Spotlight on SSG – June 2011
Hello to all!
This month the “Spotlight on SSG” is turned on to Nashville, Tennessee, also known as “Music City, USA.”
Nashville also happens to be home to Guitar Noise member Jeff Martin and his band, Spookhand, whose song “Black Out” is our featured selection for June.
Jeff’s also managed to take the time to answer a few questions and I hope you find his thoughts as interesting and entertaining as I do!
GN: You’ve been a member of Guitar Noise for close to five years now, Jeff. Can you recall how you first came upon our website and what keeps you coming back?
Jeff: I ran across an article on GuitarNoise through a search. I saw the forum link and joined. There is a lot of information and such a great community of people, I’ve stuck around all these years. I visit several other forums, but none of them have the same friendliness and tight-knit community. There are people here that I consider friends, even though I’ve never met them in person.
GN: How long have you been playing guitar? Why did you first take it up? Have you been writing songs for long and how did that first come about?
Jeff: I got my first guitar at sixteen and planned on playing like Eddie Van Halen. Unfortunately, I didn’t practice very often. I ended up selling that guitar when I moved away from home and about ten years later, bought an acoustic from a friend. I learned some chords, but got frustrated at not being able to change chords quickly enough. I put the guitar in storage for a couple of years and at thirty-one, finally stuck with it enough to change chords. Since then, I haven’t been able to imagine not playing an instrument.
I wrote my first song twenty-two years ago when I was sixteen. I didn’t plan on writing a song, but I wrote a poem for English class. A good friend of mine in the class was the guitar player in a band. He liked my poem and asked if he could use it for a song. It took me until five years ago to write another one. I didn’t get really serious about song writing until three years ago when I joined my band.
GN: Besides being a guitarist, you’re also a gigging bass player. What made you choose to visit “the dark side” and how do both instruments compare when you think about (a) playing them and (b) gigging as one or the other?
Jeff: Songwriting is the first thing that made me want to try bass. I was recording some stuff and using a VST plugin for the bass and wasn’t satisfied with the sound. I’d always been a better rhythm player than lead, so I was attracted to the rhythmic properties of bass. A friend loaned me a bass and a little 10 watt practice amp. It only took a couple of notes before I was hooked. I learned Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and fell in love with the instrument.
Playing bass versus guitar makes me feel more in touch with the song. I definitely listen closer to the drums. I still enjoy playing guitar, but bass feels like home.
GN: When most people think of Nashville they think of country music, but there’s really a very diverse music community in and around the city. How do you enjoy living in “Music City, USA” and what’s it like to be a punk band in a place traditionally known for country music?
Jeff: I’ve lived in the Nashville area all my life and I’ve never found anywhere I’d prefer to live. I love Nashville and most people I meet that come here love it as well. There is an image of it being all country music, but that’s more for the tourists. There are several rock-oriented clubs, the most known being the Exit/In, which has a lot of the artists that have played there written on the walls and it reads like a history of rock ‘n’ roll. There are some great all-ages clubs which lets the under 21 crowd experience live music. My band often plays at an all-ages venue called the Muse, which is the center of the punk rock scene in Nashville. I think I get more weird feelings from being my age in a punk band rather than being in Nashville. Having a 19 year old come up after a show and saying “great set” is pretty cool. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing my oldest son dancing in the mosh pit in front of the stage I was playing on. Punk is not only a voice for youth.
GN: We’re featuring your song “Black Out” from earlier in this current year at the Sunday Songwriters’ Group. (Actually, it’s “Week 17” and you can read the original thread here.) Could you tell us what the songwriting process was like for this piece?
Jeff: “Black Out” was probably the most fun I’ve had writing a song. My band is a horror punk band, so all of our songs deal with monsters, zombies and ghouls. My wife and I were watching TV one evening and a storm came through the area. Our power went out and we lit some candles. I started thinking about the phrase “black out” and it had a nice rhythmic feel to it. I added the “what comes alive when the lights go out?” line and had a chorus. My wife started throwing out some humorous rhymes trying to “help”. I just thought back to being a kid and lying in bed worrying about what was in the closet or that weird shadow the tree cast on your window. I had the entire song written in about 15 minutes by candle light. The power came back on and I wrote the guitar riff and recorded the demo. I emailed it to the rest of the band about an hour after I had the initial idea.
The song also serves as a good example of collaboration with others. I’m not good at re-writing or tweaking songs I’ve written. I get stuck on whatever my first idea is. Originally, I had what is now the bridge as a verse and a different bridge. When we first played the song in practice, it just wasn’t working. We did some rearranging and moved the verse to the bridge and used the bridge and parts of another verse as a new third verse. We go through that process with most of our songs.
GN: Your band, Spookhand, is also getting gigs outside the Nashville area. You were in Atlanta last October and you’re going to be in Dayton, Ohio later in June. How different is playing outside your normal “neighborhood?” What tips have you learned that you can pass along to those who are hoping to make a similar move with their own bands?
Jeff: Playing out of town is a lot of fun, but nerve wracking at the same time. I’m a forgetful person, so I always have this irrational fear that I’m going to arrive at the venue and find I left my bass at home. There’s also the worry that no one will show up. We have enough of a following in Nashville that we’re pretty sure we’ll have at least 20 or 30 people show up at our shows. But going somewhere we’ve never been, we’re relying on the promoter and the local bands to draw people.
We had a great turnout in Atlanta, but we learned that we shouldn’t rely on the venue for a PA. We were actually playing in a dance club and they weren’t set up for live music. It taught us to double check some additional things before taking an out of town gig. Also, make sure the money situation is worked out beforehand.
And make sure you have merchandise to sell when you go out of town. We had CDs, t-shirts and stickers and I think we made as much on merch as we did the door. Plus, you have to cement that relationship with the new fan right then. If they dig you, get something in their hands right then because they may not remember you or bother searching for you the next day. I walked around after our set and just handed out stickers for free, because people love free stuff.
GN: Finally, do you have any tips for someone who’s trying to get into songwriting?
Jeff: I picked up a couple of tips from Stephen King in his “On Writing.” One, writers write. You can’t wait for the perfect song to pop into your head. And you’re probably going to write some bad songs along with the good ones. Think of them as learning experiences. Two, if you don’t read, you can’t write. This applies in two ways to songwriting. Reading improves your vocabulary and also gives you ideas. Listening to other’s songs helps your own songwriting as well.
When I first started trying my hand at songwriting, I wanted to write deep, thoughtful lyrics and have every song be meaningful but able to be interpreted differently by different people. I’m a big fan of Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder’s style of lyrics and wanted to emulate that. What I found was that I spent way too long on one song because I thought it should be perfect and got frustrated when it didn’t reach my goal. That’s around the time I started trying the Sunday Songwriters Group. I wanted a deadline. I started to learn that not all my songs were going to be masterpieces. You have to write some bad ones to recognize and appreciate the good ones.
Another tip is to carry a notebook with you everywhere. I get most of my ideas while I’m driving. Write them down as quickly as you can. In my notebook, the front pages have complete songs and the back pages are just ideas. It may be one line or two, sometimes a complete verse. When I sit down to write, I’ll go through those and pull things together and use it as a starting point.
The SSG is a great tool for writing because it gives you a starting point and a deadline. You also get wonderful feedback from the community. I need to get back to participating!