Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even before I could play an instrument, I was dancing and singing for my parents, performing the latest Top 40 hit, or writing silly songs (the first one I can remember was a love song I wrote for Ricky Schroder. I have no shame.)
My first true love was playing the drums. It was the first time I felt like I was doing something I was meant to do. So when I got to college, one of the first things I set my mind to doing was joining a band. My sophomore year, I did — a group of girls called “Your Brother’s Fantasy” (again, no shame!). We never got out of the practice room, but it gave me that little bit of experience I needed to know I could actually do it.
I joined my next band when I was 20. I’ll always think of it as my first “real” band. That band was called Tex Svengali, and it opened my eyes to so many things, introduced me to so many people, that I will forever be grateful for those two short years I spent being a part of it. We were just learning our instruments, really; it was gritty and raw, but it was real. And it rocked. For many different reasons, it’s the best thing I’ve ever been part of.
Since then, I’ve played in numerous bands. They’ve all been rewarding in one way or another. They’ve all been important. But as we get older, it’s really hard for playing music to keep that same level of importance in our lives. Or, at least that’s the case for me. Throughout the years I’ve often asked myself, and others, why we still do it. I mean, most of us are in our 40s now. We have jobs, families, lots of commitments. Why do we still try so hard to be rock stars? For me, the answer was I was trying to get back that feeling I had in my twenties. I was hoping for another experience like Tex. In retrospect, that was a losing battle and I should have just embraced the present instead of trying to relive the past. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Being in a band is a lot like being in a family. But there are other ways, musically, to experience that “family” feeling. Tex was like a family, albeit a dysfunctional one. No less a family though. A few years after Tex, I was fortunately to tap into that same sort of camaraderie thanks to a music festival in Wilmington, NC, called the WE Fest. WE Fest was an annual gathering that grew out of Kenyata Sullivan’s tape-trading community. It started really modest, but grew to be one of the most beloved indie music festivals in the US; it would attract bands from all over the world and eventually got the reputation of finding bands just before they hit big – bands like Dismemberment Plan, Mae, Mooney Suzuki, Lamb of God… all played WE Fest before many folks knew who they were. But the coolest thing about WE Fest was it didn’t matter if you were some big shot band from New York, or some little punk rock band from Wilmington, the audience gave you all their energy and it was always such an amazing time. And the family wasn’t just the bands, it was countless volunteers and audience members who also pitched in to make it the best little indie festival in the world.
When I moved to Atlanta, I tried to start something similar to WE Fest. It actually went over quite well, and had other life responsibilities not consumed me a few years later, then who knows, maybe it could have become as big. But I realize now that the problem was I wanted it to be another WE Fest. And there will never be another WE Fest.
Something I’ve learned through observing things like WE Fest is there’s no way to purposely plan for something to be that special. It just happens. I think it has to grow that way, organically, for it to really work, and for it to really mean something to people.
I had never really seen a musical family quite like the WE Fest family until this past weekend at an event here in Atlanta called Themestock.
Several months ago, at the urging of my friend Michelle, I joined a Facebook group called Theme Music. Comprised of nearly 1000 members from all over the US, it’s based around having weekly themes, announced each Friday night. Over the course of the next week, members post videos of themselves performing songs that fit the theme. Covers and originals are both fair game as long as they follow the theme. Some folks sing along with songs karaoke style and have never played an instrument. Others collaborate with members to post fleshed out videos and arrangements that simply blow your mind. Any skill level is appreciated. If there’s any pretension or judgery (is that a word?), I haven’t noticed it.
When I first heard about the group I thought, “That sounds great, but I don’t have time for that.” So I lurked for a few weeks. Then a weekend came along where I had some free time and was inspired to participate. I did. And I was hooked. Everyone was so welcoming, so encouraging. It didn’t matter that I was a shitty guitar player doing a half-ass version of a Nirvana tune on my couch and recording it with my iPhone camera. What mattered was that I, in the words of Theme Music founder Matt Brown, “made song.”
This past weekend was the second annual Themestock, a live show at which members perform songs together, songs also based around a common theme (this year’s was Life and Death; all the songs had to have either the word Life or Death in the title). 70-some musicians, again of varying skill levels, matched together just a couple of weeks prior, with only one 30-minute rehearsal together. The results were amazing. Not only did everything seem to go off without a hitch, but the performances were mind-blowingly good. And the energy in the room was incredible. It wasn’t WE Fest, because that’s like comparing apples and oranges. But it did have that same family feeling, the same camaraderie and passion for music, that made WE Fest so special.
When I think about the organizers, and all the work they put into the weekend, and the resulting parties, rehearsals, and final performance, I’m truly in awe. Honestly, I had given up on finding something like this. I was ok with that, because at least I had been lucky enough to experience something as meaningful years ago. But this time it’s clear to me just how special these musical families are.
There will never be another WE Fest. And there will never be another Tex Svengali. But you know what? That’s so ok! Because there will also never be another The Good Graces. Or Theme Music. Or the wonderful Scott Jones benefit show I had the privilege of playing last year (and playing Tex songs to boot, talk about something I never thought could happen to me again!). I could go on and on. My point is, every single experience, musical or otherwise, is what you make of it. Everything has the ability to change your life if you just let it. Once I finally realized I can’t relive the past, my musical present became so much more rewarding.
For a look at some of Theme Music’s creations, visit the YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/ThemeMusicCollective