Posts Tagged ‘the 1990s’

Ancient History 1.0

Friday, July 8th, 2011

I released a new album this weekend.

Young Man, Volume One is a collection of studio recordings I made with my early rock bands between 1994 and 1998. It’s a bunch of tracks pulled from different compilations, demos, and unfinished projects. There’s a long blurb on the album’s Bandcamp page that explains the motives and production details behind the album. What follows should explain these years in more detail.

I played drums in a few bands during high school. For one of them, Love Buckets, I wrote and sang a few of the original songs that we played in between AC/DC and Alice in Chains covers. We even recorded an “album” on a borrowed 4-track machine.

But Norman was my first real band.

The summer after my first year away at college, I got a phone call from a high-school friend. She asked if I knew anyone who might want to try singing with her friends’ band. I joked that I’d be into it–the joke being that I’d never fronted a band before. There was much laughter on both ends of the line.  But I kept it in mind, and at the end of the conversation I circled back around to the idea. Within the week I was standing in a garage in Burnt Hills, New York, with three total strangers, attempting to be a lead singer and guitarist in a rock band when I had no real experience doing either. I remember we played “Molly’s Lips,” the Vaselines song as covered by Nirvana on the Incesticide LP, about 30 times because it had two chords and lasted about 95 seconds. We jammed on a few ideas of theirs, and a few of mine. It went well. We decided we would play again.

The name, Norman, was branded soon after. I once said in a radio interview that it came to me in the shower. Allow me to de-romanticize the story: It’s not the name of my schlong. Rather, I had the thought of giving the band a proper name, to be just a little quirky, and this came from sounding out different ideas. Maybe I was trying to discover a name that had just enough of the same letters as Nirvana to look and sound familiar. And hey, quirky was in at the time: Weezer’s Blue Album was Norman’s bible.

I wrote a bunch of songs and brought in a few more from my past (“I Believe” was originally a Love Buckets song), and we started playing out soon after. Dan, the original second guitarist, left the band after just a few gigs–I don’t think he actually quit, more like he took some time off and never came back. Meanwhile, Randy (bass) and Dave (drums) learned songs almost as fast as I was writing them, and we quickly had a full set of original material. In December 1994 we went to Hyland Recording in the big city of Albany for our first studio session, a four-hour block of live recording that yielded our first four-song demo tape.

People responded. Putting it all in perspective, a shitload of cool things happened to us that year. The very first review of our demo was a glowing piece by Steve Ferguson (now known as Stephen Clair) in perhaps the best independent music publication Albany ever had, Buzzz. We got airplay and played live on several area radio stations, and cut a TV segment for a public-access show in Vermont. We even got noticed by Dominick Campana, whose Paint Chip Records was the preeminent local alternative-rock label. We were invited to be on his forthcoming compilation CD, the third in a well-publicized series.

We cut our two songs for the compilation (“Tourniquet” and “Over My Grave”) that July, back again at Hyland Recording, but this time on the 24-track, 2-inch tape machine. Norman was just a duo for this session, as Randy had to leave town suddenly. I played all the bass and guitar parts while wearing a wrist brace–because I’d fractured my hand being a jackass a few weeks prior–yet somehow I avoided having any major performance problems. Dave nailed his parts like a total pro, right down to the wood block (it was used to simulate the rim shots in “Tourniquet”). I loved being able to multi-track and harmonize my vocals–I had attempted stacking vocal tracks in my home-recording experiments, but never with such fidelity and possibility. It felt great.

Meanwhile I had submitted our demo to as many of the various showcases and festivals as I could find, and we made the cut for the first round of the TicketMaster Music Showcase, at Bogie’s in Albany that September. There were A&R reps from a few major labels at the show–labels still had A&R back then–and they apparently liked us because we were advanced to the semifinal round. In Tampa, Florida. All expenses paid. Holy. Shit. Dude.

