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June 22, 2011 9:14 AM   Subscribe

What is it really like to be in a band? Please recommend reading material!

I am looking for books or blogs which capture the actual experience of being in a band. These could be nonfiction or fiction (or even documentary films), so long as they are authentic and detailed - the more jargon and minutiae the better. I am less interested in stories about wild rock star parties and more interested in things like: What is it like to write songs collaboratively and record them in a studio? How are disagreements resolved? What is it like to be on tour for months at a time? What is it like to be an opening act performing for a tiny, uninterested audience? What would the typical business arrangements be when a (non-superstar) group books a show at a venue? What are interactions with fans like? (Obviously everyone's experience is different - I am not expecting The One Answer to any of those questions.)

I am most interested in the indie rock scene, but am happy to read about musicians in other genres if they have some similarity. Thanks very much!
posted by unsub to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Henry Rollins won a Grammy for his book Get in the Van which talks about being a touring punk musician with Black Flag. The book that I always think of in this regard is Our Band Could Be Your Life which looks at a lot of indie bands you might have heard of in the 81-91 timeframe. More recently Anvil: The Story of Anvil is a great documentary about Anvil, one of the original heavy metal bands, still trying to rock it after all these years and their attempts to raise money to record their 14th album. A lot of back and forth about what it takes to be a successful touring artist and some introspection about who makes it and who doesn't. Great even if you're not a metal fan, but awesome of you are one.

Wikipedia has a few more options for metal band documentaries. I'd suggest Heavy Metal Parking Lot and the Decline of Western Civilization from that list. This list is the same but for punk bands. I personally liked 1991 The Year Punk Broke about Sonic Youth's tour.
posted by jessamyn at 9:24 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Keith Richard's Life has a lot about the sex and drugs, but definitely covers the rock and roll too. He writes extensively about writing collaboratively with Mick, recording, band conflict, etc.
posted by Adam_S at 9:29 AM on June 22, 2011

Watch I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for a documentary about a band trying to put out an album. Turned out to be one of their best.
posted by valkyryn at 9:31 AM on June 22, 2011

I highly recommend An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.
posted by SNACKeR at 9:33 AM on June 22, 2011

Roger O'Donnell from the Cure writes about his memories of writing and recording Disintegration in some detail here. I found it pretty interesting and insightful.

My favorite book which gets into some detail about this stuff is Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil. It's generally about the punk scene of the 70's and early 80's, but told in first person interviews. People talk about touring, and what it was like as they became more famous (and often ultimately crashed hard).
posted by kimdog at 9:34 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason is excellent.
posted by The Deej at 9:39 AM on June 22, 2011

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records.

The book is an oral history and while it's about how Merge records came to be, there's a lot of neet inside information. It's an oral history so it's all of the bands and people who work for the label talking about the history of the label and how it came to be through the band Superchunk. A number of chapters focus on Superchunk and their journey. It's a fun read.

That said, I 2nd Our Band Could be Your Life. Even if you don't care for the bands in the book, it's a fantastic look at how an indie scene came to be. Lots of fantastic stuff in that book.
posted by phelixshu at 9:42 AM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: My husband, who used to work as a sound engineer for local bands in our hometown, loved the stories about working on studio album production on a blog called Mixerman. They've now been put into a book, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman.
posted by immlass at 9:43 AM on June 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't know if this would be considered too "outside looking in" but I just finished The Daily Adventures of Mixerman by Mixerman, and I think it touches on a lot of these issues, albeit from the recording engineer's vantage point, not the band's. It's about a signed band's attempt to write and record their debut album, which needs to be Full! Of! Hits! to appease the label. It talks about the recording process, the song-writing process, and even band mediation. Plus, it's hilarious.
posted by dearwassily at 9:43 AM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding Get In The Van. One of the great books about the road.

You might want to watch Hardcore Logo. As someone who's been in bands most of my life, that captures the feeling better than anything I've ever seen even though it's fiction.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:45 AM on June 22, 2011

I enjoyed Bruce Thomas's The Big Wheel, about life on the road as part of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Lots of disagreements and grumbling about tour buses and interband conflict.

Andy Summers' One Train Later covers his life on tour with his earlier bands and the Police. It's really well-written and funny, and will probably make you think Sting is a pompous twat if you didn't already think so.

And I loved Luke Haines' Bad Vibes: Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall, a deeply cynical look at achieving moderate indie-rock success with the Auteurs and then how hard it was for him to deal with it. He jumped off a wall and broke his ankles just so he could get out of a tour!
posted by vickyverky at 9:47 AM on June 22, 2011

strange powers is documentary about stephin merritt and the magnetic field.
posted by phil at 9:51 AM on June 22, 2011

I loved Alex James' book Bit of a Blur
posted by Conductor71 at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2011

The band kind of fell apart, never got into a studio and was a cover band, and it's fiction, but Roddy Doyle's book The Commitments may be fun. (The movie version "Hollywood-ized" it a touch, so don't let that put you off the book...)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:05 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Our Noise and Geniuses of Crack are a pair of novels detailing the grind of being in a local Seattle band, and what happens when that band threatens to achieve wider success.
posted by joelhunt at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2011

Best answer: Jacob Slichter's great book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star deals with a lot of this stuff. He was the drummer of Semisonic, which went from unknown to famous and back.
posted by AgentRocket at 10:14 AM on June 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I read and enjoyed Life in Double Time some years ago. Might be worth a look.
posted by that's candlepin at 10:26 AM on June 22, 2011

Watch Another State of Mind.
posted by fire&wings at 10:26 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would recommend watching A Year And A Half In the Life Of Metallica and Some Kind Of Monster. Not books, but great insights into Metallica's experiences during the creation of "Metallica" and "St. Anger", respectively.

