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so you want to have a rock n' roll scar
how to succeed in music without really trying
by adam kraemer (@DryWryBred)
3.11.05
music


So I'm down to one.

Band, that is. I know I mentioned in a recent column that I was playing piano in two bands. I realized the folly in that, so I picked the one I clicked more with (which, pleasantly, was also the one that had gigs booked already), and I'm now a probationary member of Coppersonic.

It's excellent, by the way. We've played out twice already, and we're doing a third gig on the 17th in Manhattan (Session 73, if you're in the area). I'm very excited.

It did get me thinking about the procedure one needs to get into a band. I got lucky - there was already a band in existence and they needed someone to play keyboard. But I've also been in bands that started from scratch and had to discover the ingredients that a group of musicians needs to go from sitting at home, playing along to Bryan Adams to keeping a day job and playing at night to fame and fortune. (Obviously, I don't have the fame and fortune thing down just yet, but our fingers are crossed. We uncross them when we play).

So here's a bit of a list of things that any band needs before they can go from playing in a Pizzaria in the middle of New Jersey, having "Freebird!" screamed at them, to a stadium in the middle of New Jersey, having "Freebird!" screamed at them.

(Note: If you're reading this and you're a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, feel free to ignore the "Freebird" joke. I'd rather hear "Tuesday's Gone.")

1) You need to know how to play a "band-type" instrument. (Rock, not marching.)

Now, I know that there are bands out there with all sorts of musicians in them. There are bands that employ oboeists. There are bands made up of didgeridoo players. There are probably kazoo-based bands.

But they're not likely to get on MTV.

If you want the mainstream fame thing ("We're the best hammered dulcimer trio in Nebraska!" won't cut it), it's important that you at least have drums, a bass, and a guitarist. That way you can start out doing Cream covers and wind up doing, um, Hendrix covers.

It goes without saying that you should also play your instrument of choice well enough that you could do it on stage in front of, say, 9 people without having them think you were being avant garde and not just terrible. You're unlikely to hear, "Wow, he played all the wrong notes! How progressive!"

2) You need to get an excellent band name.

Your band name doesn't have to mean everything, anything, or even say a thing about the band. What it does have to do is be memorable, but not for its mediocrity.

I've been in bands with some pretty mediocre names before. There was my 10th grade band, Raw Sierra, which had one rehearsal and then never played again. We all agree to this day that we were the best band that never was.

There was the band I was a member of in Boston, which played two gigs in one weekend, under two different names, and then broke up. I'm pretty sure the first gig, we were called "Friends of Joe." Joe was the drummer. I'm pretty sure the second gig, we were called Clutch Cargo, after a nickname the bassist's sister had in high school. We never found out why that was.

Of course, it's possible that I'm wrong about the band name not being mediocre. I mean, come on, if you get a hit song, it almost doesn't matter what you're called. I'm sure that the members of Foghat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blue Oyster Cult, Korn, and Billy Joel really didn't care if one or two people might have muttered, "That's a dumb name," as they were playing to sold-out stadiums.

Which brings me to my third point:

3) You need to write a hit song.

Now, I wrote a column a while back about my inability to write a song. I still lack that talent. Melody just doesn't spontaneously burst forth from my forehead (or any other part of my body, for that matter, even if I eat "the musical fruit").

But there are people out there who do write music. My roommate is one of those people. The trick to being in a successful band is to find someone who writes music, if you, yourself do not. Sitting around holding your instruments gets tiring after a while if you have nothing to play. Unless you're going for performance art, but I'm guessing you're not. I know you better than you think.

Now, your hit song can sound exactly like everyone else's hit song, if you want. Heck, many of them do. The number of popular three- and four-chord songs with identical progressions is occasionally enough to boggle the mind. Not that it takes a lot to boggle my mind ... you're thinking to yourself. Told you I knew you. Seriously, though, try singing "Werewolves of London" to "Sweet Home Alabama" some time. Or sing "I'm Going Down" to "With or Without You." Or "Hook" to Pachelbel's Cannon in D.

4) You need to face hardship.

If you don't face hardship, how do you expect to get your own VH1 "Behind the Music" special?

This isn't to say that you need to get addicted to crack, get named in a maternity suit, or kick out your lead singer because she got on more magazine covers than your bass player did.

But very often art does seem to come from suffering. Maybe I can't write a hit song because I'm too happy most of the time. Whatever the reason, a good test of fame is whether people are interested in your life story.

So make sure you have a story worth being interested in: the horrible service jobs you were forced to take just so your drummer could afford that new cow bell, the dives you had to play where chemists threw bottles of sulfuric acid at you, the time you broke a string on your guitar when you were performing at that college party and even the two sorostitutes you shared your bed with that night just couldn't make you forget the embarrassment.

Of course, if your keyboardist is hooked on heroin, that could work, too.

5) You need to love what you do and never give up.

I'm serious about this. Popular music is full of "overnight sensations" that took 10 years to get that first hit record. Most bands put in their dues. They build a following in their hometowns; they shop their demo around; they sleep with groupies.

