True Story

    Guy on Phone: Hi, I saw your flyer looking for a singer, and I thought I'd give you a call.
    Me: Well, what can I tell you -- We're an experimental rock band looking to expand our sound and play some gigs.
    Dude: I'm all for that.
    Me: So, do you like experimental rock? I mean, do you get what we meant by that?
    Dude: Oh yeah, I'm all about music that's "out there."
    Me: Well like what, I mean -- who are some of your favorite bands?
    Dude: Oh you know: Pearl Jam, Mudhoney -- pretty much anything as long as it's not Rush.
    Me: You don't like Rush?
    Dude: No man, can't stand 'em.
Somewhere around 1994-95, a huge percentage of my Sunday afternoons were occupied by jam sessions featuring the second rendition of a band I had first joined in high school called Crash Course. It was originally put together as a jam band/side project by a drummer friend of mine named Jason Ellerbee -- but like so many high school garage bands was as much about three friends having a good time together as it was about collaborative creativity.

At the risk of sounding like a self-serving wanker -- I still think some of the music we came up with during those years was pretty interesting, especially given our ages and relative inexperience with our instruments at the time.
Of course when I was in the thick of it I thought it was the best thing ever, and regularly
subjected anyone riding in my car to endless replays of all of our cassette tape recordings.
Our thing was simple -- Everything we played was made up on the spot. No preparation, no apologies, and absolutely no do-overs. Straight-up musical improvisation using electric instruments instead of saxophones, trumpets, or pianos. In the highest sense, we applied a jazz-trio approach to rock music. In the most basic terms -- we were too lazy to sit down and actually write songs, but had enough musical chemistry to be able to get by without it and still have a good time.

Certainly we weren't the first ones to come up with this, or the best at it -- but when you're in a situation where your drummer pushes the "record" button on his tape player, sits down at his drum set and says "Alright -- GO!" and you literally play the first thing/chord/riff that comes to mind, the chances of the result turning out to be anything remotely musical, much less somewhat entertaining to listen to are about a gajillion to one.
The fact that we seemed to be able to beat those odds on a semi-regular basis made us feel pretty special.
When I think about it now, one of the things that strikes me about the experience is how well the project worked as an alternative to being in a regular high-school band. Our drummer was part of another established group, and during the time we were together Gristina and I floated in and out of projects with other classmates, and even put together a half-decent funk rock band with his cousin that probably could have become something real had we dedicated more serious energy to it.

What I mean by that is -- all the bands we knew that were trying to "get somewhere" seemed fraught with interpersonal dramas, bad songwriting, nightmare gigs, or whatever. Something that was supposed to be "fun" all too often seemed to get bogged down whenever it became "serious" -- and people started bringing agendas and expectations into things.
Sort of like relationships, when you think about it.
As such, I think one of the things that originally made Crash Course work was the way it served as "an escape" from all of that. I mean, I call it a band because we stayed together in some form or another for a number of years -- but if you want to be brutally honest about things when we started out it was more like a semi-annual jam session with a name.
Of course, that's also what was so cool about it.
Everything was freeform. Laughter was a constant. Mistakes happened, but because none of the songs were written they were almost always discarded almost as soon as they occurred (or more frequently used as a launching point for a whole new section of whatever song we were improvising at the time).
I remember Bigbee once saying: "It's amazing to me just how easily these tunes come together for you guys. I mean, sometimes we spend days trying to get a song right -- but you guys just show up, start messing around, and all of the sudden the music just happens -- I hate you guys for that."
But like so many high school bands out there, once graduation came and people started moving away it seemed like things would eventually fade out into a pleasant memory. The wrinkle here was that after a few years of separation all three of us ended up at the same college -- which provided us with the unique opportunity to pick things up where we left off.

The problem (if you could actually call it a problem) was that the band had always been sort of a creative labor of love. Despite our different backgrounds, the three of us really liked working on music together. We had our arguments and disagreements over the years -- but once we stopped bickering at each other about whatever it was and just started playing music, all of those issues seemed to melt away.
Until the day we decided to get serious.
A lot of things go into the maturation process of a band, especially one that's been together a long time. But one of the things that makes so many of them work (regardless of talent level or experience) is the ability to find a common focus. How many groups out there have you read about that "didn't really know how to play their instruments or write songs" when they first got together, but were able to become something really great over time?

