Header graphic for print

The Other Steve Miller

Posted in Behind the Scenes

Andrea Desmond’s “Teal Water” — Making the Video

(A brief note from the future: We were actually very unsatisfied with the final result, so much so that Andrea had it taken down from Vimeo and expunged from the Internet, like it never happened. I’m publishing this post retroactively in 2014 because it represents an important part of my musical history—and it took a long time to write. Now let us never speak of this video again.)

Continue Reading

Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Silver Gate, Mont., on 7/20/12: A Look Back at the Night That Was

Silver Gate

Me and Alex during the jam sesh.

According to the 2010 census, the combined population of Cooke City and Silver Gate is 95, which isn’t all to surprising: both seem more like collectives of cabins/rustic hotel lodgings, simplistic restaurants and log storefronts than towns in the traditional sense, though I envy those who are residents of either — well, during the summer months, at least. Silver Gate/Cooke City has been a prime destination for years whenever passing through the Beartooth/Absorka Wilderness, with many a family outing and/or day trip taking place in these communities tucked far within the tree-littered crags.

I only have fond memories of CG/SG — notwithstanding a few instances of questionable restaurant service — but the night of Friday, July 20, 2012 would surpass all that came before it. The day’s activities — two hikes, a trip to some natural hot springs, some 200+ miles traveled — left us feeling weary, so we headed into Cooke City for some hardy mountain food and cold beer. After a fairly intense, in-depth, theologically probing dinner discussion — no doubt commonplace at such a setting — we drove back to Silver Gate and prepared to wind down for the night. I remember thinking about my musical prospects during this conversation, and feeling somewhat disheartened by the lack of quality performances beyond the once-a-week, two-song open mic, and frustrated at the sluggish progress of the forthcoming Newsfeed Anxiety album. At this point, I needed a profound musical revelation. I would need to wait for this — until after dinner.

While walking back to our cabin, we heard an amplified voice, echoing from afar. As we followed the voice, I realized its owner was singing — and singing quite well, actually. When we reached the source of the sound, on the grounds of the Grizzly Lodge, we saw a male keyboardist and a female vocalists/guitarist on a small, flood-light-illumined stage. They were playing to a gathering of some 40-50 people, most of whom were Old Bones bikers on their way to Sturgis; some were huddled around a campfire, some were spectators of the two-person band, and others simply milled about. Closer inspection of the band confirmed that, indeed, the singer was good, as was the keyboardist. But something appeared amiss: They weren’t really in time with each other, and some of the vocalists speech was slurred. My suspicions were confirmed when she played a nonsensical guitar solo and broke into an impromptu recitation of “Bady’s Got Back,” but before things got too ugly, a goateed, biker-geared man from the crowd hopped on stage, picked up her guitar, and started singing. As he trudged through overly sentimental country songs in G major — the most notable one being “Time Marches On,” which we had heard at a twangy bar played by a twangy bar band on a previous Silver Gate visit — Alex and I began plotting how we could commandeer the stage and inject some much-needed life into the night’s entertainment.

We didn’t have anything big in mind: just two or three songs, preferably an offbeat cover or two. The three songs we chose we Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and the Velvet Underground’s “Cool It Down” and “Sweet Jane,” both from their Loaded album. We told someone who looked like they may’ve been in charge — a mulleted woman in her late 40s/early 50s, also bedecked in biker gear — that we were musicians, brothers and wanted to play. She seemed interested, but we would have to wait for the then-current performer to wrap up his set, whenever that would be. But just as “time marches on,” so, too, did his set. With my urge to play rising, I approached someone I thought to be the person I previously spoke with and told her we were ready to play, to which she nodded politely, acknowledged what I said, then walked away — leading me to believe that perhaps she wasn’t the person I originally approached. It didn’t matter, though, because shortly following that fruitless conversation, Alex and I took the stage.

