Starting a band: A primer for a special kind of stupid

Failure Machine

Failure Machine onstage during its debut at the Crystal Bay Casino.
Photo by Clare Foster

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories by Spencer Kilpatrick about starting a band.

You have to be a special kind of stupid to be in a band. It’s exhausting and messy and keeps you from taking care of things like your health, financial stability and general well-being. It’s also often unfruitful with an overwhelming majority of bands never leaving the garage except for maybe a gig or two at the beer-soaked stage of a local club. Unless you’re one of those idealist dummies who prefers the sound of live instruments, you would be much better off buying some DJ gear from Best Buy and playing packed shows at The Knit. Oh, you are an idealist dummy? Well, have fun.

Due to my penchant for being antsy, excitable and desperate for friends, I’ve spent the last 10 years playing mostly smaller clubs in a variety of bands and with each one, I’ve made a unique set of mistakes. Mistakes that, had I been a little less antsy or excitable, could have been avoided. Now, at 25, I’ve got a handful of tricks for finding a few bandmates, starting a group, booking and playing shows. My advice for starting a group is, by no means, the end-all be-all but over the next few installments of this column I’ll present the easiest methods I’ve found to get your band some semblance of stability.

Looking for bandmates

Odds are you’ve already got at least one person on board and you’re looking to fill up the rest of the band. At this point, my advice on looking for bandmates is simple: Don’t. At least not yet. Before getting four to six people in a sweaty rehearsal room you should be laying the groundwork with the person/people already interested. So many young musicians waste time talking about and looking for more members when they could be getting a head start on fleshing out their material. Just because you don’t have a singer yet doesn’t mean you can’t arrange the riffs you’ve been noodling with for the last three months.

Oh, you can’t play the kind of music you want with just a guitarist and bassist? Too bad. Strip it down and gun it. The more work you put in while trying to get a band together the better off you’ll be when it’s fully formed.

If you and your friend(s) are already making due despite not having your dream lineup then by all means, proceed with the search.

Quick tip: “You gots to work with what you gots to work with.” — Stevie Wonder

Where to look

Open mic nights
This isn’t just for singer/songwriters. Open mics are often a hub of the up-and-coming local arts scene. Do everything you can to ingrain yourself in that.

Local shows
Even if you can’t find anyone willing to play with you, shoot the shit with the bands performing. Time spent talking with other local bands will be invaluable when it comes time to start booking.

Music stores
Guys who work at music stores will have at least some sense of available musicians in the local scene. Go pester them. They’ll be happy to do something other than sell reeds and lyres to agitated moms.

Record stores
Pester these guys too. And while you’re there, see if they have a local artists section, look it over, buy something.

Where not to look
The Internet: I’ve yet to jam with someone from Craigslist who didn’t creep me out.

What to look for

By now, you and your friend(s) have laid the groundwork, you’ve got a couple tunes organized and you’ve been going to local open mics and meeting local musicians. Great! But knowing what to look for in these musicians is the most difficult part. Here are a few things to consider before telling someone they’re in the band:

FREE TIME The amount of time someone has to waste is the absolute most important thing to consider. Being in a band is so much more than the one or two rehearsals per week you’ll be aiming for; it’s driving to a last minute gig in San Francisco; it’s getting home from that gig at seven in the morning because your van got towed; it’s staying late after practice because you guys are SO close on getting that tricky bridge part to work. The fewer things someone has to do on a daily basis, the more time they can spend postering the city or practicing the new material.

HANGABILITY Hangability is someone’s ability to hang out for extended periods of time without giving the people around them murderous thoughts. The summer days in the rehearsal room are going to be trying and tempers are going to flare no matter what. However, it will be a lot easier if the new guy isn’t constantly making jokes that make you want to run over his legs with the van.

This quality will pay dividends on the road. When you’re on tour, you’re performing for probably 45 minutes to an hour each night, but when you’re driving, eating, drinking or hitting record stores you’re basically just, you know, hanging out.

TALENT/CHARISMA/EXPERIENCE/GEAR All of this stuff is so much less important than the first two that I have no issue packaging it all together. These things will all come with time and patience and practice.

At this point, you might be thinking “What are you talking about? I want to start a rock band, not a drinking club.” Trust me, all it will take is one night off in Smalltown, USA for you to realize that a drinking club is EXACTLY what you started. How you pick your band will just determine whether or not it’s a club you want to be a part of.

Do yourself a favor and take the guy who works part-time at Jimboy’s and doesn’t have a girlfriend over the college student with an Orange full stack. Take the guy who shows up to practice with a 12 pack over the guy who knows what a phrygian scale is. In sum, don’t get hung up on the things that it might appear obvious to be hung up on.

You’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to be in a band, just don’t be stupid enough to pick the asshole with blinding chops over the guy you can actually tolerate for weeks on end. Doing that will only put a fast-approaching expiration date on an endeavor that is generally unsuccessful anyway.

Part 2: Practice?! You talking about practice?! LINK

Failure Machine

Failure Machine, rocks and beer. Spencer Kilpatrick is at far right.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

One comment

  1. Very nice Spencer. I enjoyed this piece and look forward to your next.
    Keep rockin my friend

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