Monday, May 27, 2013

Caught In The Crossfire - the brief history of Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes, 1993
By early 1991, I went looking for a band to sing with.  I did it the old-fashioned way - answered a few ads in the newspaper classifieds.  (God, that sounds dated now.)  I'd sat in with a piano-bar-playing cousin of a friend, did a little karaoke, stuff like that.  I wanted more.  I'd taken vocal lessons at the Ottawa Folklore Center from local folk legend Lynn Miles.  It was time to step up to my own mic.  And I would learn a lot from being in a band; lessons I carry with me to this day.

My first audition came with a bunch of hairy freaks in a garage somewhere in Mechanicsville.  Heavy metal thunder; lots of smoke in the air.  I hit the Deep Purple notes, but I didn't get the gig.  Not what they were looking for.  That was alright with me, those dudes were a little scary.  But I'd gotten my feet wet.

It was a blazing hot April day when I went to sing with keyboardist-guitarist Pascal duPerron and a few of his buddies.  Two weeks later the buddies were gone (this is how musicians flow sometimes, I found out) but Pascal and I realized we had similar tastes, and decided to try to work together.  By sheer luck we stumbled into guitarist Kevin Ford, who was looking for a new gig after some time off to start his family.  Kevin liked playing with a good keyboard man (Pascal put down the guitar soon after that) and my vocals meshed well with his playing style.  Over the summer we added Steve, a blues bassist, and Tommy, a rock drummer who'd toured with Ottawa recording artists US. 

Now, a band's sound depends on what each player brings to it stylistically.  We were all well-versed in hard rock, but some of us weren't exactly hard rockers.  Versatility is nice but you have to define yourself somehow, and with Kevin and me as lead voices we slotted into hard electric blues and R&B, Stevie Ray Vaughan crossed with Black Crowes.  Kevin was a true talent - an electric player who'd done time in 80s rock cover bands, and a composer of originals.  He played a Fender Strat through a Twin amp in electric blues tradition, but fingerpicked it a la Mark Knopfler.  He'd had a little classical training, so he could also play nylon string, twelve-string and slide.  Kevin could play virtually anything, which gave us a huge leg up on standard bands in dynamics and taste.  Perfect, except for one thing - grunge was blowing up right then and there.  From the jump, we were swimming against the tide.

Not to mention that we had four veteran players, and one neophyte singer.  I suppose you'd call me an R&B stylist, with the post-sixties twist that I'd learned from listening to white guys who were trying to sing like black guys.  Elton; Mick; Gregg Allman; Daryl Hall; Steve Perry.  I don't have what I'd call a sweet voice - some people like it, others don't - but I can stay in key, remember lyrics, and blues it up a little.  Now I had to step up to a lot of things I may not have been ready for.  I had been hoping to sing for an ensemble band like the Allman Brothers, or Little Feat, or Santana... bands in which the lead singer wasn't always the focal point.  I quickly realized that most of the guys - and people at our shows - had expectations of seeing a Genuine Frontman.  Which was a minor problem, considering how I, personally, have difficulty merely speaking before a crowd.  I don't even like to draw attention to myself - not the best attribute for a lead singer!  So - First lesson learned: When you put yourself in a position, you'd better deliver since you asked for it.  Over time I'd grow as a musician quite a bit.  I'd learn to pick up some sloppy harmonica skills, even some rhythm guitar playing.  But at first, the only thing that kept me afloat was my maturity.  I knew how to handle myself like a professional.  I was, after all, at 28, the oldest one in the band.

Next - have you ever tried to name a band?  Sure, over beers anyone can come up with a lot of ideas, from thoughtful to ridiculous.  But when you're looking for the name of something you're going to say you're "in", you become much more critical.  After a few months, we connected some dots from the blues, to the American south, to riverboat gambling... to Snake Eyes.  The logo came right after that, a pair of dice with musical notes in the place of the dots.  Snake Eyes.  The name seemed to fit, except that everyone who heard it... remember, the 80s had just ended... expected us to be a hair metal band.  So there was that.