Spoiler: Kirk Hammett is an airhead, James Hetfield drinks too much, Jason Newsted got shafted, and Lars Ulrich is a dick. That last one may not be much of a spoiler.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:47 AM on June 22, 2011

Jacob Slichter's great book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star deals with a lot of this stuff.

Especially good because they were basically a one-hit-wonder on the national US level, so you get a real sense of "how did we end up on The Tonight Show when we were playing a small venue in Minneapolis last week."
posted by smackfu at 11:03 AM on June 22, 2011

If movies are OK the Blur's Starshaped tour doc is pretty honest. It's here on Youtube. (Contains vomit)
posted by merocet at 11:28 AM on June 22, 2011

Well, this is an interesting question.

I've been in a few bands, known even more people in bands through the years, and — while I myself have neither made music into a career, nor had any large degree of success — I've known a few folks who did become successful with it.

So let's see. What's it like? Well, I followed the early-1990's indie rock path to band-dom. Some high school friends and I were fans of independent music, got ourselves a copy of the Simple Machines manifesto, picked up some instruments, and started writing cruddy songs under a cruddy band name. I think our crowning achievements were getting booed offstage at the high school talent show, and playing in a friend's garage for his birthday party. So many other kids were starting their first formative "bands" at this time, too. Pool parties, house parties, garages…any excuse to get together and make a loud racket.

Fast forward two years from that. Myself and two friends of that same set are now at college, and have been tinkering with our instruments a bit longer. Lo-Fi 4-track recordings are hitting full stride. We upgrade our gear, get a 4-track machine, and start practicing regularly. At that age, you're full of all sorts of optimism and making a lot of friends playing out. I don't think we sounded bad at the time, really, though some recordings from that period certainly make me cringe. Our primary place to play in Austin back then was at this teensy drag bar called the Blue Flamingo (where Plush is now, for any reading Austinites). Basically, it was a gay bar up until about 9:00 or 9:30, and then (while ostensibly still a gay bar) the clientele would slowly change over to be composed predominately of the indie/punk/garage kids.

There was no stage, just a corner of the floor cordoned off with masking tape. The PA was crude at best and, if I remember right, only had one speaker. There were no monitors. On a typical night, you might have anywhere from 10-30 people there, which felt like a lot, given the tiny room. We never really got paid for playing there, but we got free pitchers of Pabst. I remember being thrilled whenever anybody would tell us that we sounded a bit like some established band I liked… But peeved if we sounded *too* much like somebody else. We wore shirts emblazoned with logos of other bands, and other bands wore ours. We pasted flyers on light posts. We blew all our spare cash at the record store.

When playing in another city, we'd sleep on couches or floors of friends. Likewise, we'd set other bands up for the night when they came through. There was a lot of alcohol consumed, and a lot of weed smoked…though I never really partook in the latter, and there was no pressure to. I remember trying earnestly to sleep on a friend's sofa after a show, when his housemate and 87456874567845 of his closest friends came home from seeing whatever crappy jam band was playing that night, and proceeded to light up a five foot tall bong. I shit you not. This thing sounded like a cruise ship sinking under the Pacific every time somebody took a pull from it. I didn't get much sleep that night.

You have to lug a shitload of gear around. Nobody will do it for you. We rolled our eyes at bands that were no bigger than us and yet, somehow, had 'roadies'. Secretly, I would have murdered to have somebody carry my shit around for me.

As far as playing in front of tiny crowds vs. larger crowds? Really, you still have fun no matter what. I mean… It's always nice to be in front of people. And the first few times you have a crowd bigger than…say….50 people?, it is definitely nerve wracking. I used to wear a hat when I played when I was younger, so that I could hide the audience with the brim and not get nervous. Small venues, and empty shows are not uncommon — especially when starting out, but they're practice. It's a chance to play on a stage without pressure, and to try out new things and new songs. Empty shows are valuable and kinda fun in a way that regular rehearsals aren't.

There's also a definite forward progress when it comes to the types of places you play. You'll start off playing in the worst sorts of places. Glory holes in bathrooms, people pooping in sinks. I am not making this up. And you will play for two drink tickets. Then, other bands invite you to other shows. And people at other venues see you. And your network opens up. It's progress like with anything. As far as booking? A lot of times, either your added to an existing bill, or you have to have a complete bill. Facebook and online sites are used a lot now, as opposed to hand-delivered demo tapes. Every venue treats your compensation differently: Some will give you drink tickets, some will give you LOTS of drink tickets, some will give you a cut of the door charge, some will give the bands all of the door charge to divvy up. Some venues give you a cut off the bar. It really does vary.

