89X

89X

I woke up today to the news that 89X, Detroit’s alternative rock radio station, owned by a Canadian company, has axed its American operations.

That means that a dear friend of mine is now out of a job.

I remember when he was still in school learning about audio engineering and the inner workings of radio. My band was one of his guinea pigs as he honed his recording chops. He was concerned with taking care of us, and making sure to do things right. As always happens when doing anything creative, there were some technical issues which slowed the session, so we weren’t able to finish the recording. But what did get recorded, he mixed and sent to me a few weeks later.

He sees his job through to the end, no matter what.

While at college he hosted his own radio show, and interned at 89X, reporting to program director Jay Hudson. Together they ran a weekly program which showcased independent artists and put a spotlight on the local music community. They held events and shows around the metro Detroit/Windsor area, and chose artists to perform with large touring acts.  (Hudson resigned in July 2016 after 10 years of working at the station.)

A year or so later, my friend and I were hanging out in my studio. He had nearly completed his internship, and was concerned that the station wouldn’t be able to hire him. He felt the pressure, worked even harder, and turned out to be hired and become a regular on-air for years to come.

And yesterday, he was laid off, along with around a dozen others affiliated with the American side of 89X.

The layoffs were part of a larger restructuring at Bell Media, the corporation who owns 89X and three other stations. According to Bell Media news director Matthew Garrow, “The restructuring is a response to the challenges we and other Canadian media companies are facing on multiple fronts: changing broadcast technologies and growing international competition, a tough advertising market, and ongoing regulatory pressure.”

That is all business-speak for “radio isn’t as profitable as it used to be.”

But that’s because nothing is what it used to be. Everything is changing. Before we know it we’ll be able to use our devices to request the car of our choice on demand, and it will show up with no driver inside. Commuting to work? Get a small hatchback. Going out for a fancy date? Get a Mercedes.

Abundance rules.

It’s already happened in music. It used to be that radio was the only way to hear music, unless you bought the record. Now, with cloud-based streaming services and customized playlists, not only do you not need to own any music, you can create your own personalized radio station! Why would you listen to terrestrial radio, waiting for them to play the song you want to hear, when you can reach into your pocket, pull out your device, and hear it right now??

And most people tell me that terrestrial radio sucks, that they play the same songs over and over and over, that the music is homogenized and pasteurized for the masses, that there’s no there there.

But that’s because terrestrial radio is run by large corporations.

The DJs used to rule when they had autonomy over their shows, were able to spin the tunes they wanted, not just the company-approved playlist. They would scrounge record stores and listen at home for songs that resonated with them, with the current culture, not just what was blowing up the charts. The great DJs took risks, they helped push music forward, they captivated their audience.

That’s what made Howard Stern so popular, he takes risks, says what others are too scared to say. And he knows the world is much cruder than it used to be, which is why he knew that satellite radio was the future, a place where he could be his authentic self without fear of the controlling corporation bringing down the hammer. (When Jay Hudson resigned from 89X, he took a job at Sirius XM.)

Corporations don’t like free-thinkers or risk-takers.

And Bell Media, rather than taking a risk and truly shaking up the format and pivoting into the Now, decided on the impossible task of figuring out how to continue doing what they’ve been doing, because it’s what they know. They looked at their profit margins, and they cut the first thing companies always cut when their profit margins are low — payroll.

Payroll is generally the biggest expense of any company, and the first line item to receive cuts when the company wants to tighten its belt. That’s the reason the car you’re going to call won’t have a driver: it will cost less. (The trucking industry is going to experience a revolution soon, as will many other industries due to automation and robotics. If a human can be replaced, they will be replaced. Humans cost too much.)

My heart breaks for my friend. He sacrificed to get where he is, he said no to a lot of things that other people would not in order to become successful in his industry. From day one, he put in the hours and the sweat equity to do his best for the station. He learned from his mistakes and his mentors, and applied his knowledge on a daily basis. And now the station says they’re moving in a different direction, without him.

But I’m not really surprised — I’ve seen this before.

My dad worked for a radio station in Detroit — W4 Country — for 13 years, ultimately becoming the station’s creative director. He was laid off in July 1995 by the parent corporation which owned the station. W4 Country was part of a 19 radio stations group owned by Shamrock Broadcasting, a division of Shamrock Holdings, which was founded in 1978 as an investment company by Roy E. Disney (yes, that Disney).

Shamrock Holdings bought a bunch of television and radio stations in the 1980s and early 1990s, and sold Shamrock Broadcasting to Chancellor Broadcasting in August 1995, right after the layoffs at W4. Chancellor Broadcasting restructured and became known as AMFM Inc. in 1999. In 2000, AMFM Inc. merged with Clear Channel Communications. After the merger, Clear Channel owned 830 radio stations, 19 television stations, and over 425,000 outdoor displays in 32 countries. In 2005, Clear Channel Communications split into three separate companies; Clear Channel Communications for radio, Clear Channel Outdoor for out-of-home advertising, and Live Nation for live events. Clear Channel has since become iHeart Media, and 89xRadio.com redirects to iheartradio.ca.

So when I saw the news this morning that Bell Media decided to lay off my friend and his co-workers as part of “restructuring”, I shook my head in disgust, but I wasn’t shocked. When it comes to corporations, it’s only a matter of time before the rug gets pulled out from under you. They are always buying and selling and merging and splitting, and they only care about profit, not people.