Rehearsing and building our setlist took us through the summer.  Crowes, Allmans, Dire Straits, even the odd Beatles covers.  We'd start off playing bars, of course, so we had to be sure to play some crowd pleasers.  We put the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" in the set, but Tommy made us promise we'd never, ever waste any energy on rehearsing it.  One night we played Zep's "Rock And Roll" right off the cuff.  I loved singing it, but no one else was ever interested in playing it again - what was old hat to them was still new to me. 

Our set list would change over the next few years, but there were some mainstays I never got tired of performing.  SRV's "Crossfire", which this piece is named after.  Other SRV songs would come and go, including "Voodoo Child" and "Little Wing."  Ballads like "She Talks To Angels", and Colin James' "Why'd You Lie."  "Sultans Of Swing" was usually treated to an extended ending for Kevin to solo over.  Through the fall, we were just getting this thing up to speed, and trying to get bookings and build some momentum.

About bookings... Second lesson learned: (you think you're going to be in a rock band, start hanging out, playing music, meet girls, have fun with the guys...) You've just started your own small private business.  You are now a member of a limited partnership, and no one is going to make business come to you, you have to go get it.  I learned almost as much about private business from being in that band as I did from working with local enterprises during my real career.  There's a lot of No Fun in that, and it can end up taking too much away from The Real Fun. 

The band was a secondary thing for all of us - we all had day jobs - so we were taking our time.  Fall of '91 got a few gigs under our belts, and just when we were ready to start playing more, real life changed it up.  Our bassist, Steve, had a hidden talent.  A laid-back easy-going dude, he was also surprisingly a talented chef... and he was accepted to enrol at Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts in Paris.  We needed a new bass player.  We were about to get a whole lot more.

At the beginning of 1992 John Carroll joined us on bass.  Yes, that John Carroll, road-tested busker, roots-rock junkyard dog, resident Wednesday night lord of the Chateau Lafayette stage.  Back then, before his blues odyssey, John was a barely-twenty bassist full of jazzy chops, ambition, intelligence and attitude.  John brought a hunger to play music all the time, and a drive to write original songs.  Kevin and John clicked musically, so we began to work up our own songs, which had been Kevin's original motivation.  But with one step forward came another step back... John and Tommy didn't really mesh as a rhythm section, and Tommy had other gigs lined up as well.  Now we'd need a new drummer, and we brought in an even younger kid named Dan to fill the chair.  Naturally, his first gig came one week after he joined us, on Canada Day '92.

Kevin had brought in a booking agent to help us out, someone he knew from the scene, and the guy got us into a few clubs I'd never even heard of.  He was the first outsider we'd brought in who was given any input into Snake Eyes, and right away it was eye-opening.  The places we were playing didn't care anything about what we played or how we played it, only how much beer sold when we were playing there.  And club owners actually don't like it when they think you play too loud.  And then it started getting back to me that the agent didn't like certain things about my style as a frontman.  The guy never said a word to me, but he got to other people.  This development was extremely annoying in that we'd decided on a direction, only to find an outsider giving us criticism that was not necessarily constructive, with no regard for our plans.  Third lesson learned: Unsolicited advice that begins with the words "You should" is to be ignored.  The person giving it is usually doing so not in your interest, but in his.  There's nothing wrong with someone seeing that there are things you could do better.  But you can't have someone tell you that you need to change you.

At some point we came to a mutual decision that Dan wasn't the right fit, and we needed another drummer again.  Dan, a good kid, stuck for barely two months.  The new new guy, Mike, was a straight rock drummer with the whole nine yards of big rock drum kit.  Mike was solid, but he was a big hitter, breaking more sticks than any other drummer I've ever seen.  With him in the band, we started really planning to lock down the originals, and save our money to get into a studio and record a demo.  It was cool to move up to bigger clubs, even downtown Ottawa, the same stages where bands like The Headstones, Our Lady Peace, and Junkhouse would play. 

