At long last, we plugged round cords into round sockets, and reveled in the sound of our amplified selves. It had been a long time since we had last done it this way — for a week’s eternity, we had been practicing with acoustic instruments only — and it felt like a momentous release, like finally having someone to share your sexual energy with after having wasted it on yourself for so long. The electric catharsis was in the air, and in our sound: we started loud and, in transitioning from the first section to the second, grew louder still, played harder still, grinned wider still, happier and happier —
Suddenly, it all fell apart. Dilan drummed one of his cymbals to the floor, Lupin defected a microphone, Pete made quick work of a fresh tambourine that had recently cost its weight in gold, and Ian — thoroughly drunk and uninvited — had stumbled into the room and stomped on a cable, splitting it off and jamming the amp Jack’s guitar was using. In the span of five minutes, some several hundred dollars worth of damage had been done.
In truth, I was no musician and never had been — at least not until very recently, and very technically. It was the late March of 2007, and I had been unmusical for the entirety of my 18 years alive to that point. From ages 8 to 12, I struggled to achieve sub-mediocrity with the violin, an instrument I hated and practiced only because I had been coerced to care. Around the time my first teacher tried to teach me Hitler’s theme song — to be performed at a middle school recital (where there would no doubt be a few historians and European grandparents in attendance) — I found my second teacher; around the time my second teacher made me walk on a balance beam across his heater-sweltering apartment, in order to teach me “how to balance,” I stopped playing violin altogether. In 8th grade, I attempted to learn guitar from a a young hippie, and instead wound up learning that I sucked. It was around the time he asked with incredulity how it was possible for me not to what “Wonderwall” was that I gave up on performing, and decided to be a record label exec instead. I signed my first band that same month, and released their first album a couple seasons later. They were in their mid-to-late twenties, and had recorded it during the summer between my middle and high school.
After spending some of my free time as a 15-year-old releasing pretty unremarkable music by adults 1.5 times my age, I wound up becoming a 16, 17, 18-year-old who worked with some pretty legit acts.1 But, I wound up binding my brand to a somewhat fair contract with some extremely unfair people who served as our national distributor, and who completely violated the terms of our legal writ, arbitrarily deleted all my account records from their database, and robbed me of roughly three thousand dollars. This was around the fall of 2006, when I was forced to share some pretty rare record industry beef with a band who were expected by many to become “the next Nirvana or Weezer,” and were expected by few (themselves) to be “the next Beatles.”2 They wound up flopping in karmically disproportionate, miserable ways shortly after stealing two new bands from my roster, my label wound up getting more deeply robbed by corporate suits who probably wore t-shirts to work, and I was too busy worried about getting into college to file an expensive lawsuit either way. Then the seasons changed, I got into college, and my body stopped working the way it had previously. There was too much going on to care, beyond profanity.
In the meantime, a record called Night Ripper had taught me to love far more music than the limited stock I had before. The transition was quick and profound. I can remember October 2006, visiting the Yale crew and buying a cheesy mammoth sandwich from the local mini-mart at the round-midnight part of Friday they called “half-time,” hearing “SexyBack” on the intercom. My large, lug-headed host began to jitter his sculpted legs to the beat, and asked me if I liked the song too.
“Maybe facetiously,” I replied, and he sneered at me like the little shit I was. Precisely three months later, I was listening to “SexyBack” on the radio (still!) and imagining how I would interpret it on my own stage, were I to interpolate. I was imagining something, and I wanted to make it real.