At the same time, I honestly do believe that there are a lot of bands out there that can turn that collective inexperience into something that has widespread appeal.

For example, half the reason I think DIY movements like punk rock and grunge caught on when they did was because they arrived at moments in music history that were filled with overproduced styles of music, things that were too full of pretense and polish. When all you have to choose from is disco records or group after group with zillion-dollar laser shows and choreographed dance routines -- it's not hard at all to get jaded over how plastic everything sounds, which I think plays a big part of why it seems like every couple of months there seems to be all sorts of buzz and excitement surrounding bands that strip all of that away, and just get back to the idea of playing music.
In other words, sloppy bands will never go away.
Case in point: The Hives are ..awful. It's the same five chords and half-assed drum beat over and over. The tacked-on British accent in the voice, the silly outfits -- they annoy me at a genetic level. But it's hard to deny that their stripped-down sound and boisterous energy is a welcome respite from all the Maroon 5's, Chris Daughtry's, and James Blunt's of the world. But just because I can't ..fffffucking stand them doesn't mean I can't see why it works for someone else.
Because it's very similar to the kinds of qualities that first drew me to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones.
Or to put it another way -- The best moments in my former band's history almost always came from times when we weren't trying to be the next big thing or create a specific amazing sound -- but instead just turned on our amplifiers and grooved.

Because looking back, the beginning of the downfall of that band was the day we decided that what we really needed to do was stop screwing around every week with pointless jams, get a singer, and write some real songs.
You know, Pretty much the exact opposite of the reason we started the thing in the first place?
Of course at the time it sounded like a great idea. We were pretty good musicians, we had a knack for coming up with catchy grooves. We lived in a college town that offered plenty of places for an up and coming band to perform, and above all -- I think we all really wanted it to work.

But sometimes just wanting something to happen isn't enough to bring it to life. Not that we didn't try -- but somehow all of the things we attempted in an effort to "get more serious" only seemed to handcuff our creative spirit. Instead of making music that was the Frankenstein-ian result of what happened when a metalhead guitarist, prog-rock drummer, and roots rock-inspired bass player used all of their skill and ingenuity to try and get on the same page -- we were suddenly in *band practices* trying to write songs that all seemed to end up lacking something.

Worst of all was when we decided to Yoko Ono ourselves by trying to find someone to put lyrics over what had up to that point been all free-form instrumental jams. As anyone who's watched the first week of American Idol knows -- lots of people think they can sing, but very few actually can.

Add to that the fact that when you asked anyone in the band to describe our sound you'd get three completely different answers, and it became increasingly difficult to really know what we were looking for in a singer in the first place.

The best we could do most times was tempt people to show up at our practices by selling ourselves as a fan of bands that they liked. "Oh, you're into Living Colour? -- We LOVE that band! Tell you what, come on over Sunday and we'll play a couple of their songs for you to sing over, and we'll see how things gel?"

Crash Course used to do a pretty good version of "Cult of Personality" (one of my all-time favorite LC songs) -- but those few weeks where we had people coming in and butchering the vocal track seven ways to Sunday was nothing short of torture.

I do remember this one guy though -- sort of a heavy-set black guy who came in and did a really good job getting through that tune and giving it the proper amount of power and range, which by the end of the song had us all feeling pretty good, until we asked him if he knew any other songs we could jam on.
He thought for a moment and then said, "Hey, do you guys like Genesis?"
At which point our drummer, who was and probably still is one of the biggest Genesis honks ever immediately lit up and started rattling off the names of Genesis songs that we might jam on: How about "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," "Abacab," or "Turn it on Again?"
The dude sorta shrugged and said, "I don't know those lyrics. How about Invisible Touch?"
I don't think I'll ever forget the look on Gristina's (who wasn't, isn't, and probably won't ever be a Genesis fan) face as he did his very best not to bust out laughing -- while almost simultaneously Ellerbee and I were like, "Invisible Touch? -- you mean like.."
And dude was like, "Oh yeah, that's the JAM right there!"

[Listening to:    Genesis"The Knife" ]