The Boloby Manifesto:
A Modest Proposal for Making Music Fun Again
Zen and the Art of Tilting At Windmills
I was done. Finished. Finito. After years of performing in a handful of bands that never went anywhere, the dissolution of my last band coincided with the degradation of my physical health, and I knew there was no going back. Having been diagnosed with two chronic illnesses in 1999, I’d known for a while that I had a double-dose of nastiness waiting to rear its head, because for most of that time, I had no symptoms. And then I did, and so went my life as a performing musician. But that didn’t mean I was done with music. As long as I can still use a computer, there’s work to do. That’s because for me, music is more than just writing and performing songs — that is only a starting point.
Well, then, what is the purpose of the band? If it’s not the music, is it the lyrics? How important is image? And what about recording? What is the optimum level of production? Should bands sign to major labels? Should they release their music as digital downloads only, or should they press records? These questions have been debated to death, and I’m not really interested in adding to the noise. But to sort of answer the first question — and get to where I want this conversation to go — the purpose of a band is for it to be what it is to the fullest extent. And that means ignoring the naysayers. But we’ll get to them later.
I’m not a music critic. I’m not concerned with picking apart songs for review or matters of genre. Rather, there’s a larger conversation about the structure and function of the band that I would like to see engaged. And that starts with format.
My goal isn’t to have everyone follow the same format but to create their own. And the first step is being aware that there is a format. I want bands to consider the bigger picture and understand that everything they do exists within a certain context. I want them to see things contextually at all times, to view live shows as more than just randomly playing a set of songs, as if it’s just band practice with a bunch of people watching. I want them to be excited by the possibilities that a live performance allows, to understand that when you’re onstage, you have the freedom to do just about anything you want, and that this thought alone should inspire endless enthusiasm and ideas. I want bands to feel the joys of planning a show, to feel the high you get from plotting and scheming to create a situation in a room full of people, examining the various ways to interact with them and influence what happens.
At its most basic form, being in a band is nothing more than making music. But it can be so much more. At its best, it’s nothing short of creating your own reality — a three-dimensional, multimedia entity that transcends the limits of genre. But for some reason, there’s a school of thought that promotes a songs-only approach and argues that bands that try to do more shouldn’t be taken as seriously. Its adherents often focus on originality but only in terms of sound, ignoring other elements like performance and communication.
The conversation should grow beyond this false duality (duel-ality?) of “real bands” and “gimmick bands,” with the assumption that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s a conversation I don’t hear very often because most people just take it for granted and don’t really care. But I do, having made considerable effort over the years, through my various bands, to offer something more than a linear set of songs. I’ve found that people actually do like it when a band goes the extra mile, yet for whatever reason, most people don’t expect anything more and accept the fact that bands can put zero effort into their live performance and it’s A-OK. No, it’s not. It’s boring, unimaginative, lazy and predictable. So allow me equal time to try balancing the scales of snobbery a bit.
The problem is the mistaken belief that the songs are the main aspect, the focal point of the show. It’s not the songs themselves but the act of the band sharing their songs with the audience. Bands do not perform in a vacuum; the audience is equally important. That’s the live element in a nutshell. It’s everything you can’t get by listening to a recording or watching a video. Everything is fair game when you have the stage. It’s your time to shine, to live out any wild fantasy you can think of and successfully execute. The trick is finding a way to integrate something that fits with the music. That’s why it’s important to explore the context.
Performances never happen in a vacuum. The venue and the audience is every bit as important as the people on stage. Also consider the venue, the town, the other bands — even the date can be significant. To wit: One of my bands opened for the SuicideGirls burlesque tour in Miami. The date of the show was Jan. 23, 2004, or 1/23/04 — or, in band-speak, “1, 2, 3, 4.” There was only one option I saw: a suicide cult that believed the world ends on that date. And so the band did, calling ourselves “Billy Boloby and the People’s Gate” (referencing the People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate). We kept the theatrics to a minimum, mostly at the end, when we handed out Kool-Aid, solicited money and took a gulp after the last song (with the punch line that my drink wasn’t dosed, and after surviving I stole the other band members’ wallets and left). This wasn’t the most brilliant thing by any stretch of the imagination, but it made sense, was simple enough to execute without detracting from the music, and was loads of fun and a hell of a lot more interesting than if we had just gone up there and played Song 1, song 2, Song 3, etc.