I believe my friend isn’t going to have a problem finding work. He’s talented, and emotionally intelligent. If anything, I’m happy for him. At least for now, he’s no longer under the yoke of a corporation.

He’s free.

 

John Kay
blog@therealjohnkay.com

Twitter – @therealjohnkay
Instagram – @therealjohnkay

When I’m 64

When I was a little kid, the majority of my Sunday evenings were spent riding home from grandma and grandpa’s house in my dad’s tiny Ford Ranger.

Dad kept a box under the bench seat with several cassette tapes of various styles and artists; Beatles, Jethro Tull, Beethoven, Monty Python, Guess Who, Mozart, more Beatles, et al.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64..?”  Dad was 64.  Right up until a month ago.  No, he didn’t die; he turned 65, eligible now for all of those tremendous senior discounts, social security…

Once every year on those musical rides home, when the mood struck, he would pop in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s seminal “Karn Evil 9” (https://youtu.be/fLS0Med0s6E).  When the tune kicked in, he became pure energy, visibly passionate and animated, singing along, hitting the steering wheel perfectly in time with the drum fills, fingering the air organ (don’t be cheeky!).

The song lasted the whole drive home, and each time he played it he would point out all the different changes, extoll how “ELP” would occasionally cover classical music, and…

And now we have earworms.  The general public is aurally assaulted on a daily basis with calculated productions, formulated to be catchy, financed to be played everywhere, advertised incessantly; productions cached and controlled by the very rich, who manipulate, extort, exhort, and exhaust both the songs and the artists who perform them.

Until finally, they are discarded, another empty Starbucks cup.

Ask anyone under the age of 25 “Who sings that ‘867-5309’ song?”  They won’t be able to tell you…but they know those digits and can sing their melody.  They’ve heard it for years in their cars and at Speedway stations and Gaps and at 7-11 and in TV commercials and at Cold Stone and…

My dad worked in commercial radio from 1969-1994, mostly in downtown Detroit, and his first 15 years were spent as a disc jockey.  He loved exploring local record stores, always discovering new music to share.  Taking his findings home, he would scrounge intensely for the “deep cuts,” songs that may not necessarily be fed to the radio station or considered commercial enough, but he believed would resonate with his audience.

Because he knew his audience.  He encouraged his listeners to call and write to him.

And he would respond, both personally and through the music he would play during his time on-air.  He took his role within the universal music community seriously.

Taking time to set up the context of songs before the lyrics kicked in, breaking down some of the core elements of songs after they finished, knowing when to keep quiet and simply let the music play…he ran his show like a well-oiled machine, educating his listeners on how to listen to music actively.

He was infamous among his colleagues for refusing to play “Stairway to Heaven” in its heyday; every other DJ was doing it, so he didn’t need to.  A fresh impact each and every show was paramount, so if a song had grown stale among his fans, he stopped spinning it.

Early in his career, my dad unearthed a deep cut from a band featuring an albino multi-instrumentalist: a synthesizer-driven instrumental, with a working title of “Double Drum Solo”.

Upon first listen, he was blown away by the tune.  Even though the song was over nine minutes in length, and had no vocals at all, he knew for sure his fans would dig it.

Understand: my father’s authenticity and attention to detail — two traits which he still exemplifies to this day, I’ll add — made his fans quickly grow to respect him.  That respect, along with the subsequent growth in his audience, earned him the trust of his bosses and the freedom to work on his own terms.

But when it came to this particular song, the station’s program director called him crazy, shouting “It’s an instrumental!!!” and protesting “Nine minutes?!  You’ll lose half your listeners!”

Fortunately for my dad, it was a time when disc jockeys were regarded across the country as the real tastemakers, and they had a modicum of power within the music industry.  He had full creative control over his show, and despite the urgings of his boss, he broke that record that night.  (To “break” a record, in radio speak, means to be the first in the world to play a song or album on the air.)

He was true to the music first — if it sounds good, it is good.

The song he debuted that night was originally released as the B-side to another song.  The two were soon reversed by the band’s label when DJs across the US and Canada were flooded with phone calls and realized the song my dad played was the hit.

The name of the band was The Edgar Winter Group, and the song was “Frankenstein”.

Even if you don’t know the song by name, you’ll know it when you hear it.  Here’s the part we all know — ba-da bop bop ba-da bop baaaaaaa!! — in a Buick commercial with Tiger Woods: https://youtu.be/MEQMxdL9ohQ.

Is my dad the cause of Edgar Winter’s success?  Irrelevant in the bigger picture, though an argument can be made, I suppose.  The point is…he took a chance on an unknown because he had the authority to do so, and it paid off for both of them.

Corporations believe they are the only ones in America with any real authority now.  They have the money, so, therefore, they figure they have the power.

But they don’t take chances on unknowns anymore, only sure things and proven commodities.

In The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, published in 2015, John Seabrook writes “Over the last two decades a new type of hit song has emerged, one that is almost inescapably catchy.  Pop songs have always had a ‘hook,’ but today’s songs bristle with them: a hook every seven seconds is the rule.  Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are highly processed products.  Like snack-food engineers, modern songwriters have discovered the musical ‘bliss point.’  And just like junk food, the bliss point leaves you wanting more.”

