On Pretending To Play An Instrument

Fake Bass.

I gave in and watched that Super Bowl Half-Time Pepsi Commercial with Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers. 

First thing to notice: the performers on stage were doing nothing world-class. None of them displayed mastery in their abilities (many people on this planet could replicate it). Not surprising, since it was all highly derivative. And mediocre. Not sure why they were given the gig, but I’m guessing it’s because everyone having anything to do with the event was drunk and / or uneducated. I’m being honest when I tell you: you can see more talented street performers in Santa Monica. 

Next: An absurd amount of time and money was invested into the visual aspects (lights, video, pyrotechnics). Yet the excuse for “not plugging the bass player in” was that it would be too hard to mix? That’s funny. 

Nothing against “pre-recorded music.” I listen to it often. 
Nothing against entertainment. Nothing against dance. 

But this Pepsi Commercial is what people commonly call “Music.” Not a “musician” “playing” an “instrument” that makes a “sound.” It’s come to mean: a pseudo-event in which the physical act of making of music is the least important element. The one thing they leave out, and no one minds!

In the ’90s, Milli Vanilli were shamed out of their careers. Flea is applauded for not giving a shit. Were Milli Vanilla just ahead of their time? Or is music getting to be so non-musical that no one cares, and the word “music” has taken on a new meaning?

Somehow, even my music nerd friends don’t care that the word “music” is misused all the time. But I say: respect musicianship. Leave the bass at home if you’re not really going to play it. 

If you’re interested in researching this topic further, I recommend a book called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage) by Daniel J. Boorstin.

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Tim Ferriss Accidentally Spends 3.82 Seconds Reading Billboard

Lifestyle designer and time-management philosopher, Tim Ferriss, wasted a total of 3.82 seconds on Sunday evening, when he absent-mindedly glanced at a Calvin Klein billboard while on an errand.

“The Marina is ranked by my research team as THE most streamlined and efficient traffic-grid in North America. Its contra-rotating circuit patterns and direct lateral orbit synchronizations are second to none. See, what I do is rent an Electric Scooter online, pick it up at the end of my street, then ride it entirely downhill on Fillmore, turn it back in at the station at the bottom of hill, then take the bus back home. I don’t have to pay for the battery recharge,” said Ferriss. “But that’s where everything went wrong.”

The young, physically fit author says that on his way down the hill, he felt a sneeze coming on. He looked up at a 45 degree angle, pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth in order to pacify the sternutatal nerve, a technique he learned while traveling the countryside by unicycle in India. “That’s when I saw the damned billboard and got totally distracted for a few seconds.”

He then missed his bus back up the hill, which departs from the corner of Fillmore & Chestnut between 4 and 5 seconds after he deposits his rent check into his landlord’s mail slot. He was then required to jog back up the hill without the aid of his Nike iPod Interface. On the way, he purchased a small package of unsalted peanuts, which slightly raised the density of Immunoglobin E in his blood, causing him to jog at a 6% deficiency.

Ferriss claims the delay in his return home over-humidified his apartment, causing a drop in oxygen levels in his personal rain-forest which decreased his handwriting speed by 4% over several days. He also cited an inability to focus on his book-on-tape Vietnamese language studies, missed his Kenpo class, and forgot to take his hourly hypodermic B12 supplement several times. He spent the rest of the evening depressed, shopping on Craigslist for exercise equipment, then fell asleep on the futon.

An elaborate chapter on the holistic health benefits of ignoring roadside billboards is featured in Ferriss’ new book, “The Twelve-Minute Errand,” which teaches entrepreneurs to speed-read street signs in over 20 languages, allowing anyone to filter out unnecessary information while engaged in time-critical daily missions.

“Even the most efficient time-management guru can make a mistake, I guess,” said Ferriss, in a press release written by his team of Personal Assistants, who were themselves on vacation in Qatar while subcontracting their work to a firm in Utah. “This has taken me weeks to recover from. Don’t make the same mistake I did.”

As restitution, Pre-Orders of Ferriss’ “Philosophy of Impatience” eBook are being offered at a 17.4% discount off the $1997 price if they purchased their tickets through Twitter at 7:46pm PST on March 29, which were the exact moments when Tim was too distracted to process orders completely efficiently via Skype on his iPhone.

Readers of Tim’s personal blog were disappointed.

“Your advice has taught me how to drink fourteen gallons of Starbucks Coffee in only one afternoon without getting sick, how to use NLP to cut in line at the restroom, and techniques for social engineering at the post office. Through one of your blog posts I even learned how to craft a crude Indonesian bow & arrow out of ordinary office supplies. I can’t believe I even wasted 32.48 seconds posting this comment.”

