Friday, July 29, 2011

My Musical Life - Part 8

When I started playing with the UCO jazz program in fall 1997, my contacts in the local music scene got a helpful boost, as many of the other students and instructors were gigging musicians like me. I got some pick-up gigs quickly, mostly on bass (everyone needs a bass player), and word also got around to a couple of local cover bands, fairly high on that particular food chain, with unsettled bass situations. I tried out for one band who were thinking of firing their bass player, but they ended up reconciling. Then I got a call from another band, a very well-established band in the local scene - the guy I spoke with told me that their bass player was moving to Atlanta soon. I went to one of their club shows and sat in on bass for a few songs, and it went well, and it looked like I was going to get the spot. I definitely wanted to join, despite the band's stodgy set list, since the band had lots of gigs and ones that would pay me better than I'd made with any other band before (granted, not that much). I needed the money: note recurring theme. Well, it took an unusually long time for them to get back to me, and when they did I heard the news - their bassist, on the night before he was supposed to leave for Atlanta, totaled his car. He wasn't hurt too badly, but this meant he couldn't afford to move and had to stay in town and with the band. Oh jeez, c'mon, what are the odds of that...

I was bummed, of course. I needed a gig. But what I didn't know was that this would turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. In February 1998, not long after, I got a phone call from a guy named Wayman, who I'd worked with briefly in shipping and receiving at the state health department - seven years (!) before. Wayman was a drummer, and he and I went to lunch together a few times, talked about music, played demo tapes for each other. I hadn't heard from him since then, so this was quite the surprise. Thank the flying spaghetti monster that I have a weird name and am thus easy to find in a phone book. Wayman told me that he had this band called Banana Seat...are you ready for this - with ELEVEN members in it, a full horn section, two female singers...the band did 70s and early 80s music, stuff with big arrangements: Chicago, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Earth Wind and Fire. A lot of that older stuff I knew and liked. My mind was blowing about then, and he mentioned that they were firing their keyboardist and invited me down to try out. Which I did, with a quickness, and got the spot.

I was going to make my debut with them in a few weeks, but after I got the tapes of the songs to learn, Wayman told me that their departing keyboardist wasn't going to be able to play that weekend. I said I'd do it. This meant learning keyboard parts to 35 songs in four days, and it wasn't just comping piano chords - I had to know the arrangements, a string part here, a synth part there, a hand clap after the guitar solo. At least well enough to get the band through the gig. I stayed up all night charting and learning songs that night. I'm sure I missed a lot of little details in that first show, but no matter. I was wondering how in the heck an 11-member band could manage to get paid playing clubs in the OKC area, and when I got to that first show I learned how: the place was packed wall-to-wall. The band was getting really popular locally just about then. So that was energizing, and even more so, the music was so fun to play! Especially on keys. It was pop, but the task was damn near as challenging as playing jazz, in a different way. Had to juggle a lot of parts on two keyboards, all while handling more patch changes live than I'd ever had to before. I was overjoyed.

I would end up playing in Banana Seat for five years, and we played a LOT. Almost every weekend, Friday and Saturday, for almost the whole time I was in the band. Oklahoma City, Norman, Tulsa, lots of private parties and weddings (where the real money was made). I did close to 500 shows with the band, more than with every other band I've been in, combined. For the first three years we were at or near the very top of our local scene, as far as cover bands went. We had the top booking agency in town booking us, and we brought in a boatload of money: even after the money was divided 11 ways instead of the four or five that a typical band would have, I was still making twice or three times what I'd made in bands before then. Wasn't quite enough to live on, but not all that far off at the best of times.

What our club shows were like: we'd usually play 3-4 sets, 30-35 songs. Start at 10, quit near 2. Our audience was maybe 60-70 percent female, which I can't say I objected to. Lots of eye candy to look at from the stage. Our stage plot was unusual - Wayman, the drummer, set up front center stage, since he was also the lead singer. The four horns (two trumpets, trombone, alto sax) were on a platform behind him; the two female singers to one side of the stage, with me and the lead guitarist behind them; and the bassist and rhythm guitarist on the other side. We had lots of little period props, like a Lite-Brite and an old TV playing Sid and Marty Krofft kids' shows, and lots of percussion toys all over the place. Tons of mikes, because we had five regular singers. (I wasn't one of them, but it was okay since the keyboard parts had me so busy I couldn't have covered that many backing vocals anyway.) Very often the club stages we played on were too small for us, so we were cramped onstage a lot - I can remember my back hurting after shows sometimes from being wedged in behind my keyboard rig in a less than natural position. You do what you gotta do, and besides, we often got free beer so I didn't feel the back pain until later!

