The Reality of being in Shit Bands: An Exposé
Or how I stopped worrying and learnt to love the song
It’s been well over 15 years since I was in my first band. It began a long road of musical frustration, failed endeavours and missed opportunity. These were real, gigging bands that practised, had their own shitty songs and recorded their own shitty records. None of these bands now exist. Each band was commercially unsuccessful, each band at one point was the great white hope that would unlock the door to creative freedom and emancipate me from office doldrums.
Before we begin, some disclaimers. Here’s the bit where I say that playing any sort of music is noble, creative and exciting. It is, but you already know that. Also add in the disclaimer that it’s all about the journey and commercial failure rarely equates to personal failure. Also true. Nonetheless, consider this essay an exposé, a confession, a cathartic sharing of the frustration experienced when your expectations don’t match your reality. This is about what it feels like to be part of a sinking ship when everyone is blaming each other and no one wants to admit they’re the shitty Captain.
I’ll walk you through the bands chronologically as each dysfunctional group has a different lesson. Or perhaps it’s the same lesson over and over again. For anonymity purposes I’ll refer to the bands and sometimes people using acronyms and initials. This is the Internet after all and I am writing about people who probably don’t want to be written about. Ok, ready? Then we’ll begin.
My first proper band, (after my schoolboy punk power trio that would make you vomit out your ears if you ever heard us) was EOTN, an energetic ball of anger and dispute. The dynamics change with every band you’re in and this one was firmly based on animosity. We were an art rock group, which basically meant pretentious punk rock for music zine wankers. It was put together by myself and my school friend Tim. We were both guitarists, he also sang (just about) and we quickly fell into a groove of having arguments about everything. He was, by his own admission I’m sure, a single minded, control freak but I begrudgingly admired his vision so I let him take the lead. I was a metaller who just wanted some heavy chords and thunderous drums. Consequently, the song writing was pulled in two directions, both of us not yet proficient enough on our instruments to produce anything near what we wanted. Such is the artist’s path. Tim regularly claimed no one did any work but him, I was frustrated at all the work I did do but everyone still considered it Tim’s band. The rhythm section, a girl bassist we’d met in Camden and a male friend-of-a-friend drummer, turned up each week to practice but that was about as far as their interest towards the band went. To me however, EOTN was my family, my gang. It sounds cheesy but I was 100% dedicated to our cause.
We took it pretty seriously. Practice was frequent and memory extends to cold rehearsal studios on industrial estates and mile walks home with my guitar gear after catching two late night buses. Ultimately we ended up playing about twenty gigs and we recorded two EPs. We met a ton of other bands. Some we became friends with and we did more gigs together. Some were aloof and bellends, mostly identified when they turned up with their “manager” (read: their mate or their Dad). One band played at our club night and missed out on getting paid as they had no inclination to talk to us and left early. They were friends with Art Brut and were probably too cool. Another band thought they were Oasis and came to a sound check in Kilburn with a ton of attitude (and predictably, their “manager”). When our drummer asked the lead singer what music he was into, he turned to him, shades on and in a Manc accent said “Just good music”. What a prick. I wouldn’t mind but they had no interest in talking to us other than to chat up our bassist. That happened a lot actually. It was a very male environment and I suspect, looking back, women had a harder time of it. It was also this same gig when the prick swaggered off stage mid-song and had a pint, nodding his head to his own band’s music. Good music. Oh and Tim fell down a whole flight of stairs drunk.
Other bands were occasionally impressive, such as the Young Knives who went on to be quite successful and were very chatty in the hellhole that the Bull & Gate called “backstage”. Boy Kill Boy, another charting act, turned up just in time to play, did their set at Turnmills and then left without a word to anyone. Another achiever, Yannis from Foals, played with us in his old band in Brick Lane. They were seriously good. He also didn’t talk to anyone but I think he was cripplingly shy.
