House Gigs: Familiarity-Creep
"Familiarity breeds contempt."
A "house gig" in the music business refers to a steady string of performances in the same venue, week after week, with no end date defined; the gig will occur until further notice.
I have a lot of experience with house gigs, both as a bandleader and as a sideman.
In the early days of my career (70s-80s), it was possible to play 6 nights a week or more, both locally (I'm in Kansas City) and across the country. I spent a lot of time on the road playing six nights a week in clubs for 1 or 2-week stands, bouncing from town-to-town, gig-to-gig. The first few years of my marriage, that's how I made a (nominal) living. In and out of town; a month in, 2 weeks out, a week in, a week out, 3 weeks in, 2 weeks out - that kind of thing. The last year that I played full-time (1985) I was gone a total of half the year, mostly in 2 or 3-week increments (see: I Used to Love This! What Happened?).
For some reason I can only ascribe to Providence, whenever my wife got pregnant, I scored a house gig close to home that lasted a year-and-a-half or more. As a result, I began to see the effects on a band of playing mostly the same tunes, night-after-night in the same club, with the same musicians. Plus, a large percentage of the crowd would be regulars, so you're playing to a lot of the same people every night.
Within the band, "familiarity breeds contempt" would creep into the situation, sooner or later. Perspective is lost, shortcomings and weaknesses get magnified. Personalities start grating on one another.
In general, just by definition, musicians are going to be emotionally-oriented. And it seems that the more exciting they are as musicians and performers, the more emotionally-driven they are. It comes with the territory. Sometimes there is a lack of analytical thought when dealing with issues. The explosive band-fight - sometimes on stage - is so common it's cliché.
"So" you may ask, "Are you a non-emotionally-driven musician. Isn't that kind of oxymoronic?"
No, I'm just as emotionally-driven as the next guy - otherwise I wouldn't be a musician, would I? But in my case, I have a strong background and training in logic/critical thinking. See, Staying Sane in the Music Business. I'd like to think I'm well-balanced but you'd have to ask my wife; I'm not objective about me.
BTW - everyone is emotionally-driven; if someone is "intellectual", they are that way because they like the way it makes them feel. Dig?
Anyway, one night, just as a joke, we decided to fake a band-fight onstage (names changed to protect the perps - no one is innocent). With the dance floor packed, we stopped the song in the middle (a cardinal sin in the music biz) and started screaming and yelling at each other with expletive-laden attacks.
It started with musical stuff,
"Jim you dip-s--t! You can't even keep the f-ing time!"
"Well, you're playing the wrong f-ing changes!" - and so on.
We were competing to see who could come up with the most hateful and vitriolic insult. The winner was,
"GODDAMMIT GEORGE YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME SHE HAD THE CRABS!!!!!"
People were standing on the dance floor with their mouths hanging open. The whole club was focused on the stage.
The club owner came up with a worried look and asked, "Do I need to find another band for tomorrow night?"
That illustrates the cliché - it's so common the club owner himself thought we were serious!
I won't even tell you about the REAL band fights.
A huge percentage of the time, getting a house gig is the beginning of the end for the band. It's a very seductive thing; steady work, regular paycheck, there's usually a "scene" happening and you are right at the center of it. But inevitably, "familiarity-creep" happens and it usually doesn't end well. If you're lucky, it was a good run and was worth the flame-out at the end.
To be clear, I LIKE house gigs. Pre-1985 they kept me in town when my wife and I had new babies - that's important. I like the predictability of a house gig for the reasons stated above; it's a consistent musical outlet (a primary concern for me), steady work, regular paycheck and I can go home and sleep in my own bed every night. Always scrambling for the next gig is exhausting; a house gig lets you pause for a moment and relax.
In my opinion and experience, the notion of being on the road with a band has been romanticised. Trust me when I say it ain't all it's cranked up to be. Jackson Brown said it well, "The only time that seems too short is the time we get to play."
So, after 2 or 3 particularly intense dramatic crash-and-burns of sweet house gigs in the late 70s and early 80s, I began to define the issues and formulate techniques, at least for myself, for what it takes to settle into a house gig for the long haul. By "long haul" I mean years, and in a couple of cases, decades.
First and foremost is the idea that you work only on yourself; trying to change someone else only causes more problems. Real change is always self-motivated - you know, the light bulb has to want to change. BTW, that’s good advice for any relationship, not just band guys.
Consciously work on not losing perspective. You know that ever-so-slight time issue your drummer has that's driving you crazy? He had that issue when you signed on but you joined anyway. The first few weeks or months you weren't as bothered. Why? Your being not-bothered then and bothered now is not him changing, it's you. Your perspective changed. THAT is the real problem.
