Category Archives: SWEET FIX

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH SHOWTIME

My first showtime was last summer. I was on the subway and a bunch of young dudes got on and said, “Showtime, folks, showtime.” They cleared a space and started blasting music and did a breakdancing routine up and down the subway car. My thought, that very first time, was “Let’s not hate this.”

There were good reasons not to hate. Number 1: don’t I appreciate the performing arts? I carry around my guitar case, I’m trying to do my thing. I gotta root for some kids making a buck by breakdancing. Opposing them would make me feel like a Republican. Reason number 2: ya know, maybe it’s hip. Maybe they’re on to something. I read about previous New Yorks, New Yorks that had the Limelight and CBGB, Keith Harring’s graffitti, Basquiat walking around somewhere. My experience of New York has not really approached that kind of disco in the Wild West. Even when I play gigs, my nighttime world is pretty logistical: where to park, where to load in, which door I gotta use, which form I gotta fill out to get paid. It doesn’t really feel like a Blondie music video, exactly. So the first time a bunch of kids took over my subway car to breakdance, I tried to be receptive.

But times have changed. The breakdance invasions have gotten more frequent. You could say I’ve made an attitude adjustment. There are days now when I get 2 different “Showtime, folks” on the same trip. And I no longer strive to say “Let’s not hate this.” I’ve dropped my pretense. I hate it now.

The reason is that they take the subway car hostage. They ask everyone to move, and you just gotta deal with the music and the moves and wait for it to be over. That’s the part I hate. Sitting there, captive, trying not to be interrupted from whatever I was reading or thinking or not thinking.

But I say to myself, what about me and my band? Maybe I’m just like these kids and their breakdancing. We’re both trying to make it, right? Maybe someday I’ll be on a subway car, forcing people to listen to me play “Eruption” on a practice amp. Maybe I should  say “There but for the grace of God go I” and try to love showtime.

But when I put myself out there—when I take the guitar out of the case—I never force anyone to listen who doesn’t want to. When I hand out flyers on street corners, I don’t talk trash to the people who say stuff worse than “No thanks.” I think that’s just part of it, if you want people to care about your thing. I’ve gotten 1 or 2 absolutely shitty write-ups on the interent, 1 or 2 total take-downs, but I haven’t gone on killing sprees. I’ve watched Rockwood Music Hall clear out within 30 seconds of my band’s first song, watched an entire room of people say “Yeah, no” when I start playing. I’ve shoveled my car out of the snow to play gigs where the promoter lies and there’s no sound and no one comes and everything sucks.

And when I wake up the next day, my first thought is not “How can I force people to listen to my stuff no matter how uncomfortable it is for them?” That is not my comeback strategy. Instead, I try to write songs that people will just love. I go back for more guitar lessons. I talk to the band about what we gotta do next. I try to get us all on the metronome a little tighter, try to get some better clothes, try to do some more pushups, try to learn some new chords, whatever it takes. All of this is why I feel entitled to hate showtime when I get ambushed on the subway. I don’t want to be forced to dig it.

But there was this one time. I was on an N a month or 2 ago, and a dude got on wearing headphones, standing near me at the end of the train car. He started slamdancing violently, lunging forward over and over again, in a way that let everyone know “This guy has a thing.” It was like he was headbanging from the waist. It might have been Tourette’s—I don’t know. It was intense. People looked at each other and the vibe going around was “For this 1 second we are all not jaded.” We gave Tourette’s some space.

The doors shut, the train started moving, and then, from the other end of the car, we heard “OK folks, showtime, showtime.” Near me, people’s eyes got wide. Tourette’s was in his own world, rocking back and forth. If the showtime kids were about to do what they normally do—which is get in everyone’s space—there was no telling what we were in for. It could be anything.

The showtime kids started blasting their music, and Tourette’s got this look on his face that said “Oh, fuck, nice, yes, awesome, fuck.” He started slamdancing even harder, now in time with the showtime music. And the showtime kids started their routine, but they didn’t really come all the way down the car, because it had become Tourette’s zone. They let him do his thing. Tourette’s was going wild, grinning like he was in total rapture, and I looked at him and thought “OK, let’s not hate this.”

