Friday, April 26, 2013

Rockin' in Dennis's Basement

The WannaBeatles are getting serious about our new album. 

Not that we weren't serious before, but now it's taken on a more intense quality, as we scrape away normal items from our schedules to make room for the real nitty gritty of bouncing ideas back and forth to find out how our own group-written songs will go.

There's a sad but revealing scene in the movie "Let It Be" where Paul and George are seen working together in the studio, somewhat listlessly, and George says, calmly but with a lingering hint of bitterness, "I'll play whatever you want me to play." 
What happened to the Beatles, psychologically, creatively, emotionally - as they made their way from charming pop idols to world-weary professionals - is not without its sobering lessons. 

While the Beatles may have inspired millions of us to become musicians, to embrace the dream that being in a band was a uniquely exciting prospect, it's also true that they broke up, went their own individual ways, and became very different people from the inspiring characters we first met in '63 or '64, if we're old enough to remember. 
And although they were a band, they were also individuals who exerted their own individual visions, or, by nature of the dynamics between them, imposed their visions on each other. John and Paul were the driving forces, writing most of the songs and determining the overall musical course, even when it dispersed into the "home movie" informality of the White Album. George was basically an unappreciated younger brother, until nearly the end, when his songs on Abbey Road, "Something" and "Here Comes The Sun," established him as an equally valid contributor. Ringo was never in the band as a writer or singer; his role was to serve the creative expressions of the others, which he did cheerfully and patiently.
The group was presented and viewed as four guys, but the musical output was overwhelmingly dependent upon the energy, style, and ideas of John and Paul.

With us, there's no obvious imbalance. We're all four qualified and experienced, to varying degrees, as writers, singers, players, arrangers and producers. What's unusual is the process of embarking upon a songwriting effort where four minds - all loaded with ideas, but coming from various stylistic backgrounds - attempt to coordinate the intricate process of putting songs together.

We've been humbled, and challenged, by realizing that our assumptions, and skills, were not enough to prepare us for the complexity of making something that we're all involved in and feel excited about.

It's a great lesson in relational dynamics, and the nature of creative work. 

The most recent example is "We're Still Rockin'," which started as an idea from David, who wanted to do a fast number in the manner of "Good Lovin'" by the Rascals. We had recently learned and performed that song, and came to appreciate its energy and simplicity. David, being Cuban and very conversant with Latin grooves, helped us see the roots of Dino's drum part, which was largely the Puerto Rican presence in New York. (Check out "West Side Story" or "Spanish Harlem" for other signposts of this major cultural influence in pop music history.)

But our influences are far too rich to take one song as a model. Another one David mentioned was "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." by John Mellencamp, which is not quite as fast, or rhythmically complex, as "Good Lovin'" but equally powerful and simple. 
David presented a rough draft of his song a couple of weeks ago. 

Dennis got a hold of it and put his own New York spin on it, changing the order of the words in the title, to rephrase the melody. I took Dennis's version, and made a rough demo, rearranging some of David's chords in the pre-chorus to allow four beats on an F#minor chord rather than two. 

Then Dennis came up with an alternate lyrical concept, which was called "Now We're Rockin'." This version doubled the length of David's original pre-chorus section. 

Two days later, we were at Fox 17 to do a promotional appearance for Fabulous Females Fighting Cancer, a benefit show we're doing tonight, and Dennis took the opportunity to gather us in the break room, where we looked at the song in its most recent form. That's when Nathan came up with the idea of changing the key for the chorus, giving the listener a real surprise. 

So I went home a made another demo trying out some new chord changes for the chorus. Dennis responded in an email, suggesting that the new key be extended for four bars, rather than two. 

Meanwhile, David took Dennis's suggestion of "surprising us" and changed a chord in the pre-chorus, making it sound, as he said, more like Philly - one of those sophisticated Gamble and Huff productions from the 70's. 

After all these versions and trials, we still weren't finished. We spent much of Wednesday looking at lyrics, and trying out chorus structures. David had made a new demo, and added another surprise: a whistle solo. This was totally unexpected - even to him - and we loved it. 

As we continued to quote other songs and ideas, I commented that the process was "an idiomatic picnic," where an abundance of treats were available to us, like treats in a picnic basket, and we kept reaching in to taste this or that influence or sound or approach that had caught our attention through the years.