Now, being in a band takes up your free time, which is great if you have a lot of free time.  But with the rest of us settling into our routines of work / rehearse / gig, time started to pass and John started to chafe.  There was never enough time in the day for John to be creative, and I recall him at one time even wishing we could all quit our jobs and move into a house together, to woodshed.  John was a guy who would literally do anything to make it, and wouldn't settle for anything else.  As far as I could ever tell, he never had any Plan B.  John was going to be a musician in this life - which made his personal habits a little less, um, conventional, and his youthful adventures a little more entertaining.  The time he disappeared for about a week, later explaining his absence on a large bag of weed.  The time he bought a new bass then forgot it in his friend's car on a winter night, which cracked the instrument's neck.  The time a girl showed up at our rehearsal space hoping for a backup singer gig.  She didn't get a gig.  John disappeared again for a couple of days.  That sort of thing.  John was a great guy and fun to be around when his mood was up... but he could get dark pretty quickly at times.  And as things dragged on for him through the winter of '93, and with other musical interests sparking his creative wanderlust, he soured on Snake Eyes.  By spring, despite having co-written most of our originals, he'd decided to leave.

(A quick rock 'n' roll story about how and why John become bluesman John Carroll: In 1997, I went out to Vancouver to visit my mother, who lived there at the time.  Keeping in touch with Kevin, I'd heard that John had gone on to busking his way across Canada, and had last been heard from in Alberta.  As I'd looked over places to sightsee in Vancouver, I'd heard about the notorious Downtown Eastside and Hastings Street, the west coast's haven for junkies, freaks, runaways, and street people.  Naturally, I'd have to see it for myself.  On my flight out, at some point it crossed my mind that it sounded like the kind of place John Carroll might gravitate to.  Honest to god, my second day in Vancouver I roll downtown to check Hastings out, turn a corner and walk into John Carroll, all the friggin' way across the country, playing a beat-to-shit acoustic with his guitar case open on the ground.  I knew right that if he didn't end up dead, he would truly make a name for himself.)

More auditions.  More bass players.  We picked up veteran bassist Steve Rae, who brought a more fundamental style to the bottom end.  But I never forgot the guy who came second to Steve.  He came in acting pretty cocky, just another audition to him.  We did five songs with him, and by the end of them he was begging to get into the band.  He was even pretty pissed off when he found out he didn't get the gig.  Fourth lesson learned: Musicians take on a lot of aimless auditions and gigs.  When they find a band with real potential, they hate to miss out on an opportunity.  That was the first time I clued in that we really had something solid that we were working on.

Steve was a solid guy all round, though, and the kind of guy who we knew would give full effort to the band.  We could count on Steve, and that made a big difference at that point in time.  It was now the spring of '93, we'd been at it for two years, and we were dying to get into the studio and record.  But with Steve locking down the bottom end, Mike's drumming came under scrutiny.  As I said before, he was a rock player, and by now it was becoming evident that his style didn't really suit the bluesier direction we'd been taking.  Mike was replaced on drums by Marc Marin, who played a kit about half the size, with timing, cool, and taste.  To be frank, Marc was the drummer we'd been looking for the whole time.

I apologize at this point, because I haven't really said much of anything about actually playing the music.  The story of a set of musicians reads like an ongoing soap opera, misadventures of the unwary.  I'm realizing the same thing that I came away with when I read Keith Richards' autobiography Life, in which he spent barely any time describing the actual experience of being onstage with the Rolling Stones.  Words are rather insufficient to address the transient experience of creating music.  You create sounds, and everything depends on which sounds you create, and where you place yours in context with the ones the other musicians are creating.  As a singer, you're riding on top of a wave... sometimes you go with the wave and let it carry you; other times you push back and let that torsion fire you off in a new direction.  Fifth lesson learned: Everyone plays off the drummer.  Even as the singer, you're playing off the drummer more than anyone knows.  Which is why any time I'm watching a band, I invariably start watching what the drummer's doing.  (If I don't really like the band, or if he's really good, I may end up watching no one but the drummer.)  I had a thousand instantaneous fantastic experiences playing with these talented musicians, but I can't really describe to you why it's the best thing I've ever done.  The best way I ever heard it said was by Hugh Dillon of the Headstones, who I met at the bar of Zaphod Beeblebrox (and I bought him a beer) once.  When I noted how tight the band was that night, he said "It's like being on a great hockey team, you know?  You know where he's going, and he knows where I'm going..."  And when you do it, it's awesome.

