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The Other Steve Miller
Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Newsfeed Anxiety: How Missoula Was Won … And Lost

The horizontally oriented album art for our live compilation. This photo taken by good fan Zachary Quiroz during our “A Night to Remembert” performance.

It might not seem like much, but those five shows, as well as the release of our flawed-yet-thoughtful album, was almost enough to have me perfectly content with the band, a band whose sole purpose was to play some high-energy shows, release some decent music, and improve each member for future musical endeavors. In that year and a half, we had done just that. I considered walking away from it, calling it good, and spending the final months of my Missoula dwelling gradually preparing to exit, nonchalantly and undramatically. From a personal standpoint, I had already unearthed many of my inner demons through the songs on The Compromise, so really, what more did I have to say? I already said it. And the Holiday Extravaganzer, it seemed, was a great way to go out on top, a fitting finale for a willfully transitory group. By this point, we had set out what we originally tended to do — why taint it by extending it beyond its natural lifespan?

This would’ve been the easy way out, and had we chosen this direction, it’s doubtful I would’ve written this history (which, by the way, thanks for your readership! You’ve made it so far). But the wheels that started turning July 18, 2009, the night of the final Magic Square show, weren’t about to stop spinning anytime soon. The band temporarily parted ways again for the Christmas break, during which the Billings contingent played a mini-Holiday Extravaganzer at Yellowstone Valley Brewery’s open mic night, which featured Edward Longo playing the harmonica solo on “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” This was pretty much the extent of our winter break Newsfeeding, save for a few acoustic sessions where we ran some potential new songs. The rest of this ponderous period was spent driving on back highways while listening to Fleetwood Mac, and recording with the ol’ Fan Be gang, producing classics like Jonas Sister vs. Poo Bear’s Mother Men, Wanna?’s The Glass … and the long-awaited Smiley, Soulman and Sunmaster reunion, Sometimes, Together Again. Between the hermetic road trips and ad hoc albums, I was experiencing some real-life news feed anxiety on a more-than-daily basis — in other words, whenever I checked the Book of Faces — not because of what showed up on my feed (though that can cause some uneasiness in itself) but because what I didn’t see. I struck up a friendship with a friend of a friend (of a friend?) during my November trip to the Midwest. Our brief time together was one of the highlights of the vacation, and before parting ways, we agreed to stay in touch via that one social network’s private messaging system. These correspondences were frequent at first, and my spirits would immediately lift upon seeing that red “1” hovering over the white speech bubble. After a while, the messages became less frequent, but that’s to be expected; we lived a thousand miles from each other and were both still in school. A few days before Christmas 2010, I sent her a season’s greetings, along with a digital download for my 2008 Christmas album, Clap Your Hands: It’s a Fan-Be Christmas!!. I eagerly waited for her reply, but understood if I didn’t hear back right away. As the new year dawned and many of my Billings-based friends returned to their new bases, the reply had still not come. My spirits deflated whenever seeing that speech bubble without its red number, and whatever hope I had when seeing that red number would be immediately dashed after realizing it was a message not from her, but from a former R.A. colleague wanting me to vote for Monte the Griz in the Capitol One Mascot Challenge, or from our former benefactor promoting his new side project, neither of which I had absolutely any interest. It wasn’t until mid-January, after returning to Missoula, that I fully understood I would never receive that reply. I know I expected too much of that fleeting fancy, but still, it was difficult to accept.

It was this concept of tenuous and un-lasting bonds in a world of hyper-interconnectivity — as well as the struggle to keep these digitally fused ties united — that would inform much of my writing. I now had something to say. We didn’t have any shows immediately following the break, and instead worked on the material in The Creaky Chair Demos, a collection songs that would serve as the basis for our next album, and named for the noisy chair I sat in while recording. They were slow and coming at first, and we had to hold thrice-weekly rehearsals — one with me and Anthony, one with me and Carl, and one with everyone — but by our February 22 show at the Badlander, we were ready to debut our set of new material. As part of the Live and Local Tuesday and held on the same night as Missoula Moth 2.0 — an event of uncensored, unplanned storytelling — we hoped already-existing crowd would stay (for free) and watch us play some tunage. This strategy somewhat worked, though it seemed most from the Moth had left by the time we went on stage.

