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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Newsfeed Anxiety: Origins

The band as it was October 2010.

We’ve all felt them: the pang from unwelcome updates; the wince from vicarious embarrassment; the twinge from T.M.I.; the #humblebrag-induced bile rise. There’s no way to escape such occurrences — they are simply part of the human experience. But it seems we encounter these afflictions much more often in this digitized, mobilized, tablet-ized age of constant interconnectivity. Most of the times, we do so deliberately. And while its sources and/or aggregators may slightly differ, the result is the same: anxiety. But not just any kind. A new kind, one that can strike at any hour of the day, so long as you have Internet connection, or, at the very least, a smart phone.

I first felt this modern-day pain in December 2007. A few months prior, I giddily changed my Facebook relationship field to reflect my current standing, eager to show my “friends” that I had joined the ranks of the dating world. When my situation changed, however, I edited that same field, so as to make it a more accurate representation of my non-virtual persona. Little did I know that this change took place publicly — though I’ve certainly learned that since — and received several inquiries from concerned members of my network, wanting additional information for my status change. Thus, awkward conversations and unwanted explanations ensued, whereas they might not’ve in years prior. Although I couldn’t place a name for it at the time, I knew this was a very palpable concern, one that changed — and continues to change — how we conduct our personal dealings, both in the physical and online realms.

It wasn’t until the following summer that I was able to ascribe a proper name to the dread I felt that bleak December. While taking a break from what would later become the title track for Metal Face’s In 3-D, I read an article in a tech trends magazine (probably Wired) that discussed the very phenomenon I encountered the previous winter, reaffirming what I felt was, indeed, actually something, and not part of my imagination. The writer posited that Facebook notifications added a new, complicated and none-too-private component to otherwise private matters, i.e. breakups. This may be established fact now, but at the time, it was the zeitgeist revelation I needed. When I returned to the song, I named it “Newsfeed Discomfort.” My brother Alex, however, had a better suggestion: “Newsfeed Anxiety.” The song in question was later renamed “Alexandria” then “In 3-D,” but the phrase — unhyphenated words and all — stuck with me. The following fall (a.k.a. Autumn ’08) saw the beginning of a very promising musical collective: a five-piece, multi-vocalist/instrumentalist/songwriter collective, featuring past members of Margo Foorehead, Thomas Brady, Kirby and the Motivators, and Frontal Lobotomy Festival, all of whom were graduates from Billings Central classes ’06 and ’08. For simplicity’s sake, that group was whittled down to drummer Jimmy Salyer (of the Margo Foorehead days) and current Private Shapes front man/blog contributor Charlie Ray, who was, at the time, just a young, eager singer-songwriter in his freshman year of college. Oh, and I played lead guitars sang lead vocals on a song. Later, we added Carl Hansen on bass, though he sat out for the band’s first few shows due to unfamiliarity with the material and geographical differences. At my behest, we decided on Newsfeed Anxiety for our band name, and went under that monicker during our formative shows and while recording a legitimate studio EP. But Jimmy and Charlie eventually tired of the name, saying it was too negative and not representative of our sound. After much deliberation, we settled on the Magic Square, named after a set of trigonomic formulas created by Mel Wahl, our high school math teacher. At the time, I really struggled with this name and its inherent goofiness, but hindsight proved it to be much, much more fitting. And so we were the Magic Square, though I always intended to use the Newsfeed title for one of my own projects in the future. I still believed in the name, to the same feverous extent as Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible.