We played a bunch of shows on our home turf that fall, from Paint Chip showcases at Valentine’s to acoustic shows at Caffe Dolce in Schenectady, our regular hang and the site of the first Norman shows. Then in November, we boarded a jet plane and headed to Tampa–Ybor City, specifically–for the Ticketmaster semifinals. We shared the stage with a bunch of great bands, including Goud’s Thumb from Portland, Maine, and a Florida band called Bloom, which we found funny because Albany’s chief alt-rock act at the time was also called Bloom. And we got to “rub elbows” with some “industry people.” It was a lot to take in for three kids from the suburbs.

We didn’t win the showcase–I recall being down during and after the show, probably because of a muffed note that nobody outside our band would have noticed–but I think the exposure to the industry and the thrill of playing such a prestigious event got to me. Something big could happen for the band if we just worked our tails off. I was certain of this. On the flipside, and in retrospect, I was hugely ambitious and difficult and not terribly self-aware. I figured we could be signed within a year if I just wrote more songs and pushed the guys extra hard. (In those first few post-Cobain years, that really wasn’t so far-fetched. After all, Candlebox had a hit record.)

So that’s what I did. I pushed and pushed and pushed. I booked more gigs, wrote more songs, expected more and more out of my bandmates, and never stopped to see where their heads were at.

We returned home from Tampa and immediately played the release party for Bump Into Fate, the Paint Chip comp, at the old QE2. This show sticks out because, as I recall, we played one of our best sets. I’m also fairly certain that was the night I first met John Delehanty, with whom I’d later record Tiger Pop and part of Mix Tape. (He’s the only QE2 soundguy I can remember.) After that, there were just a few more gigs on the calendar before the new year.

But the tension between me and my bandmates was growing. Eventually it was bound to break. I had developed a nasty habit of pointing out mistakes onstage, and at what would be the final Norman show, at Valentine’s in late December 2005, I said some stupid shit on the microphone about some missed bass notes. As we were about to exit the stage, Randy threw his instrument into the air, watching as it fell and smashed on the tiled concrete floor below. It was the end of the band, and the last time all three of us were in the same room. (Coincidentally this was the same gig where I met the band Nickel Social, from which I’d poach three members to form Kid Dynamo some months later.)

Dave and Randy and I were just a bunch of kids, and kids tend to treat each other like crap. There is no doubt I was a jerk to my bandmates on numerous occasions, in the supposed name of music. Randy’s unease was visible for some time, but I never bothered to ask him about it. I was too busy worrying about my own universe, while Randy bottled up emotion until it was unbearable. I remember saying to him, immediately after the bass-smashing incident, something along the lines of “I hope you plan to have that fixed by next week.” Which is a shitty thing to say in that situation. But all I could think about was the next show. Because that show could be the one where something big happens to our band. Because the band was the only thing in the world that mattered to me–even if it destroyed a friendship.

I’m reflecting especially deeply on this right now, not only because I’ve been listening to Norman’s music ad infinitum for the last few weeks, but because I’ve just this week had to leave a band for basically the same reasons Randy left mine. Playing music is supposed to be fun. It’s about connecting with one or more people, and finding common ground through sound and rhythm. But when one band member is a total control freak, the whole thing gets too mechanical. It stops being about a connection and becomes more about routine. And when those control issues extend beyond sonic and aesthetic decisions and begin to manifest themselves in abusive language or behavior, it’s damaging to the project and everyone around it. It doesn’t matter how good that person is, or how good they think they are; that person is unhealthy to be around, and the high road is to get the hell away from the toxic situation as quickly as possible. In this case, it was a stubborn-headed guitarist who refused to accept responsibility for his actions, and who lashed out at whoever tried to call him on his bullshit. That’s probably what Randy thought about me at the end of Norman. Life’s got a funny way of making its point.

Anyway, it’s never fun to quit a band, but this time the decision was easy because the majority of us were in agreement: Stand back and let the guy burn bridges. Time has proven that those of use who want to move on to better things, will, and hopefully the bridge-burner will learn from this experience.

I know I did.

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I’ll jump back into the 1990s for volume 2.0 very soon. In the meantime, does anyone want to hire a drummer?