Marc and Steve locked as a rhythm section, and we cooked.  Now, that version of Snake Eyes could play anything.  With the experience those guys brought to the stage, being in front felt like driving a big, fast car.  Once, at rehearsal, Marc's wife asked if we could play any Bryan Adams songs, so we pulled one off from collective memory.  Another time, the guys felt like playing some Rush, so it turned into a half-hour Rush jam.  The best gig I remember was part of a weekend booking on the top floor of the Peel Pub, which is now the Auld Dubliner.  We did three sets, and the first one was the usual opener to a half-empty room.  But it was Half Price Pitcher Night, and right before our second set a busload of Carleton University students rolled in on a pub crawl.  Suddenly the room was packed with roaring drinkers out for a downtown Friday night, and we absolutely killed it.  Everything went right, and the crowd ate it up.  Felt like a million bucks.  Then we took our break, and the pub crawl left for its next destination.  We came back out and played the third set for one guy.

Snake Eyes went into the studio that fall to record our demo.  We cut five songs.  Our set opener, a Little-Feat style southern shuffle called "Riverside Soiree."  My only solo composition, "Face In The Dark", a midtempo slide guitar showcase for Kevin.  "My Lady", a bluesy love letter Kevin had written to his wife Marlene.  The uptempo "Get It All You Can", based on a bouncy John Carroll bass line.  And the powerful "Eye Of The Hurricane", with its thunderous instrumental coda jam that usually closed out our shows.  Finally, the plan was to shop this tape to record labels, anyone who might have any interest in taking Snake Eyes to the next level.

And of course, it never happened, because I'm just a guy writing a blog.  It's funny how you can get to exactly where you want to be, and be right on the cusp of everything exploding.

Reaching that goal had taken three years, and all of our focus.  And while we'd put down five songs that we'd written, and Kevin and I were also continuing to try to work up new ideas on our own, Kevin missed the catalyst that had sparked our most creative period.  That was John.  Because while Steve was everything the band needed as a stabilizing force, he and Kevin didn't spark any new ideas together.  We needed to get back to writing new material, so John was asked to rejoin the band, replacing Steve.

The one thing I completely regret about Snake Eyes - that I am actually ashamed of - is the way we threw Steve out.  Whether it was necessary or not - the band may have imploded had he stayed, anyway, given internal conflict - it was cold and callous, and I was part of the decision.  A decision that did not sit particularly well with Marc, especially when he tried to play with John.  To my recollection, Marc tried one rehearsal with John before he quit.  John subsequently brought in a friend of his to play drums.  Tension escalated, as trying to recapture the best elements of Snake Eyes turned into trying to redefine Snake Eyes.  The band that had cut the demo no longer existed... and by spring of 1994, with a new direction having been chosen, I was no longer the singer.

To my knowledge, after cutting that demo, Snake Eyes never played a gig again.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it might have been good to have hired a manager at some point - a fully invested outsider who could have called a few shots for us.  Perhaps we'd overextended ourselves.  Perhaps we were too ambitious for what we'd actually accomplished.  I, personally, know I didn't fully commit myself to developing my skills in a way that could have elevated the band more.  Still, there was so much good about Snake Eyes that it's amazing to acknowledge how much wasn't good.  Sixth lesson learned: The whole damn thing is about a lot more than just a good band playing good music.  Unless you have deep personal commitment to it, and the people you are doing it with, you aren't going to withstand all the crap that goes with it.

And finally, if there's one great bit of advice to be taken from this, it's in regard to that personal commitment.  If you're going to be in a band, I would recommend that you have some personal connection with someone in it, someone you can't give up on, and who can't give up on you.  Maybe a brother or sister, or someone you've grown up with, or like Mick and Keith, someone you met because you saw they liked all the same records you liked.  It really shouldn't be just people you meet answering ads in a newspaper, or on the net.  Because of the Seventh lesson learned: Being in a band is like dating four guys at the same time.  You hear about their relationships, their families, their personal problems.  You deal with their egos, addictions, and moods.  You try to help them through their crises of confidence, and their conflicts.  You have to figure out when they're going to do things, and what they're going to do, before they do them.  You have to get along with them while they try to get along with each other.  You have to deal with all their shit.

You'd have to be crazy to do it.

I'm done now.

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