The crowd was more receptive to the Prince song than we initially thought, as was the keyboardist, a barefoot, salt-and-pepper-haired attorney named Mark. Instead of going into “Cool It Down,” Mark suggested we play “Seven,” a bluesy, vaguely biblical track from 1990s-era Prince. Alex was very familiar with the song, whereas I, not so much; all I knew was it’s an A blues progression that holds the five chord for a long time. Luckily, Mark called out the chord changes from the other side of the stage, so I wasn’t completely lost. We also had the female vocalist — whose name was Keeley (I think) Miller — on harmonies, which gave us a heightened sense of togetherness. And the crowd loved that one, too. With both Mark and Keeley gibing well with us and the biker crowd cheering us on, Alex and I decided to ride the momentum and stay on stage. Our original setlist proved to be a gross underestimation. We went on stage sometime around 10:30 p.m. and didn’t leave until past 1 a.m. The chronology of the night is as hazy now writing this as it was while taking place. My mind wasn’t altered at all, but it was such a bizarre, surreal experience, I only remember fragments of what followed. Here are some snapshots of what I recall: Continue Reading

Posted in Behind the Scenes

Mariko Ruhle’s The Wonder Years: A Look Inside

No Fred Savages were harmed in the making of this record.

During the cold, steel-gray bleakness of mid-February Seattle, Atticus Wyman, Jeremy Bang, and Mariko Rose Ruhle invited local and visiting musicians — some from as far away as Austin, Texas — into their two-bedroom Capitol Hill/Central District apartment for futon lounging, down-home cooking, friendship, fellowship, Netlfix streaming and, of course, music. While this is nothing new to the Madkin unit, there was a heightened sense of purpose this time. For a week, Mariko hosted accomplished Austin singer-songwriter and long-time friend/collaborator Jack Wilson — who recently opened for the Lumineers — and his wife, Nora, for the recording of Mariko’s debut album, The Wonder Years. Named for the period of time it took to pen the songs — a stretch that spanned almost a decade — The Wonder Years is assemblage of Hopvine Tavern all-stars, all coming together to add life and fullness to Mariko’s Americana-based, Fleetwood-Mac-inspired, subtley punk-rooted sonic folk. You can stream the at the end of the post, or buy it at Bandcamp for $7, which is a pretty awesome deal, if you ask me, which you should ask me, and I would tell you should buy the album, and, hopefully, you’d listen — both to my advice, and to the album, but if you’re to listen to one or the other, listen to the album (which would actually be indirectly listening to my advice … I think). About the inspiration for The Wonder Years, Mariko says on her Bandcamp page:

Without love from all directions this music would not have been captured. I am so thankful for the people who allowed me to grow and never stopped believing. Endless love to [long-time partner] Atticus, “my sail…” The universe lay a course of connections that all magically aligned in order for this experience to occur. To the wanderers and writers, players and dancers, the gypsies and lovers, the dreamers and realists… Thank you for all your inspiration and gifts. Here is something in return a greeting and goodbye, an ending of one moment and the beginning of all else…

Continue Reading

Posted in Album Notes, Behind the Scenes

Wanna listen to an excellent band with a storied legacy? Look no further than Wanna?’s Legacy

All questions, great and significant, are answered by this band. (Photo courtesy of Flickr.)

Oh, hello there. I didn’t see you come in there. Welcome. Please, enter.

I know it’s been a long time. A long time. In the past, I’ve tried justifying my blogging absence with well-reasoned — if not somewhat overwrought — explanations, as if my handful of faithful readers were constantly checking their inboxes for an email notifying them of a new blog post, only to be disappointed when nothing appeared, as has been the case since my last post (published two and a half months ago). I won’t offer such an apology now; your time is too precious in this skim-over, rapid-media-consumption society, and, well, I have other things to do than to write 2,000 plus words on playing a three-song mini-set at a coffee shop — not that those weren’t fun times that warranted such a detailed account, but I think we’re all busier now, what with this economy and al1. And with very important topics in the works (you didn’t think I made you read a fivepart history of Newsfeed Anxiety for nothing, did you?), I thought it best to reconnect with my devoted readers with something more lighthearted, fun, lively, but by no means superfluous or unnecessary; of the latter, you will find no such content here.

Today, I would like to introduce you to a very special collection of songs by yet another permutation of the Billings Central musical commonage: the group is known as Wanna?, and the album in question is Legacy.

Continue Reading

Posted in Songwriter Chronicles

Five Songs to Play on St. Patrick’s Day

What more can I say? (Photo courtesy of the Clintons.)