The band's image was...okay, I say this lovingly, if y'all Banana Seaters are reading this, and the crowds didn't seem to mind, but jeez, we looked boring. "Network Solution Associates Business Sales Department, Midwest Region, out on happy hour" would cover it reasonably well. And we weren't making up for it with stage moves either, not that it would have been a great idea to begin with. The music spoke for us, though, and I think we did a good job choosing songs. We took pains to avoid the obvious choices - we wouldn't play the #1 hit, so much as we'd play that follow-up that peaked at #14, but that you have cool memories of. We were always getting requests for the most obvious choices - "Brick House" and "Play That Funky Music" were the most frequent ones. We never played either song; we were a cover band, but we did the covers we wanted to do.

Despite our palpable lack of a cool image, we continued to draw well enough that we got to open for some well-known 80s acts, most notably Men at Work (who were fantastic) and Rick Springfield (who wasn't). Maybe 3,000 in the audience at each show, something like that. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a serious rush to do that, but really, it's not that much different than a smaller show. You still set your gear up, play the songs on the set list taped to the stage by your feet as best you can like you rehearsed them, and then it's over and you go drink some more and talk to people and stuff.

We had some experienced songwriters in the band - Steve, the rhythm guitarist, Chris, the bassist, Wayman the drummer/lead singer, and me. About, what was it, 2000, we started playing a few originals, and we had plans to go into a nearby studio and record a CD. With the good turnouts at our shows, surely we'd sell a few, no? And I was definitely dreaming of writing originals for this band - how could I not? I mean, an 11-piece band, with horns and five or six skilled vocalists and everything, and established in a style that was a comfortable fit for my own? The band could have played the hell out of the Trembles stuff had they a mind to, though that wasn't going to happen and shouldn't have - those songs are in my voice, not theirs. And I'd be writing with other writers - good ones, but stylistically quite different, more early power-pop influenced, not jazz/soul/arena rock influenced as I was. And as fun as a lot of our material was to perform, playing mostly the same covers weekend after weekend was getting a little old, and I hungered to get back into some original music.

The Banana Seat CD, called Everything Glitters, took two years to make. If that sounds like some tooth-pulling was involved, yes, that's correct. The process was drawn out and at times contentious, and by the end of it we were kind of exhausted musically and emotionally, I suspect. One issue was that the four writers were the only ones really that enthusiastic about doing the original thing, which I wasn't happy about at the time, but looking back I understand. It's one thing to ask someone to rehearse once or twice a week, play two gigs on the weekends, have fun and get paid. It's quite another to ask someone to commit to a creative vision not their own, to the point of rehearsing all the time and playing shows full of originals for no money, which might lead to, what, regional touring - let's all get in a van and drive around busting our balls so we can play for tiny crowds in medium-small dot towns up the Pacific coast or wherever...the members of the band were older this time, and some of them were married with kids. Not sure what I was really expecting there; I'd have done all that, but I had nothing to lose. And I was unnecessarily obnoxious about a lot of creative issues, I'll freely admit. But what hurt more on a personal level is that here was a golden opportunity to show what I could do as a writer, and I really didn't back the talk with material. I have two writing credits on the 10-song album, but the number isn't the point; I had a lot of respect for the other writers in the band and was happy to have their work represented as much or more than my own. My songs are good songs, I think, but I was haunted by the thought that I had better stuff in me that I didn't get out when it mattered. And that this might be the best chance I'd ever have with a band - though that didn't really take into account the reality of the situation, either. I was past 30, with no particular successes outside of music, and the selfish sense that this would be my last best run at musical notoriety was in play as well.

