OUR BAND COULD ACTUALLY BE YOUR LIFE

Aftershock 1

The alt-rock explosion spawned a generation of musical dreamers. Here’s what happened to one young band (named, appropriately enough, Aftershock) and its members’ dreams…

BY J.T. ESS

“Jimmy quit. Joey got married. I should have known we’d never get far.”

                        —Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69”

This story began in the dimly lit basement of a middle school gymnasium.  Seven 6th graders stood behind their snare drums in a semi-circle while their instructor looked them each in the eye and made the following point in an emphatic, deliberate tone. A tone that conveyed that there was only one answer he would accept in response. 

     “If you want to play a trap set one day then you have to learn to tap your foot while you play.”

     “You do want to play the trap set one day, don’t you?”

     He went around the room one by one, and everyone answered in the affirmative. The answer was “yes” before any of them even had the remotest idea that anything significant may result from that moment. I was among those 6th graders that day and that moment still soundly reverberates with me. I have dreamed countless times of performing and attending concerts in that gymnasium. My subconscious mind has indelibly linked that moment to my fascination with music. I loved music before that day, but it was there, in that poorly lit basement room, that I learned how to play music.

 Aftershock 2

“Pretty girl keep growing up, playing makeup, wearing guitar.””

            —The Replacements, “Left of the Dial”

I grew up in a small rural town located in northwest Tennessee. Mark Twain once said that if the world were to end, then he would move to Kentucky “because it’s always twenty years behind the times.” My hometown could definitely relate to that sentiment since at times it seemed like our only connections to the outside world were the drippings of pop culture that would come our way from the already two to three years behind the times metropolis of Memphis, TN.

     In the mid-to-late ’90s, I had the good fortune to be part of a band made up of a few of my high school friends. This group had all the trappings of any run of the mill “Behind The Music” episode, in part, due to an ever-revolving cast of characters either in the lead singer or bass guitarist positions. A running joke during our approximately three and a half year run as a musical entity revolved around the idea of starting a “no bass” revolution. In our youthful naiveté, we never seriously considered that a music group consisting solely of a drummer and a guitarist would ever appeal to enough people to garner any tangible level of attention. Though the majority of our public performances were as a full band, including a singer and bass guitarist, we mostly practiced as a duo and ended up playing a few times for friends under this guise; however, most of those “shows” ended with everyone meandering slowly away as our set wound to an end, and jumping on the trampoline in my backyard while we bashed away the last few chords of Green Day’s “Basket Case.”

     In retrospect, perhaps this had more to do with those setlists heavily focusing on early Nirvana tunes, such as “Floyd the Barber,” rather than any lack of interest due to people’s love for the bass guitar. Whatever the reason, we never gave the idea of going for it as a duo much credence, and took the lack of a stable presence behind the bass guitar as a sign that we should never take music too seriously.  After all, the prototypical band has always possessed the same four key elements—vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. This is the way it is, has been, and always will be in most people’s minds.

Little did I know, bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys were only a couple of years away from breaking into the big time.  Bands like Japandroids and No Age soon followed suit, and now it is quite commonplace to see a guitarist/drummer duo rocking out at festivals and clubs across the nation. We were a few years too soon and far too inexperienced to push forward into what we perceived as undiscovered territory; however, just a few years later many bands would show that it could be done and done well.

The previous barriers of the music industry have now fallen and the Internet has opened paths once closely guarded. Paths that now allow for the sort of exposure and dissemination previously withheld from the average Joe. There is an increased knowledge of musical diversity and a greater mechanism for getting your ideas out there than just simply swapping cassette tapes within Smalltown, USA, population 3000, and growing more stagnant with each passing year. However, in full disclosure, I’m not really sure that this information would have changed the trajectory of our band or truly altered the inevitable fate we eventually resigned ourselves to.

“When you sit in your room and play guitar you don’t have to worry about being successful. It’s not going to happen, it’s just not gonna happen.” 

—Eddie Vedder, “Pearl Jam 20” documentary 

           

It was Christmas. I was 15 years old, and my parents had finally been worn down enough by my incessant pleading to buy me Nirvana’s Nevermind and a drum set. I wore those songs—and the cheap plastic heads on that drum set—out for the next week, and then I got the call that forever changed the course of the rest of my time in high school. On New Year’s Day, my friend, Jake Arnold, gave me a ring to let me know that he, Jeremy Lanier, and Joseph Powell had all received instruments for Christmas and had decided to try and start a band at a New Year’s Eve lock-in they had all attended the night before. In his smooth, used car salesman-like spiel, he tried to persuade me to join the band. I grew skeptical as he laid out the idea they had concocted the night before: I would play drums, Joseph would play guitar, Jeremy would play a bass guitar tuned down a whole step, and Jake would play the distorted bass – which was apparently going to be a bass guitar plugged into a fuzz pedal.