As Guinness clocks near zeroes in bars across the country, it’s time to start thinking about the 4th Century saint whose feast day calls for mass consumption of corn beef, cabbage, alcohol and taters. No, I’m not referring to Saint Alexius of Rome, but the other saint whom we commemorate every March 17: Saint Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland, scarer of snakes, converter of Gauls, elucidator of the Holy Trinity via a three-leaf clover.

On this day, it doesn’t matter if you’re 100, 50, 12.5 or zero percent Irish, or whether your last name has an O’ preceding it, if you enjoy shamrocks, hearty mirth, leprechauns and a nice, stout pint of ale, you, too, are Irish. (Disclaimer: My paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Helen O’Keefe/O’Sullivan, so my 25 percent makes observance of this feast day mandatory for me.)

Luckily, St. Patrick’s day falls on a Sunday this year, which makes for optimum celebration of the Irish in all of us — not that any other day of the week would impede these yearly obligations. And for those who want to honor this holy day even more by, say, playing an open mic set at any pub/bar-like establishment, here are some songs to consider:

“Whiskey in a Jar”

This traditional tune has been remade numerous times since the 17th century, but the version that stands out the most in my mind is the 1972 cut recorded by Irish rock legends Thin Lizzy. Metallica also recorded this song in 1998 and made it a hit, but I’d recommend playing the Thin Lizzy version if you’re only manned with an acoustic and your voice — drop-tuning bar chords don’t translate well in open mic setting. That, and I find the Lizzy version much more expressive and truer to its Irish roots — and, of course, less James Hetfield-y, whose career of “yeahs” have recently been compiled.

“Danny Boy”

When I was putting together a similar min iset around this this time last year, I was somewhat hard-pressed to find a version of this Irish folk standard that I could a) memorize quickly and b) easily find the chords. I settled on this version by the Celtic Women, which actually has no instrumental accompaniment and is, frankly, a little cheesy. The reason I chose it is because I quickly figured out it was in E-flat major, and I wanted to segueway from one of my non-Irish originals in the same key to this one, so it worked out. If you’re more comfortable playing in C (who isn’t?), Eva Cassidy’s beautiful version may work better. In fact, this is a far superior to the Celtic Women version. What was I thinking?

Continue Reading

Posted in Behind the Scenes

Andrea Desmond and the White Lights: Milk and Rain EP — A Look Inside

Us being us (minus Tall Steve), as pictured on the back sleeve of Milk and Rain. (Photo by Erica Russell.)

It is here. On this blog. Finally. Right now. Period. Milk and Rain, the debut EP for Seattle-based group Andrea Desmond and the White Lights — of which I am a proud member — was recorded in several sessions in September and October 2012, with the mixing and mastering process wrapping up just before Christmas. Andrea released it to the world Dec. 25, and yet, for some reason, it’s taken me this long to write about it. I blame the specter that is the memory of Newsfeed Anxiety — and maybe my steadily declining attention span (which reminds me: you have got to check out these 40 hilarious dog gifs!! Lolz, indeed!) — for the oversight. Named for a line in Andrea’s song “Painting” — “My dear friend, the writing remains / Like milk and rain / Here to sustain” — the EP offers listeners a glimpse into the band’s early days, when all we had was one gig together under our collective band belt. Not even a week after our debut at RAW Artists Showcase, in fact, we were in talks with former Vendetta Red guitarist Justin Cronk to pencil in some recording time before we went on tour with The Outlaw, his Waylon Jennings tribute band. We were slated for Sept. 18-19, wherein we would attempt to record five songs in their entireties — drums, guitars, vocals, bass, harmonies, keys, and extra instrumentation — in two all-day sessions.

Initially, I experienced a mixture of excitement and nervousness: excitement for the opportunity to record a quality product and live the “rockstar” life, as it were, but nervousness at the prospect of being pressed for time, pressured to play and sing perfectly, and having to take two days off work at somewhat short notice. I was also at first resistant to the idea of going into the studio so soon into the rehearsing process, mainly because my only other studio album, The Magic Square EP, was recorded after months of practicing and gigging (well, three gigs, at least) and even then, it was a bit of a trudge. But everything seems to turn out all right when you’re working with great musicians who are also great people.