We gave it a brief run, playing the songs off the album, selling a few CDs. Didn't really make a splash and we went back to our usual covers business...but there was one great adventure left even then. On the way home from a Tulsa gig, Wayman and I were talking and he mentioned there was this project organized by some musicians in other local OKC bands called the Mixtape Club. The idea was that every month or two the club would put on a show, covering the songs of one particular artist for a whole night; various bands and guest musicians would all pitch in to pull the show off. And one artist they had thought about was Steely Dan, and Banana Seat (who played some Steely Dan already) was about the only band around who could pull something like that off. Both Wayman and I are huge Steely Dan fans - sometimes after rehearsal he and I would stay after and jam on some say one thing about my friend Wayman, he's an eternal optimist. He believed we could do anything, that huge success was always just around the corner; it wasn't always, of course, but we did have a lot of success when you look back, so in many respects Wayman's been vindicated.

So anyway, we kept talking on that ride home, and what started as one or two sets, total of ten, twelve, maybe fifteen songs, became "we're going to learn three full sets of Steely Dan". And given the timetable of the project, we had two months or so to pull it off. Whoa, anyone who knows Steely Dan's music knows, it's among the most complex music ever to succeed on the pop charts. Steely Dan themselves didn't play live after their first couple of albums, and most of their classic 70s releases were done with a phalanx of ace L.A. studio musicians who rendered their jazzy tracks smooth as silk. This was another enterprise where most of the band had to be cajoled into it - we were definitely spending whatever currency we had with everybody. A ton of rehearsals, both as a full band and in sections - horns, vocals, rhythm players. There was just so much to learn, so quickly. Aside from handling all the keyboards, a daunting task in itself, my role was to write out charts for the bassist and for the horns. I'd come home every night from work and go at it, for weeks. Constantly on deadline. My chops were up, I'll say that. We had the help of a number of talented guest musicians, too, which was fun and a much-needed boost, I think. We played the Steely Dan tribute show in December 2002, and while it wasn't perfect - how could it have been - we pulled it off damn believably, and it was perhaps the most satisfying live musical experience I've ever had, bar none, even more than opening for big acts or playing in front of large crowds. The second set was the Aja album, in its entirety. We painted a backdrop of the album cover; Marnie and Melissa, our two female singers, dressed in Japanese costumes for the performance of the title track. The night ended with a sloppy but fun rendition of the complex, reharmonized Alive in America version of Reelin' in the Years. There were maybe 50-75 people in the audience, many good friends of ours and guest performers. It was a celebration, one we'd really worked hard for. I'm indebted to everyone in Banana Seat and the guest performers for the joy I got from that night - this was a collective achievement through and through. 

Anyway, returning to the Banana Seat album: was it any good? I'm listening to it right now, for the first time in at least five years, probably seven...yeah, it's better than I remember it. Much better. No reason whatsoever we should be disappointed about it. In retrospect, I'm proud as hell of us. Flawed, sure, but you can hear the ambition. What we were trying to do was a bitch, and it wasn't anything like anyone else was doing at the time. There are some soaring performances; for one, Marnie's singing still just blows me away. And the writing's pretty damn good. I love a lot of the vocal arrangements - we had so many good singers in the band. I'm at least a credible rock singer, and I was probably the fifth or sixth-best vocalist among us, put it that way. It's hard to quantify what's missing - a prominent thought I had in the past hour is "what would this album have been if we'd had a producer and recorded in a better studio". That's not to insult our engineer, and maybe that situation couldn't have come about...but some bright spark could have really spun a gem from the best parts of this record. The raw materials were there.

In early 2003, I found myself newly inspired to come up with some songs for a possible second Banana Seat album. We didn't make another album, but we did play a few of those songs live. I definitely felt a sense of too little, too late - these were among the best pop-flavored songs I think I've ever written, but it seemed unlikely that we'd take another shot at album-making after how difficult the first one was. And soon after that, I made the decision to move to Austin, which of course would end my time with Banana Seat. (I ended up moving here a bit sooner than I planned; some of y'all know that bizarre story. A senile 89-year-old driver and a tornado were involved.) I knew I'd miss the band, but Austin was the right move for me, for a number of reasons. Still, what a five-year ride, and if it felt like a missed chance at something even greater back then, that's not the way I think of it now. I only wish I'd savored it all more.

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