Tim and I ended up arguing on stage more than once. He couldn’t sing but he had a lot of passion. He was a unique and adventurous guitarist. I played the role of right hand man and kept the band ticking when he had one of his many anti-social episodes and was difficult to reason with. I saw my role as peacemaker, the glue. The band slowly disintegrated. So much for glue. One gig, our drummer didn’t bring his kit, we couldn’t play and he subsequently left slash was replaced. The bassist too became disinterested and uncommitted after 18 months hard slog. Tim had formed a side project out of general frustration that began consuming all of his time. I felt he was cheating on EOTN and truly hated him for it. Our last gig was an outrageous drunken affair in Islington that ended in a huge argument. That evening, after the row, I woke up in a taxi en route to Finchley with two mates both puking on the roadside. A fitting end to a raging ball of energy that had to burn itself out sooner or later.
It became apparent that being in a band with your mates was probably a bad idea. Lesson. After years of friendship Tim and I no longer talked. I was too angry to care. My next group was formed through the internet. Awkward meetings in London pubs and even more awkward rehearsals paid off and WBW was born. Well, with my old school mate James on drums. And my old school mate Ant on bass. What could go wrong? We also bagged Aaron from an online music message board. He was the singing guitarist; a mild mannered grungehead (I just made that word up) from Derry who just wanted some heavy chords and thunderous drums. At last. We wrote well together, got on well together and he could sing.
However, if you’re reading this for band advice, I say this: Trust your gut. James, who didn’t own a drum kit nor did he see it necessary to practice the songs, was the consummate unprofessional. We stuck together however as he was the replacement drummer in EOTN and took my side when Tim finally peeled away. Yet he wasn’t exactly into it. Apart from giving each song a unique, one off drum line per performance, he was regularly hours late for rehearsal. One time we were due to record in Ealing Studios and we went to pick him up from Kings Cross. He was to meet us after visiting a drum shop he subsequently couldn’t find in the pouring rain, had a huge paddy and quit. Ant, as easygoing and talented as he was, soon followed after.
Consequently, it took a while for WBW to get up and running, but get up and run it did. We got a great drummer (another school friend) and on the same message board we snapped up Emma, a talented female bassist with a great, ethereal voice. It clicked. We churned out alt rock like it was going of fashion; which was quite lucky, as it was. Tim can stick his new band up his arse. Not that I cared.
Now here’s the thing. In WBW we all got along well. Really well. “It was like the fucking Brady brunch” I think you’re meant to say. It became a social thing. No iron fist dictatorship, more an autonomous anarcho-syndicalist commune where we took turns to act as the executive officer for the week. We drank together, sometimes all day in the pub after practice. We gigged and recorded, but we moved at a glacial pace. Anger is an energy and we were all out. The engine had gone and instead we were going for a nice row down the river. Very pleasant but bands need drive.
We continued with gigs in and around the London toilet scene. Dive bars in the city, The Bethnal Green Community Centre, whatever was on offer. The most we ever got paid was £20 between the four of us for a gig a promoter we were friends with put on.
At one point an odd guy named Paul wanted to be our manager. He approached us after a gig in the Cuban bar in Camden in his skintight jeans that were shrink wrapped around his spaghetti legs. We’d put in a mediocre performance but as luck would have it, all the other bands were dire. We looked misleadingly good in context. He offered us a gig in Shoreditch and invited us to what turned out to be the strangest meeting in a pub ever, where he sat, glazed eyed and near silent, only once enquiring how many fans we had. None mate. We played his gig anyway. He followed us around a bit. He looked permanently like he was sniffing glue and befriended everyone in the band on Facebook. So this was the heady heights of unsigned management.
