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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Newsfeed Anxiety: Not Practicing, Solo Acoustic Performances, Home Demos and the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra

Not Newsfeed Anxiety, but close enough. Promo photos for the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra show.

The formation stages of Newsfeed Anxiety were, like the band’s conception, long and slow in coming. Naively, I thought all I would need to do is learn four chords, gather the guys in a garage, practice a couple times, play a show for our closest friends, and, if we were lucky, cut an album in a weekend and distribute it to our fans. But there was more to it than that. When I decided to make the leap from lead guitarist/backing vocalist/secondary songwriter to only guitarist/lead vocalist/lead songwriter, I had no idea the difficulties that would soon follow — not only from a technical-musical prospective, but also internally.

Even before the band lineup was in place, I struggled with a lyrical direction for my material. The handful of full songs wrote — lyrics, chords and melody — over the years either dealt with somewhat negative themes, such as boredom (2003’s “Looking Forward to Looking to Looking Forward to Something”), dead-end pursuits (2007’s “House on Sand, I,”) homelessness (2008’s “Saint Anthony’s”), and breakups (“Everybody’s Got Somebody” and “Come Unglued,” both from 2008). The only song that fell outside that sphere of negativity was Metal Face’s “Woodstocker Shocker” (2006), but that was too confusing and goofy to play in a serious setting. From the onset, it appeared we didn’t have much to work with, so I began to delve deep into my psyche — much like a Christopher Nolan movie, save for the explosions and confusing sub-levels of the dream-verse — to mine my mind for possible songwriting gold. But before I did that, however, I needed to get in the frontman mindset, moving from stage right to center stage, a place I had never been. In the waning days of summer ’09, I started rehearsing for a possible open mic mini-set at a local Missoula pub called Sean Kelly’s. Preparation pace was glacial, and songs were minimal — I think I even resorted to playing an old Magic Square song — but it eventually happened, and was met with unmemorable results. I can’t really recall what I played then, though Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” stands out. A somewhat strange choice for my first show alone, but I at least remembered the lyrics. After that, it would be a while before I took to the stage again.

Although music and band building had mostly taken the back seat, amongst old Taco Bell wrappers and literary theory handouts (metaphorically speaking, though there probably is some literal truth to it as well) my fall ’09 semester was one of the greatest times of my life, thanks mostly to two-time National Magazine Award winner (one of which for this story), Esquire Magazine writer at large and current back-page columnist for ESPN: The Magazine, Chris Jones. I had the immense privilege of being one of Chris’ students for his narrative non-fiction class, which he taught as the UM journalism school’s distinguished T. Anthony Pollner professor that year. The objective of the class was singular, but very daunting: to write the best story of your life so far, or the BSOYLSF, as was abbreviated on our syllabus. From August to December (and beyond, for me as a few others), myself and about 20 or so incredibly gifted writers in that class set out to deliver on that lofty goal. Chris inspired us, and we inspired each other, but it was also very, very competitive: One late October session, Chris played the classic, curse-word-charged opening scene of Glengarry Glen Ross before giving us six minutes to write our story openings on the spot, with prizes going to the top three. I was fortunate to have a very compelling subject from a story I had written the previous summer, but even then, it was hard work, and there was rarely a moment I didn’t think about the BSOMLSF. On top of that, I was working as the Arts/Outdoors (or Artdoors) for the Montana Kaimin, which also led to the creation of my weekly column, “Miller Time.” Academia-wise, I was heavily steeped in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the robust works literary theorists like Erich Auerbach, Longinus, and everyone’s favorite dialectical Marxist expert, Fredric Jameson. On Mondays, I took a three-hour swing dance class which, unlike the literary criticism, had practical, meaningful applications. All of the above kept me plenty busy, but at least I was no longer a resident assistant; working desk shifts and policing the hallways would’ve been my undoing that year.

