Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Super Freak

I've been playing in a band for the last several months, and finally decided exactly one week ago that it wasn't going to work out for me. It's a bit of a long and tortured story, but the ending is particularly bizarre, so I thought I'd share it.

In the middle of July, we finally played out - for a block party one of our members used to be involved in. It was a decent gig, and we got some good feedback. "Good" as in "useful" in some cases, rather than in "you sounded good". Of particular importance was commentary on the vocals. As one of two lead singers, I got some excellent grades for my work both as a singer and as a frontman, which I have enough experience at this point to have some sense of, but it's nice to hear all the same. 

Not such good grades on harmony vocals, and terrible grades on the female vocalist the guitarist had hired back when we first started the band. She had some good chops, but was terrified playing even in front of a casual group of neighbors. One person said she looked like a turtle hiding in it's shell. For me, this confirmed what I'd know for some time - our other singer was not cut out for the sort of work (clubs and bars) that we were shooting for. You have to come out and own the stage if you want to be successful. I am not a vocal coach nor a stage presence coach, nor do I wish to be, and it was clear that our female vocalist wasn't anywhere near the level she needed to be at.

Out of this came two decisions - our current female vocalist needed to go, and the guitarist who founded the group needed to not sing on harmonies. Neither could hear the harmonies clearly, and I spent all of my time bouncing between different harmonies to fill in the blank spaces. I volunteered to fire the female vocalist, which went about like you'd think it would, and I got some very strange information on the conversations she'd had with the guitarist - he'd basically told her whatever she'd wanted to hear about the band: we weren't planning on playing out much, we weren't really focusing on danceable music, we were happy to work with someone without much (any) stage experience. All news to me. 

At this point, I really wanted to have some sort of harmony vocals at the very least in the band, and had undertaken firing our old singer with the idea that we'd have a built-in backup (haha) plan if we hired my wife, who has done this sort of thing in bands with me for seven years and two different groups. She isn't a lead singer, though, and the band insisted on auditioning people for the role. After a month of an exhaustive process that included a phone interview, a vocal audition with me, and a group audition with the band, we had three candidates. 

Candidate A had the least experience with performance, and I wasn't terribly sure she could hear and reproduce a harmony vocal. Candidate B had considerable experience, could sing both lead and backup, but had perhaps too "sweet" of a voice without enough grit for the material we were performing. Both were single mothers, and that was something I discussed with them in the phone interviews, as having someone suddenly not able to go to a gig because their babysitting plans fell through was not an option. Candidate C was my wife.

True to form, all of the candidates performed more or less as I expected. The band liked candidate A the best, despite my comment that I didn't think her harmony vocals, a primary concern for me, were up to par. The drummer, who had recommended candidate B, now let us know that she was "strong-willed" and thought nothing of missing a rehearsal if an opportunity to get out of town with a friend was possible. We also found out at the audition that she couldn't make rehearsals (except for the last hour) of a time that I'd published and discussed with her, suggesting that she didn't really want to be in the band anyway. 

After all of this, I took the recording of the first candidate home and listened to it carefully, and decided that indeed she did not have the backing vocal skills I required. When I got home, my wife asked who the band had picked. When I told her it was candidate A, she told me she was pulling herself out of contention. This sucked, because my decision (which was the final decision) was to hire my wife and now I was left with no good decisions. Having spent a good 40 hours on interviews, auditions, e-mail conversations, etc, I didn't want to go through that process again. That left me with two options - sing in a band with no harmony vocals and a guitarist that I was having a serious problem trusting, or ditch the whole thing and start over. 

I ditched the whole thing. It was a hard thing to do, for reasons I don't completely understand. I know that I had e-mails ready to go for all interested parties, but just couldn't quite push the Send button. When Jesse called me to see if I was ready to come over to play Devil's Cauldron, I told him of my situation, and he said "I thought this was supposed to be something you did for fun. This doesn't sound like much fun." I went in and hit Send without the slightest hesitation.

I got nice e-mail back from two of the members, saying they understood my frustration, and wished me the best. The drummer figured I might have had some reasons for leaving that weren't as articulated, so I told him how much trouble I had working with the guitarist. This is the kind of guy (the guitarist) who can't listen. I don't think he's capable of it. You would tell him something, and by the next week he'd have twisted it all around to whatever fit his vision of how things should be. Or he'd make a derogatory comment, then later tell people that I'd said it. When we suggested that perhaps people other than he should come up with songs, the very next day he put out a list of songs that we should have prepared for the next rehearsal "to move things along". The day after we agreed that I would fire the current vocalist and that *I* would drive the audition process, he put up an ad on Craiglist, which infuriated me because there was every chance that the existing vocalist might see it before I got a chance to speak with her. 

Life is too short to work with people like this. 

I'll also note that at the last rehearsal I was at, he and the wife of one of the members were going on about how the WTC towers *had* to have been rigged to detonate, and how the Bush administration must have been involved. Regular readers know that I am no fan of W, but this is debunked nonsense. It's the sort of crap I expect from Hannity, Limbaugh, or O'Reilly (in it's ridiculousness - Fox News constantly tosses this sort of baseless innuendo around, but I expect better from intelligent people). So he's one of those people who considers themselves to be very intelligent, but lacks any sort of critical thinking skills to ensure that what he says makes some sense. 

So, I said, good riddance to this sort of foolishness. 

The guitarist didn't send me any note thanking me for my hard work, or for my involvement over the past eight months. He just put up another ad on Craigslist. I'm pretty sure he didn't speak with anyone else in the band first, either.

Monday morning I checked my email, and here's where it gets bizarre. The wife (ostensibly - the writing/speaking style of the message was the guitarist's, more or less dead on) of the guitarist sends me a message saying that she had read my email, quoting my "I'm leaving" message," no less, and because of two things in it she's decided that I can't be in the band anymore.