During the initial stages of WBW, just before James quit, I auditioned for a lead guitarist role in a riot grrrl band we’ll call TB. Lead guitar sounds competent and accomplished. I was neither but went along anyway on a wave of grit determination, Tim’s betrayal was a good arse kicker when arse kicking was required. Somehow I got the gig. Ha! Angela was the level headed, fiery haired, singer and guitarist who drove the band, hammering out pop jangles on an immaculate red Fender Jaguar and was a tour de force on stage. After I joined we found out that her girlfriend used to occasionally stay at my uni house with her then partner. During this time, we had a house pet chicken that got kidnapped in the night from the garden. For some now forgotten reason everyone laid the blame at her door. I eventually got to ask her if she’d stolen it. Turns out she either didn’t or was a very impressive liar.
Being part of TB was the first time I got the chance to play outside London. It was some Hertfordshire social club up the A1. Just a dozen miles out of town and the audience was so different; warm, welcoming and appreciative that you’d turned up. They actually listened and clapped. In retrospect, London is a terrible place to be in a band. Lesson. There are too many venues, too much talent and the city is too big to have one “scene”. The Leeds Goth movement, the Mad-Chester movement, these wouldn’t have happened in London. It’s impossible. Also Londoners are cynical shits. The greatest talents in the world flock to their doors, why would they go and see unsigned bands? I didn’t and I was in one.
Off the back of a (much suspect) distribution deal Angela had already got, we ended up paying to record a whole album with the guy who did Bloc Party’s early stuff. He was a nice bloke who lived in a warehouse in Hackney and he reminded me of Rob Newman. He had built a room within room that served as the studio. It cost a bit but the results were slicker than your average Joe’s. Though if you’re interested in your instrument not being turned down so only dogs and psychics can hear it, try to be there when your band are doing the mixing. I was hoping for more boom and crunch on the record but the results were chart pop. I understand why but the ego does take a kick.
We also got to play a festival. This is a pathetic tale. It was the Y Not festival in a quarry in the middle of the English country. Our friend’s band played the Friday night to a packed, energetic crowd of hundreds. By the time we rolled up to our slot on Sunday afternoon everyone – and I do mean everyone – had gone home. We played to approximately 8 people and a whole lot of quarry. So this was the heady heights of playing festivals.
The band ended about a year after I joined. We played a local Ladyfest in Wales where we were incredibly well received. People danced and cheered. A rarity. We got invited back to the main festival. Huge exposure. Some band members couldn’t make the date. It was the final straw of frustration. I was called to a pub meeting to be told it was over. No album, no distribution deal, no band.
In reality, this was good news. Being in two bands was not and is never going to be a long term, sustainable situation. Lesson. It didn’t work for Tim and it didn’t work for me. So WBW soldiered on. Saying all this, I was in another couple of bands on the side anyway. An acoustic, ramshackle band called EVHSH, led by my baritone voiced mate Ed. We were a comedy band – no really – and mostly supported Ed’s brother’s much more po-faced and professional outfit when they did gigs.
Also a band called Apologists (it’s ok you can’t google them, suckers) that ended up lasting one gig, at a house party on the same day Tim’s band played the main stage at The Garage. Luckily I didn’t care. Apologists were a melodic, emo rock group that sounded a bit like a really shit version of The Get Up Kids. So society’s loss there I guess.
Sometime after this, WBW was offered £1000 to play as an A-Ha backing band. That’s £250 each! Considering the most I’d ever got paid before was £40 at EOTN’s own club night in Mayfair, and that was only because I was paying myself, we all jumped at the chance. After years of disillusion, getting paid to play music kind of felt like you were winning somehow. Emma, the bassist, had a boss at work who was itching to be Morten Harket for a night so threw money at us and paid for rehearsals. He booked Cargo in Shoreditch and we played a Transvestite night, serving as the karaoke style entertainment. We did good as paid employees. Emma’s boss however was struck with a certain amount of stage fright and Morten Hacket he weren’t. So this was the heady heights of paid session work.
