January 30, 2014

Welcome the Plague Year

At my high-school as seniors we were allowed to leave school during the day if we didn't have classes. It wasn't a luxury we took advantage of every day, but when we did we inevitably found ourselves at Cheapo records, a used record store on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

We would flip our way through the stacks of CDs with the satisfying "click-click-click" that has come to define record stores in the digital era. We'd pull oddball CDs out, giggle at funny looking covers, tick off the bands on our lists and make our purchases. I kept a disc-man at school for the sole purpose of listening to my most recent finds while I did homework at school, scrunching my forehead at math problems while tapping my foot to some new, brutal band I had discovered.

Oftentimes the bands I'd purchase were ones I'd heard of and I went to the store with the sole intention of checking out. Sometimes I'd pick up a random album only to sell it right back while other bands were lucky guesses. My prized discovery was the band Welcome the Plague Year.

I bought this weird looking album in the hard-rock section of the store, liking the long name and longer song titles. I didn't listen to it for awhile, adding to a pile of unopened CDs in my car. When I finally opened it up and shoved it into my car stereo I thought something had broken. There was a high-pitched squeal, like my speakers had melted down. I turned the stereo off. Maybe it's one of those things that will go away, I thought. I turned the stereo back on and heard the same thing. Maybe if I just wait, the squeal will go away. It did go away, and was replaced by one of the most intense rock songs I'd ever heard.

Welcome the Plague Year is whats termed a "screamo" band. In the mid-2000's screamo gained a correlation with any type of mainstream punk or rock that involved people screaming and was quickly relegated to the bin of "Fad Music for Hot Topic Kids". In reality, especially on the eastern side of the country, screamo was a more progressive style of rock characterized by thick guitars, thick instrumentation, fast playing, and yes screaming. It was an emotional style of music but not so blatant and pandering like some of the more maligned bands. These bands didn't sing about the emotions, they inhabited the emotion. There was a sincerity and complexity in this music that elevated it beyond the more obvious bands.

One of my favorite things about Welcome the Plague year is that I don't understand any of the words. Not a single one. I didn't know if the singer was a man or a woman and it didn't matter. The songs are dark, but in an organic way, not as if they were putting anything on. At the time I loved metal but I hated the pageantry and machisimo. I loved post-rock but wanted things to be faster. Welcome the Plague year was like Godspeed You Black Emperor mixed with The Locust. They were the classical music of punk-rock.

Welcome the Plague Year was unlike anything I had ever heard and taught me that music could be absolutely anything. In their songs I heard that voices could be just as driving as electric guitars, and electric guitars could sing in the band like violins in the orchestra. No band has held a place in my imagination quite like this one. I'm still blown away by the song writing and innovation on this album. If you don't own this album and you liked the samples above I encourage you buy it. As for where to buy it...I'm not sure. I saw one copy on Amazon for $20. Maybe you can find one on Cheapo.

Why U No Practice?

1 Student - Annoyed

2 Students - Angry

3 Students - Depressed

4 Students - Consider changing careers

5 Students - Music is the devil

January 18, 2014

How Napster Ruined A Favorite Song

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the era of Napster, as well as fortunate enough to not get sued. For those who are young or have short memories, Napster was a program that allowed people to download music for free, very easily. Its legality was questionable but it ushered in the modern era of online content and was a harbinger of our present day Anything-Anytime conveniences.

One of the things that people who used Napster still remember is the labeling inaccuracy of songs being traded around the web. You could download what you thought was a System of a Down song only to get a pop-punk band from New York, and similar sounding musicians would get mixed up all of the time (maybe on purpose). Many bands would record themselves playing and then label the file with a more popular band to get their song sent around the country. Music labels would flood the system with fake tracks labeled as their popular artists to try to beat the downloaders. You could download what you thought was a leaked Offspring album only to have it be three hours of high pitched squeeling.

One of my favorite songs I discovered on Napster came when I was searching for Frank Sinatra hits. I got recordings of "New York, New York" and "Mack the Knife" but I struck gold when I found "It Had to Be You". I loved his effortless vocals, the power in his voice on the high notes at the end, and most of all the blaring trumpets. The instrumental bridge with its up-tempo rhythm and brass made me roll the windows down and crank the volume up while I drove around the suburbs, expressing myself alongside Frank. I loved that recording, and I loved Sinatra for it. "Sinatra's recording of "It Had to Be You" is by far the best" I would tell everyone. I said that to a student this morning.

Minutes ago I listened to that recording again, dragging it out of the depths of my hard drive. "Huh," I thought, "Frank sounds really strange in this recording." So I went on YouTube to search for Frank Sinatra's rendition. I found it. I also found what I had been listening to for the last dozen or so years of my life.

