Starting A Band: The Basics

EEditor’s note: While I really love Josh Urban’s Fire Your Slacker Band! series, I thought it would be nice to run something as a “counterweight”. So here goes a special post from Richard Cowley, wish few useful tips for aspiring bands!

So, you’re starting your first band. Good for you! There’s nothing quite like getting together with a bunch of your friends and playing some songs you really like. But wait! What’s this? You want to be taken seriously, and try and get somewhere with your musical talents, but you have no idea where to start? Ah. Yeah, that’s always a problem when you’re first starting out. But never fear! Here, I’ll be telling you how to get started, get serious, and get going with your (no doubt) illustrious career, with examples from a hefty number of bands I’ve had the pleasure of either knowing or being a part of. And even if you don’t get anywhere, hey, maybe you’ll get laid.

Tonight we start with the basics, and by that I mean the absolute basics. I’m going to assume that you either can play an instrument, or you’re learning to play an instrument, or you’re singing and therefore have no need of an instrument. Let’s also assume your bandmates are in the same situation. Before you get started on the real nitty gritty of being in a band, it’s best to get your head in the right place. Here are a few tips on what you need to be thinking before you get started.

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1. You’re Probably Going To Suck

Let’s face it; you’re probably in college, busy with heaps of schoolwork and emotional trauma and blah blah blah. Unless you happen to be a child prodigy at your chosen musical profession, or you’ve been playing since you were a toddler, chances are you’re not going to be very good. And that’s fine! There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being particularly good. But it really doesn’t help if you start off thinking you’re going to rule the world. Unless you’re saying that for ironic purposes. Then it’s funny.

Example: I’ve just finished doing an acoustic set to a nearly empty hall in my college at a band night set up by one of the students. The next guys up, a five-piece outfit called Carnivora (who are all lovely people), jump up on stage, and the lead singer shouts into the microphone, “we apologise for the previous acts; now we’re gonna pick things up a bit!” If they had been going for a few years and were good friends with the band before, that would be fine. Given that they’d had one gig in their entire lifespan, had just recruited a new rhythm guitarist, and hadn’t practiced enough for the gig, the comment just fell flat. I’m not saying don’t be confident, just don’t get cocky; you’re new to the game, and it’s not gonna earn you friends.

2. You’re Going To Need To Practice. A Lot

This should go without saying, but if you’re ignoring tip one, you’re probably ignoring tip two. No matter how good you think you are, and for that matter, no matter how good you actually are by yourself, when you get together and play with your band, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Sure, you can play along to a CD, but real people in real band situations are prone to screwing up, and that can lead to an entire band fumbling to a stop, which, trust me, is not a pretty sight, and it really, really sucks to be a part of. Every opportunity you can, get your band together and practice, practice, practice. If you’re doing cover songs, learn them outright before you even bother practicing with your band, and make sure everyone else knows them too. Sure, you can fumble through a performance in practice, but if you’re playing it that way together every time, you’re going to play the same in front of people.

Case in point: My own band, Signposted Disaster (definitely not a plug), had our first ever gig as a full band. We practiced at least once a week together, with our own songs that we’d written. Problem was, as both lead singer and only guitarist, I was focusing far too much on the playing guitar aspect than I was on the getting the words right bit. Every time we practiced, I just mumbled incomprehensible crap to fill the gaps, and told myself I’d learn the words eventually. Gig day comes, and what do you know, I don’t know any of the words to the songs. It was horrible. People threw things at us. I got a pebble in my eye and a five pence piece right in the crotch. So make sure you’re practicing the songs properly, with every single piece of it going smoothly. It will not be all right on the night.

3. You Shouldn’t Take It Too Seriously

Remember all that advice about taking this a bit seriously in the last tip? Take that, and throw it all away. You’re not going to be playing stadiums any time soon, so there’s no need to act like you are. If you start taking it all just a bit too seriously, the whole band thing is going to get real old, real fast. Yes, you need to practice, but you need to have some fun with it too. The band is not a machine, it’s a bunch of people working hard, and people need breaks. Take some time to blow off some steam, and throw yourself back into it. Maybe just jam together for a laugh, rather than practicing a song. Hell, you could write a stupid song and learn that, just to keep things entertaining. As the saying goes, all work and no play makes a band hate you. Or something. My knowledge of sayings is slim.

But there’s a fine line between having a bit of fun and just screwing around. Once, I drummed with a band called Paint on the Fence, who use session drummers rather than having a specific guy sat behind the kit each time (not a bad idea, but hard to pull off). They were in a tight spot when the drummer they had lined up for their next gig at a battle of the bands bailed on them, so I stepped in. We had precisely one practice, and during that time we practiced the two songs we were playing twice. The next day was gig day. What did the other guys do with the rest of their time? Played table tennis. For half an hour. Did we win the battle of the bands? No. We got beaten by a 15 year old with a Mohawk doing a rap-metal song with his band. I would have taken a silver coin to the crotch over that any day.

So there you have it. In case you’ve skimmed through the whole thing and are wondering what the basic point of the article is, it’s this; keep your expectations low, make sure you practice a fair amount, but don’t take it too seriously. It may seem like obvious stuff, but trust me, there’s plenty of bands out there who just ignore all of this.

Next time, we take a look at one of the trickiest things in your band’s entire existence: the band name.