The above article was preemptively rejected by The Onion. For more stories from Beneath The Imaginary City, visit www.drzoltan.com.

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Ultravision Future Goggles

Dr. Zoltan danced with heavy, stamping steps. His costume, which smelled like an attic full of old electronics gear, was made up of a large number of things… and clumsy. A dark, rough trenchcoat, head-to-toe cargo fatigues from some ancient intergalactic war, padded armor gloves, and a sturdy Swiss backpack purchased from Staples — all of these things gave him the appearance of wearing a cyber-punk-bio-mechanical exoskeleton. Not like a real one; more like a halloween costume. The most impressive element to the whole ensemble was the magenta and green lights flashing through the tangled milk-crate of Radio Shack wires connected to him. He checked them often, and would not have been seen in public this evening had they malfunctioned. 

This “life-support system” caused him great difficulty — of an amount considerably above normal — while moving at a speed faster than a walk. Would his glued-on beard fall off? He hoped not.

Tonight, he was running, but only in one particular portion of space. He felt off balance. Disoriented. It was becoming difficult to see in the dark while wearing fogged-up sunglasses. He considered cursing, conjuring up the memory of slang adolescent phrases he learned in a previous life.

His backstage passes flapped around the back of his neck and became tangled. Would he be permitted backstage if his laminates were facing the wrong direction? He hoped they would not become detached accidentally and fall to the ground. He directed his mind towards the possible actions he could take in such an emergency.

The skin on his face shed a few small drops of salty liquid that fell onto his shoes, which were square, uncomfortable, and full of sand. He had kept up this pace for the past two minutes, and was losing his patience. His equipment-filled backpack banged and rattled around like a vagabond bouncing down a staircase — a tumbling ball of limbs, kipple, and grocery cart.

The instructions in the manual said that if he ran at a steady gentle pace in this very specific, exact position for a full three minutes, a means of entrance or exit to another world would open. But this was anything but gentle. Dr. Zoltan wore far too much sci-tech weaponry for this much fancy foot-work. What if the coordinates were wrong?

He did not have much time. The rental car was due in an hour in San Francisco, and he abhorred paying late fees. He needed this “spell” to work, or he would become doomed. His credit card in this version of “reality” only had a $200 limit. One false move and he would be paying off the exponential fees to the Saudis for another two hundred years.

In a booming voice (pitched down a semi-tone with a Melodyne plug-in installed on his laptop) he pronounced, “This reality is one big pyramid scheme!” The overdose of oxygen he was experiencing momentarily re-contextualized what he was saying to himself. His mental record-player skipped as he considered the esoteric symbolism of the pyramid scheme and wondered if this was some sort of clue to the secret and hidden mysteries of the universe. But he had no resources to deploy as a means of accomplishing the results. 

He was quickly becoming drained of physical and mental resources, and did not bring any folded hand towels or bottled water with him. His d20 popped out of the side pocket of his backpack. His “Ultravision Future Goggles” were slipping down his face with increasing regularity. Tension. Terror. Panic. 

Dr. Zoltan is anything but a mouth breather, but his nostrils are too small to allow sufficient oxygen to pass through them under catastrophic stress. This mad dance inflamed the tissues in his computer-hacker leg muscles. In this mundane reality called American Capitalism, he was unable to activate his Hover Toggle — a device that had not been invented yet due to its non-marketability among the lower class. 

He made a vigorous and determined attempt to swat the bugs out of his mind and sustain his geosynchronous stomping for another 60 seconds. He failed and collapsed face-down in the seashells.

Join Dr. Zoltan on his next adventure Beneath The Imaginary City.

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My Steve Vai Audition

Back in March of 2007, I was having dinner at a Hare Krishna restaurant with Phi Yaan-Zek, a guitarist from Wales. Phi was visiting Los Angeles to record an album with Bryan Beller, Mike Keneally, and Marco Minnemann.

Phi had heard from a reliable source that Steve Vai would soon be holding auditions for a bassist. It was quite obvious (and I immediately said) that it would be a perfect gig for Bryan Beller. Bryan had auditioned years ago but didn’t get the gig. I thought it was great potential news, and we went on to talk about other topics, such as Steve’s guitar tones on early recordings and other random political topics.