And where was Newsfeed Anxiety in all of this, you may be wondering? Before the band even played a note, the three of us reached an understanding that this was meant to be a temporary project, designed for the sole purpose of improving ourselves for future musical endeavors. It was also meant to be fun and devoid of any high expectations. Starting off, it seemed like we were sticking close to that criteria, and even with my time in Missoula drawing to a close, we only practiced once as a full band that entire autumn semester, though Anthony and I held semi-regular sessions. We were content with this, and slowly, the songs began to take shape. In late September, I took my initial steps toward frontman-ism by recording three acoustic songs in my apartment that would serve as educational tools for the band, whenever we would get things off the ground. One was a cover inspired by a pre-Flaming Lips Steven-Drozd-ized version of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” (which would later become one of our set staples), and the others were two originals: “Come Unglued,” a song I had written for the Magic Square earlier in the year (we never played it) and “Slipping Away,” a haunting, Elliott-Smith inspired number I completed over the course of the summer. They were crude and lo-fi, but the beginning was there. I would eventually add two more songs to this collection — a rewritten version of “House on Sand,” newly titled “House on Sand, II,” and the chord-crammed “Vices” — during the fall, giving us something to work with should we have scheduled a time to practice (which we never did.)

While the band wasn’t practicing much, and the originals were slow in coming, I started playing more unplugged acoustic slots to better prepare me for legitimate shows, whenever they may’ve arrived. With Sean Kelly’s open mic as my venue of choice, I tried to go for bold, abrasive and weird in my 20-minute sets, an approach I thought would set me apart from the usual crop of solo musicians. At the time, playing acoustic versions of “The Beautiful Ones” and a Johnny-Cash inspired version of “Man in the Mirror” seemed like good ideas, and maybe they were, but looking back, I don’t think these performances were very strong, and would probably be embarrassed if I saw the footage. I may’ve succeeded in being bold, abrasive and weird, but I think my lack of experience and strange song choice turned off those who happened to hear me while hanging out with their friends, eating burgers and drinking pints. Plus, I was still new to singing, so I’m sure my warble-y pitch and poor breath control may’ve played a role in how I sounded to others. Still, there was no thrill quite like screaming the last fourth of “The Beautiful Ones,” especially in a crowded bar during an acoustic mini-set — that moment when I decided there’s no turning back, that I was going to sound screech like Brian Johnson on helium, and to hell what others think. If I could perform a song like “The Beautiful Ones,” any other song would be easy by comparison. And it was, except when you had to sing those songs after wreaking havoc on your vocal chords. That was a lesson I would certainly learn later on. I also learned there is a time and place for certain songs, of which, in these beginning stages, I seemed to be oblivious. I think I still may be.

None of this really mattered too much at the time. I had just wrapped up what was likely the best three-and-a-half months of school — one in which I was totally steep in the BSOMLSF, Dante and the freedom of not being an R.A. — and wasn’t at all regretful that the band had practically done nothing yet. And neither Anthony nor Carl seemed to mind our inactivity one bit, though they might’ve. Even with our ever-shrinking window of time, there was no sense of urgency. I began to think maybe it just wouldn’t happen, and was fine with the idea. Then, shortly after ringing in the new decade, something did happen.