Tagged , , ,

NOW THIS IS HAPPENING

While I’m talking about the confluence of boxing and rock and roll, there’s something else I gotta say: me and the boys in SF have entered the Battle of the Boroughs, representing Queens. It’s a battle of the bands, and you can vote for us by going here. We’ve already made it past the first hurdle, and now we’re competing against the 4 other bands from Queens (which is entirely an online clicking contest). If we win this round, then in June we face the champions from the other 4 boroughs (another clicking contest, but there will also be a performance). As someone who named his band after the sweet science (kind of), you can imagine how much this means to me. I wore one of my Mike Tyson t-shirts for the first battle very much on purpose.

Now get this: if you are someone who first read this blog (or this blog) before you knew about my band, and if you take 15 seconds now to vote for us in this competition,write an e-mail to thesweetfix(at)gmail.com and tell me about it. Put “Heavy Metal Heartbreaker” in the subject line, and you will receive a prize. Not something fake, like one of those online thank-you cards that has polar bears dancing or whatever. A real prize.

ABANDONED GUITAR SOLO FOR HELP IS ON THE WAY

Back when we were recording HELP IS ON THE WAY, I wrote a guitar solo that was much more solo-ish than the one we ended up using. The one on the recording is hardly a guitar solo at all—it’s more of band ensemble thing, and I like that. Something about that part of the song always makes me think of a bunch of little parachutes falling from the sky at sunset. So that’s cute.

But the abandoned guitar solo has more guitar moves, and since I care about that sort of thing, I’m choosing to immortalize it on this blog forever. Here is a tape test I made for the lost solo in my parents’ old house in NJ. It is the only surviving version:

Tagged , , , ,

OPENING FOR MEN WITHOUT HATS

Earlier this year, my band opened for Men Without Hats in Teaneck, NJ. We were one of 2 opening acts; the other was a bunch of 17-year-olds. As someone who has always been fascinated by The Safety Dance, it was a surreal opportunity. I got to the gig early to watch MWH soundcheck, and I ended up having a conversation with their touring guitarist, who is friendly and looks like Edward Norton. I looked around for the main guy—the brains of MWH, the guy in the video who does the sideways move that may or may not be THE safety dance—but he wasn’t there yet. He would not arrive until right before they went on. This man has the same name as me: Ivan. What did it mean? What would happen if we met each other?

I remember sitting in the green room with my band, waiting to go on, while the 17-year-olds finished their set. By the calculus of venue + headliner, we were at that moment equal to the teenagers. We were on the same gig on the same night. It made me wonder if an Ivan was in that band too. It made me wonder, in fact, if the entire night was some kind of bizarre prophecy: were we all the same band in different stages, like the riddle of the sphinx? The teenagers on all fours, SWEET FIX standing erect before an unknown future, and Men Without Hats walking with canes into an episode of Where Are They Now? And if so, is that what I wanted to get out of all this? To endure as a nostalgia act on the strength of one kinky hit?

After MWH finished their set, I ran backstage to meet my destiny. “You guys were great,” I said, and the guitarist smiled. I turned to the lead singer and said, “My name is also Ivan.” We shook hands. The other Ivan said, “It’s a good name” in a Canadian accent and looked away. I could tell he was being polite and had no real desire to know me or my band. Maybe if that happened the universe would destroy itself. So I just said, “Thanks for a fun night,” and gave our CD to Edward Norton. As I turned to go I heard the other Ivan say, “Good luck with that, eh?”

Tagged , , ,

SHOOTING FM RADIO

It was hard for everyone not to use swear words around the child actor in our music video. The child actor was 9 years old. At one point, around 1:00 AM, we were sitting with him in the back of a giant white van, and we tried to explain to him that he should not start using swear words, even if he hears us use them. We were parked on River Street, in Williamsburg, and the van was our trailer because it had air conditioning. We said, “If you start using swear words now, you’ll get hooked, and it will rot your brain.” We looked at each other and tried to stop swearing for the rest of the evening. The kid was being good, and his mom was around.

And yet, as the shoot dragged ever onwards, constantly stopping and starting because of the rain and the thousand technical problems caused by the rain, each of us was brought to a place where we could only swear. After fourteen hours we still had not done our first take. We had arrived in the land of swears. It was not uncommon for the director to say things like, “Don’t fucking touch the buttons on the TVs when you fucking move them SORRY when you move them.”

