Red Light Mentality – Being On Your Game

I recently did a session where we were doing minimal mic-ing, single take performances (no overdubs) AND shooting video.  The results came out quite nice and that had no small part to do with the preparation that most all of the folks involved put in ahead of time.  This experience, and many others besides over the last few years have coalesced into a philosophy I try to be mindful of all the time:  “The Red Light is Always On”.  It’s not just an axiom that holds true in the recording studio.  Be it a rehearsal, a gig, etc… you are always being recorded.  Maybe it’s a small recording device.  Maybe it’s an iphone.  Maybe it’s a full blown recording rig.  It could just be the people in the room you’re working with paying especially close attention to what’s going on in a particular moment.  The point is, it’s always happening.  I’m not being paranoid or alarmist.  It is a simple fact of the world we live in now.  It’s posted on Facebook or YouTube.  It’s shared amongst friends and fans of the people you are working with.  It’s heard by colleagues and co-conspirators.  This stuff gets out there in the world.  It sticks around.  This reality has one very important ramification:  being on your game is imperative.  All the time.  You.  Your gear.  Everything.  So, that’s what I mean by the title of this blog; ‘the red light is always on’.  It’s a nod toward the philosophical and it’s become my doctrine.  I treat everything like it is being recorded for further examination.  That may sound weird, but I don’t think it’s too extreme.  I want to talk a little bit about why I think this way.

The way we make and consume art has changed radically in the last 20 years.  Now it is often a luxury to spend bunch of time experimenting with things and trying stuff until you strike upon that ‘Goldilocks’ moment – in the rehearsal room or the studio.  Time is money and people want to know that you can create something compelling:  often quickly and effectively.  It’s not just in a recording situation though.

Obviously, in a live setting it’s even more critical to be ‘on it’ because you only ever got one shot.  It’s live.  No net.  The moment won’t happen like that again.  It’s one of the reasons we love live recordings so much!  It’s why we love going to shows!  It’s absolute hang your ass out on the ragged edge – Chuck Yeager style.  We are seeing a little bit of ‘history’ every time we see a show because it will never be the same again.  It might be close, but never the same.

So, live or in the studio, it’s imperative that you be on it in every way, shape, and form.

How can you develop and maintain this attitude of ‘the red light is always on’?  Are their special skills you need to develop?  Yes and no.  There’s nothing special you need to do per se, but you DO need to do certain things to make sure you as solid as you can be.

Preparation for me takes two forms:  preparing musically and preparing socially.

Preparing Musically
Here you use things like pre-production rehearsals and critical listening skills to ensure you know the music you are about to play inside and out.  I consider this to be a crucial part of creating music and it can happen whether on your own or with the whole group you’ll be working with.  You are dialed in ahead of time so everything runs as smoothly as it can.

There is no one right way to prepare to make music.  If you have a gig or session coming up and you prepare best by just listening to the music while you drive around.  Okay.  If you need to take meticulous notes and then rehearse alone to the stuff you’re going to be playing… okay.  I have read that Neil Peart would ‘rehearse to rehearse’ before a tour.  Playing along with the songs they’d be doing ahead of pre-production with the rest of the band and crew so that he was absolutely rock solid with what he wanted to do.  I have also read that John Tempesta (The Cult, Rob Zombie, Helmet) air drums in order to prepare for auditions.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he also probably air drums to stuff he is currently playing or is about to record. Preparation keeps the blood flowing and your mind nimble.

Sometimes you are able to get the stuff you are going to be playing ahead of time  Sometimes, you don’t.  What then?  I often am faced with this in the studio.  In these situations I rely on a couple of things that have never let me down:

  1. Ask Questions
    Asking the right kinds of questions will help get you in the ballpark.  Sometimes the people you are working with have a clear idea and will tell you right from the get go what they are looking for.  Job done!  Other times someone will reference a particular drummer they want you to vibe off of (“Play a Ringo kind of swing thing”).  This is great too.  You are able to reference a known thing and run with it.  Then there are times (I swear, this has happened!) where the artist or producer says “Can you play something a little more purple?”  In this case, the question becomes ‘what does purple sound like?’  I don’t ask them that.  I go by instinct – based on what I know about the people and the clues/cues they have given me about themselves.  Then, I give them a couple of ideas of what I THINK purple sounds like.  From there, I find they can guide me to something not far off from what I initially played.  Sometimes I get lucky and they say ‘yes, that’s it!’ to one of them.  So now, I know what ‘purple’ sounds like for this person.
  2. Quick Charts
    In an ideal world, I like to have the music enough in advance (a few days to a week) so I can create road map scratch charts for myself with my own hieroglyphs so I know what’s happening.  Then, I’ll listen to the music and play through it in order to determine if I want to use certain sounds to fit the mood of the stuff.  This doesn’t often take too long.  I can knock out a set of charts in about an hour for a typical live set or album project and then I’ll probably spend double that time just playing through things and getting them under my fingers.  Then, I’m ready for the rehearsal or session or whatever it happens to be.  However, there are plenty of times when I’m going into a session or covering for a gig at the last minute.  This means I may not know what I’m going to be doing ahead of time.  Often times jingles and movie/TV stuff is like this.  But, there is almost always something mocked up for me to play along to.  So, once I’m set up and we get sounds, I will ask to hear the track once so I can get a general sense of where it’s going and jot stuff down.  Then, I will employ the ask questions tool (above) to find out about sound options and general approach as I’m jotting down structure.  All of this information gets added to my notes/chart.  When I go to sit down at the kit I have familiarized myself with the track and have a road map I can use to make the best use of the time we have to cut.  In a live setting, I will seek out who in the band is going to give me whatever cues are required for stops, tempo changes, etc.  If I’m given a set list I will usually get with the bass player to find out what kind of groove a particular song is, and then find out who my point person will be for those stops and starts, etc.  I will also ask, ‘How do you cue?  Is it with your guitar neck, your arm, your foot?’  With this information, I know where to look.  Little things like that make a huge difference in the heat of the moment.

