Secrets of a Great Band: You've Got to Play!
I'm going to be writing a series of short posts from my own experiences on what it takes to get a band off the ground and into the habit of playing out regularly. These tips may not work for everyone, but they're based on how we did it in World Racketeering Squad.
One of the secrets of a great band is that you've got to play in front of people, as much as possible. Open mics are a great venue for this, no matter what your age or level of experience. Recording video and audio is also essential to improve your live performances.
Get in front of people
When Reed Oliver and I started World Racketeering Squad in 2007, we were in very different positions in our lives. I had been making music for around twenty years in one form or another. Reed, however, had never written a song or played an instrument. It was a learning process for us both.
All of the music I'd made had been in the form of home recordings, made in my bedroom on a 4-track or a computer. And I'd shared it with very few people, usually just my friends knew about it. I didn't know anything about performing in public OR about marking and promoting music at the time.
One of the most important things for any young band is to build up experience playing in front of people, learning to react to the crowd, how to engage them and how to respond to the feedback they give you.
Open mics: get out there!
Open mics are a great way to do this because anybody can show up and anybody can play. Age, experience, or level of musical ability should not be a barrier to putting yourself out there in front of people and showing them what you can do.
If you've had a guitar for a month and a half and you just learned to play “Proud Mary”, you should go out and do it in front of people!
You'll need the right attitude about it, and a thick skin. People at open mics are generally very kind and encouraging--when I look back at the videos of Reed and me playing by ourselves in front of coffee-shop crowds, I'm amazed at how loudly they clap for our primitive, amateurish performance.
But if you're at all critical of yourself, it's important to learn how to look at your performance from a different perspective, and see the parts you can improve and appreciate the parts you are already great at!
Beatles in Hamburg: Immerse yourself!
One of the most enduring memes in music is the idea of improving your skills by playing many marathon sessions in quick succession, a la The Beatles in Hamburg. They played 6-hour shows every night for weeks on end, and massively improved their musicianship and performance instincts while they were at it.
It may not be possible for a young band or performer these days to get such a gig, but you can do the same thing by immersing yourself in performing as many times as possible.
In November of 2007, Reed and I had a handful of songs written, including “Needful Things” and “Panic”, which are now on our debut album. They were much simpler performances back then, but we decided to throw ourselves out there as much as we could, playing every weeknight at a different open mic here in town. We'd play at the Conan's Pizza open mic on Monday, Trophy's on Tuesday, Green Muse on Wednesday, and so on.
Once, when the Green Muse was closed on Thanksgiving, we picked up the newspaper and found an open mic that night at a country bar! Not exactly our typical audience. It was a great experience.
Video and audio: Improve by watching yourself
The other thing we did during this period was to record audio and video of ourselves performing.
We'd take Reed's laptop and set it up on a table at the venue, pointing its webcam at the stage, and just click “record” before we started playing. Then we'd take the video home and watch it after the show.
That taught us a lot about how we looked on stage, about how to improve our posture, our appearance, and the importance of focusing on the audience instead of your instrument while you're playing.
Clubs: Now go find some gigs!
For us, once we had played a few months of open mics, both our musical abilities and our showmanship had improved by a huge degree. If we'd been trying to improve that much by just practicing, it could never have happened like that!
At this point we were ready to go and get some "proper" gigs, playing at clubs and bars. I'll write more about that, in the future...
Isaac Priestley is a founding member of World Racketeering Squad, the world's greatest nerdwave band. Imagine Devo jamming with the Rolling Stones in the cargo hold of Serenity with Doctor Who playing bass.