In June 2003, I moved to Austin, a city that bills itself as the live music capital of the world, and thereupon stopped playing live and have not resumed in the eight years since. Yeah, I know, right? The main reason was that I threw myself into something different: I'd read the book Word Freak, about the tournament Scrabble scene, and heard the call. Not a matter of merely wanting to do it - a matter of having to do it. So I started learning Scrabble words and strategy, and once I got here started going to the Austin club, and on Labor Day Weekend 2003 played my first tournament in Houston. Been doing it ever since, and it's been great - I've had a lot of reasons to celebrate, and I've made a lot of good friends. I'm much better known as a Scrabble player than I ever was as a musician, actually. Those first few years I really studied and practiced a lot, and other things in my life were bound to take a backseat at least to some degree.
I wrote some music here and there, but not much. I was living with my youngest brother, John, for the first couple of years I was here. John had first taken up guitar and then switched to bass as a teenager - he was making progress, but with folks that young it's hard to know how far they'll end up taking it. (My sister Mary also plays some guitar and piano and has a good singing voice, and I have no doubt she too would have done well in music had she pursued it.) When I got to Austin, John was 21, and it was clear he was going to go far on his instrument. He was a full-fledged Tool fanatic by then - certainly an excellent band and bass player for any hard rock musician to emulate - and both his chops and his sound were growing rapidly then and still are. John's got that gearhead piece that I've never really had but often wished I did; he's very knowledgeable about basses and bass amps and other gear and each rig he's built has sounded more refined and thunderous than the last. He's in a fantastic band called Aperture now, who can be heard at their website, aperturesounds.com.
John and I have always been close, and with music we have so much to talk about. I've been really proud and happy to be around to witness his musical adventures and growth. John has busted his ass to get to where he is, and there's not much I respect more than that. I have often wished I could find a way to do more to share my experience with him and help him, though he's doing more than fine on his own. Absolutely a pro-level player, hardworking, energetic, dedicated, a strong composer as well. Seems like we should have played together more, and we still may do so yet...we did have a studio band when we lived together, of a sort. All 47 of our songs are short (the shortest was seven seconds) and most are absurd and/or extremely obscene comedy pieces. Not for the easily offended; available upon request. We laughed our asses off making that stuff.
As for my more serious writing, I didn't do much of it for a few years there. My financial situation improved dramatically in the years after I got to Austin, and I've upgraded my home studio. I have a stand-alone 16-track digital recorder, and over the past four years I've put a good number of new ideas down, over 100. I've wanted to return more quickly and furiously and get music done and available for people to hear - but that's been difficult. Which has been the case often, as you might guess from reading this series. I've never been short of ideas or musical vocabulary, but I've often had a very hard time digging in and getting music fully written and recorded. The gun's loaded but firing it's another thing entirely. I could dwell on why, but I won't, because ultimately it doesn't matter. Right now the fact is that I have a massive backlog of unrealized musical ideas, over 25 years' worth of them. By no means do I think all of them are good or worth revisiting - even the best writers, ones I would idolize, write a lot of junk - and I want to write lots of new music as well. But there's some serious reclaiming to do.
A new thing, and I wish I'd done it a few years earlier: I bought an electronic drum kit in the summer of 2009. (I live in an apartment, so an acoustic kit is out of the question.) I've spent some time learning drums and recording with live drums since, though I'd like to step that up and bring my skills on the instrument up to where I'm not clearly worse on drums than on the other instruments. Still a long way to go, years of practice, but I'm not old, and I've been more motivated this way the past six months or so.
Going back to my musical family for a moment...my sister Mary's oldest daughter Natalie's first birthday was at the end of July 2010, and Mary came up with a great idea: record a CD of the family making music, both as a gift to Natalie for her first birthday and a memory for all six of us. I recorded and produced the project, but making the music was a truly collective endeavor. Lots of duets and trios and a very wide range of music: my mom singing lullabies, my dad singing blues and playing piano and organ, two siblings and I covering Steely Dan, my recording of a medley of War Pigs and Kashmir, Brian doing a dead-on imitation of Johnny Cash, Mary singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow and many more. I was newly reminded of just how musical we all are, and what a pleasure it was. We'll listen back to it fondly in ten years and beyond, I am sure.
