Junior Brown & Cuong Vu

October 29, 2007

Last Wednesday the 24th, I went to see Junior Brown at the Tractor Tavern. The man is a monster of rockabilly, and plays a double-necked invention that came to him in a dream–a half guitar, half steel-guitar, that he calls the guit-steel. The man plays fast. Tears it up, even. But there’s only so much country-and-western type finger picking (an old guitarmate of mine called it “chicken-pickin”) that I can listen to. And the timekeeping seemed elastic at best, like the rhythm section was starting too fast and Junior kept fighting them to slow down. He did throw in a credible Albert King cover, and some heartfelt Jimi/Stevie-Ray blues rock, but when the show was over, I was ready for it to be over. I hate genre-defined music fans, but the simple fact is no matter how much Seattle loves country and all its offshoots, I just don’t.

I tend to like jazz, though, so it’s a good time of year to be in Seattle: Earshot time. Cuong Vu is a trumpeter and composer who I knew only through a single song, “Vina’s Lullaby,” on a Knitting Factory compilation from a few years back. It’s a beautiful number, starting with long haunting notes (a little bit of echo) like a summons from across the water, gradually descending into a punk-jazz freakout propelled by monster bassist Stomu Takeishi, eventually coming back out to a sad melody and clocking in around 11 minutes.

Last night, he played for about 100 lucky listeners at the new Seattle Art Museum auditorium. Apparently he was just hired on as an assistant professor of jazz at the University of Washington, so he noted how nervous he was that his boss and his students were. He needn’t have worried–the compositions and playing were both incredible. Takeishi was outstanding, garnering a larger range of sounds from his pedals than most entire rock bands get–clicks, squeaks, rattles, echoes, delays, fuzz, chords, distortion. He doesn’t wear shoes–I think it’s so he can turn the knobs with his toes! The drummer, Ted Poor was spot-on and obviously a big contributor–he wrote the last song of the night, which started with just a few subtle clicks and whirs and gradually built into a percussion-driven bang-up then went back down, stopping in the middle of a beat. Cuong Vu himself coaxed as much beauty out of a trumpet as anybody I’ve ever seen, although he occasionally blatted and squeaked like any good downtowner should.

The compositions were rhythmically complex but not impossible to follow, with a clear shape, lots of triads, and not too much dissonance. Perhaps it’s too approachable or too rock for purists, as he complained some influential critics had labelled him as “not jazz.” (To which he responded, “Now I’m a professor of jazz, so I guess I get to say whether it’s jazz or not.”) I kept thinking of being out on Puget Sound on a semi-cloudy winter evening with the snow-covered Olympics disappearing into the background, and also of standing in front of a large white concrete wall.

Sometimes they were a little too good–I almost could hear them counting the subdivisions in their head. Every skilled musician counts like this, but it’s almost like you have to break away from the good habits to get back to a more organic sound, where the musicians know the beat just by breathing.

He also made a comment about how dark the times have become for music. (Overall, he talked too much.) I’m not sure if he was talking about file-sharing and technology and declining CD sales, or simply about a perceived disinterest in “high” culture. But I’m not seeing it. In Monterey last month, I couldn’t buy a ticket for the Jazz Festival (I scored a free one from the concierge at the hotel at the last second). There were 20,000 people there, all ages and colors, to hear people like Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. (And, OK, Diana Krall, but there’s no accounting for some people’s taste.) I listen to more new music now than I have in years, and sure, a lot of it comes from friends ripping a CD or throwing a few files my way, but in the end that means I go to more shows and–if I really like it–buy more records. So maybe he’s alluding to some particular trend in the jazz world, but I’d say overall there’s more interest in music than ever.

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The ladder of success

October 17, 2007

(Note: this is a revised edited version of an older post. I published it as a guest blogger on the Line Out blog hosted by Seattle newsweekly The Stranger There, it was split into separate entries, making it hard to read start to finish. So here it is all in one.)

God, what a mess, the ladder of success. Take one step and miss the whole first rung.
–The Replacements, “Bastards of Young.”

So you’re in a band. Who isn’t? What I really want to know is are you in a band, like, in your mind? Or is it a real band where you actually write songs and play instruments with other people? Do you play out? Where do you play? Who have you played with?

Amusing anecdote: I once told the co-owner of a small local label that I was playing that night. She wanted to know where. The Rendezvous, actually. Her response: “oh, how cute.” It turned out to be a fun show, and well-attended. But. You know. I was beneath her.

My point: after a while one gets sick of hearing (and asking) these types of questions to assess one’s place in the Seattle music scene pecking order. Hence, I’ve developed a shorthand which I call the “Ladder of Success.” I will be presenting it to you over the course of the day in hopes of shortening these conversations so we can get down to the business of doing whatever comes after these conversations are finished. (“Buy me a drink” is a good place to start.)