This became the basic inspiration behind the band I wanted to form, an idea I had given its name before it contained even a single real musician. Helping me to love some Billboard radio, Night Ripper had also taught me that attention-spanless music could sometimes transcend the relatively longform format of a 3-or-4-minute pop song. And so, momentarily, I decided I wanted to make a band that re-envisioned these kinds of songs in radio dial fashion, chopped apart and recombined into one long motion — each cutout segment lasting somewhere between the length of an iTunes sample clip then and an iTunes sample clip now. At its most modest, it was not to be anything more than a fun, simple novelty; at its most ambitious, something of a (small, pop) sonic experiment. It didn’t seem parenthetically small to me then, though — what I had in mind was loads of musicians, up to fifty of them, reconstituting the entire spectrum of music that then meant anything to me.3
Not long after being graced by this powerfully vague epiphany, I shared it in my most hyperbolic idiolect with my friend Dilan. Dilan was a talented drummer, a rower of great promise, and the younger brother of Ian, a young man with whom I was once photographed in a hospital smock and a pair of boxers, my arm around the neck of a diffidently peace-signing cop. Ian had a habit of coming up with great ideas and never following through on them — like our reckless teenage variety show, Blame Mass Media — and Dilan thought my concept was as clever as any other being tossed around by his rambling manor that week. And as mine had a chance of happening in some scaled form or another, he became my first musician-recruit on the spot. Realizing I needed to play an instrument in order to be in my own band, I borrowed a friend’s bass guitar — figuring it was the least conspicuous to fumble while learning how to get a real handle on the thing — and we had our first practice that weekend.
The experience wound up opening my eyes wide. As we made our way to his garage-based rehearsal space (much nicer than such shorthand suggests), I warned him not to expect much, as I had never really played my instrument of choice before, and had never played with anyone in my life.4 I was expecting it to take several months for me to finally play in time with him, meanwhile floundering helplessly along the bass neck and trying to tap my foot to his steady beat with an incompetence that would surely outlast his patience.
After that anxious image had seized my mind’s eye for the surprising length of a Dilan’s-driveway-long staring contest, it felt nothing short of revelatory to lock into his rhythm and find a decent groove almost immediately. For a good five or ten minutes, we jammed on my improvised rendition of a bassline dedicated to the immortal spirit of Ludacris’ “Moneymaker.” (Cough…) It was repetitive, but not monotonous — in fact, it was the most fun I’d had in a long time. My luck with the label and the ladies hadn’t been too swell lately, and my vanishing ability to row certainly wasn’t much help; I hadn’t had much reason to smile for a little while.
Now I was remembering what a grin felt like. That sensation of metrically interlocking with another — in a lot of ways, it was the perfect substitute for the catch and slide of rowing. In the boat, the person seated in front is called the “stroke man,” because he sets the cadence (“stroke rate”) for those behind him. If he’s not keeping steady, someone in the boat might shout, “Hey — give me something to follow.” Your average stroke man might offer a cuss or two in return; a good one will refresh his focus and try again to find his place in the measures of the tide below.
And like a good stroke man, with his punctilious timekeeping and fluid fills, Dilan was giving me something to follow. It’s no coincidence that I would begin to take the idea of this peculiar band more and more seriously as my condition worsened to its eventual conclusion: stepping out of the boat, lungs heavy and heaving, and never going back.
The music stopped, my grin reclined comfortably into a smile, and we looked at each other. Dilan was used to playing with more seasoned musicians, but he could admit that it sounded pretty good. Together, we admitted it was pretty good enough to start recruiting some more followers.
- Although not quite the stuff of massive bragging rights, the fact that one of those records earned a fine 7.3 from today’s primary music gatekeepers is a decent indication of how far we got as an operation. [↩]
- That’s something you just don’t say. Or think. [↩]
- Thinking hard about it, I think this was limited at the time to rock, pop, and rap that resembled the former two in some way. It seems bizarrely narrow-scoped to me now, but it must not have been for a kid who only found it acceptable to like music as late as age 13 or 14, and had spent the past few years on a pretty strict diet of Nirvana, MTV2 shlock, and, increasingly, a handful of more stylistically variable unknowns like Self. [↩]
- Excepting a couple very-terrible middle school orchestras I used to help populate. Probably the worst was the one that my school ran; the best thing to come from our weekly rehearsals was a pretty good tape recording of me and my unwilling collaborator, Ned, doing a noise-piano remix of the Charlie Brown theme. [↩]