First, I'm thinking, did she not notice the part where I left the band? In the message she's quoting?

Second, what is she doing reading her husband's email at 1am on a Monday morning? I've seen a lot of messages from the guitarist at 1am, so I know he stays up late and reads it.

The two things she was "concerned" about made me look sexist, which anyone who knows me understands is about as off base as you can get. The first was that I'd asked the former lead vocalist to show cleavage. Supposedly. It was that "supposedly" word that tipped me off that this was almost certainly the guitarist, and not his wife. The actual quote, and this was something that I'd explained to the band over and over, was that a female vocalist needed to play "lead cleavage" as well as be a good musician. This was a phrase coined by my wife to explain her role in the bands we were in together. It means that a female vocalist needs to have good stage presence and charisma onstage and project a certain air of sexuality. I at no time asked this woman to show me her cleavage. The phrase was intended to shock her a bit to see how she reacted to a suggestive sounding term, seeing as we'd be playing in places where that was how some men in the audience would react to a female vocalist. 

The other "issue" was that I was concerned about the new female vocalist's status as a single mother, which I've mentioned above. This, pure and simple, is a professional concern that was shared by not only everyone in the band, but by the candidates themselves. They answered the question to my satisfaction, and I mentioned it in the e-mail because I felt that Candidate A's chances of running into trouble were considerably higher as she had younger children.

If this e-mail was, in fact, sent by the guitarist posing as his wife, I have to wonder what he was thinking, and I think I get it. He needed to have the last word, and he needed to be the person firing me, not me leaving the band. I suppose that with enough drinks in you, it's possible that this would seem like a good idea at 1am on a Monday morning, but I just don't know. I know that if it *was* his wife, and I know very little about her other than that she wasn't happy that he had a band, that she was looking through his email very late at night and was poking her nose into something she neither understood (the "lead cleavage" issue had to have been related to her by the guitarist, and it had clearly been misrepresented in either case, but that would be SOP for this guy) nor had the slightest business in. And *firing* me? Please.

I know that my best option was not to respond at all, but I couldn't resist. I kept it very short, saying that the first issue had been misrepresented and that I'd never said any such thing, and the second was a legitimate professional concern. I also suggested that I thought this might well be the guitarist posing as his wife, but regardless I considered this to be harassment, asked them both never to contact me again, and set all mail from that address to be deleted upon receipt (with an autoreply message to that effect). Of course, I have not read any further e-mails because they are in /dev/null. I'll ignore phone calls as well.

So I'm looking for a new band again. This time, my spidey-sense will win out over my "close enough for government work" sense - I'd thought that I'd be happy with a band that met some of my criteria, but I'm going to need to be very picky indeed, so picky that I'm unlikely to find anything. I know there haven't been any ads worth replying to in the last week of Craigslist offerings - either the band rehearses in Vancouver, a good hour away; or wants someone in their 20's; or wants someone with a ridiculously high range (think Brad Delp from the original lineup of Boston). 

What I know for sure is that my stress level dropped almost immediately when I left this band. I'd considered asking the other members to fire the guitarist and we'd look for a guitarist/vocalist to replace him, but after firing one other member, everyone would be looking over their shoulders thinking they were next. You can't build a band on that sort of foundation. All but the guitarist told me to keep them in mind if I found something good and needed their particular skillset, though...

I've played with some interesting people, but this guy was something else. Even more frightening - he's a veterinarian. I sure hope he's better at that than he is at being a rational human. 


dave said...

When I read the first part of your article, that whole "single mother" thing rubbed me the wrong way, probably because I am brainwashed by the uber-corporate hiring guidelines under which I operate. I'm actually pretty non-PC in these areas (for example, I am strongly against two working parents, both for the kids and the co-workers), but legally I know it's a problem. If your "hiring" entails actual legal employment, that could be grounds for a discrimination case.

And all that went thru my head before I read about the "guitarist wife's" reply. If you think it will stop at that e-mail, don't sweat it. If you think there is any threat of follow-through (and I'd advise you remove your dev/null rule just to make sure), you might want to chat with a lawyer ASAP.

Hell is other people,

- d

Dug said...

I guess my response is that a) I never hired anyone - I left the decision to the band I'd left, and b) this is not legal hiring. No offer of money is involved, it's strictly membership in a band with no promise of money to be paid. Even had I stayed with the group, there would still be no legal employment - no withholding, no W-2, no contract.

I'm at a loss as to how I could be legally culpable if I didn't actually hire someone. In fact, I didn't even tell any of the candidates that they were out, just that I'd left the group and the decision was being left to the folks still in the group.

As for the single-mother thing, the *only* thing I did was respond to the candidates telling me that they were single mothers (at no time did I ask the candidates their ages, their marital status, or if they had children, but every one offered that information up to me).

I find it incredibly disturbing that being involved in an artistic endeavor, even one with nominal recompense, could possibly result in legal action against the *one* person in the group trying to do the right thing.

I'll also note that the drummer, who I otherwise got along with fine, suggested several names for the band early on in the process, many of which involved identifying our female vocalist as a prostitute. I discouraged these names, of course, as I felt they were demeaning in this particular situation. If *I* was setting myself up for a lawsuit, there's something terribly wrong with the world and I may never play in a band again. That's just f*cked up, man.

dave said...

"this is not legal hiring"

Then discriminate away. Just like the gaming group. :)

"every one offered that information up to me"

Yeah, you know the game, never ask. How you follow up can still get you in trouble... if you were hiring. Seems like you could just as well blurt out "nice tits"... just like the gaming group.