Pop music is dominated by a few huge record companies that use data on past successes to replicate them again and again.  This has led directly to the present situation, wherein only a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits.  Popular songs, like most mass-productions, now get made via focus groups and formulas.

If you’re a DJ in American commercial radio today, you don’t have the freedom to debut any “deep cuts” — there’s a playlist provided to the station by their parent company (likely, this one) with all of the songs the labels want played, scheduled at specific times throughout the day.

The widespread influence of Big Pop even extends to music journalists who, working online, have come to understand that championing little-known artists commands far less traffic — and therefore less job security — than their critical explanations of the new Adele video or (another) Beatles re-release.

Bottom line: if you’re not making hits, or spinning hits, or talking about hits, you’re fired.  Don’t look the part, or wanna play along?  You’re left on the outside.

What the labels refuse to admit, or are incapable of comprehending, is that while algorithms and playlists and clickbait thrive on confirming one’s loves and hates, the best critics — or museum curators, or record store clerks, or DJs, or friends — peddle not only their own insights but also ways to arrive at new insights about things.

In a culture ruled by corporations, profit is the ultimate goal.  Chances are uncertain, and cannot be taken.

Can you imagine a 9-minute instrumental featuring a double drum solo from a band fronted by an albino on today’s radio stations, in shopping malls…at Starbucks??  Fat chance.  Forget “Karn Evil 9”.  It’s nearly a half hour long, whose story, told in three parts, features a 15-minute instrumental section.

Admittedly, I dismissed Emerson’s passing as simply another of our great musicians moving into the next world.  (George Martin, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, and David Bowie all said goodbye this year, and we’re not even through March!)  He’d merely be showered with love for a weekend on social media, and then promptly forgotten, as so many others have been.

And frankly, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer never excited me in the same way as other artists.  That’s unfortunate, since Keith Emerson was a musician of the highest order.  Right up until the moment he killed himself at 71 years old.

According to his long-time partner, Mari, he was “tormented with worry” about an upcoming tour, and said he had suffered nerve damage to his right hand which affected his playing: “He didn’t want to let down his fans.  He was a perfectionist and the thought he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous, and anxious.”

Noting heart disease and depression brought about by alcohol in the full report, the coroner ruled his death a suicide — t appears Keith Emerson had so much respect for his audience that he ended his life in order to ensure that he would never let them down.

After I told this news to my queen, she paused for a moment, and her first words thereafter were “John…please don’t ever do that.”

Because she sees me as I really am: I’m a perfectionist, too.  On the occasions when I happen to screw up, it’s usually because I’m worrying too much about screwing up.  She knows how passionate I am, and how I put my heart and soul into everything I do, what I create, into my music, my performances.

But she also knows that I absolutely dread the inevitable loss of my skills.  There will come a day when I am physically or mentally unable to perform and operate at the level I regard as my standard.

The same goes for each and every person alive — we all erode in time.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”

Need me?  Feed me?  Don’t care.  Will I still be able to create and perform music at the level I do now???

That’s why I believe no matter who we are, what our circumstances happen to be, or what passion we choose to embrace, it is crucial for each of us to engage in life with intensity, to make an impact during our brief time…

“In the face of our inevitable mortality we can do one of two things.  We can attempt to avoid the thought at all costs, clinging to the illusion that we have all the time in the world.  Or we can confront this reality, accept and even embrace it, converting our consciousness of death into something positive and active.  In adopting such a fearless philosophy, we gain a sense of proportion, become able to separate what is petty from what is truly important.  Knowing our days to be numbered, we have a sense of urgency and mission.  We can appreciate life all the more for its impermanence.  If we can overcome the fear of death, then there is nothing left to fear.” – Robert Greene, The 50th Law

https://youtu.be/4OkrYf4qlLM

The legends don’t really go on forever…

But what they create does!

When I heard last week that Keith Emerson died, I immediately thought of those trips home from grandma’s with my dad, over 25 years ago, when we bonded over the music he and Greg Lake and Carl Palmer made.

We can travel through time, if only in our minds.

P.S. Full disclosure: I borrowed a few phrases from a couple of Atlantic articles relevant to the content.  Check them out if you’d like: Article 1Article 2

P.P.S. There are numerous videos showcasing Keith Emerson’s talent.  Here are two examples: https://youtu.be/yg2KjxNtAiM and https://youtu.be/KjkD39dCvBI.

John Kay
blog@therealjohnkay.com
TheRealJohnKay.com

Music: http://johnkay.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @therealjohnkay
InstaGram: @therealjohnkay
Facebook: /therealjohnkay

Koffin Kats March 2014 Tour — Update #3 (Austin, Laredo, Harlingen, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Springfield, Grand Rapids)

Hey-o! Here’s the final update from the road on our two-week March tour, and our one-off show with Mustard Plug this past weekend!

After being treated to a delicious bacon and eggs breakfast in Beaumont, Texas (thanks, Alicia!), we hit the highway to Austin, Texas. Once we got through the crazy rush hour traffic in downtown Austin, we pulled up to the night’s venue, The Lost Well.

Just another manic(ure) Monday.  On the way to Austin, TX.
Just another manic(ure) Monday. On the way to Austin, TX.

