Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Music Guidance. Thinking About... Who You Are

This article originally appeared on the blog at Songeist.com.

In this special weekly guidance series we're going to be exploring three key aspects of your band's existence and encouraging you to consider these elements of your act with as much thought and deliberation as you write your songs. Simply expecting the inertia of creativity to steer your ship into the right direction is rarely enough; your band's command of who you are, what you do and how you come across are all hugely important to consider. Across the series, Barney will use some real-world examples to illustrate how important these factors are and help you to apply these concepts to your own band.

READ PART 2: THINKING ABOUT... WHAT YOU ARE HERE.

THINKING ABOUT... AN INTRODUCTION

Within four months in my current band, we managed to make more headway then we had in four years in our previous band. Within a year we were firmly established in our scene, being regularly played on BBC Radio 1, taken on a package tour with our heroes and signed to one of the biggest independent punk-related labels in the UK.

While playing the same songs we'd played in our old band.

I’ll be honest. We didn’t do this by suddenly being the best band around or by having the best songs and the best singing voices. Learning to write good songs and play great live shows and all those other things arguably(!) came later and, like all bands, we’re still learning. In fact, all we did was disband one band and start another with a small shuffle of members six months later. But this time we had a clear, defined, and mutually understood philosophy of who we were, what we did and how we looked.

 Even Kurt Cobain had to think about these things.
NO CONSIDERABLE MUSICAL CHANGE

By considering the factors that I will discuss in these blogs and tweaking your approach accordingly, you too may be able to go from languishing local band to being an established part of the national gigging circuit with no considerable musical change. If my last series From The Garage To The Stage was about thinking about everything that happens on stage other than the music, this series is about everything that defines a band other than the music. And these factors are actually just as important as the songs you write.

These blogs will be most beneficial if used as a jump-off point for discussion between you and your band members. The whole idea is that you, as an emerging band, get on the same page about who you are, what you do and how you look. If you have a unified vision, it's half the battle. Organise a band meeting, hash these things out and I guarantee you'll be making a positive and productive step for your band.

What's that coming over the hill? It's a band that know WHO THEY ARE.
DEFINE YOURSELF

First things first. Who are you? What are you giving to people that they can't already get? They're questions, whether consciously or not, that every successful band can answer. The first, and most important, thing to do is to define yourself. What are you giving to music? Where do you fit into what is going on? In terms of members, each band is as unique as a fingerprint. The make-up of no two bands is exactly the same and the music can reflect the various influences, personalities and talents of the people who make it up. Of course, that doesn’t mean switching genres every single song to account for your different tastes. It means that you figure out what unique sounds this distinct combination of musicians can create together and can slot into what is happening in music now. And then focus on that.

Sounds obvious right? Well, you'd be surprised how many bands get together based on liking similar music and 'jam' to 'find their sound'. All well and good, but then they forget to sit down and identify what it is. Just one aspect of your act that's unique is enough make you memorable. Even now, speak to anyone about Welsh indie-rockers The Automatic and they'll probably say 'is that the indie band with the screaming guy on keyboards?' Of course, what sets you apart doesn't have to be something as visceral as a screaming keyboard player. It can be anything that makes you a band that are doing something distinctive among the other bands out there that aren't. What is distinctive could be anything from your vocal accent to using a certain instrument or just a new twist on an old idea.

I can feel some of the purists out there raising their eyebrows... perhaps this feels contrived and gimmicky? Maybe this seems contrary to the creative process? But why is it a gimmick to identify something that came naturally to your group of musicians and set out to explore it in the hope of creating something truly original? The simplest way to look at it is that if you’ve invented yourself, even if people don’t like you, they remember you. You'll always be that band that did that thing. And that thing will work in your advantage as long as there are other bands out there to give a context to what you do.

Radiohead. Blowing Genres To Smithereens Since Kid A.
CONTEXT

'Inventing yourself' doesn’t mean that you need to concoct a new genre of music from the ground up; as long as you can creatively frame what originality you have with other contemporary music and it makes sense - be it one step more extreme or one step towards a different style - then you are a unique snowflake in the musical sky. Very few artists are as pioneering as say, The Streets, who appeared, apparently cut from whole cloth, with a truly unique sound. But even The Streets' influences rang so loud from every song on ‘Original Pirate Material’ that the context of where he fitted into the pantheon of British dance and pop between The Specials, The Prodigy and everything else was obvious to all. Conceptually, you, me and the majority of bands out there are actually just steps away from another.

Think about those old Rock Family Tree diagrams. Now, instead of the act's line-ups and histories, think of those Rock Family Trees in terms of genres. Most successful acts in any genre are really only small steps away from each other in style and tone. Consider Muse's chart-friendly pomp-rock distillation of Radiohead's prog excess and back to Imagine Dragons' latter-day facelift of early Muse. Like it or not, pop and rock music exists in a place and time and the zeitgeist is a crucial element of commercial music. Attempts to ignore these road-signs, or even kick down the traffic cones, are ill-advised for an emerging band. Sure, Radiohead now straddle entire genres of music, but it's important to remember that didn't happen overnight. For years they were a British guitar band navigating their way through the alternative rock landscape before blowing everything to smithereens with Kid A. I see emerging bands out there attempting to make their premature version of Kid A, expelling all their influences, talent and passion without a vision or context to hold it all in place.

Enter Shikari. Master of Context.

IT'S NOT WHERE YOU'RE AT... IT'S WHERE YOU'RE FROM

With bands like Klaxons, Friendly Fires and Enter Shikari actively blurring the lines between what it is to be a guitar act and a dance act, popular music has never been so stylistically open. But while it seems like those acts are just throwing together their record collections and making music, it's crucial to understand that the mechanics of those band's genre-crossovers are deceptively sophisticated. They expertly blend a prescribed mix of styles that make sense for their audience and fit within the lineage of the bands that have come before them and the scene they're in. Even though they flirt with dance music and DJ culture, they utilise these ideas as rock acts that understand their crowd's distinct tastes and frames of reference. If you know, like these bands, that your audience can contextualise, and enjoy, the specific mix of genres that you can uniquely provide, then hey... there's your context. But remember that, by design, these guys make it look easy and one man's record collection is another man's jumble sale.

As well as the context of the musical landscape, it's vital to think just as deliberately about your cultural context. Successful music generally relays an authentic truth about the culture of the people in the band and the place they're from. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a strong cultural context as tattooed, perma-tanned funk-rockers from Hollywood. It's hard to imagine a band from Grimsby, tattooed and perma-tanned or not, having the same success with the same songs. The cultural context of a band is a part of its strength. Think about bands like Oasis and Pulp and how the identities and cultural context of Manchester and Sheffield are indivisible from their music. Ask yourself, does your music say something about who you are and where you are from?

THINKING ABOUT... WHAT YOU DO

Thanks for reading. Next week, in 'Thinking About... What You Do' I'll put across my argument about why success for emerging bands doesn't start by aiming for the stars at all... but by aiming for the roots. For now, don't forget to let me know what you think of the blog and please share it!
Playmobil shot courtesy Xurxo Martínez‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
The Automatic shot courtesy beana_cheese‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Radiohead shot courtesy Taras Khimchak‘s Flickr used under Creative Commons License.
Enter Shikari shot courtesy Natalie Aja's Flickr used under Creative Commons License.