     Not necessarily the best foundation for a band’s formative lineup; however, Jake could be very persuasive.

     Before long we decided to document the progression of our rehearsals. During a practice in my bedroom in late January, we tried our hands at recording. Meticulously, yet with the grace of a newborn foal, we plodded through a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The feelings that I have associated with that experience are all positive and unadulterated; however, listening to that recording more than a decade later brings to mind words like tenuous and bland, and thanks to the distorted bass it sounds as if a swarm of bees had descended upon my bedroom.

     Soon, we began practicing with greater frequency and, though we were expanding our repertoire, we decided it was time to record another version of “Teen Spirit” in order to gauge our progression from the first recording made only a few weeks before.

     As was Arnold’s custom, he showed up late for practice on the day we had decided to start off our practice with this recording session. Frustrated, we decided not to wait for him and proceeded to play the song without him. Not long after we finished, he came traipsing up the stairs to my bedroom with his bass in tow, and we continued on with our practice without redoing our recording. Later that night at a high school basketball game we attended, the recording that we had made without him made the rounds among our friends on my Walkman and headphones.  This was the first demonstration to our friends that we were an actual functioning band, and it excluded one of our core members – the one who had actually gotten the ball rolling to start the band.

Though Arnold was unreliable, he was an extremely good bass player. The recording we made that day made it clear that we were better off as a three-piece, but the harsh truth to the matter was that we were better off with Arnold than Jeremy.

From that day forward, we started distancing ourselves from Jeremy little by little. We began practicing less and less over the next couple of months and eventually only a few months into the band, Jeremy was out.

“I am made up of blue sky and hard rock and I will live this way forever”

            —Pavement, “Demolition Plot” 45 liner notes

Instead of taking off, things cooled dramatically after we parted ways with Jeremy. Arnold was as unreliable as ever, and this may have contributed to the irregularity of our practices. We were beginning to develop our own original songs and seemed to really bog down at this nascent stage in our development. More so, it seemed like we were entering a phase where the newness had worn off a bit and it became more fun to talk about being in a band than to work at it.

     Despite this, by the next spring Joseph, Jake, and I had begun to develop into a very tight group whenever we actually got together to play. We were getting much better at our respective instruments, and decided to make one more recording of the Nirvana song. We were a much-improved unit and proceeded to bash out a near perfect punk-like rendition. And yet, in spite of our obviously growing chemistry, we were having trouble finding time to get together and jam as a whole group. Then came the long plateau of mediocrity known as summer break.

     That summer I got comfortable and stopped pushing myself with the same driven approach that I had over the past year during my personal practice sessions. This may have been partially attributable to the fact that I never let myself get serious about our original arrangements, since not only were we without a singer, but we lacked a reliable bass player. On top of that, we had no good way to record our material as a full band.

      Despite our best attempts to waste away into slackerdom, that summer did yield a significant milestone for our band—our first live gig. This performance consisted solely of Joseph and me running through an impromptu setlist of songs that we regularly played in practice. We invited our friends over to my house and set up our equipment outside underneath the carport. We ran through a litany of Nirvana covers, a number of Deftones songs, as well as selections from Foo Fighters and Green Day to name a few. Disappointingly, the reaction of the crowd was mediocre at best, with only one or two of our friends showing any genuine intrigue.

“We’re not just kids, to say the least. We got ideas, to us that’s dear.”

            —The Pixies, “U-Mass”

Apparently, First Baptist is the place to go when looking for new band members. This same church had also sponsored the New Year’s Eve lock-in that ignited our mutual endeavor into music.

     Before long Arnold made it clear that he wanted Lyle Epperson, who ran in the fringes of our group, to join the band, and so we all met up at First Baptist one night after services for his audition. Lyle crooned out his vocals while strumming the guitar. He was barely able to finish the second verse of the song he had chosen to play before Arnold excitedly stopped him and informed him that he was in the band. Despite whatever was occurring in the music scene at large, I was not keen on the idea of having a Scott Stapp/Creed clone as our lead singer.

     After Lyle joined, we steadily increased the frequency of our practices, though Arnold’s attendance was less than stellar. During most of these, Lyle and Joseph would play various songs from Creed, and I would sit behind the drums in silence, hoping they would quickly get it out of their systems so we could move on to the next song. They never did, and Joseph went as far as to print Creed drum tabs for me. Soon my comments about wanting to start a no-bass revolution, and push forward without Lyle and Arnold, started coming with more frequency and less joking. My distaste for Lyle and Arnold was growing with each passing week, but we pushed on.