Thanks to a combination of mislabeling by some other hack at the turn of the millennium, losing this recording on my computer, and my own young ignorance of the vocal qualities of different singers I had been mistaking HARRY CONNICK JR for Frank Sinatra. This is almost half of my life I'm talking about here. Not only am I now questioning the origins of nearly every song I downloaded in high-school, I'm not sure I like this song now. This mislabeling may have ruined the song for me and there's no good reason why

Napster, you may be gone and buried, but your dark tendrils of deceit and misfortune have extended far into the future. Kazaa gave me viruses, but you Napster, you have ruined art.

January 10, 2014

Daily Schedule

When I was younger I was fascinated by people who had abnormal work hours. I romanticized the idea of bakers and plow drivers who worked all night and slept during the day. How great would it be, I wondered, to be awake when everyone else was a sleep and have your free time when everyone else was at work.

Now I know, and like most things of this sort, it's not that glamorous.

As a private music instructor, my hours are dictated by the free time of my students, meaning I can't start teaching until after school is out and I have to end my teaching when parents are no longer willing to bring their kids out for a lesson. Basically this comes down to 3:00-8:30 every day and weekend mornings. Most schools get out around 3:00, and from what I've gathered, the average elementary/middle school bedtime is 8:45. So even though 3:00-8:30 is my time to teach, it is difficult for many students to make it to the music school earlier than 4:00 and parents don't like to keep their kids out after 7:30. Luckily there are enough students who make it to these border times for me to put together a reasonable day.

So essentially, 3:00-8:30. If I can fill up 5 straight hours with students it's a big success. So that leaves me with the hours of 8:00am-3:00 and 8:30-midnight to figure out how to live the rest of the my life.

Contrary to what I think many people believe about musicians, I do not spend every morning sleeping until noon and every night partying at bars. Mornings are my work time on hobbies, and other musical projects (the kind that don't really make any money). It's also time for me to go to schools if I've got accompanying jobs, practice other instruments, and yes, use as relaxation.

In our society we automatically assume that the things other people do are 1) unusual 2) inferior to our own way of life. When I tell people that I spend time in the afternoon relaxing I'm usually met with giggles and scorn. If the rest of the world is at work, shouldn't I be too? I think of it this way: While the rest of the world is coming home, making dinner and popping their feet up to watch re-runs of Project Runway, I'm at work. While you're at work, I'm allowed to do some of that as well. Especially because I often work once I get home after teaching. I work before I go to work. And sometimes I work during my "non-work" time. This "work" time doesn't always earn me a lot of money, but it's still mentally taxing and within my profession.

Sometimes I get questioning looks with my definition of work. When I'm writing and recording music I call that work. When I'm practicing piano I call that work. Yes it's fun but it's also difficult and tiring. I earn very little money doing those things, but I do have some portion of my income which is helped along by my side-projects. I think the misunderstanding from others comes from the fact that their jobs are not also their hobbies. Most tax consultants don't do their job all day and then go home and for fun do more taxes. I don't think that custodians go home and break their own heating just for the chance to fix it. I'm a musician, and I enjoy what I do, so I do it all of the time.

Self-discipline is the hardest thing about being self-employed with odd working hours. It's easy to fall into a rhythm of waking up on the couch, turning the TV on, going to work in the afternoon, coming home to the couch, turning the TV on and falling asleep only to repeat day in and day out. It sounds great, and it's 100% possible. I could do that right now. Always having projects going and sticking to some semblance of a daily schedule is what keeps me going and keeps me sane. Occasionally I will have a lazy day when I don't accomplish anything and I think that's alright. I consider them vacation days. Most of the time though I keep a fairly tight discipline. This helps me accomplish my musical goals as well as stay happier and more motivated. Here's a typical schedule of my day:

8:00-8:30 - wake up and eat breakfast
8:30-12:00 - record/write music, write blog posts, compose, practice
12:00-1:30 - eat lunch, watch TV or part of a movie, practice mandolin/guitar while watching
1:30-2:00 - shower (yes, I often wait to shower until after lunch)
2:00-2:30 - practice drums
2:30 - drive to work
2:45-3:30 - practice piano
3:30-8:00 - teach piano
8:15 - drive home
8:30-9:45 - make and eat dinner
10:00-11:30 - write/record music/practice an instrument
11:30-12:00 - decompress (a quiet, non-computerized activity for 30 minutes before bed)
12:00 - bed

Not every day is like this. There are days when I can't motivate myself to do any music work in the morning, and there are days when I'm so motivated that I eat a quick lunch and record all the way up until I leave for work.

Mostly what I want to get across is that most musicians and music teachers aren't lazy because they only work between the hours of 3:00 and 8:00. Just because their hours don't match up with your own doesn't mean that they're doing it wrong. If I could teach piano from 9:00-5:00 every day I'd be doing it immediately (and I'd be making a lot of more money) but the fact is I can't, because it's impossible. So next time your music friend tells you that they stayed in their pajamas until noon don't get high-and-mighty. Not all work is done in a suit and tie. Your friend may be working their ass off every day. If you know they aren't, and they're just sitting around eating frosted flakes from dawn to dusk, then go ahead and judge, but really, aren't you just jealous?