Rock out, dude!
[The college guide to starting a rock band]
Chico State student and local band member Matt Brown has discovered a rule of life to avoid true pain: Never fall in love, and never start a band. He, of course, has broken it more than once. Everyone breaks the first part of the rule, he says, so you might as well just put your other foot in the fire, too.
If you are going to ignore reason and start a college band, the understanding is that you have to live with the consequences of your actions, because starting a band is a mire of frustrations. Band members who don’t want to practice. Gigs that get cancelled at the last minute, ruining your evening and the evenings of the 30 or so friends you called. Broken equipment and a constant lack of money. The list is miles long, ending with the post-college breakup, when everyone parts ways.
But, despite its curses, being in a band can be a memorable college experience, as long as you know what you’re doing. Starting down the right roads is important—we wouldn’t want you wasting time writing nü-metal lyrics with your reggae-roommate bass player. To that end, this is the starving student’s guide to starting a college rock band, playing shows and becoming a rock star. Proceed at your own risk.
Step 1: Learn to play something.
Besides lessons (only rich kids and soccer moms really need lessons), a fast way to get good at playing is just to pick up a guitar and figure out a bunch of easy songs. Bands like Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Soundgarden provide easy-to-learn, current material that will impress your roommates and your hot female neighbors. Just make sure you know the whole song you’re learning, not just the main riff, slacker. Tablature makes life a lot easier, so look online and in guitar books for the number-based notation system. The site www.guitartabs.net has links to several guitar-related sites, and www.tabcrawler.com lets you search by song title. Skip “Stairway,” because no one wants to hear it.
Step 2: Get good equipment.
Anyone who has tried to make a chintzy pawn shop guitar sound like the Hendrix song they’re trying to play will tell you that you need to get at least halfway decent equipment in order not to sound like a musical joke. This could mean throwing yourself deep into credit card debt, but we all end up there at some point, right?
Herreid Music employee Dennis Rodriguiz offers some insight into buying a decent guitar, for those of you who haven’t given up after trying to learn the intro to “Nothing Else Matters.” The quality of instrument you want, he says, basically depends on how serious you are about being in a band.
“If you plan on sticking to it, obviously get a [more expensive] one,” he said.
More expensive guitars typically last longer, sound better and are more precisely made than cheaper ones, he said. Of course, nicer guitars take nicer-sized chunks out of your bank account, ranging in price from around $600 to over $1000 in stores.
But for those who plan on putting the guitar in the closet and being kindergarten teachers after college, Rodriguiz suggests investing in one that won’t set your income back 10 years.
“The [cheap] guitars aren’t horrible—they’re not going to fall apart on you,” he said. “They’ll last a few years while you’re in college.”
He recommends the Fender Squire (the low-budget version of the famous Stratocaster), a favorite of beginning guitarists everywhere. Squires typically sell for less than $200 but can hold up well through those raucous backyard parties and drunken stage stunts.
But the most expensive electric guitar is nothing more than an expensive log without an amp to plug it into. And choosing an amp is like choosing between attractive coeds on campus.
“There’s so many amps out there,” Rodriguiz agrees.
Brand names are only important if you know what sound you’re looking for—it’s a good idea to just ask the store employees about that, he says. But also, like the campus coeds, size matters.
“The key element is you have to compete with the drums,” he said. “I’ve seen people get away with a 1-12.”
A “1-12” is an amplifier with one 12-inch speaker. Bigger amps often come with 4-12 speaker cabinets, and some people even think they need more than one 4-12 cabinet.
“I’ve seen shows that were so loud,” Rodriguiz said. “Some people can’t [judge] the power they need.”
Unless you’re trying to get the police involved, two 12-inch speakers should be enough for most bands, he says.
Step 3: Find people with like tastes.
As everyone knows, nothing gets on a rock guy’s nerves musically more than a funk guy. Furthermore, funk guys hate punk, punks hate hip-hop, rappers hate emo, emo guys hate metal, metalheads hate everything, and everyone hates nü-metal. This means your plane isn’t getting off the runway unless your crew is going where you’re going.
In other words, you might have to do some serious looking to find the right band members. You can force a metal drummer to play reggae, but sooner or later he will start throwing in his own two cents’ worth, and it’s usually beneficial if his two cents are from the same country as yours.
When one local group of friends (one of them might have written this article) began putting together a punk-influenced, garage-style rock band, all they needed was a bassist. Their songs were pretty easy; it should have been no problem for any trained monkey to play the bass lines they came up with. The dreaded ad-in-the-paper method produced one funk bassist. He was good, but it sounded awful. Bassist candidate No. 2 had the same problem. Bassist candidate No. 3 was into the Fat Wreck Chords pop-punk sound, and while he was good, he quickly got bored with the band’s slower style of music and started flaking. It took a month or so of playing without a bassist before this band found someone who could play and liked the same style of music.
Yes, it is hard sometimes, but if your friends don’t work out, musicians of all types can be found in the classified section of any local publication, as well as among the multitude of fliers gracing downtown stores and delis. Just keep looking.
Step 4: Come up with songs.
Writing is hard, and so is art, and the talent required to do both at the same time can sometimes be enough to make a Zen monk drive his head through a church wall. Chico Matt Brown, formerly of local punk band Pepper Spray Trey, currently of local band The Mishaps, is familiar with the process.
“The more you write the better you get at it,” he said. His first influence, back in his early high-school years, was Nirvana.
“I tried to write songs like that, but I didn’t take heroin, so they weren’t as good,” he said.
Finding something to write about isn’t a problem, though, if you know what you’re looking for in a band, he says.