I had scheduled a show at the Yellowstone Valley Brewery for Jan. 3, 2010, as a way to hold a mini-Magic Square/Metal Face/ Billings Central musician reunion, when everyone was home for the holidays. We had all the stars lined up: Chris Shipp (who didn’t play), Alex Miller, Charlie Ray, Anthony Thompson, Edward Longo, A.J. Miller (who also didn’t play), Maria Miller, Stuart Ross, Jimmy Salyer (who also didn’t play, but was instead replaced by well-known Billings musician Steve Brown), Kirby Longo, and the list was even “longo…” (a phrase the promoter put on the flier). We billed ourselves as the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra, named after a group assembled for the “bands” section of the 2003-4 Billings Central yearbook. (In the photo, the group’s leader, Isaac Fritz, posed with a vacuum as his instrument. I posed with a saxophone drum, and I think Edward Longo wore a choir robe.)
The original Trans-Billingsian lineup wasn’t present for the show, though the newer incarnation would prove to be just fine. We didn’t have much time to prepare due to a last-minute trip to Townsend, Mont., for New Year’s Eve — in addition to losing Jimmy the day of to a nasty flu bug — but somehow, the assemblage of musicians pulled it off. Our intent was to have a multi-tiered, rotating-membered performance designed to reflect the eclectic nature of our mid-sized collective. It started with Charlie and I trading acoustic mini-sets (where I debuted “House on Sand, II”), followed by a join acoustic set of yesteryear. The next phase we were joined by Anthony on bass, Stuart on box drum, and Alex and Maria Miller on lead/backing vocals, playing numbers such as Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Metal Face’s “Woodstocker Shocker,” Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and improvised bit called “Rhythms of the Heart” and, of course, “The Beautiful Ones.” (Going back a ways: We actually debuted this lineup — minus Alex and Maria — in October the previous year at a winery called Lake Missoula Cellars. Charlie stopped in Missoula for a few days following his sojourn in Olympic National Park, so we decided to honor his temporary presence by holding an impromptu mini-set comprised of some old Magic Square, some new Charlie stuff, “Rhythms of the Heart: Version 1.0”  and covers of Swell Season’s “When Your Mind’s Made Up” — 5/4 timing, mid-song scream-singing and all — and, you guessed it, “The Beautiful Ones.” The eight people in attendance really seemed to like it.) The next segment of the evening was a bit of an interlude to the Trans-Billingsian madness — the deep breath before the plunge, if you will. It featured me and Maria singing acoustic duets of Gramm Parson’s and Emmylou Harris’ “Love Hurts” and an original arrangement of “The Christmas Song,” done in the style of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irgvola of the Swell Season.
Following us was Anthony on the acoustic and our friend Emilita Wilkinson — who played cello on Metal Face’s “Patience” — for two original instrumental compositions, which further lulled the crowd into a post-holiday, new-year stupor, made all the more potent by the Christmas lights that still adorned the stage. But that complacency would soon be replaced by the ear-shredding, face-melting, hair-raising, teeth-chattering, eye-exploding force that is rock and roll, best played with electric guitars, electric bass, a drum kit, and a vocalist who can wail and/or shake their hips (Charlie could do both, one better than the other). This is what we had next, though with a somewhat diminished version of that last bit. Charlie, Anthony, Steve Brown and I first open with a jam in G-minor, which also featured Edward on the keys. We then ran through a Magic Square set of old, with each of the songs from our debut EP, as well our standard Magic Square covers, like Weezer’s “Getchoo,” Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy,” and possibly others that I’m spacing now. This was a remarkable feat, even more so considering we recruited Steve Brown the day of to play drums for us, though it certainly helped that his father, Bob Brown, recorded the T.M.S. EP, so he was familiar with the majority of our songs. It also helped that he’s an incredible musician. Following the Magic Square Timewarp, there was only one way to cap off the multi-faceted, multi-faceted evening: with an all-star jam. For the final two songs, we invited all the previous musicians to the stage, and even called for self-proclaimed “all stars” from the audience to join us for a nine-minute version of VU’s “Oh! Sweet Nothing” and a non-key-change version of M.J.’s “Man in the Mirror,” featuring Maria as the lead vocalist in the refrain.
The scene on the stage was utter pandemonium: singers fought for the limited microphones; guitarists played tambourines, drummers played pianos; non-musicians (there were a few) either danced or stood still; and one self-proclaimed all-star — whom we didn’t know — tried to commandeer Anthony’s position as bassist. It was, for all intents and purposes, a real hootenanny. All that was missing was a moonshine jug blower, though s/he would’ve had some difficulty finding an open microphone. When the dust settled and the stage was vacated, a few remaining members stayed for a simple rendition of VU’s “Femme Fatale,” to send our crowd out on a calm note of manipulative fancies (referring to the song, not our audience) and into the cold, Montana winter. Once beyond the space heaters of the Yellowstone Valley Brewery, the core members drove to a restaurant called Old Chicago, with the newly earned ~ $60 in our pockets, which would be the most gig money we would receive in a long while. We were in awe that we somehow pulled off something of that magnitude. And after a season without a live performance, the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra concert was enough to spur us onward. Only three days into 2010, we knew it would be a good year.
Further Listening — E-Ronik (Acoustic Demos) For educational purposes only, E-Ronik presents the soon-to-be Newsfeed songs (and one cover) in their rawrest, rarest, wriggliest form. Apologies to the Prince fans: I was still new to the singing gig.    My parents also shot footage of half the Trans-Billingsian show, but for the purpose of publishing this post in a timely manner, I decided to exclude it for now. When it is available, you’ll know where to find it. Here’s a photo of the all-star jam until then.

The Miller children at the mikes, with Charlie, Edward, Anthony, and others in the background.