Sunday, May 2, 2021

Filling In The Blanks

Last Wednesday, I opened my eyes in the morning and immediately felt nauseous. It was the type of nausea that twists your guts into knots, that makes your heart race — very much in the "flight" column when it comes to animalistic response types. I was devastatingly afraid, and making myself sick over it, all because I was trying out for a band. For the first time in my 34 years of life, I was going to go for something that I'd wanted to do, to be a part of something I had longed to join, since my first-ever fangirl moment over an artist. (I was a toddler and asked the King of Pop to my birthday party. His people sent back an "autographed" cassette tape.)

I tried to throw myself into work that day, and luckily it was busy enough to be a good distraction for a while. However, when the afternoon hit, I was suddenly clear and open, with nothing in between me and a 6PM tryout (that ended up being 6:30PM because it's bands, guys, this is how it goes.) I was so nervous I couldn't get myself to eat lunch, so I took my dog on a walk, which is usually an excellent salve for me. However, I made the mistake of listening to Streetlight Manifesto, as I had been all week to prep for this ska tryout, and instead of feeling pumped up and inspired like the rest of the week, my brain immediately went, "YOU NO SOUND LIKE THIS! YOU NO CAN PLAY SO FAST! YOU NO GOOD ENOUGH BAD BAD EMBARRASS TIME!!!!" So the walk was short, and I tried to get back in bed and sleep off the nerves, but couldn't turn the head meat off and so ultimately got up and just walked around my apartment feeling MORE nauseous. I finally forced myself to make and eat some Kraft Mac ' Cheese, and bless the gods of processed foods, this was just the drug my body needed to get over the nausea, and get to a place of, "Wellp we're doing this either way so yes you're still gonna be nervous but your body is just gonna chill now."

I started driving over to the designated tryout spot, and as I got closer, I realized it was going to be something vaguely familiar after all. Even though I'd never been in or tried out for a band before, I'd rented practice rooms for my kit in Austin, and every time I did, the space was in some industrial tucked-away corner of the city that was a little funky, a little seedy — something musicians could afford. Seattle turned out to be no different. As I followed the winding pathways to try and get to where I needed to be, I had to cross a bunch of train tracks. Not unusual for Seattle because we have a lot of active train tracks around town, but when I got to one particular section there were not bars to close it off from the road so I paused as I looked ahead and saw another driver aiming to drive out of a parking lot. I tried to make eye contact to see if she was gonna let me go first, when all of a sudden I hear a loud and angry, "Haaaarrrrnnnnggghhhhhh!" Turns out the tracks I was parked on were active, after all, and a train with its bright lights on and horn blaring was slowly approaching and trying to get me out of the way. So in that moment I decided I'd go first and luckily the other driver agreed, and I sneaked out of the way and around the bend to the practice area. The "parking lot" was just a bunch of gravel with cars parked up close to the building, and one truck off by itself, and I couldn't figure out where to leave my car because the only spot open by the building was in front of a gate that was locked shut but still seemed like a thing you wouldn't want to block. I paused there for a moment, started texting Bill,* my band contact and the organizer of the tryout to ask if parking in the middle of the gravel was legal, and then he suddenly appeared next to my car window.

I rolled the window down and he said, "Are you Caitlin?" "Yep, that's me!" "OK so I have some bad news, and some good news." Turned out that Bill had rented the room at our current practice studio for the NEXT week. But, his other band had a regular room at a different locale that happened to be free that same night, so we were on, we just had to shift to a different location. Worked for me, so he said, "Cool, so just head to the Orb! See ya there!" I go to my phone, type "The Orb" into Google Maps...and nothing comes back. Ruh roh. I turned my car off and raced over to his as he was backing out of his spot, and as he rolled down the window I said sheepishly, "...what's the Orb? It's not coming up in my phone..." He grinned and went, "Oh, ugh, sorry — the Old Rainier Brewery!" That did the trick, although I'd outed myself as very much a Seattle n00b, but I popped back to my car and ended up basically just following Bill down the road anyhow to another practice space about 5 minutes away.

