December 06, 2007

Artistic Creativity vs. Professional Commitments

"We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
- The Raging Id of Durden
Well...maybe so, but I get the feeling ol' Tyler never actually strapped on a guitar, and was never infected by the vicious fangs of the Rock Virus, though he faked it well. In my case, though, it zapped me good and proper, and at the most vulnerably fateful time- when I was defeated, weak, gullible, and desperate. I saw it coming, though, and even enjoyed letting it happen, and now, almost twelve years later, the brutal little bastard has only slightly loosened its grip on my terminally narcissistic soul. But so what? I was asked to offer my so-called "insights" into the psychologically dangerous and physically exhausting practice of "balancing artistic, creative passion with the mundane drudgery of everyday life," so we'd better get to it before I get too unbearably derivative. Come on backstage.
"I simulate love-making by beating a piece of wood with a metal wire on which it vibrates."
-Adam Clayton of U2
So, "The Balance." Anyone ever enslaved by the Creative Impulse has had to come to grips with this merciless reality. Whether it's carving out precious free time to empty your head of the swirling brilliance held back all day while you earn a paycheck, or struggling to stay inspired when your muse fucks off to Barbados with some other pretentious asshole, the problem of balancing obligations with release remains the same. For me, dealing with it involves a nebulous combination of discipline, collaboration, flexibility, and learning from my (and others') mistakes.

Baiting Inspiration
For the last decade, my primary creative outlet has been music, but I'm a word guy by training, with a lousy short-term memory to boot, so I always carry scratch paper around in case the universe decides to align in my favor. Anyone will tell you inspiration can't be forced, but it can be prepared for. As a night owl, it was natural to set aside 10pm to midnight (and often 'til 2 or 3am on weekends) for the sort of open-ended thinking that breeds the best ideas. I've learned to accept that I won't catch lightning every time, or even very often. When I do, though, it's usually a cumulative result of simply collecting and processing many, many stray ideas. Creativity’s such a feast-or-famine thing with me that I've really come to appreciate when it's around, and miss it when it's gone.
"I just can’t picture you doing that."
-An ex-girlfriend dismissing the idea of me playing onstage in a band.
Collaboration is Vital
The best way I've found to break creative blocks is working with a group. Roping in three other talented jokers and getting collectively, empathetically brilliant, definitely beats any individual achievement in my book. By now, I'm so used to bouncing semi-formed ideas off the other guys in the band- who invariably help flesh them out to bigger and better things- that I'd be musically lost without them. Practicing alone, though a necessity, is boring these days, because my band-mates have become my essential musical inspiration. Of course, with a group you run into the problem of other peoples' calendars, but that's the only real downside once everyone checks their egos at the door (itself no small thing) and gets down to business.

Get Flex-Time
Too many late nights spent in either setting, though, and you start to show up late to work, drooling all over the TPS reports and forgetting everything except band stuff. When eight or more hours of your day are sucked away by your job, it tends to make consistent creative output a rare luxury. The rent and bills never stop, though, and guitars, amps, recorders, and other gear is expensive (in this case, credit is good, folks). I've been fortunate enough to work at jobs where my employers were happy to offer flex-time or some other alternative to the 8-5 Zombie Death March, so taking a day off to prep for (or recover from) a gig here and there, or working after-hours to offset a bi-monthly trip into the studio was never a serious problem. It also didn't hurt that many of my colleagues have been enthusiastic and encouraging- almost as much as the Ever-Patient Friends & Family- which is handy when you need to put asses in seats or sell CDs. Even better, my current job (graphic/web design) is a creative position, so my brain is used to deadlines and usually set to receive inspiration from any source.

