My father was a singer, guitarist, and sax player in a number of professional bands until I was a couple years old. Two memories of watching him play at home: the way my body thrummed with the vibration of a plucked guitar string, and my terror over his amp’s spring reverb when dropped, like a dog to a vacuum cleaner. Many evenings were spent at home listening to albums with my parents, especially early Barry Manilow, and though I knew nothing of music, I can’t help but think I absorbed arrangement and composition theory through vinyl osmosis.
I picked up the guitar myself at age 13, and shortly thereafter found myself wandering the Sears records aisles under heavy sedation following oral surgery while my mother ran errands. The cover of David Lee Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile screamed at me, and I just had to know what this feral beast sounded like. On the turntable, though, it was Steve Vai’s growling, acrobatic guitar hysterics that dared me to take command of the instrument. I connected the dots from Roth to Van Halen, which kept me in the woodshed through most of high school. Randy Rhoads, George Lynch, Nuno Bettencourt, Vito Bratta, Joe Satriani—I was obsessed with adding their techniques to my arsenal. Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Gilmour. I remember learning and practicing Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety. In college it was guys like Eric Johnson, Michael Hedges, and Jeff Beck. I couldn’t play like them—still can’t—but their mastery of the instrument continues to push me.
Once I started recording—first on a little cassette four-track, then in pro studios with bands, and later at home in my own studio—the bigger songwriting picture became my focus. I spent more time playing keyboards, bass, and singing (horribly) to get my ideas across. Lyrically, I’ve always been inspired by Leonard Cohen and Roger Waters, who write with lots of metaphor and symbolism. I like lines that allow the listener to interpret and participate. Over the years, my songwriting has evolved from progressive leanings to more and more simplicity: ideally they could be expressed with just a voice and acoustic guitar. These days I find myself listening to a lot of singer/songwriters like Tom Waits, Ben Folds, and John Paul White, as well as progressive artists like Steven Wilson, The Aristocrats, The Reign of Kindo, The Winery Dogs, and Sigur Ros. Film scores by guys like Jon Brion, Clint Mansell, and Alexander Desplat. And of course classics like Stevie Wonder, Deep Purple, and The Beach Boys.
A Few Things I’ve Learned
• Never release a song you’re not perfectly happy with. Think about all those nostalgia bands you see playing their one 30-year-old hit through gritted teeth night after night.
• Decide whether your band is for fun or for money. There’s very little middle ground in the biz, and those who play for fun will invest far more than they’ll ever get in return, so they should at least play what makes them happy. It’s an expensive “hobby.”
• Other than casinos and private events, the gigs with worthwhile pay are usually found outside the city. Upstart bands will line up to play for free at the urban hotspots, but the outlying areas need to import their entertainment.
• The simplicity of software has deluded many into believing they’re musicians. Assembling someone else’s prepackaged loops is not composition. These can be useful tools to help get your ideas demoed, but make no mistake, actual music is performed by humans, preferably in a room together.
• Audiences want to be moved. It doesn’t matter how technically precise a piece of music is, but rather how effectively it transfers the performers’ emotion to the listener. And if it can do this while compelling them to shake their ass, all the better.