     Eventually, Joseph, Lyle, and I began going to a friend’s house to record some of our original songs because he owned a great set of speakers, a dual cassette recording deck, and a good quality microphone. These recording sessions consisted of Joseph and Lyle on guitars, with Lyle and me providing vocals. A few months later, Joseph got a 4-track recorder and we finally had a way to independently record our music with a greater degree of quality than we previously had been able to attain on my cassette boom box.

     One of our friends who lived on a farm just outside of town decided to host a Halloween party and approached the band to see if we would stage the main event. Before the Halloween party, our band’s performances had consisted of open practice sessions that Joseph and I held periodically; however, we would now finally perform as a full band. Because of this, there was considerable pressure to play well, especially since we were hoping to garner some excitement for our performance at our school’s talent show later that semester. 

     It turned out that approximately thirty people showed up, which greatly excited us considering that at times bands like Black Flag and The Replacements had played for a mere four or five people early on in their careers. The vibe resonating from everyone in attendance for our half hour show was one of surprise due to the fact that our performance was far better than they had expected. Anticipation for our appearance in the talent show began to build as word of mouth spread from those in attendance to others at our school.

“I never thought that I would get to that point. I just thought that I would be in a band and maybe make a demo, but for them to play it on the radio was too much to ask for at the time.”

—Kurt Cobain, Car Radio Interview excerpt from the “About a Son” compilation”

I knew from the second that I saw Arnold walk through the double doors at school on the morning of the talent show that it would be the last time I would ever play in a band with him. Whereas the rest of the band had chosen to wear the same clothes they may have worn on any other day, Arnold came in that day wearing a shiny silver button-up shirt and a pair of black wide-leg jeans with a wallet chain. He was the type of person who focused on getting the next leg up on the social ladder. Countless times he walked away from me in the middle of conversation if someone he deemed more interesting came within earshot, and he constantly adapted in order to match whatever social circumstances he found himself in.

     Our performance in the talent show turned out to be a success in the sense that all of our friends loved it, and there was a lot of pride to be felt in that. However, we came in fourth place behind our school’s resident opera singer, a karaoke-style take on the Spice Girls, and a good ol’ boy’s rendition of a recent song from the Top 40 country music chart.

Throughout all of this, my reputation as an up and coming drummer in our town was starting to attract some attention in the circles I ran in, and before long two older guys that I knew came to me in an effort to get me to join their band. The intriguing part of this offer was that they always had a steady schedule of gigs lined up at the local bars in the area. My own band was falling apart but I possessed a strong loyalty to Joseph, and this new venture would have left him completely out. 

***

Knowing time was running out as I prepared to leave for college, Joseph and I tried to make the most of our time off for both Christmas Break and Spring Break. These breaks turned into periods of intense work and creative development. The meat of our original material selections was fleshed out during these periods using Joseph’s 4-track recorder.

     We did encounter a few bumps along the way due to Joseph experiencing various stages of depression around this time due to a repetitious cycle of quick break-ups with a succession of girlfriends. He quietly retreated into his own mind’s eye and brooded in the background while we were at school. I joined him there on more than a couple of occasions, but his depressive moods far outlasted my own. Day after day I would show up at his house to either hang out or work on new material and find him desperate to retreat back into isolation as he tried to distance himself from the outside world.

     Despite all of this, we were able to produce a number of good quality songs. The material we worked out during this period came to represent our best efforts to get complete songs on tape. Joseph was becoming more adept at layering his guitars and was able to work up some intriguing instrumental numbers. I refused to work with Lyle by this point and Joseph seemed fine with that. So I barked out lyrics, which had been written more than a year before when Joseph, Jake, and I were a collective unit, to guitar parts that Joseph laid down. Ironically, these sessions solidified the basis for our sound at the crest of our band’s slow march toward… extinction. 

***

Coda: Music possesses a unique and special quality that affects our brains in a way nothing else on this planet does. You can hear a song for the first time in a decade and still remember a majority of the lyrics and the exact moment when the drums come crashing in just before the chorus. I went to the Memphis in May music festival to see Foo Fighters—my first major concert—the summer after my senior year of high school. When I think back to that night, I realize that even though playing music in a band turned out not to be my calling, it provided inspiration and guidance, and ultimately the soundtrack of my life. So many of my memories are indelibly linked to songs that I have loved over the years. I may have failed at music, but music has never failed me.

Photos courtesy the author. This story originally appeared in issue 13 of BLURT.

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