🎹🎶 I believe in the 7 laws of the Indie SynthPop Manifesto

I’ve been meeting musicians in the city with the intent of putting together a band. I discovered that it can be hard to connect with the right people if you’re floating around in a genre-less haze. Defining your vision and drawing a line in the sand helps everyone understand what it’s NOT.

We music types have a tendency of seeing all sides of things, and struggle to shove things into a box. But I had an experience that inspired me to write a manifesto. In other words, to define in big bold lines, what it is that I want. It’s worked wonders! I posted it as an ad on Craigslist, including the story behind it, and I have people sending me messages from every from all over the province.

Oh and by the way I just bought a new (and by new I mean second hand from Craigslist) red Fender Telecaster Standard electric guitar.. which might make you laugh once you get to law #3 of the manifesto. It’s the first non-acoustic guitar I’ve owned in a decade, so let me enjoy this – as I all but ban electric guitar in my own writing haha.

Whatever. I’m just stoked that I got such a strong reaction from this online, met some cool people as a result, and wanted to share.

*Craigslist post begins now..*

er.. now…..

after this I mean….

you know.. below the x’s

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I was just at the Kellarissa EP release show on Granville Island and half way into her SynthPop set she was struck with a totally unexpected disaster moment on stage! *cringe*

In a sec I’ll tell you why this terrible fail directly inspired the first law of the Indie SynthPop Manifesto, which I typed down below..

I’m a singer with original songs, now chatting and meeting up with musicians here on Craigslist to form a tight SynthPop band, so watching her go through that and to see the “WTF?!” look on her face – hit way too close to home.

Long story short – Kellarissa was half way through a supreme set, complete with back up singers wearing golden capes.(YES! Full on) Stars in their eyes, audience loving every minute, fog machine running. And running. K.. RUNNING A LITTLE TOO MUCH.

Somebody. Turn. Off. The. Fog. Machine.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Too late. Mid chorus, all the fire alarms in the building whine and klang.. We were all stunned, so was she. There was a moment of panic that flashed across her face, followed by a confident laugh. Then she made a choice that took guts.

She kept singing. With intensity. And commitment. We couldn’t help but cheer on her on. Despite the noise we were totally won over and on her side. She probably would have kept on with the next song if it weren’t for someone from the front desk running in to yell for us to evacuate and wait outside for the fire department.

The show would have to wait, but we saw her look the tiger in the eye, and she stared it down.

Her act of casual heroism inspired me to write this manifesto.

(FYI, when I say SynthPop, think bands like:…
Chvrches, M83, Metric, Odesza, Naked and Famous, Empire of the Sun, Little Destroyer, The Human League, Depeche Mode, New Order)

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THE INDIE SYNTHPOP MANIFESTO

1. Imperfection is sexy

Synths break, laptops crash, economies collapse, and I’ll forget the words to my own song. Good. I focus human connection over sterile execution. I perform to work things out as I go, and I’m better for the wear and tear.

2. Passion over skill

Synthpop is the eccentric time traveling grandchild of UK Punk – which thrived on truth and simplicity (3 chords and the truth). I commit to expressing authentic emotion above all else.

But never too early – or before coffee.

3. SYNTH > guitar

Electronic soundscapes with a killer drum groove are my north star. I believe:

– Guitars are ok, but never surpass a 50/50 split with synths
– Guitarists have to sit in the back seat on the way to gigs
– YES to guitar delay, chorus and reverb type effects for atmosphere
– NO distortion

4. Honour thy genre. Then break it.

Gary Numan stumbled across a dusty Moog synth while recording his punk album and by pressing a single key, he shook the whole studio.

That was the moment SynthPop was born.

I study our history, value what our heroes were striving to create, and then snap their limitations over my knee like a cheap selfie stick. This will impress girls and breathe new life into old conventions.

5. The Indie DIY philosophy is my lethal superpower

Dreaming of a record deal (and in many cases, signing one) is a sign that I’m lazy and won’t do what it takes to succeed in the long run. In 2005 the following things may have cost me upward of $100,000, today they’re almost free:

– recording a quality single/EP/full length album
– distributing the songs locally & internationally
– building a direct communication channel through email list etc.
– dialogue with fans/community regularly
– reaching out to find new like-minded people who might love my band
– Amazon 1-Click when I’m out of paper towels

I learn how it’s done, and I do the work.

6. # of live gigs played last year? Double it.