No matter: Our new material fit perfectly with our old, and medleys like “Nocturn” / “The Wheels Will Always Turn (original),” “Locked, Pending (original)” / “Jolene” and “Friday Night Friends (original)” / “Hey Ya” kept things at a pretty consistent flow. I even attempted to meld the night’s entertainment — music and oratorical storytelling — by recounting a story of my own (which deserves its own blog post someday) with Anthony and Carl providing a funky backdrop, but because it’s a long, many-layered tale, it wore on the patience of two non-paying patrons, one of whom shouted, “Get to the point!” This wasn’t the only hostile audience run-in of the night: During the intro chords of “Locked, Pending,” a group of beanie-d men started dancing, but no just with any old Missoula moves — moonwalks, the robot, various pop-and-locks, all of which wasn’t very befitting of the music. And they were very, very serious about it. This struck me as oddly humorous, so I said something to the effect of, “It looks like the dream of the 90s is alive with these guys.” One fellow didn’t take this too kindly, and made as if he were about to hurl his can of PBR at me, only to draw back at the last moment. I think they left after that. Unruly audience members aside, the Live and Local Tuesday performance proved that the new songs had some pull. We even got a radio segment from it, recorded and edited by former Kaimin colleague Alie Kilts: In my free time, I recorded enough material for the second Poo Bear album, M.o.G. (Masters of Genre), named for the title of my midterm project in Charles Nichols’ class. Check it out: It would be some months until we played a show at an official Missoula venue, but not through a lack of effort on our part. I sent gig-inquiry (or “gig-quiry”) emails to almost all of the venues in the Missoula-Bitterroot area, some of which I received replies, but none resulted in shows. This frustrated us, especially considering we had partnered with so-called “networkers” who really did nothing more than assure us that big plans were in the works, only to completely ignore us after any kind of follow-up. There were plenty of shows taking place around town, but whenever I would approach the bookers/powers that be on playing an opening slot, they’d disregard us for no apparent reason. Luckily, we had other options. One of our contacts — photographer Maegan Simmons, whose excellent photos you’ve seen in this and other posts — slated us to play for her television production class. We played “Friday Night Friends” seven times and “Nocturn” once in a span of two hours in front of state-of-the-art TV cameras. Because the mikes were meant for newscasts and not rock bands, we had to significantly turn down our levels. I couldn’t even sing directly into the vocal mic, but had to stand a step back from it. This was because that, in the sound booth, the vocals would severely clip if I sang on top of the mic, which was also unamplified. None of the band could hear the vocals, myself included. These were but minor inconveniences; we were just happy to play in a nice studio. Plus, it made us very familiar with “Friday Night Friends,” (though I botched a few of the later takes by singing the wrong lyrics) and we received a disc of our performances, which I may upload in the near future. All of this, and we got to skip class. It was a fine Wednesday afternoon. A week and a half later, we played our first house party in a friend’s basement, which also had a small, built-in stage. This was our attempt carve out a niche apart from the clique-based, seemingly elitist downtown scene. To make this distaste apparent, we originally planned to bill the event as “Resuscitated Scene Kid,” named as a jab against the Dead Hipster Dance Party, a Thursday-night raunch-fest — soaked in sweat and $1 well drinks, played to the pulse of throbbing dub step and incongruous trash-pop mashups — held weekly at the Badlander. It was also coordinated by some of the same folks who stonewalled us for gigs. In the end, we decided to go with something good natured and slightly less inflammatory: “A Night to Remembert.”