This spot was a little fancier — seemingly still actually a working brewery that was also a practice space — and it had an actual parking lot, with actual parking spots. I pulled into one and noticed that, similar to the last place, there were lots of dudes hanging around wearing all black probably waiting to get going on their own practice sessions. It was funny in its stereotypical nature, but comforting in that, too.

Bill came over to my car and was shortly joined by Greg*, a dude Bill had known for ages who was trying out for guitar in the band at the same time as I was going for drums. We chatted for a moment about the space mix-up, the luck of having another spot to practice in, and other random stuff, and my boyfriend texted me that he was off work so I was able to reveal that I was about to walk into my first ever band tryout. BF has been in bands forever so it was good to have him in my pocket, literally, for good luck.

The final member for the night, the band's keyboardist, Kane*, joined us, and we grabbed gear and headed up the stairs towards our room. Once we got inside the building, memories of Austin practice spaces flooded me. The hallways were dark and winding and labyrinthian. There were band posters scattered up on the wall, and funny signs on the different doors of the spaces. Someone had put up some vinyl records as decoration, and someone else had made it seem like there were bites taken out of a few (...or possibly just had a really weird night one night and got hungry?) As you entered the belly of the building, the weed smell strengthened, which put a smile on my face for its familiarity. After a few corner turns, we arrived at what was our room.

The room was not much bigger than the size of my own king-sized bed. And yet, a full drum kit was already set up against the back wall, speakers were stacked on speakers, fans were littered throughout the room, and a beer fridge sat in the corner opposite my kit. There were Christmas lights and other weird lamps up all around, because it's a practice space, duh. I snuck back to my corner to start adjusting the height of things, and as I sat there getting comfortable while the guys connected to their amps, I turned to see a familiar sticker on the beer fridge. "Skies Below" was my boyfriend's old band, and I'm pretty sure he was the one that designed the sticker. "Oh my god!" I exclaimed, and the guys asked me what was up, and I giddily shared this finding with them. They were happy for me, perhaps sensing that this little bit of shared history could be a soothing omen for me, and I crawled back out from behind the kit to take a photo and send it to BF.

Once I'd gotten settled again, and everybody was tuned up and ready to go, we picked our starting song. It was one I'd had a little more practice with, so while I was nervous, I felt like maybe I could make it happen — and when Bill counted us in, I just went for it. There sort of couldn't be any overthinking in that moment. I just had to move my wrists, arms, hands and legs the way I knew how. The room was, as any good practice space is, super hot and sweaty with absolutely no ventilation to speak of, and to top that off, all four of us were masked because COVID was still a reality we were living in. But in that first moment of stick to skin, I just focused on doing the best I could, and I started to sit into the rhythm. My kick was a bit slow on the 'and' of the 3, out of nerves and stiffness and always being a little bit slower to connect with my feet, but otherwise we got through the first song alright and I started to feel connected with Greg who would turn to me to hit the rhythm guitar right. I'd keep my eyes on Bill to look for cues of part changes and beginnings and endings, and I could feel Kane lean back towards me at times to make sure we were all in sync (he stood closest to me, but with his back to me, facing Bill). It just started to come together, and while I certainly wasn't adding a lot of flourishes to what I was doing, I kept a steady rhythm and it was SO. MUCH. FUN. 

I feel like that's the part I can't get over. Yes, there were moments where my thinking brain took over, either to overthink the playing and mess me up that way, or to get distracted by some other life shit and make me lose my spot that way. But when I could, like boxing, just really give myself over to the unthinking focus of the muscle memory, it came together in a way that was fun and sounded pretty ok!

I'd prepared the basic parts of a few songs — and by that I mean, transcribed a few of the basic rhythms to paper and practiced those the most. I'm a weird drummer, in that I read sheet music. It's the way I find that is easiest for me to learn. It probably stems from the fact that I started on violin in the 5th grade, and is supported additionally by the fact that it's how I learned drums from the jump four years ago (thanks, Sam!) It really helps me to visually see what I need to be doing instead of THINK about it. It makes me a pretty piss-poor improvisational drummer, at least for now, but it's just how my brain works and I'm embracing that.