This year I made a concrete goal of.playing 52 performances before the new year. It’s tempting to be a bedroom producer or aspire to be a YouTube star, but live music is a shared human ritual older than language itself. Listening to the new Chvrches single on Spotify is sublime, but going on a journey with the band in person – is a religious experience.

I find and create new opportunities to perform. Go where humans gather.
(eg. open mics, laundromats, hostels, college campuses, pubs, bars, house parties, intimate house concerts, BBQs, busy street corners, grandma’s birthday, coffee shops, day programs for people with disabilities, radio stations, community centers)

*Equally Important* I go to at least two shows a month by other bands. Playing in a healthy scene means being an active fan to other bands. JFK said, “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Wise words from a suspected Depeche Mode super-fan.

7. Travel, you fool, TRAVEL!

I leapt into the unknown when I set out to busk around Ireland in 3 months. My greatest fears were debunked one by one by meeting hundreds of strangers excited to show me the best of their hometown.

I travel to tour and play songs, but more importantly I travel to enrich my soul.

I paid $267 to fly from Vancouver to Dublin. Another connecting flight to anywhere else in Europe is well under $50. It’s cheaper today to catch a weekend concert in Prague than it is to fly to Edmonton and visit my grandparents.

In my home country I will tour effectively, with ever expanding concentric circles that allow me to return every few months to people who care about our music.

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That’s all 7 laws. More than anything this is about drawing a line in the sand and deciding what I stand for, and who I want to stand with. Are you on team Loud Synthesizer Band For Music?

K… we’ll work on our team name.

Jennifer Connelly’s Eyebrows

I’ve had a tab open in my browser for the last 2 weeks for this song by The Midnight and every day I listen to it several times on repeat, you’ve got to check it out!

“Sunset”, the Retro Synthwave song itself is pretty good, but a fan named Kaz on YouTube took it to the next level by putting her own fan made video – and it’s actually better than anything I’ve seen in a long time!

It’s not every day that a fan made video gets over 500,000 views.

She put together scenes from Career Opportunities (By John Hughes: Breakfast Club etc) where Jennifer Connelly, who rocks her 80’s eyebrows like a babe, and some guy who clearly hates his job are stuck in a Target store after dark. Cheesy love story premise – but with the song and video put together, it somehow becomes a homerun. I’m feelin’ it.

A fan named Shotec summed it up nicely in the Youtube comments:

“In my opinion this music video in way better than the movie itself. It’s like this movie was created to be a video for this amazing song. It’s incredibly well put together. Thanks for this!”
– Shotec

You should watch it 🙂

Are you Antifragile?

 

Tim at Cartems Open Mic

I’ve been rocking my performance goal – 52 performances in 2018!! That has me thinking a lot about how useful the concept of “Antifragility” is, I’ll explain in a sec in case you haven’t come across this brilliant idea.

The Morrissey in Vancouver hosts an open mic. Which, given the name, is naturally where you’ll find all British expat musicians named Paul.

I’ll be heading there tonight to give it my 9th performance for 2018.. Not bad since I’m just getting started.

Although in the basement I’m hard at work on my electronic set, and it’s coming along well, I’ve jumped back on guitar for the sheer ease of showing up just about anywhere and taking the stage for a few songs.

Back to my initial question, are you Antifragile? I’m trying to be. A few years back I read a NYT bestselling book called “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Not the one about the ballerina with Natalie Portman, but the one about totally unpredictable events and how they continually drive change and history around the world, specifically because we assume they can’t happen – until they do.

I loved how Taleb writes, and he made so many great points while being totally unafraid to go deep. But the book was dense and I couldn’t really figure out how to *APPLY* any of what he was saying in any tangible way. I get bored when things stay in the realm of theory.

It’s as if he read my mind. And then wrote another book called Antifragile.

He’s developed his ideas so completely. He considers this one to be the full realization of everything he’s written about up until now, and it shows. The book contains a grand canyon of tangible, every day, USEABLE ways to engage with his work. I recommend checking it out.

If I had to explain it to someone on the Skytrain only 3 stops away from home, I’d say that Antifragility means that instead of being fragile (hurt by random stress and chaos) or being robust (protected from random stress and chaos), something Antifragile GAINS from random stress and might even require it for survival. Taleb had to invent that word, because we don’t have a concept in the west for gaining from chaos rather than merely being immune to it.

Which is part of the problem itself. Especially here in Canada. Things are safe, we’re doing relatively well. Cool, let’s play it safe and nobody rock the boat. Agree? Good, what could possiblaie go wrong?