The Lost Well is another DIY rock and roll venue with a relatively small stage (not as small as the stage in Laredo, Texas, but we’ll get to that soon). Vic and I set up our rigs, and then I immediately got to work changing Angel’s strings and cleaning off the residue of sweat and beer that inevitably ends up getting on her. Strings tuned and stretched, I helped myself to some of the wonderful homemade lasagna provided for us.

Our show that night had a really good turnout and crowd response, especially considering Austin had just hosted their annual South By Southwest festival; it was a Monday night; and it was St. Patrick’s Day. The audience included several longtime friends and fans of The Koffin Kats, who warmed up to me quickly and had much positive feedback. Post show, we went to our friend Alyssa’s house and hung out for a bit, smoking and drinking. Soon enough, my tiredness hit me and I retired to the bus for a good sleep.

Morning came sooner than expected (time flies when you’re having fun), and after brushing my teeth we left Alyssa’s to get to a local Ford dealership where our buddy Steve from the band Klax works. Steve is a gearhead, and really knows his way around diesel engines, so we tapped him to help us work out a couple kinks with our bus. While the bus was being worked on, we went to grab a bite to eat at Logan’s Roadhouse, then walked around Cabela’s for a bit. We had more time to kill while the bus was in the shop, so we hit up Wal-Mart and Vic purchased a Panama hat for the outdoor work he’ll be doing this spring/summer.

Ready for sunny weather in Austin, TX.
Ready for sunny weather in Austin, TX.

Eric and I treated ourselves to milkshakes at Sonic, and we walked back to the dealership to scoop us the bus and travel to Laredo, Texas. Vic drove us the whole way to Laredo, since Eric and I were passed out having sugar dreams. Our arrival at the venue, On The Rocks, was a bit early, so we spent a little time walking around town, eventually stopping to look across the Rio Grande and the border into Mexico. Back at the venue, the opening band (Scarecrow) was chilling outside, and we all sat around and chatted for a bit about band dealings and music stuff.

On The Rocks is a narrow venue, with a stage so small it required Vic and I to set up our rigs directly in front of Eric’s drum kit. In fact, there wasn’t enough room to store our gear inside the venue, so while Scarecrow was playing we staged our stuff outside on the sidewalk. Once on stage, Vic and I each had about a 3’x2’ area in which to perform, but we made the most of it. The crowd was incredibly responsive, and the fans made their appreciation known throughout the night. They were truly grateful for us coming to Laredo, and encouraged us to not only come back, but to book shows in Mexico, too. Someday!

We had hotel rooms that night in Laredo at a local Motel 6. That’s right; I said r-o-o-m-s, plural. Each of us had our own hotel room in which to sleep and do whatever dudes do when they’re alone in a hotel room. It was refreshing to sleep in a bed, even though the bed was a little stiff.

I feel like Motel 6’s amenities are a direct reflection of the nonchalance in the voice of their spokesman in their commercials; everything was just annoying enough to not be too annoying, but noticeable: the bed was a little stiff, but not too stiff; the towels were slightly scratchy, but not so scratchy that you couldn’t use them; the TV was small, but not so small you couldn’t enjoy it; the bedding was thin, but not so thin you couldn’t keep warm. Then again, we were in a Motel 6 in Laredo, Texas. (In other news, I’m really good at using colons and semicolons.)

After a morning shower, we left for Harlingen, Texas. Seriously, I had to ask the boys “What did we do between leaving Laredo and arriving in Harlingen?” It turns out all we did was drive and take naps. Fine by me! We got to the Harlingen venue, The Hop Shop, with plenty of time to spare, so we…took another nap. God, we’re old.

The Hop Shop in Harlingen, TX.
The Hop Shop in Harlingen, TX.

Loaded in, The Hop Shop treated us to barbecued chicken and ribs, which were great. Full of protein, we greeted the fans and friends who were filling the venue quickly. We took the stage (read: the floor), and the crowd went nuts. Fans were jostling for a better view, since we were slightly obscured by a half wall, and people were knocking into each other and having a blast. They even coerced us into two encores!

Who are you calling "chicken"???
Who are you calling “chicken”???

Once we departed The Hop Shop, we drove to Corpus Christi and parked at another Wal-Mart to catch some Zzzz. Up and at ‘em the next day, we made the short trek to San Antonio and parked outside the venue, Korova. Our buddy John met up with us and treated us to lunch at Bill Miller BBQ. The food was delicious, and we were quite grateful. Lunch consumed, we went for a walk around downtown San Antonio, stopping for ice cream and cigars along the way. We went to the Alamo and strolled along the riverwalk, which was very pleasant. I remarked to the boys that I felt like I was on vacation; the weather was perfect, and the scenery was lovely. We returned to the bus and, you guessed it, took another old man nap.

Got 'em.  Smokin' 'em.  In San Antonio, TX.  Post-lunch.  Pre-nap.
Got ’em. Smokin’ ’em. In San Antonio, TX. Post-lunch. Pre-nap.

That’s really been our routine on this tour: wake up, breakfast, gym, drive/nap, lunch, walk around with an ice cream or milkshake, nap, load in, set up/change strings, hang out at the merch table, perform, hang out at the merch table, tear down, load out, drive to where we’re staying, sleep; rinse, repeat. I’ve loved every minute of it!