Here’s what I don’t get: Bands that do theatrical stuff are often berated for being “gimmicky,” regardless of the quality of their songs. Sure, there are some bands that really lack talent and make up for it with a wacky shtick. But many of the bands I’ve seen that put on a good show are as musically sound as their less inventive counterparts. And those that aren’t as talented usually turn up the crazy, and I end up enjoying them immensely. Bands should be applauded for going the extra mile, not ridiculed or scoffed at.
I don’t expect or even desire every band become a “live band” that puts on a spectacle. But there should be more of a reason for fans to see a band than just to see them in person. Bands should offer something more than just playing songs. Otherwise, the audience would do just as well to listen to a recording. It’s like reverse lip-syncing … sort of.
If you snickered while reading my account of the People’s Gate, trust me: My old band came up with far stupider shticks than that. Some went over like a lead balloon, and I couldn’t wait to get off the stage. However, because we were always putting ourselves out there like that — vulnerable to looking like boobs and often succeeding in that — it wasn’t possible for us to be pretentious. In fact, being anti-pretentious was one of our top priorities. I’ve always felt it’s one of the best ways to connect with the audience. Plus, it’s actually a lot of fun to “let your guard down” and act silly, the way you do when you’re with your friends, when “outsiders” aren’t around. Only, this time they are around, and if you’re truly comfortable with what you’re doing, they’ll understand and share in the feeling. Those moments were always my favorites, when I could look out at the crowd and get that “at home” feeling because they acknowledged that they get what I’m doing.
Ah, but that’s just my particular brand of performance. Silliness doesn’t work for a lot of bands, and for these types, I wouldn’t recommend they try it. Sometimes bands that are painfully earnest can manage to do so without being vain (or yawn-inducingly bland), and it’s quite inspiring. If the vocalist has the right persona, it can be a refreshing experience to see someone be serious without putting on an act. Conversely, some performers put on such a ridiculous and exaggerated air of cool that it transcends the realm of pretension (think Lux Interior of the Cramps). It’s all in the execution.
Speaking of which …
BAND AND AUDIENCE
Though I’m a fan of big stage shows, sometimes less is more. In fact, one of my biggest influences as a musician was Jonathan Richman, a man whose performances are pure minimalism. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a microphone (and an occasional drummer, whose kit consisted of only a snare, kick and hi-hat), the former Modern Lovers frontman showed me the importance of establishing a connection with the audience and how to play off it. When I saw him live, it was just Richman and his songs, but the connection he made to the audience was so palpable, it was an entity in itself — the pure essence of live performance.
Acoustic performers have the potential to create an intimacy that electric bands generally aren’t afforded. But when they’re done half-assed, they’re just boring. That’s why the performer has to know what he or she is doing, which makes this a very hit-or-miss approach. In this situation, it’s good to allow for spontaneity. Without the noise of a full band, the potential for dialogue with the audience is greater. The ability to jump in and engage audience members is what makes an acoustic performer worth watching. It’s about creating a certain atmosphere.
CREATE YOUR OWN UNIVERSE
Whether through stage shows, album packaging, web site content, videos or merchandise, there’s a freedom bands are allowed that goes far beyond the narrow dimensions of pure sound. This is how to create identity, and the limits for what you can do are defined only by how far your mind will take you.