The A-Ha gig killed the band. We were burnt out from an intensive period of practice. None of us had the energy to revisit the material we had waiting for recording, nor even swap back to playing the instruments we had previously done before the A-Ha metamorphosis. There was no ending chat as such, no pub meeting this time, WBW just quietly slipped away like someone you once met on Tinder and slowly stopped texting. Bands call this kind of breakup an “indefinite hiatus”. We chose money over creativity and it cost us the band. Lesson.
Sometime during the WBW meltdown I put an ad on the internet touting myself out as a perfect guitarist for any band that was in need. I got two calls. The first was a group made up of music college grads who sent me split chords and weird annotations to learn and worse, told me to improvise around them when I arrived. It was, in short, a fucking disaster. I had no idea what I was doing. No bluffing it this time. Clear away the smoke, put away the mirrors. I was naked in front of these people, a pianist and drummer who couldn’t help but show their disinterest in continuing the audition. This my friends, is a rite of passage. The terrible rehearsal where you question your decision to even dare pretend to play guitar. By the time the second song finished I knew I had to get out of there. I began talking to them, non stop as I packed away my stuff. They couldn’t get a word in. I didn’t want to hear a rejection or the awkwardness of someone trying to deliver one. I closed my guitar case, still jabbering, put on my coat and simply said “Cool guys, see you later” and left before they could respond. The perfect crime. Oddly enough, they never did get back to me. Muso wankers.
The second call was from a guy who said they’ve got some songs but need a second guitarist. All acoustic, folky stuff. It’s what I’d been playing in my bedroom for years. We met in a dank rehearsal studio on Blackhorse Road one wet winter’s night. The three of us muddled through some songs. I wrote the ending to one on the spot and things went well enough to stay together. The singer B had an amazing voice and looked like a kind of Eddie Vedder free spirit. Matt played guitar and led the band. You can always tell the leader. A week or two later we got a violinist from Matt’s work. She was a trained singer. Everything fell into place. Her voice with B’s was melt in the mouth beautiful. With fragile guitars and soaring violins, it felt like the first band where everyone was actually good at their craft. We became LKS. No word of a lie, the first gig we did two women cried in the audience, it was that bloody touching. Total victory forever.
Except it wasn’t. It was in fact downhill from there. Word to the wise, playing quiet, sensitive music live is a completely different ball game to hammering out punk rock through Fender Twin amps. Every drunk chat and clinking glass and ringing till puts you off your stride. We tried a few different venues. Charity events, churches and hospital lounges where we served as the mild mannered entertainment as part of open days and local folk festivals. It was a world away from shitting in a broken bog in a dilapidated pub off Old Street two minutes before you’re due to go on stage (thanks for the memories Catch bar), yet still as unsuccessful.
Then things started to get skewed. As I was falling in love with the simplicity of our trad-folk sound, Matt’s tenacity saw him pulling us towards experimentation and discord. It was exactly where I didn’t want to go. Musical differences are gonna get ya. In part his ideas were total genius, in another, mad. He had a vision and leadership like Tim all those years ago, but the more we experimented – guitar pedals, electronic percussion, distortion – the more we lost the ability to make women cry. In fact they stopped crying altogether. I came home from a month’s holiday, ironically resolving on the plane to dedicate every last moment to the band and escape my Systems Analyst job forever, to be told we were ditching the violinist and were now recording an album with a sound engineer who lived in B’s house.
It all started spinning out of control. I came under frequent pressure to perform better under the studio’s red light. Well I say “studio”, but it was actually this guy’s cramped bedroom which barely contained his megalomanic ego. My neurotic reaction to this criticism lead me to practice endlessly at home and develop RSI. Still no let up. No one was explicitly spiteful but the environment had turned toxic. I was unhappy and every one of us felt under pressure from the sound engineer who had gone from a passing hello in the kitchen to a full blown Steve-Albini-with-a-control-freak issue. After getting yet another email about recording quality, I quit. I felt so let down with myself yet it was only then that I realised how unhappy I was. It had become a huge chore. Everyone must have felt the same. We’d gone from simplistic and beautiful to complicated and ugly in a few short months. I’d distracted myself from the negativity by concentrating on how sellable we were, my advancing age (in band years) making me feel like this was the last grasp at success else it’s the office forever. Working hard in a band is necessary, but I now realise you don’t have to crucify yourself on your art. Lesso… yeah you know.