IMG_0713

We loaded in, and after setting up my rig I immediately went to work changing strings on both Angel and McFly, my blue sparkle Sensei from Reverend Guitars. Strings changed and stretched, I moseyed to the merch table and hung out, meeting and greeting friends and fans. I even autographed the skin of several people in order for them to turn my signature into tattoos. I sure hope they know what “permanent” means! I’ve never been asked to do that before, and it’s proving to be less rare than I would imagine. Koffin Kats fans are awesome, and I’m honored that someone would want my name on their body, especially since we’re not dating. Ha!

The crowd at Korova in San Antonio, TX.
The crowd at Korova in San Antonio, TX.

The crowd at Korova was fantastic, all up at the front of the stage and eager for the show. The stage was, in my opinion, the perfect size for the show we like to put on, and I was able to engage with the audience much more than at previous shows. This was the first show at which I felt brave enough to take my shirt off and perform, and did so later in the set to much appreciation from the females in the audience — I see you, ladies! 😉 We came back on stage and did a two-song encore of “A Darker Place” and “Needles and Blades,” then we were mobbed at the merch table for pictures and autographs.

The last of the friends and fans left after the venue had closed, and we packed up and headed to our friend Luis’s house. Luis and his wife had an amazing spread of food waiting for us, including this phenomenal macaroni and cheese with bacon and chicken. It was some of the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had. We stayed up for a bit, drinking and chatting, then passed out in our respective areas.

Looks like our bus stole the show in San Antonio, TX.
Looks like our bus stole the show in San Antonio, TX.

The next morning, we were fed breakfast and a cinnamon cheesecake concoction that made us all feel nice and full, ready for the drive ahead. Before breakfast, Vic took some time to make some adjustments to the pedalboard enclosure he built for me. Now I can see the digital readout without having to crouch down and look inside the enclosure, which makes for a much smoother transition between songs. Breakfast finished, we departed the company of Luis and his family, and made for the nearest Buc-ee’s so Eric could buy us some beef jerky for the road.

Breakfast with friends in San Antonio, TX.
Breakfast with friends in San Antonio, TX.

Our destination was Fort Worth, Texas. We arrived a couple of hours early and walked around town, stopping at a liquor store where we purchased a bottle of Herman Marshall pure Texas bourbon. The distiller was at the store offering samples, and this whiskey was quite smooth and flavorful. We ate at Freebirds World Burrito, and I made sure their restroom felt my wrath on two occasions within two hours.

On the road to Fort Worth, Texas. Eric is making full use of his degree from Nap So Hard University.
On the road to Fort Worth, Texas. Eric is making full use of his degree from Nap So Hard University.

We loaded in at Lola’s and hung out at the merch table, like we do. The place filled up very quickly, and there was hardly room to move inside the venue, even during the opening bands, which is awesome. While the first acts were performing, I was able to meet a bunch of friends of the band, all nice people. We chatted and got to know one another for a bit, and then it was time to play. The crowd was incredibly energetic and moved throughout the entire set. Ladies in the front row were begging me to take my shirt off, and I obliged.

You know, a good, smelly saloon . . . is my favorite place in the world.
You know, a good, smelly saloon . . . is my favorite place in the world.

The performance at Lola’s was one of the strongest we had during this tour. Vic came up to me after the show, shook my hand and told me, “You’re owning it.” I was speechless and grateful. After we packed up our gear, we went to an IHOP to eat some food with Fort Worth friends before heading out on the road for the eight-hour drive to Springfield, Missouri.

Lola's was ready.
Lola’s was ready.

 

After parking at the venue (Outland Ballroom), we trekked to a local market for a healthy late lunch. Once lunch was finished, we went to the bus and took a short nap before loading in. Load-in at Outland Ballroom is somewhat painstaking; all gear needs to be brought up a long, steep ramp, which leads to the rear of the venue. We set up and had an awesome sound check. (I could actually hear my guitar while playing!)

Honoring Grandpa by wearing his hat and chewing on a toothpick in Springfield, MO.
Honoring Grandpa by wearing his hat and chewing on a toothpick in Springfield, MO.

This show was a fitting end to my first tour as guitarist for Koffin Kats: We were on a big stage with a great sound system and solid engineer, we had our buddies Brutally Frank (Joplin, Missouri) and Gutter Ghouls (Detroit, Michigan) opening the show for us, and many longtime fans and friends of the band were in attendance. The crowd was highly engaged, and women were grabbing at my junk every time I made my way to the front of the stage (I am NOT a piece of meat, ladies! :-D).

If this van's a rockin' . . . it's just Ballman getting more merch out of the trailer.  In Springfield, MO.
If this van’s a rockin’ . . . it’s just Ballman getting more merch out of the trailer. In Springfield, MO.

When the last of our friends and fans had left and with the trailer packed, we began the long drive home to Detroit. We got home in the middle of the afternoon, and I immediately set to work preparing Stu Stu Studio for my clients’ arrival that evening. The following week would be filled with ten-hour recording sessions and sleeping.

Almost home.
Almost home.

This past Saturday, we played with our buddies Mustard Plug at The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The venue layout is awesome, and it has a wonderful sound system. We loaded in while the sun was still shining then walked to a local dive bar for dinner. Upon returning to the venue, I changed Angel’s strings and hung out with our people.

This was the first opportunity that my girlfriend Jackie, Vic’s girlfriend Liz, and Eric’s brother Michael had to see me perform. They each were very complimentary toward me, and even though the damned clip on my guitar’s wireless transmitter broke halfway through the show (!!!), it was a successful night.