Preparing Socially
This is the harder of the two things because you need to really be aware of who you are working with, the general lay of the land as far personalities, stress levels, and expectations.  You also have to have a handle on where YOUR head is at and that what you are bringing to the mix isn’t distracting or discouraging.

  1. Attitude/Mind Frame
    We all have off days.  Not enough sleep.  Crap traffic.  Whatever it is, how you go into a situation is as important as what you do when you’re there.  It’s hard sometimes to clear your mind of frustrations, ego, etc. but it’s key that you do.  Trust me, I’ve struggled with this at times and I’ve lost gigs because of it to.  Fortunately I’ve been able to learn from these experiences.  “Giving good bus” is what I call it.  Being someone that people want to be around.  When you get somewhere, don’t just bound in and throw your stuff down in a huff.  Even if traffic was horrible and you spilled your latte on the drive; take a moment to say ‘hey, how’s it going?’ and explain ‘I had a horrible drive.  Can I have a minute to decompress?’ then, excuse yourself to get the rest of the rig you need to unload.  Once you’re settled, take a moment to say hey to the folks around you that often times folks don’t pay near enough attention to:  the sound person, or the recording engineer(s), or the door man, the bartender/wait staff.  You’d be surprised how important even a brief interaction like that can be.  Notice:  I’m not saying be a cheerleader or be someone/something you are not.  But think about it.  I’d be hard pressed to think that even the most ill-mannered among us would find it too difficult to at least be civil and cordial when they get to a gig or a session.
  2. Expect the Unexpected – Musical and Otherwise
    Expecting the unexpected is an important part of my ‘red light’ thinking.  For example; I always have extras bits of gear that may fail at a session, rehearsal, gig, etc.  Extra bass drum pedal and/or beater?  Got it.  Extra snare drum?  Yep.  Cymbal felts and sleeves?  In my pedal bag.  I even go so far as to have a couple of capos, guitar picks (in various thicknesses) and a clip on tuner in my bass drum pedal case.  Because, you never know.  The extra gear is the easy part though.
    How about the folks you’ll be working with?  Sometimes it’s a question of using your instincts.  You can assess a lot when you first walk in to a session, rehearsal, or gig.  Use the force (yes, I said it).  We all can pick up on subtle cues  – you just need to look at your surroundings and be sensitive enough to key in on what’s going on.  I’m not saying this is easy.  Nor am I saying that you can necessarily do anything with the information you gather.  But, at the very least you are able to get a lay of the land and not get caught off guard by anything that might happen.I go into a situation and try to get a read on each person I’ll be interacting with.  If I’ve worked with someone before I have a general sense how they will be in most situations.  We have a rapport.  We know what we need from each other and we can communicate effectively.  If I’ve not worked with someone before, then I consider questions like:A)  Level of experience of the artist, band, producer, engineer, etc?  (Do I need to adjust the way I communicate based on experience level?)
    B)  General mood?  Are people up-tight or amped up or sad, etc.?  (Do I need to be aware of any potential traps based on someone’s mood?)I take these things into account and assess if/how I can either

    A) be of assistance to that person, or
    B) it’s best to just keep my head down and get to the tasks at hand.

    I also consider how these things may come up at a later point.  By considering these factors, I’m less caught of guard if/when something happens.

These are are just some of the many techniques and strategies that I’ve learned and employed over the years to maintain that idea of the red light always being on.   When I employ them, they’ve never let me down.

I love this idea and try to live by it because it means, at its heart, that you are always working under the assumption of giving your best effort.  Every single time.  You want what you do to be the best representation of you and the song(s) you are playing.  It gets you pumped up a little bit to think this way.   That’s a good thing.  In doing this, you establish yourself as an asset to the artist/session/situation.  That’s how/why you get called back.  That’s what helps you build a reputation that leads to longevity in a very uncertain business.  It also make the experience a lot more fun.  Don’t forget we play music… we don’t work music.  The ideas listed above make it so I really can play music and enjoy it.

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