The guys noticed and marveled at my transcribing of the songs, and we shared how each one of us had started in school band or orchestra, so we all had a little music theory under our belts. Of course, the dudes proceeded to talk about what key they were in and I thought to myself, "Damn, I'm glad I'm back here because I SHOULD know what to do if someone says 'play it in C' but I don't remember and anyway rhythm is where I'm meant to be."

We played both of my favorite songs I'd prepared — one that was a little jazzier with a fun hi-hat rhythm, and one that's 4/4 but with triplets to give it that kind of sock-hop slow-jam vibe, and they came together really nicely. For the latter, Bill finally gave me some pointers and direction on things I could do to spice up the song, which I really appreciated because ultimately, even if this doesn't work out in the long-run, I want to learn as much as I can from the time I have with these guys and improve. That said, they were all SUPER complimentary, which I also really appreciated. They were really a best-case scenario band for me to try out with, because they balanced praise and confidence-boosting with direction-providing EXPERTLY. I truly will be thankful that this was my first tryout experience for the rest of my life.

Of course, I'm one girl with a band of dudes, so there HAD to be some bro humor sprinkled in throughout the evening. Talks of jerking each other off and some gentle mansplaining about how the first Ramones' drummer didn't know how to drum and still recorded multiple albums with them so I needn't worry (a conversation that lasted far longer than necessary, which is what took it from kind consoling to mansplain territory) were not unexpected, and truly also not the worst thing. There was an amazing sign on the inside of our practice room door that said, in big bold letters, "Big VAGINA Energy" which I used to my advantage later when Bill shared that there was another guy who had wanted to try out for my spot but he wasn't sure if that would happen because he broke his hand. But apparently that guy claimed that once Bill and the band heard him, "You won't want to hear anybody else." We all smirked at that, and I remarked, "Doesn't he know you need Big Vagina Energy in this room?!" 

After we played through five-ish songs, including one I hadn't listened to before that night that I still managed to work my way through, we popped outside to cool off and air out for a bit. We grabbed beers from the beer fridge and went and sat on the steps, and Bill and Greg regaled us with stories of Ska Gatekeepers in Seattle and how it shouldn't be that way. Greg then asked me, "So have you really never played with a band before?" "Nope!" I said, shrugging. The guys told me I was doing really well for it being my first time ever, and only just learning the songs and all that. That's when Bill said, "So here's my thing, if you wanna keep playing with us, I'm good with that. I really just want three things in our band members, and that's, one, be consistent and on time. Like, actually show up every week to practice and stuff like that. Two, be cool. Like don't be a dickhead. And three, improve! And WANT to improve." This was exactly what I wanted to hear, because these were the exact things I wanted to do. So a tentative verbal handshake was provided, we headed back inside, and played a few more tunes till we'd been there about two and a half hours and it was time to pack it in. 

I sweat through my shirt that night and was ultimately super happy I wore shorts even though I wasn't sure if it would be modest enough for the evening. I was told that there might be additional interest from other drummers in this spot, and said that I totally understood and to just let me know, but that otherwise I'd plan on being at practice the following week. We all grabbed the gear and walked out together, sharing a bit more about each other and coming down off the high and focus of a fun practice night.

When I drove away, I blared Streetlight Manifesto because suddenly, I felt like I was in the ranks. I felt like I could finally call myself "a drummer" to people who asked. I'm still early on in my career, and I have a LOT of improvements to make. But this whole experience made me really believe something I had known but didn't fully accept for myself — that you just need to practice, and then you need to go for it. If you put in the time on an instrument (or any hobby), you will improve. That will come. Beyond that, you simply have to jump in the damn deep end, even when you're holding your aching guts and turning green standing on the platform. It's worth the risk, every time.

*Changed the names just for grins.