Think we’re over? Not yet I’m afraid. It seems that whatever band you next venture into is a rebellion of the one you just left behind. By this point in time, Tim was living with the girl from his now-not-so-new band and they were expecting a baby. His band was winding down. I had nothing to rally against anymore. The rivalry was over because we had become adults. Because of this, and after the perfectionist hell of LKS, I put together a band with old WBW singer Aaron that was out and out heavy rock and roll. Aaron went on drums and we ended up becoming a stoner rock outfit called CS. It felt amazing. Also, there was no escaping the fact that we were all advancing in age. This happens. You’re at the cutting edge of young bands one minute, the next you’re worrying about a project at work and all these band kids have floor toms and odd, tight trousers. And there it is, you’re obsolete. So we embraced it. Stoner rock is the only genre in which you’re allowed to get fat, be old, dress in shit metal t-shirts and still be considered cool. Also it’s ace fun to play. We got Ant back as lead guitar from the early days of WBW and a superb singing bassist from the Internet called Rob.
Ah, Rob. He was driven yet frequently cantankerous but also had moments of fun, understanding the self-mocking vibe of the band. Also he could play the bass like a demon. We wrote a bunch of tight, heavy songs together quicker than the time it’ll take you to read this story. Yet the older you become, the less people have time for this shit. Rehearsals were regularly cancelled or moved due to family or girlfriends or wives or work. Regular became irregular and one year on we were playing the same songs. We did a couple of gigs, the second one, a dedicated metal night, was immense. People headbanged like it was the 90s and actually appreciated the art of distortion. The other gig was in Luton.
Around this time it all got too much for Aaron and he left. He was only meant to fill in on drums anyway. So we went through a spate of auditioning new tub thumpers until we ended up with a giant Polish man who loved weed, booze and was the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. He worked in a tedious job and only cared for making music. Snap.
For most of that time Rob had been putting together a side project, partly out of frustration at our slow progress. Uh oh, I’d seen this before. Slowly he put a band together until they were ready to gig, then exactly at that moment announced he was quitting CS. Motherfucker. I knew it. Remember when I said two bands is always an unsustainable situation? Well, shit. Call me a genius.
We muddled on for a good few months more. Song changes, line up changes. I wouldn’t let this band, the only one I had true fun in, disappear because someone pulled a Tim. Turns out you can’t hold on forever. We had to rewrite most songs to remove Rob’s bass lines. We had to get new vocals and new lyrics. We had to meet up more than once every six weeks. There was no rescuing it. I quit at the beginning of 2016 in a burst of determined change. Gutting.
So that is that. Approximately 17 years with nothing to show for it apart from some terrible recordings and this story. This, my budding, eager, musical friends is the real reality of being in bands. You don’t get laid, you don’t get paid, you don’t get signed, and you don’t get no satisfaction. Think I didn’t want it enough or that this won’t be your story? Tell that to the 200 odd bands I crossed paths with who you’ll never hear about again. Tell it to the same faces I saw on the toilet circuit on and off for years. Tell it to yourself in a decade.
But don’t be dismayed. Do it for the experience, it’s honestly great. But anyone who works at it for all those years then says they’re not even a tiny bit bitter about not getting signed or even recognised for their efforts is a liar. Then again, we all lie to ourselves, it makes life so much easier. Perhaps it wasn’t my fault after all. Maybe I can still blame Tim.
Talking of which, Tim and I are firm friends again. We even started a new band together in 2015. We auditioned a bunch of people but he said no to all of them. Never change, Tim. I called it a day before we got in too deep. Here’s another truth, I’m at an age now where I’d rather have my old friend in my life than yet another shitty, shitty EP.