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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Newsfeed Anxiety: First Shows, (the album), and the Importance of Recording to a Metronome

Cover art for (the album). Those were the best darn sunglasses I ever had. (Photo by the Montana Kaimin.)

The new decade marked the beginning of another golden age for our collective of Billings musicians, one comparable to discovering we could burn .wav files to a disc, those many years back. This time, the revolution came from increased access — and understanding — to/of better recording means, such as Logic, Pro Tools, Reason, and, yes, GarageBand. But it had more to do with what was in the air at the time, a creativity certainly aided by the highly successful Trans-Billingsian Orchestra show, and buoyed by the tools at our fingertips.

Anthony and I made a point to make Newsfeed more of a priority the coming semester, but because those University of Montana winter breaks were a bit overlong — especially post-New Years, when everybody else went back to school, leaving you in Billings until mid-January (#firstworldproblem) — we would have to wait to reconvene with Carl. In the meantime, we collaborated with long-time friend and recent entrant into the Billings post-rock scene Matthew O’Brien (a.k.a. thieves break in) for a two-hour-plus, lo-fi basement recording known as Too Bad, So Sad under the monicker the Stunted Cats. This album spawned similar efforts from our East Coast counterparts who, under the name Honeysuckle, took the long-form experimentation to new heights with “The Tropic of Dan the Man,” and “Stunt Cat,” (a tribute to the Stunted Cats). In the shorter format, the duo conceived what is easily one of the best Ark-Hives entries: Dirty Pink Curtain. You can stream it in its entirety below:

Although these explorations were engaging, I knew that’s not what I wanted to do with Newsfeed. These had to be straightforward enough to play with a three-piece or even alone on the acoustic. The songs I’d written the previous semester were primarily folk-rock based, having been heavily inspired by the works of Conor Oberst in Monsters of Folk and the Mystic Valley Band — oh, and his little-known project called the Bright Eyes, too. I was also heavily influenced the Avett Brothers’ I and Love and You. Given all those influences, I was pretty much exclusively inspired by neo-folk rock at the time.

Subject matter-wise, I tended to lean more toward major-key strummers with confessional, somewhat depressing lyrics, in the tradition of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and practically everything by Elliott Smith. In other words, I was writing a breakup album of sorts, which was a bold (if not heavy-handed) thing do to for a first collection of solo songs. But that’s where I was at the time, so I followed that muse to the brooding, over-sharing end. At that point, I had enough personal experience to write about, and figured it was time to let it out.

One reason those albums inspired so much is that they felt so relatable, like the lyricists were brothers (or sisters) in arms, like they shared in my pain. In times of personal struggle, I turned to these artists and albums to find a commiserator, someone who’d been there and lived to tell about it. Those personal messages resonated with me, and while I wasn’t necessarily trying to mimic the great artists who came before, I wrote what I knew I could convey: disappointment, frustration, and, most importantly, hope. It also helped to inject some wry humor into the subject matter; you have to be able to laugh at yourself and shrug it off at the end of the day.

Before we could move forward with this, the band had to practice, which it hadn’t since September, our only rehearsal together. I can’t remember when exactly we met (it had to have been in January), nor do I recall what we played, but we slowly inched forward in preparing for gigs we didn’t have yet. Our practices were held in Carl’s basement: a cement-floored, dimly lit space with pipes hanging from the low ceilings. In the middle of this space was a wooden support beam, to which we duct taped a cardboard tube that served as our mic stand. The acoustics weren’t the best, and our setup wasn’t very sophisticated, but it stayed true to our no-frills, dingy approach. In that sense, it was the perfect space for us.

Those early practices were somewhat challenging. Not only were we becoming acquainted with each others’ playing styles, we were also learning new material — strange, quirky covers and chord-happy originals — and trying to adjust to our new roles, especially me. Before Newsfeed, I never realized how much work goes into singing; it’s not something you just do. Breath control, proper posture, intonation, diction, stamina, pitch: they’re all part of the picture, and I had none of them figured out. It occurred to me in these first practices just how difficult of an undertaking it would be, but because we had no lofty goals — just rock out, play some shows, and prepare ourselves for what was next — there was very little external and/or internal pressure. At least in the beginning.