Andrea, then-bassist Matthew Vance and I bussed out to Justin’s Fremont-based studio, the Toy Box, where we met our drummer William Mapp for gear load in. On this day, and the day after it, the sun shown bright in the uncommonly cloudless sky, just as it normally would in regions not as precipitous and oftentimes murky-gray as the Pacific Northwest. Bikers, runners, and walkers in shorts had easy, dry passage on either side of the Burke-Gilman Trail, and the Fremont Canal bustled with boats, canoes and other sea vessels making mini voyages between Lake Union and the Ballard Locks. While Justin miked William’s drum set, the rest of us watched the pilot for The League — FX’s case study on the effects fantasy football has on grown men (I personally thought the ensemble cast was solid, but couldn’t get over how mean the friends were to each other) — and read aloud a harrowing tale of Jodi Jill, a successful entertainment columnist who grew up in a storage unit. The story is worth the read. Recording proceeded a little differently than my previous studio experience, but I think I preferred this approach. We played the songs as the entire band and only kept the drum and bass tracks, while the keys, vocals and guitars were mere scratch tracks; if one of us hit a bad note or missed a cue, we wouldn’t have to perform the entire song again, which was a pretty big relief for me. And if there was a screw up on any track, never fear: we did several takes for each instrument (each recorded to a click-track, a method whose importance I cannot emphasize enough) so if there was a slight misstep on one take, with the the wonders of technology, Justin could punch in the same section from another track, thus smoothing over and of those small-but-pesky errors. This approach is supposedly common practice among professional record producers, but still, its effective simplicity confounded me. (If only I had employed similar tactics on certain flawed previous projects. Oh well.) In short, the drum takes turned out quite well, as you can tell in the final cuts. Continue Reading

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. Continue Reading

Posted in Album Notes

Newsfeed Anxiety: The Compromise

Any guesses as to the album cover’s background image?

The Compromise began as a series of bedroom demos recording in fall 2009. As mentioned before, I was still new to songwriting and supplying an album’s worth of songs for an entire band to perform, so I stuck to subjects I knew well: disappointment, struggle, disenchantment, and, ultimately, hope, all of which presented in a manner I’d like to think akin to Richard Thompson, or, say, Phil Collins. There’s also a bit of Elliott Smith in the mix, as well as the Swell Season. Musically, I was drawn to electro-folk — Wilco, Monsters of Folk, Bright Eyes (mainly Cassadega) Richard Thompson (mainly Shoot Out the Lights), to name a few — introspective acoustica — Elliott Smith (mainly From a Basement on a Hill and New Moon) and the Swell Season — and, of course, the constants of Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, among others. It is also worth noting that we may’ve gone overboard on the GarageBand guitar presets, but how could one not with an entire digital pedalboard at their disposal? We’ve since learned that lesson.

Recording The Compromise was a long and oftentimes frustrating process, to the point where we eventually had to accept its mechanical shortcomings in order to move on to other things, namely gigging and writing new material. (I cannot stress the importance of recording to a click track, which is a lesson I fully learned after this album.) We recorded the drums in a variety of locations, such as Anthony’s basements, Ben Webster’s basement, and Carl’s basement, the latter of which was unofficially known as “The Bitch Pit,” named for the hanging mirror with those words scrawled on it. While recording in “The Pit,” we constantly tested the limits of not only our eardrums, but those of Lemiwinks, the house gerbil (mentioned in “Jesus Saved His Gerbil“). I felt bad for the little guy, who would gnaw at his cage whenever we attempted to record the drums to untracked tracks. Maybe that was the sign he enjoyed it. At any rate, “The Pit,” was an ideal location for recording and practicing, and I miss it dearly.

Blemishes aside and wince-worthy mess-ups aside, The Compromise is, in my totally subjected and personally involved opinion, a thoughtful, atmospheric, cautiously optimistic, 34-minute journey into the overwrought mind of a 20-something-every-person. There are some sonic components, but it’s grounded in universal, relatable themes — at least, that was my intention. Overall, it served as a fitting debut for what is still to come.

