“The world doesn’t need one more okay band, it has more than enough” – Julian Rideway
I put it into words last week at a show that I can tell I really like a band if they make me want to be in a band. If I feel like rushing straight from the show to the jam space, waking everyone, and rocking out, if I feel like I have a thousand new, and awesome, ideas that I want to get started on right then. Sometimes when I see a local band and they’re in my league but just a bit better I come away feeling a bit shitty about my band and that’s a good thing, I like feeling driven, I like always improving.
And sometimes I see local bands who suck. They play the same venues, know the same people, and I feel a weird mix of relief that my band is clearly better but also discomfort that my band being better doesn’t mean anything.
Point is when I see a good band I see what makes them good and figure out if I can use it. And when I see a sucky band I see what makes them suck and pity them, then make sure not to do those things myself.
So for the sake of sharing my insight I’m going to list off a bunch of reasons why your band sucks, but also, because that’s a bit negative, I’m going to be talking about how to overcome those things and hopefully show you how to improve. So let’s get started. Your band sucks because…
Your songs suck. Let’s start with the root of the problem. Do your songs make you feel something every time you play them? Do people sing along or tell you they get them stuck in their head, does it seem to be getting better every time you practice? No? Then your songs suck. I’ve already written a bunch of posts on songwriting and I’ll write more but in the meantime if you want to not suck go to your favourite songs, the songs that changed your life, and listen to them not to enjoy them but to dissect them and figure out why you enjoy them. A lot of people are scared to breakdown the things they like because it’ll ruin the magic but it won’t, when you see how majestically simple great songs really are you will be a better writer and your band will suck less.
You’re a genre band. You love a niche genre; horror punk, rockabilly, Celtic punk, mask metal, and that’s the band you want to be. I can tell you right now what you’ll be, a water down, sucky, imitation of good bands in that genre. When the Dropkick Murphys started out they were a punk band and the bag pipes and whistles and old country imagery came in slowly as they found themselves. What you do when you set out to be a genre band is to not find yourself. Punk bands got a little gothy and silly and invented horror punk and psycho-billy because that was the natural inclination and creativity of the members. When you force your band into a tiny little box that’s already full anyways there’s no inspiration, you’re gonna end up using nothing but cliches because instead of searching yourself for answers you just filled out the rockabilly checklist and bought those stupid retro mics.
Find who you are as an artist and the genre influences you want will be there, don’t worry, but they’ll be there in an authentic proportion to a mix of other influences and your own statement.
You’re not an artist and you don’t have a statement. There are a lot of young bands who are basically just LARPing. Some people have no idea who they are and they think that confusion must mean they’re an artist, some people think rock n roll is super fun because good bands always seem to be having super fun so they try it for themselves. I’ve seen a few shows where I’ve wanted to walk on stage and gently take the guitar away and soothingly tell the band to go back to the safety of whatever their other hobbies are. When I see bands who are just terrified and sucky on stage and freezing up because they don’t know why people aren’t loving them the way they love Simple Plan I feel sad for them.
How can you tell if you’re not a rocker? How do you feel when doing the shitty stuff of band life? Shitty? Then it’s not for you. I still get a little thrill out of loading gear and if you’re the guy/girl who hates it so much you sneak out of doing it or constantly, angrily, complain you can’t wait til you have roadies then you’re going to wash out of music long before that happens.
The last specific thing I can think of on this point is when Towelie, Chris, and I got together the first time so Chris could learn Towelie’s parts for the October Greystone show. It was late, we were all tired, we all had work the next morning, we all had tons of other shit on our mind, and at least one of us was always laying on the floor doing nothing because there were two guitars… and I kept smiling and thinking how much I love rock n roll and I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Speaking of band members, another reason you might suck is…
You don’t gel as a band. Do you have someone in your group who’s only qualification was owning the right instrument? Or being willing to buy it? Do half of you get together and whisper about the others but can’t say anything to their face? Do you all say Band Comes First all the time but have totally different ideas of what that means? Are one or more of you the type who care more about demonstrating your skill than about the songs overall?
Again quoting Julian Ridgeway, “Bands are like a gang the audience wants to join.” You have to be cohesive not just for your bands own mental health but for the audience, for the people you want to be your fans.
Now maybe you’re saying right now, “I play music for me, not for the fans.” That’s why you don’t have any fans, you dick.
You pretend it’s all about the music, man. Post punk convinced us that caring about only music meant it was okay for your music to suck. You have no stage presence, dress like a dink, and think those are redeeming qualities. You’re just making awkward excuses and you know it. The audience is embarrassed for you as you desperately act like you’re rocking out to hide the fact that even you’re embarrassed by your music. You think “Losing Yourself” is what makes a good show as you get more awkward you try harder to rock and it’s more awkward and creates even more distance between you and the audience, emotionally and literally because people are stepping further and further back.
You think it doesn’t matter if you can sing. And it doesn’t. There are dozens of singers with odd or straight up bad voices and screaming is cool anyway. But you know what those singers have that you don’t, besides good songs, they can breathe. I don’t care if you’ve got more attitude than pitch control but if you sound a like an asthmatic in gym class then I hate you. Get some vocal books and just read the first chapters if you really don’t want to be a singer but get your breathing together.
And finally, your band sucks because…
Everyone’s too nice. I’m going to carefully and vaguely relate a story. I was watching a terrible band and talking to a local musician, let’s say his name is Photography Raptor. And me and Photography Raptor agreed that this band really sucked. And later I was talking to another local music friend of mine, Mr. Poopy Butthole and we agreed they sucked. But later Photography Raptor and Mr. Poopy Butthole, who don’t know each other very well, were talking and they were tripping over themselves to talk about how much the band had improved and how much fun they were. They had to maintain the idea that our scene is inclusive and welcoming and not the arrogant exclusive mainstream. Of course when they talked to the band later it was all “thanks for playing” and “good set”
And I know the feeling, I was asked by a friend after they had played how their set was, and they had had fun and were in a good mood and just looking for a pat on the head. I told them they needed to get better. It hurt us both but it was the truth and I refuse to dance around it. People are also aware that if they criticize someone harshly they open themselves to harsh criticism and if they’re nice people will be nice to them. It’s cowardly but I understand it.
In the indie scene everyone is so scared of seeming arrogant because if you’re arrogant people will hate you band, and you, and that’s bad. I guess no one except rappers wants to be thought of, or think of themselves as, arrogant but it’s not arrogant to tell the truth. We’re not kids playing dress up and we shouldn’t be desperate to protect everyone’s feelings.
So there it is, I’m sure I’ll think of more and I’m sure you have some examples too, feel free to comment, constructively or not. Maybe you’ve been asking as you read this who I think I am to tell anyone their band sucks? I’m the audience. And I’m a musician who wants to be part of a thriving scene, not a high school talent show circle jerk. Believe me, no one is more aware of the weaknesses of my music and my band than me, I’m struggling to improve every aspect of the band every day and I’ll discuss criticism with anyone with an open ear.