By Sean Rule, Math
So, I’m a musician. Well, actually, I’m a drummer; I hang out with musicians. And the guys with whom I hang out and play music play very loud, very thrashy, very energetic music. As a result, we usually play to very few people. We have our moments of well – attended glory (see photo 1, courtesy of Dearric Winchester at Focus on Infinity Photography), but, usually, we play to about 30 people, give or take a few. And, they’re usually highly inebriated.
This is nothing new to me; I’ve been playing drums in punk rock bands since many COCC students were learning their ABC’s (some would say that’s why I should stop), and the turnouts have usually been abysmally low. This is not something that upsets me; that’s the topic of this little piece.
The reasons for punk rock’s low turnouts are subject to great speculation around the Hands On Throat (my current band) practice space. The first and most obvious explanation is the character of our music. Most mainstream “punk” bands (by the way, that phrase is idiotic in itself; by definition, punk rock needs to be reactionary to the mainstream) write catchy, melodic, poppy, easy – to – aurally – digest songs that are the “correct” length. My band writes songs in collapsing keys that grate against the ear, whose tempos start and stop so frequently that you can’t bop your head to keep time (let alone dance), and whose lengths vary from 20 seconds to 4 minutes (with a median of around 2.5 minutes, I’d imagine). Add to that the vocals, which are usually screamed at top volume and maximum snottiness, and you’ve got a recipe for a room clearing.
“Sean! You’ve just described the solution to your problem. Fix your songs!”, you might exclaim. Well, you see…that’s it. I don’t want to fix anything, because I don’t think anything’s “broken”. Take, for example, the entire body of one of my favorite compositions, “Look Ma…Opposable Thumbs!” (you can listen here)
“What sets us apart? Not much. Just timely execution of clever evolution. Stylized monkeys all are we. Don’t take yourself so seriously.”
That’s it. That’s the idea I needed to convey. It took 10 seconds of screaming, and just about a half of a minute for the entire song…but the idea gets delivered. It wouldn’t work in any context, other than hardcore thrash. Somehow I don’t think Green Day could’ve pulled it off (nor could we have pulled off “Basket Case”, their first big hit after signing to a major).
What’s the formula for a hit song? Who knows? I certainly don’t, and most “artists” don’t either. Producers and engineers often get hold of a raw song idea and morph it into something it wasn’t and will never be again, outside of the confines of a studio. It’s no longer real; it’s a façade. Digital recording has made this worse; now, any jokers with a PC and an illegally downloaded version of Pro Tools can pollute MySpace with their “band’s” “songs”. But I digress.
Wait a minute…maybe I’m onto something! Back in the early 90’s, shows were announced via fliers. This required paper and footwork. We would roam the streets hanging fliers on light posts until we were asked to stop by local authorities, at which point we would go door to door to the closely knit punk community’s residences and drum support. Nowadays, bands “flier” by posting jpegs online. As far as I can tell, very few people actually look at these postings, or, if they are seeing them, they’re not moving people to make it down the show. Actually, I think that the internet has made it harder to book shows. We’re all inundated with material online, so if a flier is added to the mix, who’s to say it isn’t simply flushed out of our minds like a forwarded email about the perils of drinking coffee? Or was it plastic bottles? Ah, whatever.
OK, so the answer is that 1) my band writes annoying music, and/or 2) the internet is ruining everything. Hmmmmm…that seems too easy. Maybe it’s pop music itself. Let’s revisit that one.
Consider the equal tempered scale: 12 notes, perfectly arranged, which can be arranged into ear – pleasing patterns. From that scale, musicians for hundreds of years have built melodies. Some are very well known: the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony; Barber’s Adagio; Louie, Louie. But, what makes a melody great? Memorable? Timeless? There are a whole infinitude of possible combinations of these notes, yet only some are pleasing, and fewer still ring true years after their recordings.
As a thrash band, we’re not trying to make pretty music…we’re trying to make quality music, in the vein of great bands (you’re never heard of) like Refused, Propaghandi, and DownSet (see note 1 below) . We’re trying to craft lyrics that are at once succinct, poignant, and thought – provoking. We want to sing (and scream) songs about equality, positivity, and awareness. I want to play my drums as fast and as hard as I can possibly play, driving my band and the few folks in the crowd to the very brink of collapse…and to get people’s attention away from their Blackberries and their beer, so they can hear what’s on our minds.
Yeah, this kind of music is an acquired taste, like anise biscotti or Guy Ritchie films. As such, our devotees are few and far between. But, once the taste sets in, it never lets go. See photo 2? That’s a picture emailed to me about 4 years ago from a guy who used to watch my old band, Plow United, play in Philadelphia. The phrase he had tattooed on his chest, “at least I’ll die believing”, comes from the Plow United song, “The World According to Me”:
“As I go, from day to day, I keep my head before me. And if time should end today, at least I’ll die believing.”
I wrote those lines in 1993. More than a decade later, I received that picture from 3000 miles away. Tell me that isn’t rad.
We’ll never be “successful” in the normal sense. I won’t have a gold record. The records I do have, however, are sold, traded, and stolen worldwide. Our songs are floating around, some on cassette tapes, some on CD, and some online…and I love it! I’ll never have a video on MTV, but I’m constantly sent (from former bandmates, scenesters and friends) forums and videos that have popped up with comments like, “I wish I had a chance to see them live… their music changed my life”. We’re not pretty, we’re not easy listenin’, and we’re not sonically agreeable…but we’re real. And that, I think, is what people like.
At least, the 30 that come to our shows.
Endnote: Interestingly enough, I was going to hyperlink a My Chemical Romance song (“Welcome to the Black Parade”) in this blog to compare a commercial pop band (them) to a nasty, abrasive hardcore band (us). However, Warner Brothers (MCR’s label, I presume) pulled the clip. That means that, rather than let fans enjoy the song and its video, they’d instead chose to deny fans the avenue to spread attention. Never have I been happier to not be attached to the commercial machine that is the record industry. Do It Yourself!
 If you choose to watch these clips, you might notice things like, “Hey! DownSet sounds like Rage against the Machine!” Yup. DownSet was, however, around years before RATM’s mainstream success. Why Rage got popular and these guys didn’t is beyond me. Also, I suppose I should warn you…there are some “bad words” in there. George Carlin, rest his soul, would be thrilled.