1. Vices (Steve Miller, John McClelland)

On some levels, it makes sense to have this as an opener: It’s driving, energetic, and attention grabbing, possibly more so than anything else on the album. But in another sense, it’s so different from the other songs — straight-forward rock as opposed to something more folk/psychedelia based — “Vices” almost doesn’t really fit, which is something that we heard several times when playinh live. But it was one of the few songs we practiced in our sole fall 2009 rehearsal, and a staple at our shows, so we stuck by it. Plus, I wanted to give proper credit to Clintons frontman John McClelland, whose lyrics from the excellent song “Potion” inspired the title of this song: “When I’m left up to my own devices / My vices get the best of me.” What a line.

The lyrics “I love you, I love you, I love, I love you so much, it’s probably not good for me,” came to me lying in bed one night, and they struck as somewhat manic and obsessive. I continued in that vein, slowly writing the lyrics over the course of five months or so, before I had something I liked. This was around the time when a good friend of mine was experiencing these consumptive feelings of attraction for somebody, so I tried to write it from that perspective, but exaggerate it to the point of parody.

I think I went a little overboard on the chord changes — sorry about that, Anthony — but it could’ve been a lot worse. Originally, I planned for the song to sound like The Darkness’s “Givin’ Up,” (in tempo and mood, not theme) but B-major was way too high for me, so I decided for A instead, while still considering a key change up to B. That would’ve made live shows a living heck.

Continue Reading

Posted in Music Retrospecticus

Newsfeed Anxiety: Breakthrough, The Holiday Extravaganzer, and The Compromise

The band, all bundled up from the cold, playing at the “Wolf Den.” (Photo: Maegan Simmons.)

More than a year into our existence, Newsfeed Anxiety only had (approximately) 1.25 shows and an incomplete album to its name. The next year and a half would be much different, though certainly not without its share of struggles. But they were glorious struggles, all in the name of free-genre electro-folk rock, which are the most noble struggles of all. The new lineup — which featured Ben Webster on guitar/drums and Carl on the drums/bass — played its one and only show at a venue called the Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) to a crowd of maybe 10 people, in a room primarily used for art exhibits, not rock shows. It was freeing to finally play a full-band, distorted and energized set, but given the venue choice, a lineup (our openers consisted of a touring lo-fi indie minimalist group, a heavy metal band, and a group of elementary kids, who were actually very good) this wasn’t a very ideal setting for our sound, and I think we hurt some eardrums in the process.

Not long after the show, during a practice in Anthony’s cement-walled and spacious apartment basement, we realized the two-guitar sound wasn’t very befitting of the original mission statement of the group (not to mention switching instruments became very confusing), and decided to revert back to the original three-piece lineup. With no gigs planned for the foreseeable future, we thought it best to move forward in finishing the album. But just as in the summer, we learned the true extent of how difficult it was to add drums to tracks that weren’t recorded to a metronome. We toiled and labored over these songs, but even the most sophisticating track slicing/manipulating couldn’t fully salvage them (I’m still convinced the Flex Time feature doesn’t work). Instead of re-recording them,, we decided to make due with what we had and finally work on other projects, using the lessons learned from this promising-yet-somewhat-poorly executed batch of songs to make the next album a more complete effort. We decided to name the eight-track, 34-minute collection The Compromise, both in reference to the song of the same name, and that, after a point, we had to come to terms to the varying quality levels — ranging from pretty stellar (“The U I Knew,” “Slipping Away”) to the acceptable (“Nocturn,” “The Compromise”) to pretty iffy (“Vices”,”Come Unglued”). We learned to accept the album’s shortcomings — just as one would a deeply flawed good friend, or a troubled-but-well-meaning relative — and by November, about a week after the aforementioned BSOMLSF saw the light of day in the Montana Kaimin, The Compromise was online for our mini-hordes of faithful listeners.