As the original songs began to develop, I tended to veer into some very personal territory. It was kind of an alarming exercise, revealing past or current wounds that I would then expose — either in recorded form or a live performance — to complete strangers or my friends/family. I worried about how those closest to me would respond to the seemingly negative-but-essentially optimistic songs, as if they would see me as unhappy and completely disillusioned by the world. This is something I still struggle with as a songwriter, but what kept me me in that vein then — and now — is that by being honest, you will have a better chance form a genuine connection with your audience, be it worldwide or, in our case, a pocket of loyal Missoula friends.

To counter balance the over-share fests that became Newsfeed originals, I worked on a less-serious, more abstract collection of songs known as (the album), which you can stream on my SoundCloud page. Inspired by a design assignment by great friend and Washington Post writer Roman Stubbs, (the album) provided me the creative freedom that I didn’t have writing chord-filled acoustic songs to be played at open mic nights, then later with the band. It was the bizarre, ethereal release I needed, and was integral in paving the way for the first Poo Bear album, as well as Metal Face’s Nets, about which you should know plenty.

The next phase of the band, and for me as a Missoula musician, was well documented in a story I wrote for my night-themed feature writing class. It’s an accurate, in-depth and semi-colon-filled look at where the band and I were circa March 2010. The only thing I’d like to add is that the performance mentioned at the beginning — Newsfeed Anxiety’s inaugural show — was partially a botched attempt at recreating the multi-tiered magic that was the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra concert. I say “partially” because we had our friends’ band open for us, whose lineup consisted of an acoustic guitar, a box drum, and a cello. This was a nightmare for the already-surly sound technicians at the Palace (though, to be fair, I’m sure miking a cello is a huge pain). It also didn’t help that we decided to play with them despite not having practiced together. Once again, you should read the story before continuing. You’ll be glad you did. And, for good measure, I’ll read it, too, lest I forgot something. (I was pretty cynical back then, as you can probably tell.)

For all the band-related ruminating and inner reflection, we only played live once more that semester: a two-song, late-night time slot for a battle of the bands called Top of the Mic. This was (and still is) a highly competitive, very well-attended contest, with seemingly every Missoula musician/band coming out of the woodwork once (or twice) a year to play for a headlining performance at Sean Kelly’s — the bar that hosted the event — and a pot-of-gold prize of $1,000. For our first (and only) round, and due to very strict time constraints — a 15-minute set, which included setup and teardown, and any time over would result in severe loss of points — we played “Vices” and “Jolene,” with a noise jam tacked on the end of the rock-a-fied Dolly Parton song. The crowd responded favorably to our set, and it seemed like a trip to the semi finals was inevitable.

That never happened, though.

We still practiced as if we had a gig that next month or so before summer, and while we were originally slated to play with Top-of-the-Mic runner up Matt Hassler graduation weekend 2010, this also never happened due to logistic/equipment issues. But the disappointment was short-lived, for the next day, we would return to Billings for a summer edition of the Trans-Billingsian Orchestra.

Our expectations may’ve been unrealistically high this time around, but given the success of the first show, we thought we could also pull it off with basically no preparation. That assumption proved flawed from the start. Tired from having moved straight from Missoula to sound check, in addition to the ensemble (now featuring old friend Jimmy Salyer on the drums) not practicing once as a unit, it seemed like each facet of the show was a misfire — from my squeaky-voiced solo acoustic segment (note: never scream the entirety of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” the night before a gig … or ever) to the poorly mixed, unrehearsed and ofttimes detuned full-band segment. Not to mention, the turnout was much, much lower than before, due in most part it being a sunny, warm Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t as big of a disaster as the infamous May 27, 2002, 2%Tipp eight grade graduation show, nor as uplifting as the previous Trans-Billingsian concert; it was somewhere in the forgettable middle. Now that’s settled, let us never speak of it again.