The key is to think big. Unrealistically big. Like, conquer-the-world big. Even if it amounts to only a fifth of what you’d hoped for, it’s good to pump up the creative spirit so full of wild-eyed ideas that you can’t help being enthusiastic. Even if the end result is not as earth-shattering as you’d hoped, it’s worth it for the process itself. Just as you would plan thoroughly for an album — deciding on a cover photo, inside art, lyrics, liner notes, etc. — a live show should be no different.
When I was an active musician, I was always coming up with ideas — some good, many bad — but that part of my brain was always “on.” It’s the only way I know how to operate in a creative capacity, and it’s why I’m so completely obsessed with this whole thing. It’s also why I get annoyed every time I hear some snobbish prick belittle “gimmick bands.” There are far worse things a band could be. Like a cliché.
STOP THE CLICHÉS
Up until now, I’ve been trying to remain “non-partisan,” so to speak, to avoid framing any of this in the context of a particular genre. But goddamn if I’m not sick to death of people blindly subscribing to the same cookie-cutter, assembly line routine, neatly fitting into these neat little categories and playing it safe.
Open up any rock music magazine, mainstream or otherwise, and just look. Do you notice a trend? No? I’m not surprised. It’s like an unspoken rule that we just accept the fact that musicians have to look a specific way, based on their particular type of music. I understand that bands like to wear their influences on their sleeves, and I certainly have been guilty of it myself over the years. But I made a concerted effort to counter the more egregious banalities, namely being the rock ’n’ roll cool guy who’s always wasted (or acting wasted). Look, I got no problem with bands getting messed up and acting foolish. But if you’re going to get messed up and act foolish, don’t be a bloody cartoon character. Inebriation can result in regressive behavior, and that can make for a good or bad performance, depending on how you regress. If it functions to unpeel the layers of societal conditioning and unlocks more of your true self, that’s a good thing; it’s fun, it’s more honest, and it usually doesn’t lead to violence. However, if being under the influence causes someone to act out on some misguided notion of being “rock ’n’ roll” or whatever, the results are not pretty.
This all goes back to the idea that when you’re onstage, you have the power to create or, at least, largely control the situation. You’re in the driver’s seat. But who are “you”? When I created the Billy Boloby persona, my goal was to be as close to my true “self” as possible, unaffected by all the social constructs. I wanted to act as if no one else were around. I was aiming for a sense of purity, I guess, and definitely an alternative to the prevailing stereotypes of the day: the preening neo-garage-rock hipster, the brooding indie-rocker and the aggro punk rocker.
Keep in mind, all this has to do with attitude, not dress. For example, I’ve been wearing blazers since about 1994, and though that look became trendy in the 2000s (among the so-called “hipster” crowd), I realized that no matter how I dressed, I’d be lumped into the wrong category anyway. I knew the important thing was not to find clothing that fit my personality, but to make my personality my clothing. I value bands that are able to transcend their genre and stand out as individuals, and they always seem to be in short supply.
Again, to be completely clear, I don’t have anything against bands that lack theatrics. Some are just damn good songwriters, and they’d do just as well to put all their focus on writing good hook-laden tunes and avoiding the piecemeal approach of throwing together random guitar riffs and hoping they fit. There are a lot of great bands going right now. There are also a lot that suck. But even more than that, the majority of bands are just sort of there. They’re decent enough at their instruments and write sufficiently listenable tunes, but they’re virtually indistinguishable from each other. They all operate on the same template, and when their songs don’t do anything particularly interesting, we’re left with a whole lot of mediocrity.
And you know what? That’s fine. Most people are not particularly gifted or extraordinary, so it’s only fitting that their bands are equally uninspired. But for the people who do possess that special creative flair, it pains me to see wasted potential when they just rehash the same old song and dance. These are the people I’m trying to reach. Bands can wield a lot of power on stage, and some of them just need to realize it. So to make things a little easier, I’m offering proper documentation for them to display on the stage or in their rehearsal space — wherever it will help remind them and those watching who’s in charge.