Sorry. Got distracted.

I do mean it, though. If you're serious about making it in music, you can't let yourself get discouraged. Which isn't to say that if you believe hard enough, you'll make it. There's no guarantee of that. The only thing believing will do is bring Tinkerbell back to life.

So if you believe in Pixies, start clapping. That's right. Wherever you are, just put your hands together. That's good. Look, she's waking up! You did it!

Well, my band might not be on the radio in your town just yet, but thanks for that applause. You people are beautiful.

Note: if you're interested in coming to see Coppersonic play in New York, our next gig is at Session 73, 73rd & 1st, from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 17.


ABOUT ADAM KRAEMER

A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.

more about adam kraemer

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
3.11.05 @ 8:37a

So, uh, what kind of tunes do you play, Piano Man?

jeffrey walker
3.11.05 @ 9:02a

welcome to the fray, fellow rocker. I'll be out to see you soon.

mike julianelle
3.11.05 @ 9:40a

Saw Adam and his band up here in Boston a few weekends ago and they were good. I was impressed. I went there expecting to laugh in embarrassment and cry in pity, but Coppersonic is solid. Even with Adam's questionable facial hair.

adam kraemer
3.11.05 @ 11:29a

Questionable?

Oh, yeah.

Thanks, Mike.

I mentioned it below, but we are playing this Thursday night in NYC for those of you who might be nearby.

bill copeland
3.11.05 @ 1:16p

Adam, do you guys have any gigs coming up? Where can I see you play? Thanks!

adam kraemer
3.11.05 @ 1:28p

Oh, did I forget to mention it?

I was trying to brainstorm some other really bad band names. Any suggestions? I'm not sure it's possible to beat Foghat.

tim lockwood
3.11.05 @ 11:50p

Re: band names that suck and paying dues

I was in a band as a teenager. We couldn't think of anything suitable for a name. Correction, we thought of lots of names, but there was always a really deeply split vote. We had our first gig coming up playing a contest at Hoagland Days (one of those little festivals that only seem to happen in really small blinking-light four-way-stop towns in the midwest), so we had to come up with something. We settled on (no lie) The Morticians. I cringed then, I cringe now.

We kicked ass at playing "Born to Be Wild" but we still came in second. When we mentioned this fact later to an older prospective band member, he asked, "So who won, was it the old man or the fat lady?" We told him it was the fat lady, and asked why he didn't come up and talk to us if he wanted to join the band. He said he wasn't there, but at every contest like that, there's either an old man who sings a real old-timey country-western song or a fat lady who sings a pop ballad, and one of them always wins. The fat lady at Hoagland Days sang "The Rose".

Ever since I heard that bit of wisdom, I have never known it to be wrong.

adam kraemer
3.13.05 @ 9:12p

In high school, my band (whome name I don't even remember, but it might have had something to do with a bird) lost a battle of the bands to a group that consisted of a hot female lead singer and a guy with a computer and sequencer. They did sound really good, but that's only because the guy had all of the songs pre-programmed. There was pretty much nothing live about it. We were pissed.

adam kraemer
3.15.05 @ 12:26p

This from our bassist, in response to Tracey's query: Coppersonic plays hit songs
and only hit songs. Their music is available for immediate download, go
here for samples.

sarah ficke
3.15.05 @ 3:19p

Link is busted.

jael mchenry
3.16.05 @ 4:32p

I think a "hammered dulcimer" trio just means they're all drunk.

tim lockwood
3.16.05 @ 11:57p

Sarah, and everyone else, try this link instead:

Coppersonic

adam kraemer
3.17.05 @ 1:35p

They might have been drunk, yes. Maybe they just play the dulcimer.

Oh, and, thanks, Tim.

[edited]

dr. jay gross
4.11.05 @ 1:10p

I knew an oboist once who aspired to be a rock 'n roll band groupie, but she didn't want to change instruments.

Actually Adam, I think you're an imbedded reporter in the 'band sub-culture'and only took up the piano to write a book on real estate novelists.

What you need is chaos and trauma in your life. That will bring out the best in you.

[edited]

juli mccarthy
4.11.05 @ 2:55p

All the GOOD groupies play tambourine.

I'd really like to see you play live, Adam. When are you coming to Elgin? (And before you laugh, Tim Lockwood has played Elgin and can vouch for what a great venue it was.)

tim lockwood
4.11.05 @ 9:49p

Elgin does indeed kick bootie, which you would never suspect. On the surface, it looks very suburban, but underneath it all they're wearing the faded black Skynyrd t-shirts, carrying their Bic lighters high and screamin' "Freebird!"

andrea augustine
2.27.08 @ 11:39a

I believe in Pixies and I'm clapping along to Coppersonic and laughing at the truth of your analysis of how to make it as a band. Funny, it sounds a lot like my life... Wanna jam?

adam kraemer
2.27.08 @ 11:41a

Oddly, it turns out all that clapping brought The Pixies back to life. Totally unexpected.



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