Without further ado:

Rung 0: Some Guy With A Guitar. You go to Guitar Center and buy the cheap knockoff version of the guitar that the guitarist in your favorite band plays. You place an ad for musicians who sound like your favorite bands, or at least have heard of them. Or you ask your friends if they know anybody, or failing that, try to talk them into playing the secondhand drum kit you’ve got set up in your basement. You meet a lot of wannabes and flakes, but at least you get some good drug hookups. Or maybe you make it to…

Rung 1: Garage Band You find other people who play instruments and aren’t total assholes. You practice once a week in your garage or a pay-by-the-hour studio. You get the money together to record a short demo, either on the Band Yuppie’s laptop or with a recording school student at some old hippie’s hobby studio. You send the demo out. Your only responses are that bar that’ll hire anybody and a struggling club in a bad neighborhood that has a pay-to-play new music night every Monday. All your friends show up to the first gig and it’s great fun. But your second gig is sparsely attended, and the bookers eventually stop returning your e-mails. The band breaks up and you start over again, or you give up in frustration and sell your gear on eBay. But if you’re any good, you should be able to get to…

Rung 2: This Band I Know. You get a call from a decent club, and not only do your friends show up for the first gig, but the soundguy or bartender or club owner decides they like your music, as do a couple of strangers who work in other bars or play in other bands. Word spreads, and you begin to get gig offers through your MySpace contacts and e-mail inbox. Even though you’re not making any money, you decide to spend several thousand dollars to record a full-length album at a reasonably well-known studio staffed by a Professional Producer who’s worked with some Local Heroes (see Rung 4). When you’ve spent approximately twice as much time and money as you expected (mastering? what’s that?), you print up several hundred copies and send it to local college radio stations and weekly newspapers and boutique record labels who specialize in music like yours. They ignore it. You continue to get offers to play on Wednesdays at the small-but-prestigious club where the staff is competent and pleasant, or on Saturdays at the bar where the soundguy’s paycheck comes out of your door take. Eventually, your friends stop coming to shows and get sick of hearing about your band. The guitarist’s hissy fits are getting on your nerves so you fire him, and the drummer starts spending more time with his other band. You’re stuck with a closet full of very expensive and immaculately designed drink coasters. Or, if you’re really good, and a little bit lucky, you might get to…

Rung 3: I’ve Heard of Them. Complete strangers sign your mailing list, then actually attend future shows. Sometimes they bring their friends, who also sign your mailing list. Your hometown college radio station spins your designated single a couple of times and features you on a local new music hour. The local weekly writes a quick show preview in which they pigeonhole you into the same category as some of your favorite bands and use mostly positive words like “thunderous” or “world-weary” or “pop sensibilities.” A small independent label agrees to distribute your album and offer tour support, which consists of renting you a van that breaks down only in the precise middle of nowhere. On tour, you play small clubs in front of 50 or maybe 100 paying customers, most of whom are there to see the headlining band from their home town. Some of them like you enough to buy merch and sign your mailing list. A handful of them like you enough to offer you sex, drugs, or sleeping quarters. You end the tour in the hole, but return to a triumphant hometown gig with a Local Hero in that big club you always wanted to play. You repeat this cycle for two or three or five years, earning just enough to pay for band expenses and drugs. Then the bassist gets pregnant and quits, and the keyboardist gets a promotion at work that requires more travel. When the band finally disintegrates, you put “formerly of” on your bio, raising the odds that club owners and college radio program directors will listen to the first track on the first album of your new project. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who makes it to…

Rung 4: Local Hero. In your hometown, complete strangers show up at your shows after seeing your name in the paper and buy your CDs from the independent record store near the university. The local college radio station plays several tracks from your CD for several weeks after it comes out, and you get a 100-word review in a local weekly, complete with a clever numerical rating (three stars=frottage; four stars=gloryhole). A national indie label or the boutique imprint of a major label offers you distribution, and you begin to headline shows in nearby cities. Somebody convinces you to hire a manager and a lawyer because everybody else does. You earn a couple thousand dollars per night as the opening act on a national tour for a College Radio Darling, during which other people haul your gear and tune your instruments before you take the stage. Pitchfork gives your album a respectable rating. One day, scanning the “Musicians Wanted” section of the local weekly, you see yourself named as an influence. The music critic for the hometown daily writes a short article about you and begins placing a star next to your shows in the calendar section. You begin to get Aribtron reports with your name on them and BMI royalty checks for $10.38 or $45.12. Your label announces that you’ve sold a respectable multi-thousand CDs, and offers to front the recording costs for the next one. Your band members quit all their side projects and begin taking fewer shifts at work or trading their full-time jobs for temp positions. When you fill out your tax form at the end of the year, you proudly write “Musician” in the “Employment” box, and your accountant introduces you to all sorts of useful and interesting tax deductions. You continue through a few more albums and several lineup changes, but one day find yourself opening for a band that’s younger, better, and more popular than you’ve ever been. The drugs aren’t fun anymore, you can’t maintain a relationship because you’re always on tour, you discover that the music business is filled with criminals and former frat boys, and corporate radio still sucks because they won’t play you. Eventually you move on to become a band manager or radio engineer, and occasionally people recognize your name and ask “weren’t you in that band, what were they called?” Or perhaps you rise into the rarified air of…