Blocks are Normal
An unexpected flip side showed up when I once found myself unemployed. The problem then became not only splitting time between my Chosen Expensive Hobby and my hunt for a new job, but also the idea that, with lots of new free time, I should be that much more creative, which proved untrue. As many more important and famous people have noted, when one's passion becomes one's job, it becomes tougher to whip oneself into a workable state of inspiration. Even so, that's only really a problem if you pressure yourself to constantly churn out material. Accepting fallow periods or writer’s block is nowhere near the worst or lowest point you'll encounter.
"You have to be sturdy. Being an artist is not for the faint-hearted and you have to be proud that you are what you are. You have to be a proud bum."
- Patti Smith (during an interview with me, actually, from 10/23/97)
Promotion: Get help!
The hardest part of the whole screaming deal, in my opinion, is the never-ending War To Make People Care. I'm naturally shy, and have never enjoyed applying for jobs or booking shows, though it's easier these days with so many web-based handy how-to's or other sites (which obviously run the gamut from mildly useful to a total waste of time). Groveling continually in front of disinterested nightclub owners, bartenders or promoters, who think you're Just Another Dude In A Shitty Band has always struck me as the most pathetically shameful degradation. I'm probably not the best person to give advice on how to get gigs or self-promote, but I do know that yes, it's who you know, and how much they can stand to be continually harassed, that counts. If you or your friends have got the time and endurance to pester the living hell out of people, then do it. Otherwise, well, rejection's a great inspiration, right?
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
-Hunter S. Thompson (who wasn't really talking about Teh Biz, of course)
Swine and Philistines
Which brings us to: Getting Over Criticism. It's a maturity thing, of course, to be able to tell the difference between appreciative, constructive appraisal, envious projection, and useless bullshit. Filtering it all is a mix of simply not letting it get to you and also realizing that once a creation leaves your head and spews out into the wide world, it will be judged and misinterpreted and mangled far beyond what you thought you'd made in the first place. It was pathetically easy for me to be a rock critic and bitch about music when I wasn't actually creating it, so I had to get over the entire range of criticism (90% of which was variations of "you guys SUCK!") once I put my own stuff on the line. Again, though, it was easier when three other guys backed me up, so we always sank or swam as a group, and no one person ever endured the shit-hammer alone. My point here is simply the same old hoary cliché of Don't Let Other People's Hang-ups Fuck With Your Art. If you like what you've made, then it's Good. If at some point you change your mind, you can always make something new and better; you're the creative one, right?

Indeed. Until you come to the Precipice, anyway. For us, that was the point where we would have to make the Big Push to turn our hobby into a career, turn our lives into shapeless blurs, and our relationships into melted slag. We looked over the cliff and saw that it was Ugly, and chose to retreat. If I recall correctly it was after being offered yet another really lopsided pay-to-play contract at a high-profile LA venue, and I believe my no-nonsense drummer's words were something like "Do you guys really want to put up with this shit again?"

It's Gotta Be Fun
In our callous, bootstrap-worshipping society, it's hard to avoid the fallacy that once you've burned up all your "youthful energy" and semi-innocent ignorance, you've either got to knuckle under and try to make your passion your career, or be content with indulging in expensive hobbies to balance the daily insanity of working for a living. In my case, logistics intervened; everyone in the band either finished school or moved away, so it was a lot tougher to even get together for rehearsals. When we do, though, it's like almost no time had passed at all (a benefit of biweekly practices during our first year together) and the rarity of rehearsals and gigs these days makes them that much more special for us to do, and for our friends to enjoy. See, unlike all those idiots in Fight Club, I knew at 19 I'd never be a world-conquering rock star. That wasn't my idea of creative success.
"People pay to see other people believe in themselves."-Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth
What's "success," then? The fact that the time spent was on good work with brilliant and talented friends: first (fun but amateur) band The Mojo Wire- four self-made demo albums, one compilation, and 23 shows over five years; second (fun and less amateur) band Honey White: 1 E.P. disc, 1 studio album, four self-produced live albums, and 28 shows in five more years. That balances out a lot of life’s more mundane bullshit, which is good enough for me.

Cross-posted: dkos (ku35).

December 01, 2007

Few And Far Between

A sparse pool of gigs provide two more live albums that catch Honey White presenting their tentative, then fully-formed baroque phase.

Moody studio rock epics usually don’t go over well live, at least not without a killer stage presentation and plenty of smoke, mirrors, and playback. Forcing a live show to duplicate a band running amok in the studio has often spelled career suicide for countless rock groups. In Honey White’s case, though, the gaping hole between “career” and “expensively fun hobby” was where the music spoke for itself while logistics finally eclipsed our gig and rehearsal time. Our third and fourth live albums start where the previous two left off, blotting indie-rock posterity with songs from shows supporting our How Far is the Fall studio album. The two discs present our most adventurous music as a complete creative progression, from tentative muddiness on Saturated Songs to casual confidence on Deluge and Drought.

As our sonic vocabulary grew, we road-tested new material immediately. By early 2004 we’d dropped almost all the covers and Mojo Wire songs to make room for epic monsters like “Sweet Oblivion,” “Keep Moving,” and “Famous Last Words.” We used those songs to anchor most gigs, but threw in energetic bursts like “Unprofessional” to keep listeners on their toes. Our 2005 shows hit a more ideal dynamic while staying within the one-hour mark, with sets ebbing and flowing to suit each gig. Mid-tempo tunes like “Island Fever” and “Mercy Rule” met the audience halfway between the longer, slower songs and harder, faster stuff like “Bottlerocket” and Bryn’s new “Nightfall.” That pacing worked best when our bookings changed in size and space, with multiple appearances at theater-sized venues on our home turf in Santa Barbara and club-level shows farther away in Ventura and Los Angeles.