The event lived up to its billing, and was probably our finest, highest-energy performance to date. The crowd, for the first time, was actually sizable — and even grooving. It was like a debut performance, seeing how so few people in attendance had heard us. Our friends — self-described “acoustic thunderpants” five-piece the Chalfonts, and Carl’s hometown two-piece Flashback Manatees — also put on inspired sets, the latter of whom invited the crowd (at this point, it was mostly dudes) on stage to primally thrash about. I gladly partook. To quote John Wayne from The Greatest Story Ever Told, “Truly, [it was a night to remembert].” In between shows, we started on our second album, then titled “The Scene is Dead,” named for our ever-growing dissatisfaction with the Missoula music culture, even though only two of the planned 10 songs — “I Just Don’t Get It” and the title track — addressed the subject. We started this album with one of the most important steps: recording to a metronome. In just a few hours, Anthony and I recorded the scratch tracks for nearly all the songs; when we later convened with Carl, he had a far easier time than he did during The Compromise, not to mention the overall sound of the drums was much, much higher. It looked as though we would have our next album done by the end of the summer at the latest. That plan later changed — several times. The next non-downtown performance took place at KBGA’s inaugural Battle of the Bands. Full disclosure: I’ve never liked the idea of battles of the bands. Sure, some bands are clearly better than others, but all that matters is the connection the songs have with the listeners — something that should be measured on a personal, individual basis, whose merit shouldn’t be determined by a panel of judges. This opinion may be the result of several battle of the bands non-wins, but still, the concept seems contrary to true artistic endeavor. Bela Bartok summed it up best:

Competitions are for horses, not artists.

That said, we approached the battle of the bands as an opportunity to play outside the clique-based system, as well as reach a wider audience, as KBGA recorded and streamed our set on its radio station. We were among 11 other local bands who competed for the grand prize of studio time and bragging rights of having won said battle. Each band was allowed six songs — a song from the 80s, a love song, a song under two minutes, a song featuring a guest, and two originals. Given the majority were covers, this didn’t necessarily allow the bands to expose much of their original material, which seemed beside the point of having a showcase of local artists. This set up didn’t really play to our strength, but we made the most of the mandatory structure, performing Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”/ “Let’s Go Crazy” intro (80s), “Jolene” (love song), Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies’ “Blowin in the Wind” (song under two minutes), Radiohead’s “Creep” (featuring Maria Miller as our guest vocalist), with “Friday Night Friends” and “Nocturn” as our originals. Having seen most of the acts in the two-night event, I was fairly confident we’d rank high, but didn’t want that ambition to overshadow the sheer joy of performing live. I also wanted to engage the audience more than most of the other bands had, whose interactions consisted of announcing the next song or, in one band’s case, summoning a slovenly man in spandex shorts from beneath the stage to sing as their guest vocalist; it went as well as you can imagine it based on that description.

This may’ve played in our favor, but I have a tendency to ramble in front of the mic, which seems pretty apparent in the recordings; you be the judge. I also believed we had a huge edge in the guest musician department in my sister, Maria, who’s a highly skilled and accomplished vocalist performance student at UM. Out-of-tune guitars (which, by the way, plagued Newsfeed throughout its history) and a lackluster “Blowin’ in the Wind” aside, the inaugural KBGA Battle of the Bands was one of our tightest performances, played with a passion like it would be our last show because, at the time, it looked like it would be. Backtracking briefly: In this time away from downtown Missoula venues, my distaste and bitterness toward the gig gatekeepers only intensified. I believed (and still do) that any proficient band with the desire to play shows should be allowed to so, especially in a cultured, fairly small college town like Missoula. It should be a breeding ground for musicians, with opportunities to play nightly, and minimal obstacles to bar that from happening. This may be an overly idealistic view, but I felt it should be the standard. When I wasn’t hearing back from certain concert planners, I resorted to some alternate (and somewhat questionable) methods in hopes of procuring a show before the band would disband. For example, I sent several gig-quiries — by phone and/or online contact form (no James Joyce this time) to Sean Kelly’s, but after several non-replies, I filed a customer service request (using the name Patrick Duffy), complaining of poor website functionality, mainly to see if the contact form worked. Not five minutes later, I received a call asking for Patrick, which initially confused me, but when the light came on, I scrambled and said something about being Newsfeed Anxiety’s manager trying to plan a show at Sean Kelly’s. This duplicitousness didn’t result in a show.