“Music is supposed to be an outlet for the real-world bullshit,” he said.
For instance, such songs as “Tie Dye’s Ugly,” with its anthem “I hate hippies/ And I hate you,” out of his high-school band’s repertoire, is pretty straightforward. Some songs are eternal, meaning they are relevant at any point in time, and others, such as “Even Clinton Inhaled,” also from Brown’s high-school band, are time-specific.
"[Timely songs] become outdated, so it’s kind of frustrating, especially when you don’t record them for four or five years after you create the song,” Brown said.
And then some songs are just supposed to be funny, like the Pepper Spray Trey song “Joe Puked on Dan,” about an incident at a party: “I didn’t see it but it’s worthy of a song/ No one could have guessed that anything was wrong/ Simple conversation quickly went awry/ When projectile vomit splashed on Dan’s right side.” Some of these songs, including lyrics, are posted online at web.csuchico.edu/~mb79 for any curious songwriters interested.
Brown says he occasionally writes the words to a song before he has music, and sometimes he recycles old songs by putting new words to them, but most of his songs happen on the guitar before they happen on paper. However, nothing happens at all unless there is proper motivation. Brown’s comes from actually being in a band.
“It just doesn’t seem right to me unless you have bass and drums to go with it,” he said.
Hence the cantankerous art of band practice…
Step 5: Find a place to practice.
The resourceful college rock band can practice in a 3’x10’dirt bunker in the middle of a frozen tundra in Siberia. Of course, it’s a better idea if someone has a shed in his yard, a basement or something equally respectable.
To local band Inflatable Supermodel, home is a free-standing garage on the lead singer’s property. The Mishaps and local band The Takers share the basement of a house, though the resemblance to a 3’x10’ bunker in this case is disturbing. The former local band Brown Bag made a practice space and recording studio out of a backyard shed cleverly dubbed “the sheddio.” Despite extravagant attempts at soundproofing, this band managed to feud endlessly with the neighbors, proving that some situations are just hopeless.
You might have to swallow your pride and cram into your cubicle-sized bedroom, but as long as you have band members, equipment, songs, and a place to practice, you’ve gone too far to back out. You’re deep in the woods now, Dr. Livingston.
Step 6: Practice a lot.
Being in a band could be seen as practice for being married, because you won’t spend as much time with anyone who isn’t a significant other. The Mishaps meet in the basement sometimes four days a week for around an hour to an hour and a half. Brown says he wishes it was more.
“In a perfect world I’d like to practice four to five hours, but we have other things to do,” he said. “We’re not professional musicians, we’re college students.”
The best way to do it is to establish a regular schedule, he says.
“That’s how humans work, especially Americans,” he said. “If you have to be somewhere at 5, you’ll be there, unless you’re a screw-up.”
Adding songs to the anthology is also key, Brown said, because things have to stay fresh, or they start to go rotten. Pepper Spray Trey fell victim to that bucket o’ maggots when people started flaking, nothing new was happening and things started getting boring.
“It never really felt like we were a team,” Brown said. “It’s supposed to be fun. When it starts becoming a job, that’s when you hit trouble.”
Out of two main ingredients to a happy band, he says, the first is new songs. The other is—gasp—playing shows.
Step 7: Book a show.
In Chico, a good place to make a name for yourself is at the bars. No, not the way you usually make a name for yourself, you drunk jackass—we mean becoming a regular stage act.
Katie Perry, booking representative at the Riff Raff Rock Bar, says the key is the press packet: a few songs on a CD and a bio telling the band’s name, where you’re from, and the style of music.
Perry receives four to six new press packets every day, which adds up to almost 30 a week. They form a formidable pile every time she checks in on them. So yours had better be pretty.
“It helps to stand out of the stack,” she said. One band, Monkey Torture, stood out just because of the cheerful name.
“I listened to it and I loved it, so I’ve been hooking them up with shows up and down,” Perry said.
Many local bands, in fact, make it through and regularly play at the Riff Raff.
“More than I can count on my hands and toes,” she said. “I almost need to write it down, there’s so many.”
It’s kind of like a little secret society, in fact. The next step is to penetrate it and become one of them.
Step 8: Make connections.
Now that one venue owner likes you, you have to be a social butterfly and get other people to like you also, so you can play more shows. That means even if you’re in a world-hating death-and-burning-flesh metal band, you still have to be a nice guy on the outside.
“Crazy” Joe Manente of local rock outfit Inflatable Supermodel has mastered the art of knowing the right people in Chico. His band traveled far from its from humble, beer-soaked backyard roots.
“We basically survived on backyard parties for the first year,” he said. “Everyone who [hosted them] we usually met because they saw our band somewhere.”
Backyard parties provided the recognition to get the band into the Riff Raff Rock Bar, where its huge following gathers in mob fashion for every show.
“We got in with those guys, and that was that,” Manente said.
The band has since played out of town and out of state with other touring bands, and Manente says he and his band mates look forward to touring on their own bandwagon.
Step 9: Become a rock star.
Congratulations, you read this entire article and followed its advice, so now you can call yourself a respectable band. You can start wearing sunglasses indoors and sign autographs with a wavy, incomprehensible squiggle. Time to abruptly change your style, alienate your following, start doing hard drugs and sue your band mates!
But whether or not you wear fur and acknowledge people with a curt nod, at least you will now have something to look back on when you are old and no longer able to move your arthritic fingers. Being in a college band is addictive, but the memories will be worth it. Just ask those who have been there.
“I have to be in a band," Matt Brown said. "You can’t touch that.