It didn’t cross my mind that *I* would audition. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me until one morning, months later. I woke up early with the thought in my mind that I should look into it. I grabbed my laptop and fired off an email to his manager, asking what was up. She confirmed that Steve was indeed going to be doing private, invite-only auditions, not open to the public. If I was interested, I was told that I should submit a couple of video clips to an email address. So I did. I sent a couple of clips from Sir Millard Mulch’s Ibanez Instructional DVD.

Shortly after that, I heard back and was told that Steve was interested in auditioning me. I was selected for a private audition at a North Hollywood studio. I had about a week to learn 3 songs and try to get my hands back in shape after not practicing for years. I had just picked up a graphic design contract gig in Glendale, so I would have very little time to get things together. I rented a car, burned a CDR of the songs, and listened to them on repeat during the hellish drive in traffic every day. At night, I focused on playing through those songs, over and over. I tried my best not to kill my hands, as I have had some issues in the past with straining the nerves in them. If I practiced too much, I wouldn’t even be able to play at the audition.

One of the songs I was asked to learn was called Building The Church. This is quite possibly the simplest song in the world. But I enjoyed playing it. It was probably just so Steve could see how a player could, “rock.”

Another song was The Crying Machine, which was all slap and pop. Since I play with a pick, I did a combination of picking and popping with my middle finger. It came out pretty good, but I am not at all a funk bassist. While practicing, it definitely took a while to get nearly into a groove. I am the stiffest, whitest player in the world, and I am just not into that style. Without a pick, I’m useless.

Another song was Freak Show Excess. This one presented a challenge during one particular section that I called The Bulgarian Runs. This is a technique that Steve does by bending notes with his pointer finger and matching it with notes on his ring finger. It’s basically the opposite of that cliché blues bend that everyone does between the G and B string on a guitar. It sounded very strange, as does most of Steve’s playing. It’s one of those techniques you don’t get into your fingers very easily. Anyway, I took that section and slowed it way down with a click. It was something like 7/16, played very quickly. And each time it looped around, it added a section to the BEGINNING of the riff, not to the end. It’s as if everything was just phrased totally backwards. After a night of wrestling with it, I gave up. There was no way I was going to be able to get it into my muscle memory in time.

I decided to gamble on my strengths in odd rhythms and my aggressive style of playing with a pick. There was no telling what Steve would be interested in, and it seemed he was pretty open-minded in finding a new player. I figured I had as good of a shot as anyone, considering the spectrum of musicians Steve has hired for his band over the years.

A couple of days before the audition, Steve announced there would be a second day of open-auditions. A cattle-call. I was still scheduled for the first day, luckily. I felt so important and special.

On the day of the audition, I had to take an extended lunch from the graphic design client’s office and drive over to North Hollywood. I found the place pretty quickly and hung around for a while. I got out my bass and practiced, sitting on a bench. There was no one around, except for the occasional bassist going in to audition. At one point, Steve came out and recognized me and greeted me, shaking my hand and thanking me for coming over. We had lunch together in the Valley about 6 months previous to that, but I looked totally different then — long hair and a full beard. This time around, I had a shaved face, short hair, a baseball hat, and these vanity frames I bought somewhere. He said, “Man, I barely recognized you, you look so much different!” I told him it’s because I have to travel incognito in this town, and keep changing my identity so no one will be able to follow me.

A few other bassists showed up and some of them sounded fantastic. A lot of them seemed to be European. I don’t know if they came all the way from overseas or not. It was interesting, getting to hear a few other players go in and audition. I can’t imagine how tense it must have been the day after that, during the cattle-call.

When it came to my turn, I went in and plugged into a huge Ampeg amp and cabinet. The position I was standing in was an awkward spot behind one of Steve’s guitar cabinets. Steve was situated in the center of the room, perched on a stool. The lighting and vibe was very dramatic, like you were in a concert. He had the rugs all over the place, et cetera. The backup band was Jeremy Colson on drums and this kid that I had seen performing at John Avila’s birthday party on rhythm guitar.

I can’t remember what we started out with, but it was a very strange vibe to be in there. It felt like being in a high school dance, with lights and glitter everywhere. Steve was noodling with some chords and instructed us to back him up so he could solo. He said the chord names and I completely forgot them after 2 seconds. It was an obtuse change that was not something that made sense to me. The vibe of the piece was very Celine Dion. I had no clue what to do. I fumbled around somewhere on the low strings, doing my best to follow the rhythm guitarist. It just felt very uncomfortable. I screwed it up pretty bad. All the while, Steve was in his own little world over there, soloing away. He eventually got up from his stool and it occurred to me that when he’s on stage, he’s not putting on a show. He always plays like that. It was pretty much the Jack Butler stuff, with his hips doing the Shakira thing when he would bend a note or slide around.