Perhaps my biggest misstep in the Gig Crusade came in April, about a week before the battle of the bands. I was communicating for a couple months with the booker of a popular venue called the Top Hat, a correspondence that entailed me sending possible dates and bands for the show, then hearing nothing back. With graduation quickly approaching, my patience had worn thin, and in self-righteous desperation, I sent the booker a lengthy, caustic email titled “Getting a Gig at the Top Hat: The Ongoing Saga.” The subject line alone would be enough to warrant a swift, biting response. That’s exactly what I got. Understandably, the booker was none too pleased, and pretty much told me he wouldn’t slate us. In retrospect, I went about this in a too heavy-handed manner; I should’ve called him (his number was online) and tried to sort things out over the phone. It seems that way would’ve been less antagonistic, and likely it could’ve resulted in a show. In that, I admit my error. But at the time, I was so frustrated being pigeonholed and relegated to the side that I wanted to at least stand up for the band, even if it meant burning bridges. I figured we weren’t going to play anyway, so why not tell the truth and speak my mind, even if I made some enemies along the way. It definitely appeared as though I had, and by the KBGA Battle of the Bands, it was doubtful we would perform again. A week after what looked to be our final performance, I received an email from the booker of the Top Hat. He wanted us to put our differences aside and schedule a show. I was moved by this gesture of goodwill, and realized the short-sightedness of my ways, so I called him and we planned a show for May 15, the week of graduation.

Amid the end-of-semester scramble — which included a website design/presentation for me, a 25-page paper for Anthony, and a final film for Carl — we planned for our greatest set yet, featuring the best songs from The Compromise and album TBD, our usual spate of quirky covers (with the addition of Radiohead’s “Bodysnatchers”), as well as iPad textures during “Nocturn” and “The Compromise.” What’s more, we were co-headlining with Treehouse, whose dual guitar intricacies and complex drum patterns made them a personal Missoula favorite. Plus, they’re all great guys, and a shared gig was long overdue. Billed as the “End-of-Semester Gig ‘o’ Thon,” we made our Top Hat debut in high fashion, and were even including on the venues marquee for the evening, which was a personal first. Considering it was finals week (and, let’s admit it, a Newsfeed show), the gig was fairly well attended, with fellow Kaiminites in the audience, as well Anthony’s parents, who drove from Billings. Set wise, we delivered our usual goods, and with “Vices” as an encore, as well the newly implemented iPad textures courtesy of Anthony, it seemed we’d finally struck the balance of straight-forward rock, ethereal progressiveness, and good naturedness that we had always wanted — at our final show, no less. Oh, and Treehouse, as always, killed it. (It’s also worth noting I played the last four songs on five strings. My B-string snapped during the solo of “Locked, Pending,” but inspired by the play of Derrick Rose in the 2010 playoffs (not so much 2011), I decided to forge on. I missed the crucial string, but it didn’t matter too much.) If that was to be our final show, I’d be pleased. It would be an even more fitting ending than the Holiday Extravaganzer. But there was still work to be done. After finishing my academics (no second graduation cap-and-gown walk for me), I decided to linger in Missoula until recording the drums for the upcoming album was complete; with Carl moving back to Tofte, Minn., and me tentatively moving to Boston, this would be our last chance. Because my apartment was university housing and I was no longer a student, I had to stay at my brother’s place for about a month while finishing up the drum portion. Another factor that kept me in Missoula was a quickly planned house show at the same abode as “A Night to Remebert.” It was a going-away party for one of the housemates, and was themed “A.B.C” — anything but clothes. Although I didn’t plan to fully observe the no-dress dress code (we did throw around the idea of only wearing black garbage bags), this seemed like the perfect combination of debauchery and good cheer that would make this another night to remember[t]. And if the first show was any indication, we expected this would our capstone moment. The night started off promising enough. Attendees dressed in garbage contents, balloons, cardboard boxes, and diapers were many and well spirited, and our friend, one-man-band Matt Hassler, primed the crowd with his lively (if somewhat belligerent) performance.