Saturated Songs documents how that began, with Bryn, Brian, Bill and I shaking off dust and working out the kinds of our recently-reassembled sonic identity. That was easier to do on familiar stages like Giovanni’s and the Wildcat Lounge, but cramped conditions and general mushy sound ended up spoiling most of our third live disc. The sets from those 2004 shows weren’t as tight as they’d get later. Our latent skills were still sharp, thanks to our original frequent rehearsals back in 2002, but after six months off we were definitely rusty. The songs didn’t flow together as well as we thought they should; many of our new songs still sounded undercooked, especially to bar crowds ready for drunken weirdness. Fresh tunes like “Let Go” and the jumpy “Sean Goes To Africa” pumped in new energy, but the massively murky leviathans dominated: “Sweet Oblivion,” “Keep Moving,” “Famous Last Words,” and an extended “Dead Man” cover. The My Band Rocks-era songs rounding out the compilation—”Unprofessional,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “The Sandman” and Bryn’s solo take of “Lightning Rod”—barely hold their own in comparison.

At the time, I thought maybe another limited live CD-R would be the only way these songs saw release, so against my better judgment I rushed the process and put out Saturated Songs in June 2004. Unfortunately it proved a weak effort and the worst of Honey White’s self-produced live albums. What’s more, my timing was terrible; half the band was moving away from Santa Barbara and we’d surprisingly landed some studio time in San Francisco. We knew we couldn’t waste that time, because it was a great opportunity to capture our revitalized sound: a newly fused rhythm section topped off by experimental effects and soaring vocals. Since eight of the ten How Far is the Fall songs had already solidified on stage, we tracked most of the album live, taking care of basics and stretching each song to its own limit when overdubbing and mixing. Many bands are surprised to discover how different recording is from live shows, but we got expert help and successfully translated our cohesive stage sound to tape, enhancing each song later. We figured if they all began as organic, performance-based things, they’d always work well onstage, no matter what the album sounded like.

Everything fell into place at the gigs recorded on Deluge and Drought, our fourth and best live album. We played a lot less in 2005-2006, hampered by time, space and the 40-hour work week—but since the gigs were rare, more people showed up at each one. Higher-profile venues with better acoustics made it much easier to record clearer, punchier takes and assured performances on my trusty Roland VS-890. I got better takes of all the tunes underserved by Saturated Songs, plus strong debut takes of “Island Fever,” “Blacking Out,” and “Nightfall.” Drastically different remakes of “Lightning Rod” and “One Last Hallelujah” also made the cut. Brian and Bryn usually replicated (and often emulated) their studio effects on the spot, embellishing everything from Bryn’s crunchy tremolo in “Let Go” and E-bow in “Famous Last Words” to Brian’s liquid textures on “Blacking Out” and stratospheric solos on “Island Fever” and “Sweet Oblivion.” Bill and I got to shine too; my minimal bass lines had more room to swagger, and Bill’s new snare drum punctuated everything like a gun shot.

Deluge was a big step up in composition, performance, and recording quality, so it was the first Honey White live album to get wide exposure. It may be amateur and self-produced, but I still listen to it all the time. While working on it, I was so stoked that I decided in addition to producing the normal 50-copy CD-R run just like previous live albums, I’d send it to all the web-based music stores alongside our studio releases. It even became, dubiously, our first disc of previously-released material because I’d already uploaded rough mixes of all our recorded shows to sites like the Live Music Archive. Sadly, none of that mattered enough, because what this album doesn’t show is how the prolonged stretches of downtime between gigs slowly let the air out of our ambition—the flip side to every achievement in the studio and on stage.

We all lived in different corners of California by 2005, so rehearsals were rare but still fun. However, booking gigs became a chore when we started getting squeezed and frustrated by the precipitous “next level” of the music business. We simply didn’t care about jumping through more hoops after enduring the logistical hurdles of that year. Lop-sided, pay-to-play gig contracts, ramped-up promotional requirements, fighting for space on the bill with five other bands, and a ton of other stressful decisions unrelated to musical creativity all seemed to suck the fun out of playing live. It finally sank in for me when I tried and failed to book us at a B.B. King’s in Universal City during March 2006. The production company was shoveling Hollywood bullshit on me and like a fool I thought it was worth it to play the gig. Brian was agreeable but Bryn demurred, and Billy even said “Keir, is this really how we want to do this? Because we don’t have to.” He was right, and so we played our final, low-profile gig five months later on our own terms.

By the time I completed Deluge and Drought and put it out in July 2007, we hadn’t played live for about a year. We hadn’t even rehearsed for two months—we did that for the last time in May, right before Brian moved to Washington DC for good. Deluge ended up being a strong statement to end our five-year run, because it took me a while to realize that even finishing it was only papering over what was becoming obvious: Honey White was done. I don’t know what’s next, but if and when we do start up our epic noise machine again, we have a ready-made template for how to do it well, thanks to the creative process captured on these two live albums. Thanks to all who joined us on the ride!

Play these albums:

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