Our efforts were completed, and my internal strifes ranging from September 2006-October 2011 were exhumed. It was time to move on. Finally having recorded tracks gave us some clout when looking for venues to showcase our ever-evolving live act, of which The Compromise served as the foundation. Even before the album was complete, I shopped around a four-song demo (with my phone number written on the discs) to several prominent Missoula musicians in hopes of landing some decent gigs. These yielded mostly null returns, save for one figure who was deeply connected to the intricacies of Missoula’s music scene, who was so impressed by our sound that he booked us a show opening for touring band Generationals for a Tuesday-night show at the Badlander. (This occurred the same night as an impromptu solo acoustic set at the second iteration of the Top of the Mic. I filled in for someone who didn’t show up, but I don’t think I was qualified to advance, seeing how I wasn’t formally entered. I applied online for us to play this competition, but never heard from the event coordinator. In an attempt to be humorous, I copied and pasted James Joyce’s “The Dead” in its entirety in the “other comments” field, which likely prevented the request from being processed. A shame, really, because I wrote “Let’s Drink (Some Alcohol)” as an attempt to pander to the bar crowd during the competition. Now we’ll never know.) Although the crowd was fairly non-existent — something we were more than used to by then — we finally had the chance to perform our much-improved set since our show at the ZACC two months prior. In addition to extended versions of “Nocturn” and “The Compromise” (which served as our opener and closer, respectively), we also included an electrified cover of Obadiah Parker’s cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which quickly became a staple of our live shows, thanks to a lengthy, mega-phoned intoned “What’s cooler than being cool?” section. There was even a segment where I played solo acoustic versions of “Good With U” and “Slipping Away,” but at the behest of this momentary benefactor, these unplugged segments were scrapped, though they probably shouldn’t have been. (This person turned out to be fairly unreliable and unapproachable, and thus wasn’t the best adviser for the band.) I attended the gig after party as the sole band representative, sent to schmooze among the other Missoula tastemakers in the hopes of getting some high-quality shows. It took place in a downtown apartment, the kind with scuffed hardwood floors, thrift-store couches, faded-tile in the kitchen, and lots of vinyl records. I received some positive feedback for the show (Generationals frontman said we had “great enthusiasm”) and spoke with some out-of-town promoters of some type who gave me their cards. In retrospect, nothing really came of this late-night gathering, but it was positive indication that we were gaining some long-awaited traction.

On the road to semi-legitimacy at our first Badlander gig. (Photo: Maegan Simmons).

The exceptional autumn season — a time highlighted by trips to Seattle for a Flaming Lips concert, Chicago to see family and attend Notre Dame’s trouncing of then-15-ranked Utah, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Silver Spring” played on a near-incessant loop — was drawing to a close, and in its final month and a half, the band continued on its sudden upward climb. Following the somewhat-better-attended breakthrough show at the Badlander, we had three more shows slated before the end of the year. The first took place on a bitterly cold Saturday night at a venue called the Wolf Den (a high-ceilinged garage with poor acoustics and a ping-pong table) to a crowd of maybe 15-20 people who likely suffered hearing loss after our loud rendition of “The Beautiful Ones.”

Our second and third shows took place at the Palace, both of which facilitated by our prominent music scene benefactor. Since our March gig, it had become increasingly difficult to procure a gig at the Palace due to a $150 playing fee the venue’s owners charged the band(s) to cover security and sound for the night. This deterred little-known bands like us, that, in order to break even, would need to get at least 50 people through the door at $5 per person. And on Wednesday/Thursday nights, 50 people minimum was hard to by, especially for us. But when planned through our momentary benefactor, the issues of cost didn’t arise, so we played the first show — a good but forgettable affair — without worrying about the fee. The next performance was a different matter. We had grand plans for our December 15 show, which we advertised as our “Holiday Extravaganzer.” There would be Christmas lights, Santa/elf hats, contemporary holiday classics, and yuletide cheer, along with our usual set.

It would be the merriest Newsfeed show to date. But a few days before the event, our benefactor had cancelled the show on account of the visiting band rerouting its tour. After asking if we could play the show regardless, this person didn’t respond, so I appealed to the somewhat-unapproachable owner of the venue, and convinced him that we and one-man-band Matt Hassler could definitely bring in at least 50 people to the show (though he seemed pretty hesitant). Thus, the Holiday Extravaganzer proceeded as planned, and brought good cheer to one and all who attended. With a killer set featuring U2’s version of “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” a medley of “Holiday Road/Hey Ya/Jolene,” an original rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” and an even-more extended version of “The Compromise” to close. It was a milestone performance for the three of us, and a great way to wrap up a prosperous semester. Although we didn’t get 50+ people through the door, those who attended supplied us with much love and energy; even the surly sound guy enjoyed us. And we never heard from the booker about the $150 fee, so it all worked out, and would continue to do so, until the band’s final show — and beyond. Required Listening: The Compromise

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.

Continue Reading