Saturday, 17 May 2014

Alcohol and Performance

You may not know me in this particular capacity, but in a former life I was actually a musician. From age 16 to around 33 I wrote songs and played guitar in various bands until one day I decided I was tired of constantly trying different chords next to each other, attempting to communicate my vision to other musicians and hoping someone would actually care, while what I really wanted to do was play a bit more sport before my body gave out. I quit the band and went from playing football once a week to twice – that was the plan at least – the 1st time I played a second time in a week, I twisted my knee pretty badly and ended up on crutches, putting my first ever Spanish golf holiday in jeopardy.

My knee still isn’t quite right (more than 2 years later), but after a long period of recovery I went back to playing football once a week. I didn’t go back to music straight away though – nor did I miss it. Gone were the days when I thought in music and obsessed about it. I felt it was a shame that I couldn’t call myself a musician anymore, and I felt sad that my skills honed over years of serious playing would atrophy but… you can always go back later in life if you want to – it’s not unlike riding a bike...

…as I have found now that I have returned to music in a much reduced capacity. My friend David’s band required a bass player – for a few upcoming gigs in the first instance – so I offered to help out. I do miss the exhilaration of gigging, of entering a venue just as a guy, and leaving it feeling that you own it – not so much, doing a bad gig and feeling depressed about it, but you got to take the rough with the smooth. So this is good because it requires none of the effort of writing songs and leading a band, but I do get to play gigs pretty much straight away – and in case you didn’t know, guitar players make the best bass players – it’s just hard to convince a guitar player to switch to the bass. Luckily for Custom 12 (as they’re known), I like the bass (thanks to the music of James Brown as well as players such as Mike Watt) and I’m fairly good at it – in my own way.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to change this into a blog about the band or about music, but it does mean that I can cover another aspect of experiencing alcohol, which is what this blog is all about – that of performance and alcohol. I’m not talking sexual performance here, though that could potentially be far more interesting (by which I mean x-rated) because alcohol lowers the inhibitions… and that coincidentally is where alcohol comes in useful in the performance of music – to a degree at least, because as we’ll see, there are parameters that need to be adhered to. Sexual performance and alcohol… can be one for the future.

I remember my first ever gig [wistfully]. My friend Phil and I performed as an acoustic duo in the upstairs room of Sheffield’s The Grapes pub. I was so nervous that I was shaking during the soundcheck. I knew I couldn’t perform like that. Your accuracy and timing can be all over the place when you’re nervous – though conversely,  it can also help you perform to the best of your ability; it’s like you might hear it said that sportsmen ‘raise their game’ against the strongest opponents. It’s a fine line. I later learned not to be so nervous, but on that occasion I knew I needed alcohol.

I think I drank three pints and two double vodkas before we hit the stage that night, and the gig went really well. There was one point where I forgot the next bit of a song called ‘Let’s Make Friends’, and I just paused, trying desperately to remember the next part. Phil continued for a few bars and then stopped.

Keep going, mate!” I urged.

He set off again, and that proved the jolt I needed to get the next few bars back in my head. I jumped in, and we finished the song triumphantly.

I learned soon after that there is such a thing as too much alcohol before a gig – three pints and two double vodkas would normally represent far too much, but on that first occasion it did the job. Easily the worst example of too much was when my friend Pits and I went to a birthday party in Macclesfield where they had band equipment set up. Having been in a band together before, we figured we could do a quick rendition of Neil Young’s Hey Hey, My My which is a particular favourite of mine. Pits decided he would play the drums, despite his enthusiasm far exceeding his ability on that particular instrument.

