journalist, musician, guitar geek

Features

Opening up to open mic

Michael Brown faces his fear and goes it alone in front of an oblivious audience…

I’ve never been able to just pick up a microphone and sing. It’s a level of confidence that has eluded me, and no amount of singing lessons or live performances with numerous bands has changed that. So to play an open mic night, alone and unaccompanied, has long been my idea of fear itself, yet here I was, onstage, poised to open my mouth.

Despite my ill-advised attempt, open mic is alive and well, even though 2011 saw pop albums outsell rock records for the first time in seven years. In fact, with the new Live Music Bill receiving Royal Assent and Open Mic UK competition reaching 10,000 participants per year, open mic nights look set to only grow in popularity.

Stepping into the spotlight

If I was to truly label myself a musician and a journalist, I had to investigate this phenomenon. However, in order to minimise my nervousness and avoid offending too many eardrums, I also had to play an incredibly cunning game. As I entered The North Star pub, the unlucky recipient of my acoustic set, I quietly observed the situation. My surroundings were elegantly decorated, spacious and unnervingly well lit: hardly suitable for an onstage emotional disembowelling.

To get the insider info, I sought out Anthony Lee Wickham, the evening’s organiser and performer in his own right, and struck up a conversation. When asked about the evening’s popularity, Anthony informed me that, while Christmas had been incredibly busy, things had been fairly quiet this year. Apparently, however, the night did tend to pick up at 10 o’clock. Would I like to wait for a larger audience? “Oh,” I replied, casually. “I’m sure I’ll be finished before then.”

Onstage and alone

Considering the intense nerves I was experiencing, I wondered why Anthony thought performers and audiences still flocked to open mic nights. “It’s the heartbeat of any musical scene,” he said. “If anyone wants to join a band or get gigs, it’s a great networking system.”

I didn’t want to join a band. I already play guitar in a trio and, following some heated debates, no longer provide vocal accompaniment. This history, combined with weeks of apprehension, undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of pure, unadulterated fear.

Fortunately, I had formulated a game plan. Anthony would go on first to warm up the stage, and I would follow in the enviable second place slot. Unfortunately, my organiser friend turned out to be pretty bloody impressive, his feelgood medley of Bill Withers’s Lovely Day into Estelle’s American Boy providing a level of entertainment my 90s acoustic dirges could never hope to match.

Still, Anthony had left the stage: this was my moment. Grabbing my battered acoustic guitar, I clambered onto the platform and tuned up. While the stage was in the centre of the pub, its position was such that none of the surrounding tables faced the performer. Combine this with the apparently endlessly engaging conversations being held around me and I was feeling pretty confident. Confident that if I made a mistake, nobody would notice and, if they did, they simply wouldn’t care.

Like my picking hand, the open mic experience was a bit of a blur

Sitting in that chair, time seemed to stand still, although I’m not entirely sure whether anybody was watching during this period as I spent most of it with eyes tightly shut behind glasses. My set consisted of one original and three covers, all of which I’d practised religiously, much to my housemates’ annoyance. Yet, despite my hard work, a number of things went wrong. So, in reflecting on my experience, I have devised three open mic tips, compiled from memories of the evening and a recording made in a fit of masochistic archival madness.

1. Introduce yourself

I kept very quiet during my set, only apologising for playing depressing material and awkwardly blurting out “thank you” before anyone was even aware I’d finished a song. In all the excitement I forgot to mention my name, which I feel would have endeared me to the audience and resulted in a wider appreciation of my music. Maybe. Instead, I received a rally of support from Anthony as I stumbled offstage. “Give it up for Michael; that was his first open mic!” he whooped. Cue another round of muted applause.

2. Don’t forget the first line of your opening song

At ease and relieved post-performance

Although I found learning lyrics one of the more difficult aspects of the open mic process, I felt confident that, having chosen songs with repetitive or simple rhymes, the words would leap into my head just before I opened my mouth. This did not happen. The opening vocal of Alice in Chains’s Nutshell may be an elongated “ooh”, yes, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what came next. In hindsight, I don’t think singing “mah-boom-pa-ta-LIES” made for a good first impression.

3. Alcohol helps with nerves… but not with vocals

I’ve never been one to sing the praises of alcohol in any shape or form, merely viewing it as a way of facilitating otherwise awkward conversation. However, when it came to getting up onstage and singing in public, I think a couple of pints helped tremendously, but may have also contributed to my oft-flattened vocals.


An audible record of my own composition, CTO, recorded right in the heart of the action (i.e. in amongst the highly conversational audience)

Once my set had been forgotten, I attempted to glean some perspectives from other open mic warriors. “It’s a performance opportunity really,” said middle-aged ukulele whiz Nick Canham. “You only get better if you keep performing, and this is the perfect way to do that.” Meanwhile, a young man who called himself “The Skunk-Boy Project” had this to share. “It’s great to play a set where you don’t feel much pressure,” he explained. “I love playing whether people are listening or not.”

Maybe after facing my fear, I too could relate to this sentiment. Certainly, there was a post-set buzz, but this was more likely due to immense relief rather than self-satisfaction. Would I do it again? Perhaps. The vocal barrier has been broken and that feeling of relief was not unpleasant. But, for now, I think I love playing more when nobody’s listening: the indifference is truly liberating.

Advertisements

How to Make Instrumental Rock Work

We’ve all been there: you’ve found yourself a killer bassist, a raucous drummer and, perhaps, a fellow guitarist wingman or keyboard wizard. At this point there arises the inevitable question of a singer, soon followed by an ill-fated series of personal ads, band equivalents of online dating and a few misguided attempts from the drummer, all of which can all prove fruitless and disheartening.

