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Music and Art

Outside The Outside

I feel like I'm outside the outside. Maybe because I'm in my mid-40s, or because I've been in therapy, I've been examining my past from various angles. Recently I've been having Gen X nostalgia. I'm halfway through a book by Jeff Gordinier called X Saves The World: How Generation X Got The Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. I do identify strongly with most of what I've read so far. I'm on the young end of Gen X so I missed some of the experiences others had, but I'm there. And as is mentioned in the book, in many ways X is a mindset, not an age. The game was rigged from the start and I lost before I even knew I was playing.

Gen X is much smaller than the boomers or millennials to either side. We were too late to have careers like our parents, and we were too old to have the advantages of being natives to the information age. We are outsiders, both by choice and by circumstance. The world didn't open up like a fresh sunrise that the boomers got, and when we looked over the fence we decided we didn't really want to put up a fight for the rat race anyway. I've always felt like I'd prefer being a mad scientist tinkering away in my lab rather than play the Gordon Gecko game. But that's not what America wants. Bogus.

However, there is one aspect consistently covered by writers on Gen X that bugs me - music. Something inextricably linked to Gen X, and really to every generation, but thanks to MTV Gen X music was even more saturating. Music is a shorthand, Cliff's notes way of framing the attitudes of a generation. And in the coverage of the music makes me even more of an outsider. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is often held as the moment Gen X hit the mainstream, and I think that's accurate. Though I was never much of a Nirvana fan, I do still listen to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. But I feel like I'm at risk of loosing my X member card if I'm not a super fan of The Pixies, The Cocteau Twins, and Siouxie and The Banshees. In fact, aside from Nirvana, many authors I've read just give passing mention to the rest of the grunge movement. I just never clicked with the "alternative rock" sound that older X-ers grew up with. I didn't have older siblings and I lived in the great lakes region where trends slowly drifted in from the coasts. I guess it was over by the time it started. Sometimes I feel like the younger sibling of X that mom and dad made X drag along to the beach with her friends.

I'm an X-er, but I'm also a metalhead and a guitarist. That's the music I chose as mine when I hit my early teens. Iron Maiden, Rush, Metallica, Queensryche, the Vai/Satriani/Malmsteen school of shredders, that's my musical home base. Gordinier even singles out Queensryche as a counterpoint for what was on top of the charts when Nirvana broke. So, music, one of the most significant badges worn on the X uniform, marks me as outside that group, too. Maybe some metal is totally in the X wheelhouse, but none of the self appointed spokes-authors for the generation see fit to talk about it. Maybe it's not pretentious enough. It's hard to tell other people you're cooler than they are if you write about metal. Works with The Cure, not so much with Cannibal Corpse.

But, as a metalhead I'm not totally on that train either. Metal fans are a wide and usually welcoming group, but I've never really 'lived' like a metalhead. I don't do the lifestyle. I skimmed around in metal and landed in prog rock and prog metal. Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Echolyn, Seiges Even. Even further outside. Eventually this not-quite-metalhead X-er went to college and studied jazz and classical guitar. A niche of a niche of a niche. Outside the outside the outside. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.


