainly not the melody that is important. The melodic moments are short, simple, and repetitive— this is certainly not a hit song because of the melody alone. Ok now then what was the number one hit on this day in 1996? Oh no, it was the Macerena! I was hoping to prove that 1996 was more melodic than 2016, but that is not a great example now is it? Ok we better go even further back in time… on this day in 1976 the number one song was Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now. Whether you like this song or not, you’ll have to admit that the melody plays a much more prominent role in it than in most of the hit songs of today. There’s strong contour, momentum, and variation in this melody. Indeed, unlike the song Closer, the main reason that If You Leave Me Now was a hit is because of it’s melody.

And now, straight out of the blue, it’s time for me to stop being pretentious and start getting real. I’m abruptly signing off of this blog post, because I have a laundry list of other things to do including film clips to score, guitar solos to transcribe, and Westworld to watch. But are you still wondering why melody has diminished over time? And do want to know how my Tinder date went? And is this a complete cop out ending the blog post like this? Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion next week as these and many other questions are finally answered!!

Monday July 8, The See on tour day 10, at a club in St. Louis:

I’m blogging right now from the back of The Firebird in St. Louis. The band in front of me is as loud as anything I’ve ever heard. Even though it is inordinately loud, I have know idea what the music is saying. I hear some wholehearted “woos” from the crowd at the end of the set, so maybe they know. We were tacked on to this four band show at the last minute so we had to play a short opening set before two local bands and the main event, Brooklyn based three-piece Lemuria. This show would have made much more sense if we had played third in the line up. These first two bands are at a much more amateur level than The See. Yes that statement probably sounded snobbish and judgmental, but I’m not trying to be harsh. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that most every band sucks when they first start playing. It takes a large amount of desire, trial and error, and practice to simply not suck. The See has been putting forth great effort at home and on tour, and I feel confident in saying that we do not suck. I try to resist focusing on rewards (to be able to play music should be a reward in itself), yet it is hard not to wish for higher populated, higher paying shows when we are pouring so much time and energy into this project…

Whatever, I want to talk about Chicago. We played there the past two nights at two bars right down the street from each other. Saturday we played at an old, dark, dirty dive bar called The Mutiny (most every Chicagoan I talked to gave a mischievous, knowing smile when I mentioned I played there). The sound quality at the Mutiny was low as expected, on par with the sound at our first stop of the tour, The Nick. Yet whereas at the Nick we sort of folded under the dual pressure of poor sound and an apathetic crowd, we rose above the circumstances at the Mutiny and played a great set. Encountering such different crowds and environments every night has provided us with the crucial realization that we should only worry about what we can control: our performance. Luckily playing every night has naturally sharpened our performance. Sunday we played another solid, streamlined set a couple of blocks down the street at Quenchers, a newer, cleaner, better sounding venue. It was also helpful and energizing that for both of these shows we played with my favorite band (personally and musically) of the tour so far, Planar Ally (yes that’s a Dungeons and Dragons reference). Planar Ally played precise, melodic, rhythmically-advanced instrumental Indie-Prog-Rock comparable to Battles (but unique all its own— check them out!).

Quick side note: Instrumental Indie-Prog-Rock? That may seem like superfluous genre labeling, but as more and more people around the world play and share music, musical subcultures are becoming more and more specialized. We can either try to lump these musics into broad genres (i.e. Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Soul, Classical), eschew genre entirely, or get more and more specific in our genre labels. I’ve certainly met musicians and bands in each camp. Because I believe that music is a multiplicity and not a universal language (with every instance of music inseparably linked to its own specific cultural and historical context), because I believe that specificity is better than generalization, and because it is just a fun game, I prefer to get particular (and yes a little facetious) with my genre titles.

The See’s genre? Atmospheric Indie-Mystery-Rock. It’s brand new. Get with it 😉

Tuesday July 9, The See tour day 11, on the road to Springfield, MO:

In Chicago we stayed with Planar Ally’s stellar drummer, and overall cool guy Ben Simpson. He composes a lot of the music for Planar Ally electronically, using Ableton Live, creating complex, multi-meter drum-beats that he then learns to play live on the drum-set. I admire this process because it doesn’t limit Ben to simply what he can play at any one moment. It frees him to compose in accordance with his musical imagination (rather than his muscle memory), and eventually increases his drumming dexterity as well. Listen to Wolf Lover for one of Ben’s creations. I’d like to adopt this strategy of composing and performing going forward, because as much as I feel like a relatively good guitarist and musician, I do get stuck sometimes playing through the same old patterns that my fingers know so well. I want to shift my musical output away from what is merely physically convenient and towards new tonal possibilities.

Overall Chicago was a great experience. It was extremely refreshing to simply stay put in one place for longer than a day. Though we didn’t get to explore much of the city, it was inspiring to see such great musicians and to be surrounded by so much cultural achievement.

Wow, that sounded like the ending to a seventh grade book report. I’m sorry y’all. I’m going to level with you, this was a difficult post to write. The lack of sleep is catching up with me. I’m happy that I’m posting this because I told myself that I would keep this blog going on tour, but man, this blog has seen better posts. Catch you next time.

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).