Oberlin Blogs

A long, strange trip

June 21, 2009

Will Mason ’10

Imagine you work forty hours a week - unless you just graduated, this ought not to be a stretch. (Congrats, class of 2009!) Now imagine that instead of working 9-5, you worked 5 pm - 3 am. And you have to commute between two and five hours each day to get to work, and you're never exactly sure where work is, and your boss thinks your pay is negotiable, and your job entails entertaining drunk people for an hour (awesome!) and then worrying that if you let your guard down for even a moment someone is going to steal your most valuable possessions (less awesome!).

Now, pretend that you really, really like working this job, and have fantasized about it for years, and can't wait to do it again. That's what touring with a rock band is like.

Like Bells, an indie rock trio comprised of myself and two classmates, just finished a month-long tour up and down the East Coast: we went as far south as North Carolina, and as far north as Maine, my beloved home state, for 24 shows in 30 days. It was a weird, strange trip, and my first thought upon settling into the lifestyle was: "Woah. There are people who do this for a living!"

One such person being my teacher, Billy Hart, who's been earning a living as a touring performer (and, lately, touring teacher) since he was 17. This is a grueling lifestyle, characterized by stress, near-ascetic frugality, and sleep deprivation. Obviously, most who tour professionally do so on a considerably higher budget than ours, but nevertheless it gave me real pause about pursuing life as a performing musician. (Incidentally, Billy came to one of our NYC shows later in the tour, which was a real honor, especially since I'm undoubtedly his worst student. When I mentioned how exhausted I was, he laughed and said that I "finally understood.")

I'd encourage anyone considering a career as a performer to go on the road with their act for a while and see how they feel; more than the hours of practicing, the stress, and the competitiveness that may greet you at Oberlin, the act of trying to go on the road and sell yourself to people with no vested interest in your product (read: not your mom, your dad, your roommate, or your friend who owes you a favor) is very eye-opening.

We would not have been able to do this tour if it weren't for the incredible kindness and charity of our fellow Obies, who invited us into our homes and let us eat their food, use their showers, do our laundry, and sleep on their couches. We prepared ourselves for a month of sleeping in our van and instead found ourselves living comfortably with our peers and friends. We will be forever grateful for this.

I kept attendance figures for all of our shows. Our biggest show was 150 people, in Cleveland. Our smallest show was six people, in a coffee shop in Jamestown, NY. We enjoyed each show equally.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about Like Bells' songs themselves, we rehearsed non-stop over the course of three very intense days before our first show, and our live act was very polished. This, more than anything else, set us apart from the other bands we played with, some of which were truly excellent but most of which were, at least in my jaded opinion, thoroughly unlistenable. Of course, sometimes the spontaneity that comes from an under-rehearsed act can be thrilling to watch in and of itself: in most of the jazz combos I've played in at Oberlin I've been reluctant to rehearse past the point of preventing a train wreck. But it's important to know what will make you sound your best, and to pursue that course of action: if your act needs hours of rehearsal, use them. It's offensive to the audience if you're under-rehearsed because it gives the impression that you didn't care about the show. (Often, this is true, and you didn't care about the show...but at least have the courtesy to fool them.)

My favorite bands that we played with, who I will plug here and encourage you to investigate, were: Dead End Armory, Prussia, Brother George, and e.clark.

This fall we'll be playing shows in the area sporadically and recording another cd, mostly in Oberlin's Fairchild Chapel. I do worry that I'm writing too much about this project on this site (I do other things with my time, too, I swear), but let me stress that I've devoted more hours to Like Bells than I have for any other musical project in my life. It is simultaneously an extra-curricular activity, a pre-professional internship, a job, a road trip, and a marriage. (I've been dubbed the "band mother," since I'm the one who nags all the time.)

Last, here are a few photos from the tour, including a couple seriously awkward ones of yours truly that I include at my own peril.

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The crowded stage before our Oberlin show

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At the Local 506 in Chapel Hill. One of my favorite shows, save for the unbearable heat--evident in this photo, no doubt. I like to think that when this was taken I was thinking "Well, it's really hot," or "Boy, sure wish I had some water," or "What the crap, North Carolina?!?"

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Like Bells: We twist knobs.

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Your honor, I'd like to direct the court's attention to the skull + crossbones socks.

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In NYC; this reminds me of that scene in the original "Willy Wonka" where they walk down the shrinking hallway. We look like giants.

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The band mother did almost all of the driving; I am a control freak, and nowhere is this more true than in a car. Look at those hands, at 10 and 2. Eyes on the road. It's a beautiful thing, really, if you think about it. Right? Additionally, funny story about the shirt I'm wearing: Garrett (violin) and I each desperately needed a clean shirt, so rather than do our laundry we bought t-shirts from the band we played with the previous night. Pathetic, maybe, but also pretty hilarious.

For the next eight weeks, I'll be working at Pine Island Camp, in Central Maine, driving the launch off and on the island and occasionally leading some hiking trips. It's just about the best summer job ever, and while I enjoyed my foray into the real world via last summer's political internship, I'm ready to get back to the simple life: no electricity, no running water, reading, being outside, engine maintenance. Maybe not engine maintenance. Okay. Engine maintenance.

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I will drive you!

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Pine Island, as viewed from the middle of the lake

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