The lifespan of the Magic Square was a brief but very interesting one, so much so that it requires its own blog entry (or two) someday. What I will say that its untimely demise very much influenced the beginning of the Newsfeed Anxiety known and loved by tens of people today. Following a shipwreck of a show in Bozeman, Mont., — a battle of the bands, one that had us down a drummer (Carl played super-sub on the drums that night, which proved to be very crucial later on) and filled with thanatopic spirits (in short, we didn’t win) — the three-piece Magic Square forged on without its crucial fourth vertex for a few more performances before disbanding completely. All in the span of less than a year. In the aftermath of TMS’s collapse, I spent the summer of ’09 grappling with my musical fate. Band-less going into my senior year 1.0, it seemed I had little time to a) find a frontman, b) find a backing band, c) write quality material, and/or d) gig/record said material. Then it occurred to me, like a flash of light out of the darkness of no-band limbo: Why not front a group myself? Now, I wasn’t — and still am not — even close to an incredible singer, but having been a backing and occasional lead vocalist in Thomas Brady and Magic Square not too long before this point gave me the confidence that maybe, just maybe, there was an outside chance I could carry a band as a frontman. It also occurred to me that I had grown dependent on others to write and/or sing my material, sometimes to a fault. (In fact, I’d been in groups where, as charismatic or talented the frontman was, they would completely ad-lib the lyrics from show to show, not just for one song, but sometimes all of them. There was also a person I worked with my entire freshman and part of sophomore years in college, who, after that time, hadn’t written a line of lyrics to the songs I provided, saying that the perfect words eluded him.) It wasn’t until a camping trip with certain male members my family when I decided it was time to take charge of my identity and, for once, not rely on a frontman to give voice to my songs, thanks to some revelatory, camping-themed advice from my uncle Dan Miller: “It’s not like you’ve been gathering dead wood,” he said of my experience thus far, “the fire’s been burning all along.” As I walked up the bouldered paths of an East Rosebud’s trail and waved off the occasional horsefly, I tried to mentally compile songs I’ve written over the years that could potentially be played in a live band setting, and came up with six in total. Not a huge backlog by any means, but with the help of some creative covers, I thought I could potentially cobble together enough material for a solo mini-set in the coming months until I was able to find additional members.

The weeks following the East Rosebud epiphany, however, were slow in coming for realizing this vision. In the summer of ’09, I interned at the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont., where I worked as a general assignment reporter. With a daily deadline of 5:30 p.m., sometimes with multiple stories, my creative energy was usually sapped at the end of most days, leaving little motivation to write/rehearse songs for my non-existent band. In mid-July, the original lineup of the Magic Square — with the exception of longtime collaborator/fellow Metal Facer Anthony Thompson filling in for Carl on bass — convened for a one-off, sort-of show at the Filling Station in Bozeman, Mont. It was the first time the core of the group had played together since March, and while the beginning of the set went smoothly, our rust began to show. We fumbled our way through the hour-or-so set, and afterward, Anthony and I parted ways with Jimmy and Charlie went off into the Bozeman night. Uncertain of our musical destinies, but having collaborated with each other in the past, we talked at length about starting a legitimate gigging band once Anthony began his freshman year in Missoula. The rest of the summer saw little progress toward that goal, though it was still time well spent. I continued to write for the Missoulian — some stories were better than others — in what would be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Music, however, was put on the back burner, and by the time Anthony and I convened for an-end-of-summer checkin in Billings, I didn’t really have anything to show him.

But that didn’t stop us from further GarageBand tinkerings, which resulted in the beginnings Metal Face Nets, most notably “There is No Way to Get Away” and part of the title track. At the time, though, we were uncertain what to do with these, seeing how they were heavily digitized and would be hard to play live without the aid of drum loops and many, many effects pedals. We still had an interest in creating these cerebral, atmospheric works, but also had a desire to play in a live rock in band. These spheres didn’t seem to intersect, though. It was at a Dairy Queen where we sketched out a rough blueprint for the coming year: We would continue to experiment with electronic beats and sonic textures under the monicker Hot Neon Trash (a title I think my younger brother, Alex, claimed) while also focusing on straightforward, bare-bone-sy, no-frills three-piece. I also had the perfect drummer for the project: Carl, who had done an excellent job switching from bass to percussion in the final shows of the Magic Square. He agreed to join us. We might not’ve had any songs and an inexperienced frontman/songwriter in myself at the helm, but we at least had a solid core. And we had a name.

Required Listening Last One (Steve Miller, Charlie Ray) Although this is technically the Magic Square, we recorded this song under the Newsfeed name, which I guess officially makes it Newsfeed, theoretically. I’m including it here because it was the first Newsfeed song.