In the van with the kid, I wondered if this whole experience was going to mess him up later in life. It was after midnight on a school night, and pretty soon we would be asking him to act cool with a pair of drumsticks over and over and over again. I thought of some former child actors who grew up to lead less than wholesome lives, and I wondered if we were giving this kid that. I thought about saying something to him like, “I know being an actor seems cool and you have a girlfriend, but don’t let this fuck up your life.” But that would have required using a swear word, and besides, the kid was a part of my band’s first music video. I was not willing to sabotage our next big thing by talking him out of it. So instead, we told him to go take a nap in his parents’ sedan.

In the meantime, the members of my band and I sat in the air-conditioned van and watched as our best friends toiled in the rain in the middle of the night. We had asked them to help with the shoot, which meant carrying televisions around and setting up lights between takes. We were not allowed to help them because it would have messed up our makeup. So we just sat in the van, which was the only place to sit at all, and we waited for the rain to stop while our friends scrambled to cover all the electrical equipment. Some of them took their shirts off while I fixed my hair. I wondered if this was the beginning of the process by which people are transformed into soulless bastards. I wondered if I was now becoming the type of soulless bastard who sacrifices his own friends and ruins childhoods to make a sexy music video.

Was this music video really going to get made? Was it going to change our lives the way it was supposed to? Sitting in the van, I looked for reasons to be superstitious. I found two: earlier in the day, when Tommy and Marco were driving to the shoot, they saw Kevin Nash cross the street. That was the first sign. I wasn’t in their car when it happened, but that was OK. While I was driving over the Williasmburg Bridge in my dad’s car, the same car that inspired the first verse of FM Radio, “Fantasy,” by Earth Wind and Fire came on CBS FM. This was the second sign.

When I drive to gigs, I have to listen to the radio, so as to receive messages from the Gods of Rock and Roll. This is actually something I have a lot to say about, but for now I’ll keep it short: I search for meaning in the songs that get played on the way to gigs. And for the purposes of communicating with the Gods of Rock, driving to my first music video counted as a gig. Plus, that morning, I had held a session of my Dungeons and Dragons game. So it was truly a day of Fantasies. And hearing that song was proof of something. But proof of what? I didn’t know.

Around 1:45 in the morning it stopped raining and I thought of Earth Wind and Fire. They had banished rain from their band name, and perhaps also from our shoot. We picked up the televisions and started rolling tape. The child actor woke up and did a good job. Our friends did not appear to hate us, even though their clothes were still wet. We were finally doing it; we were actually making the video, and I started fantasizing again about whether or not this would change our lives in the next days and weeks and months.

After it was all over, I got back to my apartment around 5:45 AM. Somehow I succeeded in finding a parking space that was on the right side of the street. If I was supposed to receive divinations from Earth Wind and Fire, maybe it had been about the parking space all along. What did that mean for the future of the band? I walked two blocks home and called my girlfriend, because she was in Italy, and it was already tomorrow there.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

THE HALLOWEEN GIG

A little over a month ago we played our first show in Pennsylvania. We were supposed to be on a bill with 2 other local bands, but when we got there we learned that the local bands had cancelled. It was just going to be us, the out-of-towners. Loading our gear into a basement in Allentown, it occurred to us that maybe no one would come.

The venue was really 2 venues: a main stage for nationally touring bands, and a basement downstairs. We were downstairs, which was OK. After big summer shows at Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza, we had a certain romantic attitude about hustling on a basement stage out of town. It was a chance to reconnect with our roots, and that would be fun, until we realized the local bands had bailed.

The basement was long and narrow, with a low ceiling. It had the vibe of a storage room in an unused country club, and since it was the week of Halloween, it felt like we were playing a gig in The Shining. Plus, in the daytime the club used the basement as some kind of haunted attraction, so there were fake corpses and entrails strewn about backstage. I got a kick out of that. I had to smile at the Halloween weirdness of it all.

But then, during soundcheck, my amp died, mysteriously and absolutely. It just powered itself down, and when we checked the fuses one of them had been obliterated into a million little pieces. I had never seen anything like that before, and it made me wonder if the satanic forces in our midst were not pleased with us. We’d had tough shows before, dealt with our fair share of issues.  But this gig was starting to take on an extra level of spookiness. This gig was acting like the cranky old man who insists on giving you a trick instead of a treat on Halloween.

The sound guy patched me through the PA system and I left my dead half stack on stage for appearances—it was, truly, a costume performance. Earlier in the afternoon, Tommy and Marco had found a local chapter of Occupy Wall Street and convinced 8 protesters to come see our concert. These 8 people were the entire audience. Tommy and Marco just gave them the tickets for free, a gambit that did not endear us to the promotor, but somehow we talked our way out of it. The show had to go on.