The Red Queen and I at The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, MI.
The Red Queen and me at The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids, MI.

After we finished at the venue, Jackie and I went to a late night coffee shop before boarding the Megabus to Chicago, where I write this now.  I’m working on learning all of the old material so we can add more old songs to the set if we want.

Study materials.
Study materials.

When the band first approached me about playing guitar for the group, I was fearful that my skill set wasn’t at the level necessary, and doubtful of my ability to play the lead solos accurately and smoothly. I busted my ass for days practicing the songs and solos over and over and over, building calluses and developing muscle memory. Though I still have a flub here and there, I feel extremely comfortable in my new role, and I absolutely love performing with Vic and Eric. Our vibe is great, and everyone is telling us that I fit right in with the band. This opportunity has dramatically changed my life for the better, and I am so thankful to have been chosen for this position.

I also want to thank those of you who read these posts and follow the band in everything we do. To those of you whom I’ve met, I look forward to seeing you the next time we’re in your area. To those of you whom I’ve yet to meet, don’t be shy; I’m quite approachable, and though I may occasionally forget your name, I appreciate you and your support for the group. You are why I get up on stage every night.

I just can’t wait to get on the road again . . .

/smooches

:-J

It’s All About the Songs: New Year, New Journey, pt. 3

It’s all about these songs . . .

Outside of being temporarily distracted by an 8-year career in retail sales management, my life’s entire focus has been on creating and performing original music.

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Someday, Mom . . .

Brief background: Natural inclinations drew me toward the drums before the age of 2.  In 5th grade I formed my first rock band, while also playing in every school band from elementary through high school which featured drums of any kind; orchestra, marching, jazz, musicals, etc.  My various bands over the years have been performing publicly since I was 13, and have recorded and released several full-length albums and EPs over the last 20 years, including many of my original songs.

In 2005, I built a makeshift recording studio in my basement in an attempt to record my original music.  I was able to record several demos of my songs, and subsequently discovered a passion for producing and audio engineering over the course of a few years.  I decided to leave my cushy and safe retail management job, move to Arizona and attend The Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences to truly learn the craft of audio engineering and music production.  After graduating from CRAS and returning home to Detroit, I set up my studio and began my career as a freelance producer/engineer.

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Welcome to Stu Stu Studio. Would you like a fresh pot of coffee??

In Fall 2011, when browsing in the Music section of a bookstore, I discovered a book called Zen and the Art of Mixing; the author — a major-label record producer and mixing engineer — uses the psuedonym “Mixerman.”  Upon reading the first few pages of the book, I felt as though it was written specifically for me.  Regarding music production and studio clientele, not only did it reinforce and validate several beliefs of mine which I had previously doubted, it answered my burning questions about the mixing process and how to achieve the best possible production.  I affectionately refer to the book for guidance and to refresh my mind when mixing for myself or my clients — I even answer some of my clients’ questions by going over to the shelf, grabbing the book and reading a passage!

The overall message of the book: it’s all about the songs.

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The book that changed my music — and my clients’ music — for the better.

Recently, Mixerman posted on his Facebook page, saying he had time to mix a project, and that someone should definitely contact him.  For the past 7 months I’ve been writing, recording, and making rough mixes of the songs that will comprise my first album as a solo artist.  (Click these links to read about the earlier parts of this journey: Part I, Part II.)  Since I happen to have an album to mix, I sent him a message, not knowing what to expect.  We began corresponding online and then via text the next day, resulting in his request for two rough mixes of my songs.  I sent him a medium-tempo softer indie/pop tune, and a flowing track which builds into driving rock.  Forty minutes later, while in a recording session with a client, I received a text from him:

“I love them.  The rocking track is fucking awesome.  Very cool.  Also, it’s obviously well recorded.  So, I’m certainly interested in talking to you about mixing the project.  Call me when you’re done tonight.”

Upon discussing the scope of the songs to be mixed — and my non-existing budget — Mixerman asked me to send him the roughs of every song to be included on the album.  I did so that night and woke up to receive an email from him which included the following:

“Dude. This album is fucking great. I mean, like I love it. You’re a talented motherfucker and on all fronts. I mean, your drum tones are killer. Well done on the recordings on the whole . . .

I was floored and freaked out; simultaneously elated.  Suddenly, I found myself blessed with an amazing opportunity: a major-label mixing engineer is willing to mix my project at an excellent rate — NOW — and assist me in seeing the project through the mastering process and ultimately onto the vinyl I plan to release!!  YIPPIE!!

I’m just — gulp —  thousands of dollars short of the budget.

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Gotta start somewhere!

Over the past few days, I’ve sought counsel from family and friends, clients and colleagues, asking their feelings on the subject and how I should proceed.  The response has been unanimous: have him mix my album, whatever it takes.  And, get a Kickstarter.com fund-raising campaign up and running ASAP because . . .

It’s all about the songs.

The lyrics and messages in the songs on this album are those anyone can relate to: dealing with people; loving (and leaving) the city you grew up in; liberation from a cheating lover; acceptance of loss; personal growth; new and rekindled loves; pursuing goals in spite of fear and ridicule; sexy bartenders; enlightenment.