You need to change your perspective - again. On purpose this time. Focus on his strong suits, not his weakness. Remember why you took the gig in the first place. Practice gratitude.
You are not going to change him no matter how many band-fights there are over the issue. You either live with it or give notice.
Just for the record, most drummers I've played with have better time than me - well, maybe not most - but a lot! I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with many of the drummers I have.
Especially when I was younger, I looked to get involved in situations where I was the weakest player in the band. The reason was that it would make me a better player, but a secondary consequence was that I was getting kicked in the ass so much I didn't have the luxury to be irritated by the other guys' insufficiencies; I was just trying to keep up! That agenda, the willingness to be the weakest musician on stage, has been one of the crucibles that has made me the player I am today, such as I am. Jumping in the deep end. Baptism by fire. All apt metaphors.
I try to minimize drama in my life, or at least minimize the ripple-effects of the drama that there is. I try to live as angst-free as possible. That takes a lot of "personal growth work", because there is angst-producing drama that is unavoidable. Again, work on yourself. Bringing personal shit into the band and onto the stage is another source for "familiarity breeds contempt."
Back in my younger days I worked for a bandleader who, when I brought up issues that were bothering me, would dismissively say, "Sounds like a P.P. to me." (P.P. = "personal problem.") I realized the only way anything would change for the better is if I changed.
Here is an illustrative story. The context is a house band situation. I tell this story and several others in A Fraction of a Second:
"The group consisted of myself, a Hammond Organ player and a drummer. Both the other guys were great players...but...the organist's left hand pushed; the bass was on the frontside of the beat. Conversely his right hand hung back a little. The drummer was an older guy whose style was more of a 2-beat feel, almost like pre-1930's jazz before the Kansas City scene institutionalized the swing feel. He played right on top - sometimes pushing; chasing the organist's left hand.
Keep in mind this was before I had an explicit conceptualization of these issues; my relating of them now is in hindsight, with concepts and vocabulary I did not have at the time. All I knew at the time was that it wasn't swinging the way I thought it should (like a young white guy knew more about things than the older jazz guys!).
After several weeks of fighting with the tempos, the feel and what I perceived as a lack of swing, I began to think that maybe I was going to have to bow out; I simply wasn't having fun. It was demoralizing - a high-profile jazz gig in a historically significant venue that just wasn't working for me.
I went in one night with a final idea to try; I was going to do my best to just give up my concept, my preconception that is, of what the music was supposed to feel like and just play. It wasn't going to swing, it wasn't ever going to feel like I thought it should feel. It wasn't a good or bad thing, there was no value judgment attached (unlike my previous attitude); it just was. I was going to accept it that way and quit fighting it.
I remember the specific song it happened on - Saint Thomas.
The tempo was blistering. Instead of hanging back, trying to play behind the beat in order to make it swing, I locked into the drummer and also the organist's left hand. For me, it was a little uncomfortable; I was consciously playing on top of the beat - which in a weird way was a little behind because everyone else was pushing.
It kicked ass! The revelation was almost jaw-dropping. In that one moment, I settled in. This was the key to playing with these two. To me, it still didn't swing, but it kicked ass nevertheless."
What happened? I changed. I changed my attitude, I changed my preconceptions and assumptions. I still play with the organ player on a regular basis today, over 25 years later.
I've never quit a gig or a band because of one of the other guys. And believe me when I say, I've played with plenty of guys that had issues - musical issues, substance abuse issues, relational issues, psychological/emotional issues (don't we all?), issues with baggage they brought into the band and so on. I'd like to think I have a pretty high tolerance and compassion for broken and screwed-up people; after all, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” - right? I’ve had my own issues over the years, so there is that.
The only times (there have been 3 times in 40+ years and dozens of bands) I quit a working band has been because of outside circumstances.
One of those 3 times was the wrong decision and I regretted it. Ironically, I quit a working band to join that band. Then a couple of years later I quit that band for another - and it didn't work out so well. Ooops.
Twice, as a band leader, I gave notice to the entire band. In other words, I broke up my own band. Not because of any of the band guys, but due to outside circumstances. In one case, my teaching business was taking off and I needed to devote my time and energy to that. The only way I could get out of my exclusive contract with the booking agent was to dissolve the band. The other case was because I wanted to join another band as a sideman, mainly for musical reasons (it was one of the best bands I have ever been in), and I couldn't do both. Both those decisions proved right. No regrets.
Things have changed since the old days. There are no more "house gigs" in the sense that a band will play the same club 6 nights a week indefinitely. The exception would be things like piano players playing solo in a restaurant every night. Maybe there are some gigs in country bars that would qualify but I don't move in country circles enough to know.
These days, even if I play 5 or 6 nights in a week, it's a different gig every night, sometimes with a different band each gig.