In late 2009 or early 2010, having virtually no music online or, heck, any evidence that I was ever a musician (I was busiest in the era right *before* everything got put online), I decided it was getting about mandatory to put some music up. Even if it was only demos, even if the audio and performances were notably flawed. Screw perfectionism - anything is better than nothing. Busting through the psychological block is the most, perhaps the only, important result. The block is strong: It took me until the fall of 2010 to get around to posting six of the ten songs planned for my current project (I still tend to think of projects in terms of the length of a conventional album, ten songs or so). Felt really good to get those up, but again I couldn't fire the remaining bullets for six more months. Songs #7 and #8 got posted about a week ago, and I did vocals for song #9 a couple of hours ago. #10 is fully composed. Hear the songs here: http://listn.to/TremblesofFortune
So yes, I will have the first Trembles of Fortune album done in demo form very soon. The next thing to do? Start on another. And another. Keep sledgehammering that psychological block until it breaks. Of course, I have to work this into the rest of my life; I have a 40-hour-a-week job, and I direct the Austin Scrabble club now, and big tournaments are coming up in the next three months that I'll need many hours of prep for, and there's time with my family and friends and getting some exercise and all the other things that keep life balanced. Music is a central part of me, but it's just one part.
To move this project further, I'll also need to learn how to get the music heard. I'm behind the curve there - I've never been particularly knowledgeable about promotion to begin with, and it's been years, and the Internet music world has sprung up all around us. I have a lot to learn. And I'll need to reach out to other people to do it - I can sit here and make demos by myself, but if I want to fry bigger fish I'll need to establish relationships that help (and that give me chances to help others). That will be perhaps the biggest challenge, but no man is an island.
So have I gotten in music what I came for? Well, I have to be honest, the answer is no, or at least not yet. The primary reason I became a musician and composer was to write, record and perform my own music, exactly the kind I want to write, at a high level. I don't mean a high level of fame and fortune - it's not about those things at all. I mean to where I'm realizing the music in my head, prolifically making honest-to-goodness releasable recordings of it and fronting the bands playing it. With not nearly enough exceptions, this hasn't come to be, and the responsibility is mine. Every day I have to look in the mirror knowing that I haven't made my dream happen, and it doesn't feel good. However long I have left, I'd like to improve that situation. Even achieving some of the dream, parts of it - because anything is better than nothing, and some is good but more is better. All that matters is that I take the challenge head-on and persist.
As for playing live again, yeah, I love it, but I've also been there and done it, nearly a thousand times. If I go out again as a recurring thing, it's got to be me doing what I want to do musically and nothing less. I miss the stage, but I don't miss the bars. And I don't miss the logistical hassles that bands go through, like, for example, pleading with wannabe brownshirt security personnel about parking and unloading gear, or getting home at 4 am on a work night. Doing the club thing can be a real grind at times, especially at the medium and lower tiers of it, and I don't have many contacts in the Austin scene. On the other hand, taking a band out to play my music would be incredibly satisfying. But right now, it's not a concern. Recording music comes first.
But while I regret what hasn't happened, that doesn't mean I regret what did happen. I don't, not at all. I've gotten the chance to play so many kinds of music with and for so many different people, to the point where it required a 9-part series to write about it and I've left a lot of musical experiences out. I didn't talk about teaching lessons, or doing studio work (including a lot of karaoke backing tracks) or arranging, or many short stints in groups, or many individual players I jammed and worked on home-type projects with. (I also didn't write about sex or drugs or alcohol or interpersonal dramas - all of those things were part of the experience, I won't lie to you, but in writing here I wanted to focus on the music itself, not the VH1 Behind the Music elements.) And I could have done even more different things if I'd been more motivated that way. I played with many excellent musicians, from whom I learned much, and made a number of great friends, and had a few special experiences a lot of musicians don't get to have. A lot of good memories, and I'm truly grateful for everything music has given me, past, present and future.