We tried playing the song together, first just two of us. I had Dennis's acoustic guitar, and David sat at the drums. As he played the Latin groove which he conceived for the intro, I found a simple little guitar lick that went along with it - primarily echoing the changes we'd already established, but with some variation in the chords. We were starting to move from "La Bamba" changes to something a more like Steve Miller's "Living in the U.S.A."

At this point we started to record in our "home" studio at Dennis's basement, taking David's rough demo and importing it into a new ProTools session. We played it together as a foursome, with me adding some guitar fills and Dennis trying out an acoustic guitar with a capo. All the way, we're looking, trying out parts, finding bass lines, experimenting with chords and sounds. 

It was in rough shape, but ready to put some ideas on tape (so to speak...) Nathan played a bass and keyboard part, and David sang a scratch vocal. I tried putting on some guitar parts, but when we listened back, Dennis thought it was too "safe." 

David pulled out his iPhone and located Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." for reference. What was it that made that record kick so hard? My impression was guitars not necessarily distorted, but rather played with ferocious intensity - strummed with total abandon. Although, of course, total abandon has to have rhythmic accuracy. Otherwise, it's chaos rather than groove.

But it was a clue to a different approach. I switched to a simple, and relatively unrestrained, rhythm part, letting the A string ring, while the upper strings traced the chord changes. 

Dennis and David smiled - they knew we had something. Gone were the polite guitar fills. Now the verse was just the simple lick, under the vocals, alternating with ferocious strumming, to fill those spaces. David said we'd found the key to unlocking the song.

Another part of what we're doing, as we create this way, is encountering the durable dichotomy between thinking and feeling. We've done plenty of thinking, as we've studied the Beatles songs, and determined exactly what parts to play. That's an important part of being a musician. But the feeling part is equally important. And it's hard to do both at the same time. 

What we were experiencing as we played "Rockin'" as we were trying to learn it, is that it lacked energy. It was not inspiring. We were too involved with the intellectual process of learning the song to enjoy it.

But when we simplified it, and Dennis and David encouraged me to try a wilder approach, I immediately found something that felt good, and that helped the whole song come alive.

We still aren't at the finish line, but we're discovering a lot as we work to put these things together.

I know it's at least a little like what the Beatles went through. But in some ways, it's better. Being four guys who're all creative and all willing to listen to each other is harder than being two leaders and two followers, but we're willing to do the work to be who we are, and we're looking forward to other people listening to the results.

I'd be inclined to show examples of the rough drafts of the song to illustrate the process, but out of respect for the other members of the team, I will restrain my impulse, and ask you to wait for the album to hear "Now We're Rockin'" and a big bunch of other songs I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Believe me, it's a lot more fun to hear it than to read about it.

Bloggin' Bryan 26April13

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Going Global

Last week, we played in Paris, Tennessee. We stopped for a photo at their 60 foot tall replica of the Eiffel Tower.

OK, it's not Europe, but it's a reference. 

We had a great time playing in Paris April 12.  Here's the photo and caption from the Paris Post-Intelligencer: 

The WannaBeatles perform with the Paris-Henry County Youth Orchestra as they start the second half of their concert Friday night at the Krider Performing Arts Center. The group was assisted in their delivery of classic Beatles tunes by the orchestra and the Henry County Madrigals. The band includes (from left) David Toledo, drums; Bryan Cumming, guitar; Dennis Scott, guitar; and Nathan Burbank, bass and keyboards.

A few weeks ago, we played in Cherokee, N.C., which is technically not in the U.S., since it's owned and governed by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. 

Still, not exactly global. But a clue that we were headed out to larger pastures.

Several weeks ago, (blog 3/28) we reported being involved in a project based in Liverpool called Beatles Global Relay. It was finally released last week. 

We were among twenty bands from all over the world, from countries like France, Japan, Sweden, Australia, Israel, Slovakia and Argentina. We each played our own version of "From Me To You," which was edited together to form one continuous but very diverse rendition of the song, to celebrate the 50th anniversary (April 11, 1963) of its release in Great Britain.

