Band practice blues

A Chico musician copes with coronavirus shutdown

I broke quarantine for band practice. And so did my bandmates. (Sorry, fellas. I ratted you out.)

I don’t regret it. Before getting together, we charted our connections for any sketchy contacts, an ad hoc solution to America’s nonexistent contact tracing. We wore masks (turns out the guys in Clinic were innovators, in more ways than one) while playing and stuck to our corners of the rehearsal space. And we limited our time together, spending more time outside, 20 feet apart, shooting the shit. I stripped naked in the garage after getting home, disinfected my earplugs and the keys to the space.

It sure felt good. To get out and make some noise with my friends. I play drums in three bands, which, normally, works out to about 10 hours of band practice each week. My last regular practice was in mid-March, immediately after California shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on there were a few tentative texts between bandmates, all resulting in caution and cancellations. That was the right thing to do, despite jokes of rock ‘n’ roll being an “essential service.” Instead, I have been practicing solo at home, or heading out to the space to hone my recording chops. While I’ve been playing in bands for almost 30 years and made dozens of albums, my knowledge of microphones and where to point them is slim. The home recording explosion largely passed me by, mostly due to lack of interest. Why spend time figuring out ProTools when I can play drums? I’ll pay a friend to push faders, thank you.

While stuck at home, my kids became interested in recording music. That helped scratch the itch. I built some beats for my daughter’s raps, and my son put together a great White Stripes cover. (Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” is next.) Then I started to record loosely structured songs or beats and email them out to friends. I’ve reconnected with bandmates from Albuquerque and Oakland, writing our first tunes together in years. That’s been lots of fun.

As a technology bonehead, I thought maybe my bands could livestream a practice. It works for my daughter’s piano lessons, but with more than one person making music, it’s awfully tough to pull off. It’s definitely possible, but you need a fairly modern computer, an audio interface with minimal latency, and most importantly, a very fast, hard-wired internet connection. WiFi won’t cut it, and with everyone else on your block streaming Netflix, working from home and watching porn, broadband speed is inherently slower.

Another of my bands tried using the ridiculously named service JamKazam, which seems to be designed for antisocial musicians, offering users the chance to “play music with other musicians from your homes across the Internet as if you were sitting in the same room.” To me, the whole point is to get in the same room, interpret each other’s creativity and build something out of that energy. I appreciate JamKazam’s attempt to build a live platform, especially now, but everyone in your band will need top-notch equipment to get started. With latency factored in, my guitarist was almost a full second off the beat, twice as much as normal.

We also tried Skype, a sloppy Google Hangouts, and had a tiny bit of success with Zoom, but without throwing a few hundred dollars per musician at upgraded equipment and municipal high-speed broadband for Chico (hey, let’s do this!), it just wasn’t going to work.

Instead, this band got together for a non-practice practice. Four of the five of us met at the regular Sunday afternoon rehearsal time and parked our cars 20 feet apart. From there, we drank Tecate and threw rocks at each other. I even pulled out some bongos to play along with my bass player on a couple John Prine covers, our singer nailing Bonnie Raitt’s part on “Angel From Montgomery” from the back of her RAV4.

We can all agree that music, if not band practice, is an essential service. We’re going to miss out on months of new albums from bands. Tours and summer festivals are canceled. Chico’s awesome upstart three-day Valley Fever music fest had to pump the brakes. Who knows when we’ll be playing shows at Duffy’s, the Maltese or 1078 again. I dearly miss that connection and those drink tickets.

In lieu of in-person performances, professional musicians are being asked for in-home sessions broadcast on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. They’re delivering an important human need, a relationship that we’re all craving. And they’re often doing it for free (or electronic tips), more so than ever before. Pre-COVID-19, musicians were already at the end of their rope with requests for free content.

Please keep that in mind if you’re asking for a set, cover song or nerdy gear questions. Nobody is making money from in-person entertainment or T-shirt sales right now—and very few artists earn a living from Spotify or Apple Music. Buy their albums, be respectful and tip when you can. Send virtual hugs and support, if nothing else.

I’m not in that category. I have a day job that is mostly holding together through the outbreak. I consider music a hobby.

Our abbreviated practice was great. I craved it. I needed to get loud more than anything, and I’m glad we did. I reckon we have several months to go before we can safely congregate, and I’ll likely have practice again before that. We’ll be as safe as we can be. No high fives, I promise. It’s a risk, but as the tattoo says, “No Ragrets!”

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