After hosting several private preview sessions in my studio over the past few months (in order to gain critical feedback), listeners have been hard-pressed to choose their least favorite song on my album.  One after another, these songs elicit an emotional response.  Texts and Facebook messages with remarks such as “I can’t get your songs out of my head,” “When can I hear those songs again?” and “Make sure you let me know when you start your Kickstarter campaign!” have been sent to me with regular consistency since the beginning of the year.

I am pleased to announce that my Kickstarter campaign is finally up and running!  Click here to check it out and watch the video!!

I’m incredibly excited for the opportunity to present these songs to everyone in the best possible production.  I believe that the messages contained in these songs are important in our current culture, and need to be heard right now.  With Mixerman’s help, these songs are going to be delivered at the highest possible quality.

Thank you for reading this.  I appreciate you.

:-J

The Fat Kid ALWAYS Wins: Overcoming Adversity

For almost two decades, I was a fat kid.  Hell, I was THE Fat Kid.

The weight gain started in elementary school when I was around 8 or 9 years old, but the psychological seeds were sown years prior.

At 3 years old, my mom had my brain tested.  It turned out I had an I.Q. of 136, so I was now the smart kid that got placed a grade ahead of the other students my age…

…and everyone knew it.

From my earliest days in school, I was picked on and ridiculed relentlessly.  I was never gifted athletically, and was always the last one picked for any team events, but the first one picked when working on an assignment in a group, or when we’d play the school version of Jeopardy.  I liked country and pop music; the other students liked rap and hard rock.  Boys picked fights with me; girls did not talk to me.  Most teachers were encouraging and supportive; some teachers resented me, and made a priority of balancing out the praise they perhaps felt was unearned by a 5-year old.  So, I buried myself into my schoolwork, and at home, my first love, playing the drums.

I got straight As; no minuses.  In both 5th and 6th grade I was pulled out of class for half a day once or twice a week, and taken to another school to study computer programming and other advanced subjects along with a handful of smart kids from other schools in the area.

I didn’t really hang out with many people from school.    When attending school, those with whom I would hang out from time to time would either join in on the insults or pretend I didn’t exist.  They were embarrassed to be friends with me.

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“They can’t make fun of the way my farts smell…if I inhale all of the gas first!!”

When I was 5, I began taking Karate lessons at my local dojo because I was afraid of getting beat up at school.  After 3 years of lessons and earning some colorful belts — the Karate belt system is used in martial arts training to mark the progress a student has made in their study — my instructor closed his business; I didn’t join another dojo afterward.

At that point in my life, I had been playing drums for 6 years.  A friend of mine played guitar, met another kid at his school who also played guitar and introduced us.  BAM!  First band formed!  (NOTE: I would go on to play with these two musicians on-again, off-again, for the next 16 years.  More on that journey in future blogs!)

So at 8 years old, instead of playing outside, climbing trees, riding bikes all day and taking Karate lessons throughout the week, I was being driven to and from my new buddy’s house to go play songs as a band with another 8-year old and a 7-year old.

I’d load my Noble & Cooley drum set (settle down, pro drummers; it was a toy store version of a legitimate N&C kit) into my dad’s truck, get dropped off, set up and play.  At his house was a professional Premier drum set, and we’d secretly play on it when his folks weren’t home…mostly because I had all but destroyed my toy set, and my cymbal stand kept falling over.

When we’d get hungry, we’d bike to any of the fast food restaurants and convenience stores in the area and stuff our faces.

Around this time, an older kid moved into the neighborhood.  He was a skateboarder, and me and my bandmates thought he was just the coolest dude ever.  So, we started skateboarding, too.  We learned about the secret skate spots in our area, and we’d carry our boards while riding our bikes to go skate at these places.

When we’d get hungry, we’d bike or skate to any of the fast food restaurants and convenience stores in the area and stuff our faces.

My brother and I joined a Saturday morning youth bowling league, and remained in the league for years to come (until I could drive my own car and my teammates started playing “real” sports).  My dad would take my brother and me to Hardees for breakfast in the morning on the way to bowling.  During bowling matches, Dad would buy us snacks and sodas out of the vending machines.

After we finished our games we’d usually go to my grandma’s house for dinner, and on the way, stop at the local book store.  We’d each get a new book to read…and candy, even though Grandma always had candy.  I’d drink anywhere from 4-8 cans of Coca-Cola Classic while we hung out at her house, and would spend most of my time trying to eat as many M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Hershey Kisses from her candy dishes as possible without anyone noticing; it was my little secret.

In order to bring extra money into the household, my mom began doing day care out of our house for family and friends.  Each summer, there would usually be anywhere from 5-10 kids in the house Monday through Friday, and she was responsible for feeding everyone lunch.  I mostly remember eating soft tacos and “cinnamon crispas” from Taco Bell and mini fried chicken sandwiches with mayo from Kentucky Fried Chicken.  And drinking lots of Dr. Pepper.

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Clockwise L-R: Me, best friend, friend from school, brother, best friend’s brother, cousin, and friend from school’s sister mowing down chicken sandwiches like it’s something to do.  circa 1991

My family moved to a new city when I was 10 years old.  At the new house, what would normally be the rear fence of the backyard was actually a high concrete wall to separate our yard from a mall parking lot.  Our house was 3 houses from the corner, and at that corner was a dead end through which you could walk to get to the mall.  Almost every day after school for two years, my mother would give me and my brother five dollars each to go the mall, eat at the food court, play arcade games and hang out until our dad got home.  We’d usually get Taco Bell, since it was cheapest and that meant we could play more games.

