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Making music: an itch you can’t quite scratch

I don’t usually hang around message boards – when you spend all day on the internet the last thing you want to do when you finish work is spend all night on the internet – but I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on jockrock.org about music. In a rare, non-sweary thread people are talking about what motivates them to create music and how your attitudes change as you become Too Old To Rock*.

I have a vested interest in the subject because from my teens to my early thirties I played in bands, and a few years back I gave it up altogether – other than the odd drunken noise-fest when David’s visiting, I haven’t played guitar for two or more years. That’s a big change for someone who was always making a racket, and who tended to see everything that wasn’t about music as either fuel for songs or finance for being in a band.

I knocked it on the head for a number of reasons. Many – most? – musicians thrive on performing live, but shyness/stage fright meant I never, ever enjoyed that side of it. I preferred what’s best described as “dicking about” – working on stuff via computer music programs, or in studios. The people I played in a band with moved away, some geographically and others mentally (despite repeated efforts, I haven’t seen our former drummer Calum for three or four years. That’s a shame personally – he’s a nice guy – and a shame musically, because I don’t think I’ve seen or heard a drummer since who comes close to his raw talent). And other things got in the way of my obsession with making music. I joke that meeting Miss Right is creative death, but I’m only half joking: being happy isn’t good for writing “woke up this morning, Christ I’m depressed, ooh ooh ooh loook at me I’m so tortured” bollocks; better to have a good life than a crap life that makes good songs, and all that. And if you’re routinely working silly hours, finding the time – let alone the enthusiasm – to batter away on a guitar, a keyboard, a computer program is difficult.

Another issue is that as you get older, you stop being naive – and much of the music business, particularly in the lower echelons, is based on exploiting naivety. You’ll routinely put up with idiots, with mistreatment, with false promises when you’re sixteen; when you’ve got a bit of experience and a bit of sense you finally develop a bullshit detector and enough savvy to realise that “take three days off work, hire a van, travel to london and play in front of three drunks and a murderer” is not an offer worth accepting.

More superficially, clambering onto a stage and realising that you’re old enough to be the other bands’ dad (and if you’d spent your teenage years talking to girls instead of writing songs about wishing you could talk to girls, you might well *be* their dad) makes you feel like a dick.

Above all else, though, the main reason I stopped making a racket was frustration. I could never quite turn what I heard in my head into something others could hear, and it was driving me daft. I’d hear stuff by other people and know I could do it better, but I couldn’t express *how* I would make it better. My head was an amazing musician, but when I tried to translate it into something in the real world I was hamstrung by my own limited abilities – both in terms of my ability to play instruments (rudimentary at best) and my ability to explain to other, more talented musicians what I was trying to get across. It’s very frustrating, like trying to play a piano while wearing boxing gloves.

Rationally, giving up music was a sensible move. But it’s an itch that you can never quite scratch, and no matter what’s going on in your life the itch is still there. My dad gave up smoking a few decades ago and says that to this day, he feels there’s something missing: a taste you can’t quite taste, an itch you can’t quite scratch, a gap you can’t quite fill. And music’s exactly like that: sooner or later its absence starts nagging at you.

There’s a cliche that music is a drug, but I think that while the idea is hackneyed it’s also true. Making music delivers some amazing highs – pulling a tune out of thin air, suggesting *this* note instead of *that* note and hearing something amazing, overcoming your stage fright and playing a blinder, losing yourself for hours in a single guitar riff… everyone’s different and as a result the highs they get from music will come from different aspects, but the one thing everyone has in common is that the high you get from music is powerful – and short. In many respects it’s the ultimate drug because while the buzz is short it’s unlike anything you get from anything else in your life (I’m excluding parenthood here because while I suspect it may well offer something similarly amazing, I haven’t experienced it and therefore don’t have a clue) – and once you’ve experienced it, even if you’ve only experienced it for a tiny period of time a long time ago, part of you wants to experience it all over again.

Which, I guess, is a long way of saying that despite my perfectly rational and logical reasons for staying the hell out of making music, I’m writing stuff in my head again. Mrs Bigmouth has very kindly bought me a bass guitar, I’m getting the telecaster out of storage, I’m going to try and locate the effects pedals I loaned out for one night only and never saw again, I’m going to upgrade the Mac so it’s up to the job of recording music, and I’m really into the idea of making a noise again. Not because I want to be a pop star – I’m too old, too ugly and too ornery for that – but because making a god-awful noise is pretty much the most fun you can have without getting arrested.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

* In the jockrock discussion I’ve mentioned, Tony K made an excellent point about the Too Old To Rock thing: our generation is still defining the terms, because for the first time the cool list is growing old and continuing to make music which, in many cases, kicks the arse of the stuff made by younger acts.