Well, according to Taleb there’s always a Black Swan on the horizon, something we never saw coming, until after the fact. The Atomic Bomb in Japan, the stock market crash, getting laid off at work, the sinking of the Titanic.. you get the picture. Things that blindside us, and therefore destroy us.

Those are negative Black Swans, but there are exciting positive ones to consider. Meeting the love of your life, winning the lottery, being inspired by an idea that changes you forever, being in the right place at the right time to save someone’s life, having your work selected to be featured in a respected publication. Unpredictable things that might change your existence in untold ways.

You can bail and quit reading here if this stuff bores you to tears.. but I can’t stop digging into things like this. Principles that allow you to make slight adjustments to your life decisions that have huge potential upsides. And that might shield you from catastrophe with just a little tinkering up front in how you were already going to set up your dominoes anyway.

Taleb talks about life strategies laid out in terms of a dumbell metaphor. (big on both sides, but skinny in the middle). Especially in the west, we do the opposite and live by reverse dumbell, we stay in the middle. Which makes us vulnerable to calamities. We protect against predicable downsides to things that can be expected, but those are generally things that do little harm even in the worst case scenario.

To put it another way, we’re in the habit of putting all our eggs in one basket. Just before the great depression, it turns out that by storing all your money in the bank, it meant that you no longer had access to cash and your family went hungry.. no matter how much you had in savings. We tried to protect by putting our eggs in the biggest, strongest basket. But being the biggest and strongest was in itself part of the problem. The bank itself was fragile, and collapsed.

You can think of Antifragile as a comprehensive guide in how to put your eggs into many baskets, not only to protect from randomness, but to start gaining from the wonderful upsides it can offer once you’re no longer depending on calm seas to make sure your boat doesn’t flip.

Taleb’s personal favourite Antifragile behaviour is walking European cities on foot, exploring without any particular destination. “Flanneurism” as he calls it. Who knows what you may discover when open to the world in a random way.

Perhaps you find a niche book shop in your neighbourhood that quickly becomes your favourite place to visit on the way home. You can stumble across a new friend, love interest, idea, businessmen or job opportunity, poster for a concert that inspires binging on an entirely new musical subgenre (U.k. Garage Grimestep- here we come?), or seeing a travel sale ad that gives you the courage to finally book that summer trip to the Netherlands you’ve always promised yourself you would take.

Open mics and other performances are my version of that right now. I’ve met so many cool musicians in just 2 weeks, have been offered a gig (which I turned down until I have my electronic set up and active), have been tipped off on a half dozen more places I can play, met a new friend from Germany, discovered new ways of playing old songs, etc etc etc.

I’ve found that letting a little chaos into my life (if I’m also strategically protected from the downsides), can let a slow trickle of wonderful things in that didn’t have a window to hop through before! And although I can’t predict what it might be, or when, that same open window might be a portal for something truly astonishing to poke it’s head in. Something dream fulfilling and mind blowing. Maybe.

But only if I keep that window open 🙂 … so, onward, to the Morrissey tonight where *nothing* might happen – but technically *anything* could.

52 Donuts.. errr.. Performances in 2018

I came to an important conclusion this week as I played the open mic at Cartems Donuterie. (When I have donuts, they’re seasonal eggnog donuts) Jess Vaira hosts the weekly shindig and was kind enough to show me all the tech specs on her PA system so I can bring my keyboards and electronic nerd gear next time.

My conclusion came in the form of committing to a new goal – to perform 52 times in 2018! That’s once a week for a year, and I’ve got some weeks to make up – consider it my late-in-the-game New Year’s resolution.

Actually, this is an old goal. In 2013 back in Winnipeg I was determined to overcome my major stage fright once and for all with my homemade brand of exposure therapy. I got the idea from my Sports Psychology class at UofM, which could have just as easily gone by the name ‘How to Use Behavioural Psych To Train Anyone To Perform Well Under Pressure’.

And it worked! Big time.

Studies show (my eyes glaze over when sentences start with this phrase, but it’s true) that athletes (performers) who engage in deliberate practice in environments as close as possible to the way things will look and feel on “game day”, benefit multiple times more from their training. Makes sense – get the real thing burned into your habitual mind so there’s less to process when it counts.

So, playing in front of real strangers, singing into a microphone, hooked up to a PA, plenty of noisy interruptions etc etc.. that’s high quality practice compared to playing in my basement. And in 2013 when I put this method to the test, the benefits became clear.

