Just the facts: From the years 1992 to 2014, I played in bands. Kimbashing, Sevaris, Lefty's Deceiver, Sonny Sixkiller, County by County, Dehavilland Twin Otter, One Hundred. In that time, I recorded and released at least 7 records, designed the artwork/layout for most of them, played hundreds of shows and got to see most of America from behind the steering wheel of a van. I booked a lot of those shows myself. Sometimes we played to no one, and sometimes shows were sold out. Basements, clubs, theatres, radio stations, record stores, halls and one school for gifted math students in Alabama. I rarely admit to being proud of any of it, because... I'm a hack.
I've spent the latter years of my life mentally compartmentalizing the countless hours I played in bands, one band in particular, as something of an aberration in my autobiographical narrative. Perhaps it's strange because brandishing feedback through Marshall half stacks and jumping around on stages largely defined over a decade of my life. As the years pack on, and the days of hauling amplifiers, loading up the van and playing shows fall further into the rearview, I've slowly begun recoiling from identifying as anything that would resemble "musician", "indie-rocker" or, god forbid, "hipster". But in October of 2017 I was offered the opportunity to plug in & turn up once again, more than 3 years after the lights dimmed on what I had thought to be the final live performance in a largely obscure music career.
The callouses had long faded. The strings on my ES-335 left corroded in its case. If there was to be a rebirth surely some serious woodshedding would be required. I assumed the muscle memory would return. Perhaps the vocal chords could be re-trained. But what of the motivations that made me do this in the first place? I suppose the questions that presented were, "Why do this now at 44 years old? At what point do you let it go and allow history some chance to get on with its aging?" ...and, perhaps most importantly... "Does anyone really want to see this?".
I started playing in bands for a single reason: I was a fan of music, in a big way, and the best method to engage in that infatuation was to participate in the manufacturing end of the trade bands share with audiences. It was the early '90's, and as the seminal years of punk rock paved the way for a new generation of lo-fi indie rockers who might be equally musically challenged but far less testosterone driven, I was poised to think the barrier of entry low enough to make a run at it. I was one summer job away from a cheap bass guitar and amplifier. By my sophomore year in college I was on my way, playing my first show opening a gig for Shudder to Think, one of my favorite bands at that time. I was hooked. It was fun, one thing led to the next and it was that carrot of what could possibly be accomplished (writing my own songs, making a record, going on tour) that would fuel the passion for years to come. Small dreams, I suppose, but as I checked the boxes of what being in a small time indie band could expect to achieve, my love for playing music only grew. I never wanted or expected to make a living making music. It was a fool's errand I was happy to indulge.
From the earliest of shows I noticed something. When our bands would play, our friends would show up to support us. If we played in our dorm, our friends would come. If we played in Portland, Oregon our friends in the Pacific Northwest would come. If we played in Cincinnati friends of our friends would come (because we had no friends of our own in Cincinnati). And if we played in Philadelphia at the height of our modest popularity enough friends would come and we'd sell out The Khyber. Surely, we had some fans, and in many cases, they too became our friends. It was beautiful.
I am self-taught - initially, on bass learning the simple parts already "written" by my first band's ex-bassist. I clumsily pawed my roommate's 6-string acoustic guitar until I learned a few chords, and eventually bought an electric of my own. I taught myself to play drums while recording for some ultra-low-fidelity sessions that would go on to be the first Sevaris release. All of this happened in my university years, laying the foundation for how I would invest my attentions for the better part of my '20's. An education in its own right, I was preparing for my future.
The truth of it is... I am not a natural, nor have I ever taken a music lesson of any sort. I never learned to read music. I cannot play a single scale. I have never learned how to play a song someone else wrote. Besides 4/4, I cannot identify any time signature by name. I generally can't write interesting songs in standard tuning, and I have difficulty writing them in my proper vocal range. Left entirely to my own devices, my sense of composition is for shit. I am not a musician. Truly, a hack.
It's the notion that for all those years I was faking it that allows me to diminish the sense of accomplishment that others might more wittingly own. "Sure, we shared the stage with the likes of Stereolab and Will Oldham, but there were always better bands that deserved it more and, really, lots of people don't even know who Stereolab or Will Oldham are so it's not really that big a deal." Or so I've thought for all these years.
December 29, 2017 caught me by complete surprise and put some things in perspective I can't seem to shake. Lefty's Deceiver played its first show in nearly four years to an almost sold out Boot & Saddle in Philadelphia. A one-off show for which minimal rehearsal time was available, we took the stage prepared to give our all for the many friends and other like-minded souls who joined us. If I were 18 years old, I would have said we were all there because we were fans of music, but it wasn't just that.
All those years ago when we first crowded in basements, turned up our amps, scrawled out notebooks full of lyrics, tracked demos on cassette tapes, glacially improved on our instruments, scraped money together to acquire better gear... it turns out we weren't just creating our own soundtrack to an exciting time of our lives that otherwise would have just been borrowed from the records and CDs we collected. We were creating a reason for our community to assemble, to bond and even to grow. And when I looked off the stage on Friday, the 29th, I realized that that dynamic still exists, and so does the need for it. I saw the faces not just of the people we picked up along the way, but a sizable contingent who had been there from the very beginning. People's lives have transformed over the span of an entire generation since this all started. Real-life grown-ups now with spouses, partners, children, careers, homes, means and some, sadly, tragic loss. Many may have been there for the music but, really, we were all in some sense there for each other.
Most who have ever seen me play see my performance as a contradiction to my usual steady demeanor. Our music is somewhat bombastic, and my rock moves, well, they're enthusiastic. With every deep knee bend, recoil from bouncing off a stage right wall or bellow from the top of my lungs I celebrate the privilege of having found a family with which to pay some tribute to the bands that have inspired me. There is nothing but joy in this act, and if you came to practice you'd be unlikely to notice much of a difference from the live shows. It's visceral and it's automatic. Over the course of this particular show, between the thunderous drums and self-deprecating stage banter, I slowly became aware of the things we all celebrate by coming together in these venues. Sure, I hope everyone enjoys the music, but where I found this joy was in the 20+ years of friendships that continue to gather at this most irreverent of altars... and only because we asked.
When The Minutemen said "Our band could be your life" they knew the potential music had to affect an audience. It could be construed as arrogant, but I think it's an earnest testimony to all that's romantic about music, playing in a rock band, and to be a fan of it. I realize now that my band has, in so many ways, BEEN my life. It's led to sustained relationships and lasting friendships I wouldn't expect to have had otherwise. It taught me to try the things I'm not supposed to be able to do, that barriers of entry are usually lower than advertised. Most recently it taught me that if you're a hack long enough you're eventually an expert at it.
By any measure, at 44 years old, I'm incredibly lucky and I'm aware enough to know how rare what I have is. I'm married to a partner who loves me and supports me in all that I do. I have a career and a job I enjoy. I have my health, hobbies and friends with whom to share them all. And I have parents who somehow continue to be amused by all my folly.
A band is not necessarily a lifetime, but short of that, it can most certainly be a life of its own. Lefty's Deceiver has been that for me. We may play more shows, we may not, but we will never break up.