Repeating the success of our Wolf Den show, we decided to open with “The Beautiful Ones,” featuring some iPad synths for the first verse of the song. We then lead into “Nocturn,” followed by a vocally uneven “Bodysnatchers,” then the Magic Square’s “Everybody’s Got Somebody,” for old time’s sake. By our fifth song, “Friday Night Friends,” even more people had showed up to the party — most of them on the upper floor. At “Hey Ya” we had a few faithful stragglers (as heard in the recording), but by whatever came next (it may’ve been the “Lord of the Rings” blues jam), we were playing for one. And so it was for the rest of the night. While the anything-but-clothed party raged overhead, the three of us forged ahead in the basement, busting out out the usual and unusual in a veritable musical vacuum. This oblivion gave us the freedom to experiment as we saw fit, resulting in Lindsey Buckingham’s “Big Love” (hear the end of it), extended spoken word intros (like this), and perhaps our spaciest, boldest enterprise yet, the 18-minute “iPad Freakout/Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” All told, we played for more than two hours — by far our longest set — and were even partially unclothed by the end (meaning no shirts). But the lack of an audience was pretty demoralizing, and began a long streak of personal disillusionment wherein I began to associate the band with poorly attended shows and uninterested listeners. Still, I’m glad we recorded it, even though it was a far, far cry from our previous outing in this location. Disillusionment aside, we continued to make headway on the TBD album. When not recording, I spent much of my time either bike riding or searching for jobs online. In short, one was more encouraging than the other. I was very, very low on funds, so much so that, if I had to pay for rent, I would’ve gone in the black. By June, I had moved back in with my parents in Billings, only to return a week later for another show at the Top Hat, this time with local juggernauts and overall great guys the BoxCutters. I had seen them perform at the KBGA Battle of the Bands, and while I was confident in our abilities, I knew it would be very, very hard to best them. Turns out I was right, but I had no qualms with that fact: they were, and still are, a great band. It would be an honor to share the stage with them.

The trip back to Missoula was short lived, and thankfully so. I had even less money than in the aforementioned paragraph, and with a great friend’s wedding the following week (I was groomsman in this beautiful Bozeman barnyard ceremony) I had to budget every cent I spent, and packed just enough food to get me through those two days. For being the final Newsfeed show, I don’t really recall much about it; come to think of it, I’m not sure I remember anything specifically about the set. What I do remember is playing to fewer people than our previous Top Hat show, while having audience members I personally invited disappear by mid set, never to return. For the few who stayed, I remember trying to compel them with feats of sheer determination and physical grit, i.e. headbanging, extra vocal flourishes, extended guitar solos, whatever I could to get them “into it.” But they weren’t into it, at least not the majority of them. We were exhausted by the end of another ambitious set, but afterward, I felt no sense of finality or relief. I felt pretty blank, empty, neutral, void. The BoxCutters, from what I could tell, put on a great show, but I was in the alley outside the Top Hat for most of it. I thought, to quote a line from Newsfeed’s “Slipping Away,” “So this is how it ends, I guess.” I guess so. We met the following day to record the last of the drum tracks, both for the album’s opener (“As We Stand Here”) and closer (“4D Skiffle Skaff”). After getting multiple takes for due diligence’s sake, Anthony and I mixed the final version of Metal Face’s “I B Who I B” in Carl’s basement. Once we were satisfied, we departed the fabled “Bitch Pit” for good. The next morning, I left Missoula, and soon, Carl would, too. Newsfeed Anxiety, as a rehearsing, writing and performing band, was a thing of the past. But we still had something to say.

Further Listening: How Missoula Was Won Released well after our final show, HMWW (named with the excellent Led Zeppelin triple-disc live album, How the West Was Won, in mind) is our only recorded performance documentation. Captured during our KBGA and “ABC” party performances, it shows us in our element: confessional, chord-strewn originals, goofy between-song interplay, weird covers, and all of which played for a nearly non-existent audience. At least we could make light that fact. Apologies for the fuzzed vocals. We somehow didn’t catch that during soundcheck.