With the band short a drummer for the summer, the Billings contingent (Anthony and I) set out to make serious headway on our debut, then titled E-Ronik (for some reason). This mostly involved adding to the already-existing demos of songs like “The Compromise,” “Good With U,” and “Nocturn,” or starting from scratch with “House on Sand II,” “Come Unglued,” “The U I Knew” and “Vices.” We took full advantage of the GarageBand’s digital guitar pedalboard, melding the various presets to our hearts’ content: multiple fuzz pedals with the settings turned to full notch; dreamy choruses mixed hectic tremolo; layers upon layers of phasers. It was the full, majestic, yet-still-somehow-lo-fi sound we always wanted, but could never achieve live, especially not with a three-piece. Throughout this experimentation, however, we didn’t take in consideration how we would add drums, as all the tracks had been recording without a metronome. At the time, neither of us really knew the difficulties that would be in store because of this small — but extremely crucial — detail. We would soon pay the painful price for this amateurish oversight. Until then, we kept ourselves busy by playing weekly open mic sets at Yellowstone Valley Brewery — a practice that, while results often varied between our performance quality and audience attention, would very much aid us in the actual gigs to come.

Finding a drummer for the album and possible shows during the summer months proved much more difficult (and somewhat fruitless) than we thought. Because we wouldn’t convene with Carl until late August, but still wanted to complete the album by then and, possibly, play some full-band, amplified gigs. For the album, we recruited Mr. Charlie Ray to add his percussionization to the project, even though he was in Boston and not primarily a drummer, though was still fairly talented in that regard. But this cross-country collaboration was made all the more difficult because the tracks didn’t have a steady tempo, so we recruited local multi-instrumentalist and fellow Billings Central grad (class of 2010) Benjamin Webster for his drumming abilities. We rehearsed a few times for a show at the Yellowstone Perk that didn’t happen (we showed up with the other bands and waited at the venue for two hours, only to learn that the booker/sound man had been arrested, of which the management failed to notify us), but the full-band rehearsals were a nice reprieve from the limiting acoustic duo sets we’d grown accustomed to that summer, not to mention the presence of a drum set in Anthony’s basement made the Metal Face songs “She’s Fat” and “Scared Young Man” possible. But we ran into the same issues when trying to record E-Ronik with Ben: inconsistent tempo, resulting in inconsistent drumming. With that complication, we wouldn’t meet our self-imposed end-of-summer deadline. The debut would have to wait.

In the meantime, Charlie, Edward, Alex and I were busy creating masterpieces like this:

Aside from recording and open mic-ing, the summer of 2010 was largely devoid of direction. I had sort of graduated from journalism school (meaning I participated in the graduation ceremonies, but didn’t actually receive a degree), and because the plan was to move to Boston and join forces with Edward and Charlie after the fall semester, I was pretty much killing time until then. This involved many wanderings on Montana’s back highways and other obscure roads, listening to NPR and a 1950s-60s station broadcasted out of Red Lodge. En route to my non-destinations, I would sometimes switch off my eclectic noise and hum to myself, providing my own soundtrack to the passing Montana landscape. It seemed inconsequential at the time, but several of these hummings provided the basis for songs that would be featured on the forthcoming Newsfeed album, which you’re likely to hear a few days from now. In many ways, I spent my pseudo-post-grad days much like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, except for the swimming pool lounging, or the trip to San Francisco, or the … um … other things. But I did listen to Simon and Garfunkel on a few occasions, so there’s that.

This was also the period where I became hugely enthralled by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which, between the confessional lyrical content, the sleek (but not overdone) production values, and Lindsey Buckingham’s masterful playing, would pretty inform everything I did with the band for the next year or two mdash; even down to not using a guitar pick when playing, so as to mimic Buckingham’s style (I would later mostly abandon this method due to fingernails worn to the nub). These were freeing, rejuvenating months, though with the impending move to Boston, I probably should’ve had a job of some kind.

When I returned to Missoula (by way of the one-lane dirt road known as the Skalkaho Pass) for what I thought would be my final semester, I had a very limited window to accomplish everything I wanted to before December. No longer dealing with the stress of multiple journalism curricula, I viewed it as my “victory lap”; I had already paid my dues as an indentured servant of academia, I was just coming back to say farewell — and tie up some loose ends as well. I still had things to keep me busy, like a full-credit load, a job as web editor for my beloved Montana Kaimin, and, of course, the band. But the more I thought about the December move — a move I was in no way prepared for, be it financially, professionally or personally — the harder it became to remove myself from this place. Even thinking about a winter departure for the East Coast saddened me, to the point that I couldn’t talk about it without becoming emotional.

After much inner deliberation and reflection — and conversations with trusted friends and family members, I decided to stay the full year. Boston could wait. And not long after this decision, life got better, and the band started to flourish.

For old time’s sake, here’s the other collection of songs we worked on during this period.