We played. We performed with the freedom you get when you know the Eyes of the World are not on you. The 8 people were supportive, and I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that this was not the smallest audience we’d ever had (in 2008 we played for 3 people on the upper east side and 2 of them were my parents).

People say things about paying your dues, but after you’ve played for hundreds of screaming fans, playing a show for 8 people does not feel like paying your dues. It feels like digging your grave. I was trying not to say to myself, “What if Irving Plaza was the high point of the parabola? And what if the Fall of 2011 is the precipitous decline that follows?” This had been in the air since August, and I was doing my best not to succumb to it.

After the show, I carried my broken amp back through the hallway of horrors. I could hear the national band upstairs finish their set.

“Do you know who those guys are upstairs?” Marco said to me. “They have that song.”

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Just don’t tell me.”

I was stepping over plastic rats and rotten mannequins. I could hear people upstairs chanting for an encore. I heard the sounds of fame, trickling down as echoes to the underworld, where I was carrying a broken half stack to the street. One week before I turned 25, I learned for the first time that my faith in the band is perhaps not an indestructible thing. Because in between the stomping and cheering of the crowd above, I also heard a new sound. I heard the ticking of a clock.

Tagged , , , , ,

RECORDING FM RADIO

I wrote this on April 4, 2011, the day after we finished tracking our latest single, FM RADIO:

Last night I went to the studio to put the finishing touches on FM RADIO. It was the very last recording session. Everyone else in the band had come in and put their parts down, and it was finally my turn to sex things up with some off-the-cuff lead lines.

When I got there, the engineer’s wife was in the studio, and her dog, and another guy, someone I had never met before, sitting at a laptop. They were going to be in the studio all night—they would sit and watch as I played the same things over and over again, sneaking mini-solos into the verses and adding stuff to the fadeout at the end of the song. The extra people were all friendly and supportive, but I knew they were going to see me do some bad takes. Having people see my bad takes is one of my oldest nightmares. I am a vengeful, competitive guitarist. I don’t like showing people something worse than what’s on the record.

After we started rolling tape, I remember getting stuck on one nasty bend vibrato move [possibly the one that occurs at 2:08, in the second verse]. It was a passage I had written ahead of time, and unlike some of the other spontaneous ideas that went into the song, this one move had to sound exactly the way I’d heard it in my mind. The vibrato had to be perfect. Which meant I had to play through some bad takes.

For my money, trying to nail a bend vibrato is the least fun thing to repeat over and over and over again. Trying to wiggle a pitch just right, not too fast, not too slow, not too sharp, not too flat—it becomes a special kind of torture after the first few passes.

The trick is that you have to resist coming to despise the thing you’re trying to play. You have to play it as though every take is the first take, so as to give it that virgin glow. But if you can’t do that, if you can’t love the thing with all your heart, then you have to get so sick of it that it becomes insignificant to you, and then you can dominate the strings and the neck of the guitar without mercy. The hard part is being caught between those 2 things, the love and the hate, while you try to hit the greatest bend vibrato of your life.

Add to this the superstitions guitarists have about each other’s vibratos. The bend vibrato is understood to be a window into the guitarist’s soul, a cheesy idea that is not altogether false. The bend vibrato is a feel move, a passion move. The sort of thing you pull out in order to sexualize your playing. A good bend vibrato is the only thing that can distinguish an electric guitar player no matter what style he plays. Whatever you’re going for, if you can wail on a bend vibrato, you’ll get attention.

Add to this the chauvinism of lead guitar players. Guitarists who have taken guitar lessons are most likely to be criticized by their self-taught peers for having a limp vibrato. This is the guitarist’s way of saying that you’ve got a weak handshake.

And since I am a guitarist who took a lot of guitar lessons, I did not want to surrender in front of the producer and the small crowd in the studio. Did not want to confirm the widespread misconception that getting an education weakens one’s ability to make sex moves. I started to bite down on that. Started to play with newfound fury. Somewhere in the oblivion of take 27 or take 28 or take 29, the producer said to the engineer “Mark that one.” I knew then that the next couple passes would give birth to the keeper. I was in range. The baby was coming now. The contractions of my vibrato were getting bigger, and I felt my tits engorge with milk. PUSH! I was doing it. Even the dog heard it. I was nailing it.

Then it was time to record the next thing.

Tagged , , , , , , ,