Still, there’s no reason to stop recording and gigging just because no-one’s opening their mouth onstage. A whole host of successful acts function just fine without a vocalist and, in many cases, sound all the better for it. Without a singer getting in the way there’s more room for riffs, melodies and rhythms from each and every band member, plus there’s no risk of cancelling a gig just because one of you has a cold.

With the recent surge of UK and US instrumental talent, not to mention resurgence of a number of decades-old acts, it seems timely to provide a guide on how to make instrumental rock work for both the listener and the musician. Some of these tips require equipment, some need specific skills, while others just offer a new way of looking at existing approaches. With each nugget of wisdom comes a recommended track from well-established and upcoming instrumental acts, providing a demonstration of the advice in context and allowing you to learn how to best use it in your own music.

So, here are ten ways to make instrumental rock work…

 

Dynamics

Dynamics are, in short, the most important aspect of instrumental music. Try dropping instruments in and out, developing the parts other members are playing and judging when to quieten down and for how long, if, of course, you can get the drummer to ease off on the crash cymbal. An essential part of instrumental dynamics is being able to easily switch from a clean, or lightly-overdriven, tone to full-on distortion, whether this is achieved through a channel-switching amp or standalone distortion pedals. It’s these sharp dynamic contrasts which make it possible for a single riff to last as long as twenty minutes, as seen in a number of recordings from instrumental pioneers Mogwai.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan

 

Tremolo picking

Following from the previous step is tremolo picking, one of the trademarks of “post-rock” and its almost orchestral take on guitar music. Limber up your picking hand because considerable stamina is required in order to perform the rapid-speed octave melodies which typify the genre. You’ll soon find that tremolo picking a guitar line can bring a certain raw, physical intensity that can’t quite be captured by simply sustaining notes.

Recommended listening: Explosions in the Sky – The Birth and Death of the Day

 

Atmospherics

Along with distortion, delay and reverb comprise the two most important weapons in the instrumental guitarist’s arsenal. Without a singer to pad out the mix, delay and reverb can help to thicken textures and create a sense of atmosphere akin to the ways in which a film score heightens the calm or chaos on-screen. Delay is particularly effectively in both quiet, clean picking sections as well as all-out tremolo picking destruction. Be careful with reverb in live settings however as, in combination with the venue’s natural reverb, it can result in a muddy, indistinct guitar tone.

Recommended listening: Mogwai – New Paths to Helicon Pt. I

 

Open string hammer-ons and pull-offs

While it may not be one of the most recognisable aspects of “post-rock” or its accompanying genres, this technique has been put to great use in a number of compositions by Northern Irish instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar. Alternating between higher frets and their respective open strings helps to expand a band’s live sound, especially if you’re the lone guitarist in the group, as you’re able to cover both the mids and the highs almost simultaneously.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Gang (Starting Never Stopping)

 

Octave pedals

Another, less technique-orientated, method of orchestrating your sound is to make use of octavers and pitch-shifting pedals. These can help to make one guitar sound like several guitars, while octave-up shifts can help to occupy the space where the audience might expect to hear a singer or additional harmonies.

Recommended listening: And So I Watch You From Afar – Search:Party:Animal

 

Tapping

Again, if you’re looking to create a multi-layered, almost polyphonic wall of sound from a single guitar, tapping is another way to achieve this. We aren’t talking Van Halen-esque solos here though; instead, ease off on the distortion and try fretting a chord with your left hand while tapping a melody with your right (don’t forget to reverse these instructions if you’re a leftie). A compressor may be required in order for every note to sound clean and even but, with practise, this technique creates an intricate, almost percussive, feel.

Recommended listening: Talons – In the Shadows of Our Stilted Homes

 

Looping/samples

If you’re worried about the live performance of your studio masterpiece and how to replicate all those synths, horns and string quartets, consider the use of samples or, if you’ve indulged in a number of guitar overdubs, looping. As long as the drummer’s working to a click track, there’s no risk of going out of time and your audience gets to experience the track as it was intended, with the added bonus of the band rocking out onstage. Even if you didn’t feature any additional instruments, why not find some appropriate samples to add a human element to proceedings? Leicester four-piece Maybeshewill often feature speeches from their favourite movies, as well as synth overdubs, at their live gigs, further developing their already epic sound.

Recommended listening: Maybeshewill – Not For Want Of Trying

 

Slow it down

You’ve got a killer riff and the rhythm section’s locked in but your song still doesn’t quite convey the feeling you intended. Never be afraid to slow it down. While this can sometimes border on ambient styles (a line many instrumental acts often tread), the apocalyptic sensations it instils in the audience will more than make up for an extended running time. Try combining with reverb and delay to create a colossal, unending wall of sound.

Recommended listening: This Will Destroy You – Communal Blood

 

Timing

If your band’s tighter than a pair of Topman skinny jeans, consider some off-the-wall and unpredictable timing shifts. Not only will it display your technical expertise and musical know-how but also give the impression of a band who is dangerous and unhinged, ready to break free of its musical confines at any moment. Either that or you’ll come across as a bit nerdy: there’s a genre called “math rock” for a reason! When writing, try to imagine where to take the song next and sing the rhythm and melody lines before attempting to transpose to the guitar.

Recommended listening: Three Trapped Tigers – Cramm

 

Song titles

The best part about having no lyrics is that there are no boundaries when it comes to song titles, so use your imagination. You want to write about that hilarious incident that happened to your drunken friend last week? Do it! Seen a catchy slogan or found two random words which just sound right together? Make good use of them. Scottish quintet Mogwai took a number of song titles for second album Come On Die Young from National Enquirer headlines so the sky’s the limit!

Recommended listening: Mogwai – You’re Lionel Richie