After that, we started into The Crying Machine, the funk song. This one I did alright on, during the main run-through. Steve even turned around and smiled at me during this one — the first eye contact he made with me through all of the playing. I tried to bond a bit with Jeremy Colson, but his playing was unenthusiastic, and I was having a hard time getting locked in with him. He wasn’t trying very hard. Maybe he was tired. I am used to drummers playing with a lot more power and control. It seemed he was more just playing along.

Anyway, at one point in the song, Steve gave me and Jeremy a hand signal to do some kind of interactive solo. It pretty much turned into a pentatonic heavy-blues jam. Steve sat and watched for a minute, then he started playing along. It turned into this big crescendo grand finale of train-wrecked triplets which we didn’t recover from.

At that point I was really feeling like I did not belong there. I’m not a trained session musician, so I am not versed in a variety of stylistic vocabularies. I can’t play jazz or blues or reggae. I’ve been an anti-social solo artist for 15 years, focusing primarily on my own, weird original material. I’ve rarely played live and haven’t even owned an amp in many years. Even though I played in bands in high school and college, I’ve never been one who is big on collaboration, and I’ve done what I’ve done totally independent from trends or the market. It was strange to be put in a situation where I was expected to know how bands work. It shouldn’t be surprising that I was totally lost when it came to being a normal bassist. I remember back in college music classes, I couldn’t settle on a principal instrument because I equally hated all of the classes, with their various stylistic clichés. I either had to learn jazz guitar, classical guitar, or stand-up bass. There was not a curriculum for pure music that didn’t involve just copying other people. I’ve always wanted something non-denominational. There are those who spend their whole lives like soldiers, learning to play other people’s music, and I am not one of them.

Up next, Steve asked me if I learned Freak Show Excess. I told him I knew the whole song except for the Bulgarian Runs. He said, “Sorry, but I am looking for someone who knows the material.” I answered that I could surely play it, but that I did not have time to learn that specific section. I could certainly at least understand it, as I had written pieces that are way more complex. So he offered to show it to me, note by note. As the other guys in the band stared at my hands, I tried my best to take a quick guitar lesson from Steve Vai. In the moment, my nerves took over and I blanked out. I got frustrated and asked Steve, “Is this taking too long?”

“Yes.”

At that, he extended his hand and thanked me for coming. As I packed up my bass, he told me that he really respects what I do with my own music and that I should continue to focus on my own vision. I really respect Steve for having the courage to do what he does. He believes in himself and respects his own ideas and plans. He takes what he does very seriously. While it could have been devastating to have failed an audition with my favorite musician in the world, I definitely didn’t choose to frame it that way, and learned a more important lesson. What I learned that day was that I have to have that same confidence in my own creativity.

A few days later, Steve emailed me a very thoughtful personal letter with a million thoughts on everything. Among other things, he told me that he wishes I could have gotten a chance to meet Frank Zappa.

At first, I felt pretty cocky about the whole experience of the audition, which was probably unnecessary. I came to realize that instead of giving Steve a hard time for doing what he does, I should see him as a peer. It is how he has always treated me — sending me encouraging emails, selling my CDs on his website, going to lunch with me, et cetera. It was because I have seen him as a superior that I have felt competitive with him, placing a lot of unreasonable expectations on him. Maybe some of his music does sound like Celine Dion, but that shouldn’t affect me.

In the end, I was glad to hear that Bryan Beller got the gig. I think he is a great bassist who does some very creative and interesting things with his technique. I have really enjoyed Bryan’s work with Keneally in years past, and have gotten the chance to see him live several times. Bryan seems like one of those guys who has learned the standards as a session musician, but has also expanded into a lot of complex outsider music. It’s great that someone can focus so much on their instrument and develop it to an extraordinary level. I barely even play an instrument anymore, because I am so interested in writing, video, and graphics. When I was a little kid, way before I was a musician, I wanted to be George Lucas. I think putting together a big-picture concept using every medium is really where the good stuff is.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think I would have been happy playing bass in Steve’s band. It would have been incredible to see the entire machine functioning on the road, and to get to be around other people who are highly-motivated and successful and artistic. But I think Steve Vai and I have two very different ideas about what music is for and how it should be “consumed.” And that’s fine. With a creative career, you have to “follow your bliss,” so that is what I am doing. Music occupies a sacred little scientific area in my life and I keep it as pure as I can, away from the adolescent popularity contest that is the music industry.

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