Bret Alexander

THE REAL GIG: Space and limitations – knowing when to play and when to just listen

THE REAL GIG: Space and limitations – knowing when to play and when to just listen
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Here’s something I have noticed – age is more about throwing things away than acquiring more. As you get older, you start getting rid of stuff. I have been doing it more these days. And music is no exception.

As you get older, you worry less about playing a dozen guitars and you look for the one that fits you the best. You put away the 40-piece drum set with the 16 toms and two gongs and pare it down to a five-piece kit. You start carrying a smaller amp. You choose your notes more carefully.

Not everyone does this, of course. There are musician hoarders, for sure – and wankers. But when the player’s life is in balance, that is generally what happens. It happens with all my favorite players anyway. As a rule, time makes you want more space.

I think this is a form of wisdom. The next time you find yourself in a conversation with a bunch of people, take stock of who is the wisest person in the room. Probably, he is the one saying the least. It’s like the old Native American adage, “Listen or your tongue will make you deaf.” You can’t learn anything new while you are yakking away about what you think you already know.

I have a few Facebook friends I wish would heed that.

My pal Mike posted a list yesterday. It was written by Chick Corea. It was basically a laundry list of how to be in a band. Over half of the entries were about NOT playing. Creating space.

In business, it has been said that you gain a reputation by saying yes and you keep it by saying no. This sounds simple enough, but it’s very tricky. I have noticed that as you get older, your success is more about your choices than your skills. It’s about your ability to make a good choice that helps the project succeed. It’s about long-term thinking, all things considered, not about your ability to be impressive in this instant.

I have told this story before, but it fits the discussion. A few years ago, I did a live recording with John Fogerty’s keyboard player, Bob Malone. This guy is an amazing jazz/blues piano player, great singer, and an excellent performer. He had the audience in the palm of his hand for the whole performance. Afterwards, a fan came up to him and commented how bored he must be playing Creedence songs. Bob stopped him immediately: “Playing with John doesn’t require amazing chops, but it does require impeccable taste. That is why I was hired.” He got the gig for his choices, not just his skills.

I have produced many artists over time and made a pile of recordings of my own songs. I find deciding what not to do to be much more difficult than deciding what to do. I’ve gotten it wrong lots of times. It’s easy to get tripped up.

Have you ever had a friend that, no matter what, can always get the conversation back to the same subject? For example, say your friend likes to talk about the Grateful Dead. You could be talking about your car leaking transmission fluid and he will immediately start talking about the time Jerry broke down in Topanga Canyon and wrote one of his favorite songs. Really, you are just worried about your transmission… and wish he would shut the hell up.

My point is, this person isn’t listening or trying to understand anything. He just wants to get the conversation back into his court. Some musicians are like that. They can’t wait for there to be another space in the song so they can fill it with more of their shitty notes. They may be very skilled, but you just want them to shut up. You are craving space, but they are not paying attention to what is happening around them. And they are ruining it for everyone.

Space is important. The most useful part of a glass is the area where there is nothing. Music is no different.

Or to put it less cosmically, here’s Patton Oswalt addressing a heckler: “I love the guy who’s terrified at any kind of silence, like, ‘He’d better say ‘pussy’ soon or aaagh!’ … I’d hate to see you at a funeral or a wedding or something. … You stupid douchenozzle. You truly don’t fucking get it, do you? You poor motherfucker. You’re going to miss everything cool and die angry.”

A musician buddy of mine once told me that he couldn’t stand to play below his ability. I find that really, really selfish. And ineffective. He’s a way better player than me, but I never hired him for a session.

Limitations and space, whether self- imposed or otherwise, define music (and life in general) as much as abilities and options.

In the series “Sonic Highways,” Foo Fighters invited Joe Walsh into the studio to play on the song “Outside.” They gave him a huge hole in the middle of the song to lay down a badass solo. 56 bars – that’s a lot of time for a solo in a rock song. He could do anything he wanted. For the first eight bars, Joe played nothing. Not a note. Just let the groove perk. For the rest of the solo, he just punctuated here and there, picking his spots and lifting the song up while the groove drove the whole thing. It was brilliant. Taylor Hawkins, with his James Gang hat on, lost his mind watching it go down. One of the coolest moments of the whole series.

Peter Gabriel’s “Melt” album has no cymbals. As a result of that self-imposed limitation, the producers on that record developed the “gated drum” sound to fill space. One of the drummers on that record was Phil Collins. Later on, Phil used the same technique on his song “In the Air Tonight,” which has one of the most iconic drum fills (and drum sounds) in history.

Innovation was created by taking something away.

In the late ‘90s, our band was doing pre-production for our second major label release. We had a song called “Running Up That Hill” that was giving us fits. We must have arranged that song five times, to no avail. Any songwriter will tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than knowing a song is good but having it not translate when the band plays it. It happens all the time.

In the case of this tune, we were approaching it like a mid-tempo rock song: two guitars, bass, and big drums. The end result was something like the end of “Stairway to Heaven.” A Minor, G, F, and back, except slower and, uh, much more boring.

The lyrics (one of Mike Naydock’s finest) and melody were great. But the tune wasn’t working. We were close to scrapping it. Then, a limitation presented itself; there was a storm outside and the power went off.

Sitting there in the semi-darkness, I started messing around with a mandolin, absentmindedly playing the chords fingerstyle, which is uncommon for that instrument. Our drummer Ron turned the snares off on his snare drum, put a towel over it so he could hear the mandolin, and started playing a cadence part. Then we added an acoustic guitar, an accordion, a fretless bass, and a few nice harmonies in the chorus. Basically anything you could hear without electricity.

We had the song in no time. It was minutes away from being scrapped and it ended up being one of the best tunes on the record. Mother Nature took away electricity and the way was made clear.

Music is a microcosm of life. There are notes and spaces between them. The spaces are as important as the notes themselves.

The human heart is like a sponge; it can only take so much before it’s saturated. Then it has to wring itself out in the form of creativity, conversation, and action.

Don’t be the douchenozzle that never turns off the hose.

Give the people some space. You are loved as much for the notes you don’t play as for the ones you do.

The Real Gig is a weekly column collecting the stories, observations, opinions, and advice of NEPA songwriter, engineer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Bret Alexander. Look for it every Friday on NEPA Scene.