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06 May 2017

'Are You in a Band?' Autoethnographic Interview Essays, Pt. 1/10

As I posted recently, I'm starting a new research project. It's an ethnography on how do musicians start and sustain a band. I'm also incorporating elements of autoethnography. Primarily, I see this part of the project as exploratory and supplementary. In that spirit, I'm going to write essay answers to the preliminary, sample interview questions. It should be in ten parts. Here we go.

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Can you tell me about the first time you joined a band?

The first band I was in was a foursome called Hammertoe. We founded the group when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I played bass and my buddy Devin played drums. We were both fairly talented musicians already at that point, both having taken lessons for a few years and developed some chops. We recruited a mutual friend, Stu, to play guitar and another mutual friend, Sean, to sing. It turned out that Sean couldn't actually sing so he didn't last long. Stu and I started trading lead singing responsibilities. Stu really was only a guitar player at that point in the sense that he owned a guitar and an amp, but he was a pretty quick study. It would have been around 1993 or 1994 when we started so most of our early repertoire consisted of Nirvana and Green Day covers, but we almost immediately started writing original stuff. I was already reading enough trade publications to know that we weren't going to be taken seriously as a cover band. The first songs we wrote were really bad, but we were learning.

Our first gig was at party in the basement of our friend Jill's house when we were high school frosh. I think we played some Green Day, Offspring, and Nirvana. As amateur as it was, it was legitimizing, especially since Jill and her friends were all a year ahead of us in school, and though it's easy to forget, that's a big step up in the adolescent hierarchy. 

That same year, we changed our name from Hammertoe (a reference to my grandmother's jacked up feet that our family dog would lick) to Steamboat Willie. Stu, who was becoming our lead singer and frontman, thought the name was original, but when he realized that it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, we quickly dropped the "Willie" and became Steamboat. We played our high school talent show that year as frosh, covering Hendrix's cover of "Hey Joe" with our new lead guitarist Jason. We had been introduced to him through some mutual friends. He was, in our eyes, a very cool, older, and popular kid, but he proved to be very affable. The variety show was not the typical amateur-hour; it was a big production with a longstanding reputation in the community.

Sometime after that, we started playing shows more regularly and eventually recorded and self-released an album of original material. We disbanded as we were graduating high school and heading in different directions to college and whatnot.

Overall, I feel very lucky for the time I had with that band. We had little squabbles here and there, but generally, we got along very well. I was contributing to songwriting with the group, but much of what I was writing wasn't appropriate for the group. I wish that I'd pursued other avenues for that stuff. I tended to write poppier material, and Steamboat was very much rooted in the Led Zeppelin school of '70s blues-based jam rock. I sang background vocals, but it was determined that my voice was too clean and pretty, which, in retrospect, was absolutely true for that genre.

I learned some important lessons about band dynamics. We started the band as very, very close friends, but as we went along, I became more distant and sought outside friendships. The guys in the band were experimenting with drugs and generally being more deviant, and while I wasn't a square, I was becoming more focused on academics and sports and knew that path was probably dangerous so I distanced myself. We continued to play well together, though.

For a few years in there, I was also playing a Christian rock band called Embrace. It was fronted by Chris, who was in his thirties and the youth pastor at the local Church of God. Stu recruited me into the band. He attended the church and was playing guitar for the group. I had many other friends and acquaintences in the youth group there so it was a fairly easy sell, especially since I was a fairly religious kid. In retrospect, it was a very odd time. I learned a lot in the group musically and learned hard lessons about what I didn't believe religiously, but I have fond memories of playing with the band. We did record a album of original material, mostly written by Chris. I am a very different person now than I was then. Adult Brad would judge teenage Brad.

I played an occassional gig here or there with other groups, but I was pretty loyal to Steamboat. I went on to play in a few other bands in college and grad school, but none was as formative as that first band.

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