12 replies on “Making music: an itch you can’t quite scratch”

Great post Gary. Being more than a little older than you (my first band played Surf Music- when it was on the charts!), and having gone through a variety of roles in the music biz, I can certainly empathize with your “itch”. The joy of connecting to a group of people in a band and to an audience is as close to making love with a crowd as is humanly possible. When you get to that state, repeatedly, is does become an addiction- and very similar to the adrenaline response to nicotine. You’re absolutely right, it is a crap life. Parenthood has its joys, but they are always mitigated with responsibility. Of course, I’m going to play with some old school chums this week-end, I guess I’m still scratching too…

Good post.

I still make music, you know. The band ended when I left Scotland, but I think we were at our peak, and it would have been downhill from there. We got to play with The Fall, and the last CD we did was fantastic – I’m not sure we could have bettered either of those things. I think I might have got bored with it and forced MLG to do an industrial album, or demanded we get a string section, or something stupid like that.

Like yourself, I like pissing about at home with computers. That’s how I started making music. An awful lot of the stuff I start never gets finished, because there comes a point about halfway through, where I can tell what it’s going to sound like when it’s finished, so there’s no need to actually do it.

As for playing live – I find I’m indifferent about it. I loved gigging, and can honestly say I never had stage fright. But these days I’m making music that can’t be played live, and don’t feel the need to do it (despite being asked to now and again).

You’re right about life getting in the way as well. The best stuff I ever did was put together in a few weeks just before I left Glasgow, when I was living on my own with no money, no job, and tons of time on my hands. For once the music came out like it sounded in my head. But there’s no way I’ll ever be that focused again.

I think to make music for yourself, you’ve got to be quite Buddhist about it. Never even consider, far less worry, what other people will think of it. The Residents had it right with their “Theory of Obscurity”. The pop star thing isn’t an issue, because I gave up on that *very* early on. Each and every experience I had with “the industry”, no matter how tangential, left a bad taste in the mouth. I’m no salesman, and promoting my music was my equivalent to your stage fright. I found it easier to promote other people’s. My own website is so unpromoted, even I forget it’s there sometimes.

I think to make music for yourself, you’ve got to be quite Buddhist about it. Never even consider, far less worry, what other people will think of it.

Oh, absolutely. You can’t predict what people will like and it’s pointless to even try. You’d just end up making stuff that doesn’t do it for you, and that doesn’t do it for anybody else either. Much better to do stuff that you’re pleased with, even if you’ll decide it’s crap ten minutes later.

Professor Batty: I think surf music’s probably one of the most entertaining kinds of music to play :)

Incidentally, I really want to talk about Tony’s comment – the “we’re defining the terms” – but I’m swamped just now and can’t say anything sensible.

Every now and again I think about trying to make music again. But, tbh, I don’t really think I’ve got it in me anymore. I seem to have lost the muse. I think I miss it, hard to say.

I recently caught two bands I’d never heard of because I was in a strange-ish town with nothing better to be doing. One were incredibly young kids making perky leftfield pop and brilliant. The other were in their thirties doing brooding alt.country and also excellent. TBH had the ages been swapped around, I suspect that neither band would’ve seemed quite right. (specific to those bands, not the type of music.) So, why can’t we all just get along – age be damned.

Of course, I’m looking forward to the next bunch of 10 year olds making music that sounds like 80 year olds I stumble across.

> our generation is still defining the terms, because for the first time the cool list is growing old and continuing to make music which, in many cases, kicks the arse of the stuff made by younger acts.

I’m not disagreeing, but hasn’t every previous generation said the same thing? Of course, they were wrong and we’re right, but how do we actually go about proving that?

True, but I think this period is more interesting than just a “music was better in our day” generation gap and that’s not what I’m getting at. I’m sure the baby boom is partly responsible – basically you’ve got a situation now where the financial power in the music business is largely in 50 quid bloke, The Dads rather than The Kids, you’ve got yer Dylans and your Stones still kicking around and making new music (irrespective of what you think of that music) and so on. Music used to be something you grew out of, one of the childish things you put away when you grew up. But now, we simply refuse to grow up. I think that’s fascinating.

Did you solve your dilemma, or did you sit there all night paralysed with indecision?

I thought all diet-coke dilemmas involved how to get some inappropriately dressed bloke to flex his muscles at successful career women. You live and learn.

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