I’m celebrating a number of anniversaries this year. I haven’t figured out a way to celebrate yet. I’d give you a discount on my music but it’s all free anyway. I’ve been thinking about putting together a reel with clips spanning my musical career. That might be cool. And long.  As the year nears it's end, I'm spending some time thinking back to the signposts along the way that stand out.
Thirty years ago I started playing guitar. Twenty years ago I joined a band looking for a guitarist, and it became Strange Land. Been divorced for 10 years. Been with my current partner going on 9. Moved more times than I care to remember, and I know I'm not done yet.
I’ve done a lot. Played guitar for a country session. Played mandolin in a pit band. Wrote two hand tapping music on banjo. I can’t play bluegrass for shit but if it’s got strings I’ll figure out a way to use it. I’ve made Prog metal, I’ve made ambient music. Been on film soundtracks and played dingy blues bars. Big band jazz, orchestras, trios, solo. At one time I taught 45 students each week, shaping young musical minds (scary thought, eh?).
I’ve always been a jack of all trades. It’s hardwired into me to be like that. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s given me a change to do such a variety of things, and ruminating on it now, some of it is downright weird. One of the most interesting gigs I ever had was performing electric guitar with an orchestra. In college we were celebrating the career of composer and professor John Downey. His The Edge of Space / Fantasy for Bassoon and Orchestra piece has a brief clean electric guitar interlude. It was actually a little scary at first since I had very little experience with real orchestra conducting. I didn't really understand it, as most high school conductors have to be a bit more obvious in their direction. I also had the opportunity to play in masterclasses with Arturo Sandoval and Gerald Cannon.
Strange Land's first gig was a weird one. It was St Patrick's Day, 2000. We played on a tv show at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. It was styled as a late night show, but broadcast live in the evening. Our keyboard player almost didn't show (there's always "that guy," right?). That night the guests included comedian Andy Dick and couple of strippers from the local night club. The studio audience consisted of college students who had been drinking since dawn. The strippers put on a little 'show' for the host while we played some cliché music, and after that the show was never broadcast live again. We also got to play a couple of our original tunes but I don't think anybody cared.
In the first ten years of Strange Land we were a live performing band. We released 3 albums and played a lot of shows. Some of those were significant, opening for Fish, King's X, Tiles, and Three (you prog heads will know what I'm talking about). Also played a lot of shows in smoky bars for 5 people who didn't give a shit we were there. Since the transition to studio band we've released 4 more albums and I'm in the early writing stages for more.
About the same time Strange Land got going, I started playing solo shows. Although I went to college to study jazz and classical guitar, I started playing steel string acoustic fingerstyle guitar at the end of my college time. I was introduced to players like Michael Hedges, Preston Reed, and Billy McLaughlin in college and started dabbling in the style on my own. It was a study option at my school but I didn't take that formal route. Ever since college I've run a parallel career of playing in bands and playing solo. I've mostly done coffeehouse-type gigs and short tours.
I taught my first lessons while in high school, but I made an official part time job of it from about 1999-2002, then full time until 2006. At one point during my full time stretch I had 45 students a week. It became sort of a second shift job and I was glad to end my full time run, but I do think about going back to a handful of students. I have had a few online students over the years.
In early 2010 I decided I had to leave Wisconsin. I'd thought about going a few times in the past but never made it happen. But the circumstances in my life at that time just worked out right to make the move. My best friend Tim had moved there in the early 2000s, and it was good to go somewhere I knew someone. Shortly after my move I met singer-songwriter Trinity Demask. I started playing sideman gigs with her and we became good friends. I was in Denver for 5 years, and we played many shows and I helped record and mix one of her albums. I also spent time in Denver playing metal with a band called Delusionist, and worked with a collective called the Stone Soup Soldiers. What originally started as a world/rock music jam/write/record thing eventually, under the guidance of group leader Mike Paul Hughes, morphed into a group that wrote some music for TV and indie films. I also met my better half, Lynette, in Denver, in late 2010. We were a good match, being at places in our lives where one thing we both wanted was to live in a "no bullshit zone". I won't say its all sunshine and unicorns, but I know we have an easier relationship than a lot of other people I know.
Once again the 'move bug' bit, and in 2015 Lynette and I started working toward a move to the Pacific Northwest. The story of this transition is actually very long, complicated, and frustrating so I won't recount it here. We did finally end up in Springfield, Oregon earl in 2016. I do really like it here, I think the PNW is a good fit for me. It's been a place to start new and to find out how one understands oneself upon moving into middle age. I've hit some serious bumps and sought professional help. I feel like I'm in a good place in my head, and if anything, let me tell you that asking for help, especially for mental health, is ok. It's a good thing. It's good to feel whatever you feel and there's no shame is seeking help understanding what it means. And I have to say I'm pleasantly surprised at how much people around here support live music.
My life has been full of constant change. Not that I'm unusual, but sometimes I just want to stop. I've moved nearly 20 times in my life, 10 of those moves coming after college. Part of the adjustments I'm trying to make in my mind now is just adapting to the idea of staying out. I'm in a house now that I could be in for 15 years, maybe longer. I have no concept of how one does that.
At least at the moment I'm starting to feel like I'm settling into a new phase.  I also now can count myself as a professional drone pilot and photographer. I've become something of an event videographer, totally by accident. I hosted a futurism and science podcast for two years and 90 episodes. Interviewed a lot of cool people and covered cool subjects.

I still make a lot of my own music, under my name, Strange Land, and some other avenues. Somewhat unplanned, 90% of my gigs the last 3 years have been jazz gigs. I'm on pace for almost 70 shows this year, and I'm sure this has been my busiest year by far. Although I studied jazz in college I never really pushed to be a serious jazz musician after school. I did it more as an avenue to learn more about music, and then did my own thing. Returning to it has been good for my playing skills and musical growth, and good for my social life (as little as it is). All this has never led to the financial success that America demands of you to be considered worthy, but I'm learning to better enjoy what I have. It's mine, I did it my way, and I think this is the only way it could be.



Old Man

I turned 40. I've never been much concerned with aging, but this really affected me. Maybe because I assumed it wouldn't. I'm still moving forward, but I've had fairly frequent bouts of anxiety and sleepless nights. I've never feared death, I've feared not being done. I realize now one is never done and perhaps I actually have a very intense fear of death.

I can't really complain about aging and that's kind of a pain. All but one of my friends are older than me, so I just get the "yep, preachin' to the choir" or "Ha, just wait till you're 50." They aren't much help. I'm sure some things have been changing for me slowly for a while, but I also feel like I hit 40 and my warranty ran out. Things seem to just be breaking all the time now.

My life has never and will have a normal path. School, job, family, career promotions, retirement. Upon crossing 40 I've now really been forced to adjust my thinking, what does it mean to be an adult without the mile markers most people measure their lives by?


Advice for Young Musicians


Someone on LinkedIn recently put out a call for help with a project and I volunteered. The project was a question asking for advice to young musicians. This is what I wrote:

Don't be afraid to take chances when you're young. When you're 20 and have the energy and support at home is the time to load up your car and tour on the cheap playing everywhere you can, or travel the world, or go to college far from home (but take care of your health). By the time you're 40 life has a way of making huge changes more difficult, less likely, but maybe not impossible. I certainly can't stay up until 5am like I used to.

Be excellent in your craft. Practice with intent. Practice the hard stuff. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you'll treat every problem like a nail. If you're a rock guitarist, study some jazz. If you're a singer, learn an instrument. If your'e a trumpet player, learn some drums. Never stop learning.

Get a good job so you can can afford to pursue your own music. Yes, not the dreamy answer many want to hear, but honest. Only a small fraction of musicians get rich and famous with their original music, and it's always been that way. Having lived through the rise of the internet and the disruption of Napster, it's harder than ever to 'make a living' at music. It is, however, easier than ever, to make music. Do it because you love it, because your muse demands it. Be you and make no compromise, but be prepared for rejection, not everyone will like what you are doing. If unleashing your own creativity is important enough to you, you will weather the rejection and will know that you are the only person who can make your music.

Sometimes I think it's part of the human condition that we cannot take the advice about life we should when we are young. All that stuff your parents and grandparents told you, yeah, it's mostly true. But you won't listen when you're 20. It would be good if you did, but there's just something about us that insists we live through it before we understand it.
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