As far as songwriting and disputes go? When I was in my first real 3-piece rock band, the bassist and myself pretty much equally shared songwriting duties. We'd collaborate some, but more often than not, we'd each bring our own ideas to the table to be fleshed out. We were prolific enough that, if we didn't like something, it was just scrapped. I don't remember having disputes over songwriting, really…though we did break up over a dispute about practice commitments.

I still play music now. And am in a small local band that's about a year old, and our network is expanding just as outlined above. It's fun. In our early 30's, I don't think any of us have any illusions of being rock stars, but it's nice to play shows with and for people who like your sound, and it's good to have a creative and social outlet. I don't do much of the songwriting now, and I kind of like it that way, it's less stress for me…though I do bring in ideas from time to time, and I create my own material at home when the mood strikes.

In many ways, being in a band is a lot like other people's poker night….just a lot louder.
posted by kaseijin at 11:41 AM on June 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and typically, most bands I know/have been involved in write songs together in some manner like the following:

Person A brings riff/idea/chord progression to practice. Band fucks around with this idea for about an hour or so, everybody trying out different parts on top of the progression, testing out a change here and there, from time to time.

If the group likes it, it is kept, edited, pared, amended, and eventually turned into a real song.

If not? Move on to the next sketch.
posted by kaseijin at 11:43 AM on June 22, 2011

As far as reading material? Yeah, get "Our Band Could be Your Life"
posted by kaseijin at 11:47 AM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Danny Barnes' blog is a good record of a career in bands.
posted by scruss at 11:48 AM on June 22, 2011

I have been in bands since the 60s. *sigh* As far as I am concerned, there are two excellent movies that capture the experience fairly well. One is, of course, This is Spinal Tap. The other is The Committments.* I don't know of any books that do it really well.

*That Thing You Do has its moments, too.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:10 PM on June 22, 2011

Seconding the Metallica movie recommendations. And it's really interesting to see the same group of guys go from being near the top of their game to struggling to find the spark.
posted by doctord at 3:41 PM on June 22, 2011

Get In The Van, definitely.
posted by MattWPBS at 4:03 PM on June 22, 2011

Our Band Could Be Your Life.
posted by limeonaire at 5:26 PM on June 22, 2011

Also one of the Pixies books, Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies.
posted by limeonaire at 5:29 PM on June 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for the recommendations - this is great! You have enfattened my wish list and Netflix queue, and I will be back to mark best answers once I've actually gotten to do some reading and viewing. And of course I will continue to appreciate further suggestions if anybody thinks of something else.
posted by unsub at 6:15 PM on June 22, 2011

Iain Banks' "Espedair Street" is fictional, but entertaining, and, I've always assumed, based on stories Bob Geldof told him when they were next-door neighbours for a while.

I've been in bands enough to know he doesn't get anything hilariously wrong, but never at the national/international level of fame the book deals with.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:42 PM on June 22, 2011

For a slightly different perspective:

We'll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin' Showbiz Saga is a memoir by Paul Shaffer of David Letterman and Saturday Night Live fame. He writes about playing little clubs, being in the Blues Brothers, and writing "It's Raining Men," as well as his experiences on SNL and Late Night.
posted by kristi at 6:50 PM on June 22, 2011

Songwriters on Process obviously focuses more on songwriting but they interview a wide variety of indie rockers.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:41 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps we were doing it wrong, but it felt like being married to four other people. At the same time.
posted by Thistledown at 9:01 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is intimate. You are in an unwritten pact. You have a deep responsibility to "the band." Skipping that big show because you have the flu is not an option, you hydrate and push through it. Dont' let the band down.

Being in a band is great fun, but it is very hard work. Somedays it is extremely rewarding, somedays you curse the day you picked up your instrument.

Most people seem to think it's all fun and games. That has not been my experience, but I still won't give it up.

Relationships are complex and nuanced.

(n)thing "Our Band Could Be Your Life" although it seems quite out of date in a lot of ways. Pre-internet/youtube touring. Playing VFWs in small towns without competing with PS3s, cable tv and internet chatrooms.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me like it might have been a bit easier to draw kids to go to a punk rock show in 1991 than it is in 2011.
posted by j03 at 10:25 PM on June 22, 2011

I quite enjoyed the tour journal of the Intelligence. 1st of a 3 part series about being on a 6 week tour, and published in Seattle's alt-weekly the Stranger. I suppose they can be classified as indie, in that they're not getting rich, don't have roadies and all that. It's more about the lows of touring, which makes it real.

Also, the life and times of a mediocre band.
posted by l2p at 11:08 PM on June 22, 2011

Late to the party as always, but a couple of other suggestions. Matthew Bannister's Positively George Street: Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound (1999) is a detailed, revealing, bitter little memoir about the life cycle of a band in early-mid '80s New Zealand. But you'll probably have a hell of a time tracking it down. On the other hand, Kristin Hersh's Rat Girl (2010), a memoir of the Boston and Providence indie rock scenes in 1985, is still in print and excellent (if a little harrowing).
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:43 PM on June 24, 2011

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