We were proud to represent Nashville. We saw two other American bands in the video (All Together Now from New England, and another called Union Jack.) We were amazed and impressed with the variety and quality of bands from all over the world.

here's the youtube link: 

It's already had about 7600 views. 

What's interesting is to see all the different ways the bands play the song. Each one is on for about five seconds, along with their name and the flag of the country they're from. 

One of the most authentic and impressive, in terms of capturing the flavor of the sixties, was a group called The Backwards. Their slot starts around 1:24. Their footage is in black and white, which helps them look and sound like British pop stars of the early sixties. I didn't recognize their flag, a fancy crest on a field with three horizontal stripes of red, blue and white. After searching the web, I found out it's Slovakia.

One of the most innovative approaches is a group called Getting Better, who sound like they wanted to turn "From Me To You" into a punk anthem. (starting at 1:52 on the video) They're the only band in the video that takes a distinct departure from imitating the parts the Beatles played on the song. Their flag is two horizontal light blue stripes with a white stripe between them, containing a yellow crest. Again, a web search yielded the country Argentina. 

Right after that (at 1:59) is one of the most interesting flags in the whole collection: the green flag of Brazil, with is yellow diamond in the middle, filled with a large blue globe with a white belt around it that suggests Saturn with its rings. The band with that colorful flag is called Hocus Pocus. 

Undoubtedly one of the cutest entries is a group of young teenage girls from Japan, called The Clover (at 2:40) They look like middle school cheerleaders. They do a fine job.

The Beatles Global Relay is a joint venture between the Cavern Club (where the Beatles played in their early days) and The Beatles Story, a museum in Liverpool.

Seeing all those flags from all those countries, and being part of the project,  gives us a thrill. 

It shows that Beatles songs have been heard and loved all over the world, inspiring young musicians everywhere to take up their instruments and go for it. It's truly an earth changing experience, a small sign of how big music is, and how small the world can be when we all come together in a common joyful purpose. 

We're glad to go global. We've always felt that's part of who we are, because music is not limited by national boundaries. Nashville, as Music City, is a global city, and we're glad to be part of it. Music is the language that goes everywhere. With the Beatles Global Relay, we have a concrete example of how that can look. We're happy to join up with all these other bands from all over the world.

Bloggin' Bryan 20 April 2013

Thursday, April 11, 2013

One Good Intern Deserves Another

Last October, The WannaBeatles attended the Belmont Internship Fair, which brought us into contact with dozens of bright young students entering the music business. We ended up with a tall dark songwriter musician named Dylan Morris, who's been helping us out with lots of WannaBeatle chores for the last few months. 

We were among about 85 local businesses who occupied booths at the fair, which took place in the massive Curb Event Center. Belmont organizes their intern program so that interns can gain academic credit for the time they spend with local music firms. 

We were growing fond of Dylan, appreciating his help, even enjoying his songwriting, but his time with us was limited. Internships are semester based, so we have to say goodbye this month to Dylan, just in time for Belmont's spring fair, which we attended this week.
                             Our favorite intern - Dylan

We had a booth alongside other music companies. It was mostly labels, management, and publishing companies. We were the only band there. It was exciting to see all the students walking around investigating their opportunities to get involved in this industry. Many are musicians and songwriters, but an even larger proportion of them are studying business and marketing. 

Here are a few of the students we met. Andrew, wearing a tie, is from Colorado. He does live sound and audio production. He's started his own youtube channel, and has already posted 25 videos there. 
                              Andrew Christenberry

Here's a photo of David working the table, talking to Andrew.

Paris Draper stopped by to talk with us. She's pursuing public relations. 
                                Paris Draper

Stephen Roberts is from Dallas. He has a band with some buddies back there, called "Mama Would Be Proud." They've already produced three albums, mostly his songs, although they don't do much live performance. He's taking a course in Recording the Beatles, which naturally interested us. 
                               Stephen Roberts

Caroline Plyler is a former dancer, currently interested in concert promotion. Her dad started and owns a chain of oil change facilities called Grease Monkey, so she's familiar with entrepreneurial work. 

                              Caroline Plyler

There were about a dozen more students who came by our booth long enough to talk a while and leave their contact info. 

It was quite an an experience to see so much young eagerness and talent walking around, realizing that these students will be the leaders, managers and innovators of the music business in another decade or so. It's a treat to have this opportunity to work with them on a personal level.