Rung 5: College Radio Darling. College radio stations play your music even when you don’t have a new record out. When you tour, music writers and college radio program directors in other towns call your manager to set up interviews. You’re playing 1,000-seat clubs and some of your shows sell out, and even if not, you always sell enough tickets and paraphernalia to pay your roadies. You manage to keep your recording budget down in the mid-five figures, pleasing your label overlords enough so they offer you a tour bus and try to bribe commercial stations into playing you. You sell enough CDs to cover both your recording costs and advances, allowing everybody to earn a buck or two of profit from each additional sale. From time to time, you’re featured in Spin and Rolling Stone, and VH1 plays a couple of your videos late at night. Your BMI checks might actually help you pay rent. Other artists give interviews in which they cite you as an important influence or slag your last album as overrated. Your parents are no longer ashamed to tell their friends that you’re a musician. If you’re lucky enough, good enough, and smart enough, you can continue along this path for ten or fifteen years, earning enough along the way to buy a house in Portland and medical insurance. Years after you break up, you will be asked to play the occasional reunion show. Unless you get suckered into climbing to…

Rung 6: Almost Famous. An aging hipster with expensive clothes approaches you after a show and claims to be an A&R man for one of the Big Four. Much to everybody’s surprise, including your lawyer’s, he’s legit. You sign the contract, live off the advance, and spend several months in New York or LA or Nashvile, recording with a producer whose name appears on the back of several of your favorite records. Market conditions change, and the label decides to sit on the recording. And sit on it. And sit on it. Any money you earn from shows or paraphenalia goes toward paying back your $500,000 advance, and your contract prohibits you from recording or touring under any other name or with any other musicians. Too late, you realize that Steve Albini was right! Your keyboardist quits to take a job at Microsoft and your guitarist commits drug-assisted suicide. But not all is lost: several years later, after a Wednesday night show at a small club with your new band, you recount your story to a tatooed anti-corporate type, who takes pity and goes to bed with you. You move in together, find a day job that’s not so horrible, and begin to raise a family, all while occasionally playing with friends or making recordings on the side—just for the hell of it. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to ascend to…

Rung 7: One-Hit Wonder. The label releases your catchiest song as a single and bribes every radio station in the country to give it a couple spins. Despite this corporate backing, Nic Harcourt plays it. KROQ’s program director hears Nic play it and adds it. Viacom sees that it’s been added on KROQ and starts playing the video on VH1. Clear Channel sees that it’s on VH1 and adds it to their light rotation list. Kids call in every time The Song is played, and they move it up to heavy rotation in several cities, causing VH1 to play it more. The Song appears in various charts, dragging your album into the top 100. You’re suddenly playing 3,000-seat theaters, where you quickly learn to save The Song for the end so people won’t leave. You open your first BMI statement after The Song has been in heavy rotation for a few months and your jaw drops. You call your responsible older sister and tell her to invest half of it in something you’re not allowed to touch for ten years, then spend the rest on musical equipment and partying. Soon, your label owes you money rather than the other way around, but they convince you to put all of that money—and then some—into your next recording, which they and your friends and your lawyer and your accountant and your manager tell you is going to set the world totally on fire. Except it doesn’t. Suddenly, you find it harder to ignore the critical sniping from the local weekly and the jaded indie-rock fans who stand up in the front during your set with their arms crossed. Five years later, you can’t get a gig in your favorite hometown venue. Your label sells The Song for a TV commercial, and the BMI checks continue to trickle in for a few years, keeping you from the dreaded day job. Years later, a TV call-in show with a vaguely insulting name asks you to reunite and play The Song so a bunch of kids who have only heard it at weddings can vote on whether you are better or worse than a bunch of other one-hit wonders from the same era. But the money’s too good to say no. Occasionally when you’re drunk at a party, you pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and bang out The Song, and your friends look away. Unless you had a string of hits, in which case you made it to…

Rung 8: The Big Time. You’re all over the radio and TV. You mess with interviewers by answering the same boring, predictable questions differently each time. You show up late to photo shoots, or not at all. Teenagers sleep beneath posters with your picture on them. Your grandparents brag about you to their friends. An entire cottage industry springs up around you, complete with hangers-on and sycophants. You realize that there’s very little difference between playing for 3,000 and playing for 20,000, except that the lighting is better and the audience is louder and farther away. And your drummer always wears a headset and plays to a clicktrack that’s synchronized with the lights. And you occasionally use triggers and backing vocal tracks to cover the parts you know you’re going to fuck up. But you don’t care if people say that you really suck because you can buy any car you want, as well as a nice house in your hometown and a second home in New York or Hawaii. Even if you never work or play another show again, you will always have enough money for you and your children to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. And someday, you might make it to…

Rung 9: Legend. Your label releases greatest hits albums with words like “Legendary” in the title and nobody mistakes it for irony. You’re embedded in the pop cultural DNA—your songs are familiar even to people who don’t like music, while music fans are required to have an opinion about you. You have your own tribute band. You’re rich, famous, and a total sellout.