Not only did I get over my stage fright, but several other invaluable things happened that I never could have predicted in my wildest dreams – all stemming from what I thought was a minor personal aim.

The first 10 performances were the hardest. They killed me. I had played in plenty of bands in the past on guitar and bass, but singing – and singing songs I wrote myself – *and going up there alone* is a different level of vulnerability.

Most of the first 10 were at the Le Garage Café open mic. I showed up an hour early every Tuesday night just to get that flood of anxiety to wash over me early, to get it out of the way. Then once I actually had to go up, I had been there for a couple of hours so it felt a little more gradual. A little more voluntary.

Le Garage Café Open Mic in Winnipeg, MB

(***If you want to get geeky about it, that approach allows the parasympathetic division of your autonomic nervous system to kick in which relaxes you, and lets your brain experience the thing you fear while also being kind of relaxed. Which can neutralize the fight/flight response over time. Wash, rinse, repeat.)

But it still felt like jumping out of a helicopter from 10,000 feet in the air. My hands and legs were shaking. I would forget which chord comes next. I forgot entire sections of songs I had been playing for years, and all the lyrics from others.

I survived. And it was a messy gong show. Accented with the occasional sublime moment of connection. Accidental beauty beyond the fumbling and struggle. Which was enough to keep me going.

It didn’t get any easier, until about the 15th time. I was still shaky and forgetful.. but something changed. I had been up there enough times that.. well.. being afraid of performing started to get old.

Fearing the worse case scenario was a huge expenditure of mental and physical energy, one that my brain started to rev up but ultimately say “Meh..” to, and plop back down on the couch with it’s bag of dill pickle chips to watch another episode of Storage Wars.

I had conquered the sharpest point of my fear. Ground it to a dull edge through repetition. Something I don’t think would have been possible without doing it again and again and again. It started to become as fun as it was terrifying.

By the 20th time, people took notice that I was playing a lot. I was out there. For better or worse, I was looking for excuses to play to rack up the numbers in my goal. It was around that time that two killer musicians in the folk scene, Patrick Boggs (standup bass), and Donovan Locken (mandolin), agreed to form a trio with me to play shows (thanks of course to an introduction by Dianne Martineau).

Tim and the Twelve String Band
Tim and the Twelve String Band at Frame Arts Warehouse

It was way more fun than playing on my own.

Because we were so active, all kinds of doors opened up to us. We started getting invited to play coffee shops, bars, house concerts, and showcases. I don’t remember “applying” for single gig, but inevitably one gig would lead to the next through someone that saw us play.

By my 40th performance, Tim and The Twelve String Band (our trio) was all tuned up and ready to play a full set gig at the Frame Arts Warehouse.

It was there that I met British expat Emily Senyk (Wood). She showed me some ukulele cover songs she had been working on. We shared an obsession for all things UK music and DCI Gene Hunt from Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes. So naturally we formed an acoustic duo on the spot.

We played a number of gigs and even filmed some videos, like this cover of The Decemberists we shot in the St. Boniface Cemetery. Which wasn’t us being gothy, it was lyrically relevant to the song. 😉

By my 50th performance, it was hard to contextualize how far I had come as someone with major stage fright, to now being able to perform in front of a crowd of any number with relative confidence.

To use the helicopter metaphor again… if the 1st performance was like jumping out of a helicopter at 10,000 feet, the 50th was like stepping gently out of a grounded helicopter into an abandoned Salisbury House Restaurant parking lot in the summer and being handed a refreshing Dr. Pepper Slurpee from 7-11. Anyone from Winnipeg knows what I’m talking about here.

Mission accomplished!

It’s crazy to think how something as simple as setting a time limited goal can lead to so many intended, and unintended wins. So why would I commit to 52 shows in 2018? Why do pretty much the same thing again if I already got what I wanted?

The reason is because of everything great that came along from pursuing my goal back then. The very act of trying to crunch the numbers of those shows gave me momentum. People sensed that. The world seems to open up when you’re on a mission. When you’re on your way somewhere specific and that you know to be important, people want to help you, and more than that, they want to come along for the ride.

At the end of the day, that’s one thing I’ve found to be better than the music itself. The people who care, too, who I might not have met otherwise.

So, 51 more shows to go in 2018. What changes, lessons, and friendships might await me on the other side? It will be fun to look back on this writing next year and be able to answer that with specific examples.

Wish me luck!