We've enjoyed working with and getting to know Dylan, and we look forward to all our future interns. Thanks to Belmont and their intern program for providing such fresh energy to our business and community.

Bloggin' Bryan 11 April 13

Thursday, April 4, 2013

First Gig Outside the U.S. - Cherokee, N.C.

We left the country. We played a gig this week in Cherokee N.C., which is technically not in the U.S.

It's property owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, which also operates a massive Harrah's resort hotel and casino. It's a popular destination, near Gatlinburg, ski resorts, beautiful rivers, and the Smoky Mountains. 

We were hired to play at an employee "pep rally" for the Harrah's hotel and casino. Because the casino never closes, there are employees for every shift of the day. That meant two parties: one at 8 am, and the other at 8 pm. 

They had a sixties theme for their party, which meant in addition Beatles songs they wanted some other classic sixties songs. We were happy to work up songs like The Rascals' "Good Lovin'," The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," and Santana's "Oye Como Va." (Dennis couldn't resist giving that one a new Jewish title, calling it "Oy Vey Como Va.")

The parties were on Tuesday, so we we drove there Monday, and set up that afternoon and evening.

It took about 5 hours to get there from Nashville, in our WannaVan & trailer. Getting into town, we noticed that street signs are written in two languages: English, and some odd letters we didn't recognize. That turned out to be the Cherokee alphabet, one of the contributions from the famous Cherokee chief Sequoia about two centuries ago.

We saw a huge sign advertising an upcoming show by Reba in their event center. It was like a little slice of Vegas plopped down in these rolling Carolina mountains.

We were greeted by our contact Clayton, who explained that the entire hotel operation was run by Cherokee Indians. Their land is legally distinct from the U.S., run with its own laws and legislature. He took us by the security desk, where we traded in our driver's licenses for badges that were necessary as we loaded equipment through a secure area to get it to the room where we were playing. 

The hotel, we discovered, had recently undergone a $650 million renovation. So it was pretty impressive. 

Here's a cell phone photo of an unusual fireplace near the lobby, with flames coming out of small stones, under a rectangular canopy. 

Here's what the elaborate lighting in our bathroom looked like. 

Here's a view of the Soco Creek running along the property, under a bridge between two towers. 

To accent the sixties theme, they had tie-dye designs for table cloths, and peace signs all over the walls. The lava lamps on each table were a treat unto themselves, constantly changing colors, as you can see from this brief video. 

We were greatly assisted by our Harrah's crew, Matt Humke and Scott Howe, who helped us load the gear and ran a very nice sound system for us. Matt was a Belmont grad, so it was a bit of a Nashville homecoming to have him working with us. He had worked on lower Broadway for a while, and told us he was coming back to Nashville in a few weeks for the Black Keys/Flaming Lips show at Bridgestone arena.  

Here's a photo with Scott and Matt.

Another extra treat was the parody song which Dennis wrote for their general manager, Brooks. It was a take off on "Hey Jude" called "Hey Brooks," which had lines about his raising goats and chickens and keeping the employees in line. He turned out to be a very nice guy, appreciated by his employees. He gave a pep talk to the empolyees there, thanking them for helping set new records for the number of hundred dollar bills spent in a day at the resort. 

Our stay included two complimentary meal tickets, including the tip. (We had a discussion about whether that meant they paid the tip, and it actually did.) We used our meal tickets on Paula Deen's Kitchen for the morning. They opened at 7, and that meant ordering and eating a massive breakfast before being onstage for the 8 am show. 

In the late afternoon, we indulged at the Chef's Stage Buffet, which offers  dishes from a variety of cuisines, at sumptuous stations with names like Asian, Mexican, Italian, American Comfort, and Dessert. Dennis and David both raved about a broccoli cheese casserole, which sounds like an unusual object of delight when so many other fancy dishes were available, but there you have it.

Here we are in our civilian clothes, after dinner, on the bridge overlooking the creek.

It's a beautiful place, and we were glad to be there. Knowing that Cherokee is technically not in the U.S. makes us feel like we had a genuine getaway. 

And we didn't even need a passport.

Bloggin' Bryan, 4 April 2013