A kid in school began making fun of me for my “rolls” at around that time.  I thought he was talking about the bottoms of my blue jeans.

When I changed schools after completing 6th grade, I had a choice that summer: I could go into regular 7th grade at the local middle school and end up graduating high school a year early; or go to a gifted school a little further away, repeat 6th grade with more advanced teaching and be with kids my own age.  I got a legal pad, went into my bedroom, drew a line down the center and labeled one side “Regular 7th”, the other side “Gifted 6th”.  I wrote down all the pros and cons I could think of for each situation, and ultimately decided to go to the gifted school.

I thought that no one at this new school would make fun of me for being smart; they were all smart.

And I was right.  Not once did anyone ever make fun of me for being smart.

Instead, they made fun of me for being fat and poor.

I was now a poor fat kid, ridiculed in a whole new way, and I became incredibly depressed.  I was furious at myself for choosing to attend this school, effectively adding a year to my seemingly never-ending sentence of ridicule.

Even at 11 years old, I knew I owned my decision.  I’m the one who weighed the pros against the cons and did what I thought was best given the circumstances.  I thought I was going to a school filled with people just like me, and that things would be so much better.  I knew that making new friends could be difficult and awkward, but I was excited to be with kids my own age and whom shared some of my skill set and abilities.

And now here I was, in a new school with people I’ve never met, most of whom grew up together in their upper-middle class neighborhoods, enlightening me to my family’s financial woes and my own obesity.

I could not endure the pain any longer.  I had to make some sort of stand.

So, I told my bandmates to start calling me “The Fat Kid”, and created a kind of alter ego where I was totally comfortable with being overweight.  I made jokes about myself before others could have the chance.  Whenever something would go well for me, I’d pick up an object, hold it in my hand like Groucho Marx with a cigar and say “The Fat Kid always wins!”  It got so many laughs that I went to the custom t-shirt shop in the backyard mall and had it ironed on a extra-large cream-colored t-shirt in big blue letters…

The Fat Kid ALWAYS Wins.

That shirt became my “security blanket”.  I wore it to school.  I wore it when my bandmates and I rode bikes and skateboarded.  I wore it when I played drums at shows.  I embraced the whole character of the overweight kid in the group that tries really hard to get everyone to laugh, and continued to portray that character for over a decade.

And I effectively eliminated all ridicule about my weight.

Today, I’m in the best shape of my life.  I’ve lost 70 pounds from my highest weight ever, bike almost every day and go to the gym 3-4 times a week.  I eat a well-balanced diet of food throughout the day, and only binge or cheat on festive occasions.  As a result, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  I also have more stamina where it really counts…behind the drum set, ladies!

Book Cover

The late Stephen Covey wrote in his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.”  I knew back then I couldn’t change my weight problem overnight.  (In fact, it has taken the past six years of consistent — and inconsistent — effort and decision-making to finally get to a point where I can stand naked and sober in front of a mirror and smile).  What I did know was this: just as the decision to attend the gifted school was mine to make, so was my decision to choose my response to my bullies.  I decided to use the exact same smarts the kids used to make fun of me about, and turn the tables on my adversaries.

And the only person stopping you from doing the same thing in your life is you.

Turn the tables on your haters.  Use their own tactics against them.  Sharpen your mind and create a better life for yourself.  Feel free to start with Covey’s book above.  I’ve bought it 3 times and given it away to people to help them, leaving me with no copy.  One of my best friends recently gave me his extra hardcopy.  (Call it karma, right?)

My birthday is coming up this Saturday, and I always get myself a gift.

This year’s gift: six-pack abs.

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The fat kid always wins.

Thanks for reading.

:-J

P.S. Speaking of Saturday, I’ll be posting a big announcement on here!  Those who follow this blog will get it emailed directly to them so they don’t miss it.  I have a no-limit policy on how many people can follow, and it’s FREE!!

P.P.S. Here’s a moment from the fat years that stuck with me…

Once, on the way home from bowling, I remember going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s and this exchange happening as we were waiting to pull up to order:

Dad: “Okay boys, what do you want to eat?”

Me: “A double quarter pounder with cheese extra value meal, super-sized with a —”

Dad: “Doggone it, John! Do you always have to get the biggest thing on the menu??”

I fell silent and shrunk into the passenger seat.

“Why does he care what I order, anyway??”, I wondered at first.  “Is it because it’s the most expensive thing on the menu and my family is struggling with money??”  (Maybe.)

Then, I began to get really pissed off.  “So what,” I reasoned, “I’m hungry, and you’re just jealous that I can eat more than you.” (What??)

My brain brewed with thoughts and my body shook inside for at least an hour.  Bottom line, I was really upset with my food lifestyle being challenged.  I had settled into the role of “The Fat Kid” and what he would order when he went to fast food restaurants: whatever the biggest value meal was, super/biggie/fatfuck-sized.  But I knew in my heart that he was right to ask the question, albeit angrily.

So, why did I always have to order the biggest thing??

It was the habit I unconsciously created over the course of almost 10 years due to my daily decisions.

Make better decisions on a daily basis — even the decisions you think are small — and you’ll eventually create new habits and get the results you want.  I know from experience, dude.