I don’t like thinking about the performance, but let’s just say we were very drunk and it was shit. I knew it was shit from the moment we started, but we ploughed on, all the while aware that it wasn’t getting any better. Occasionally I manage to forget about the whole experience for a while… but then I remember. It’s like when you’ve done something bad that you feel really guilty about and you hate yourself for it, then you forget for a bit, and you go, “wait, I was feeling bad about something… what was I feeling bad about?... oh yeh.” It’s ruined that song for me. I was hoping writing about it might make me feel better, but it’s just reminded me again. I actually started writing about the episode in more detail, thinking it would be an entertaining story, but it was just too painful. Anyway…

It really is a shame that you need to moderate your alcohol intake before a gig because there is often a lot of waiting around, and waiting around breeds nerves – will we play well? Will we be able to hear ourselves? Will there be anyone there to hear us? Too much alcohol though, and I find you can become numb to the music; disconnected and clumsy – you don’t know it until you’ve performed in a band, but a lot of the time you can’t actually hear yourself on stage, or you can’t hear the other members, so it can be very difficult to play tightly and in time. It only takes one person to make a mistake in order to put everyone off, and the more complicated you make your songs, the more things there are to go wrong. Too little alcohol though, and you can be nervous, stiff and boring.

I found through experimentation that my optimum alcohol intake for improved musical performance is three pints. I could have more in rehearsal, but when it came to be the night of the gig, I always stopped at three – but tried to make up for it afterwards. I never made it policy in my bands, but as far as I can remember, each member stuck to it – no one wants to look like an idiot on stage, or be the one to let the side down – that’s why you get nervous in the first place. There aren’t many people who can be the onstage drunk, and get away with it. And if you’re serious about being in a band, you need to be professional. Being in a band is one of the few potential career paths where alcohol is a possibility – even mandatory – but if you don’t do a good show no one is going to like you and you aren’t going to have fun.

I suppose the worst case scenario would be like the bootleg recording I once heard of Jimi Hendrix jamming with Jim Morrison. Morrison was a mess, and just spent the whole time slurring expletives into the mic – poet, my ass. Not cool, even for him. So this is probably the only exception I have found to the BTMTNE rule – Better Too Much Than Not Enough.

I joined Custom 12 four weeks before they were scheduled to play a show at Manchester’s Retro Bar. We managed one (and pretty much) a half rehearsals before David and I had a week’s golfing booked in Spain, after which there was a week in which we couldn’t rehearse due to practice room issues, before finally getting three rehearsals in the week before the gig itself. I put in a bit of time at home as well – I wasn’t going to be the weak link if I could help it.

Summer had hit the UK at last, and on the Sunday before the gig Mrs Cake and I took a walk to a nearby pub and sat in the beer garden with a pint (Bohemia Regent for me, Manchester Pale Ale for the missus). It was one of those days where you have to go out and do something because otherwise it’s a crime. I so desperately wanted to stay there all afternoon, but no, I had a rehearsal that evening, and since there was a gig coming up in a week and I hadn’t even learned all the songs yet, I knew I couldn’t show up pissed. At the ripe old age of 35 it seems, I’ve finally learned some self-control. There’s a time for being cool and rock n’ roll, and there’s a time for being professional. When you’re new to a band and you want to impress, you need to be professional. I would just have to look forward to getting home later that night, when I had decided I’d allow myself to open my Gran Duque D’Alba Solera Gran Riserva brandy.

When I joined the band I was a little excited about being able to make choices about what to drink at rehearsal again. Beer is the classic choice of course, but buying 4-8 cans of something nice every week can get expensive after a while – especially when you have to pay for the rehearsal room and a couple of drinks at the pub beforehand.

To deal with that expense, in the past I would call at Aldi on my way and pick up a bottle of red wine for £2.99. I could make that last two rehearsals, or just get smashed each week. It hasn’t actually worked out that way so far, unfortunately. I’ve been a bit hard up for the last few months, so I’ve been driving to rehearsal with a single can in my bass bag, and having a couple of drinks when I get home instead. And that’s actually ok. I don’t have to deal with the bus home and it saves me money.

As for the gig, well that went well too. I was a lot more relaxed than I used to be – confident that I’d done enough to learn the songs and, since now I’m just the bass player and not the focal point, the whole thing doesn’t rest on me. I don’t have to take personal ownership over everything, which means the pressure is greatly reduced. Correspondingly, the glory afterwards isn’t quite so pronounced either, but for now, I’m happy with that. I just need to make sure my parts are good and that I play them well. It all makes for good times.

Thanks for reading. I was just perusing some of my previous posts and figured some of the personality has dropped out since I stopped posting on a Friday night… I don’t really want to start doing that again, but… for the moment it seems potentially worthwhile. It was kind of nice to sign off with a weekend of booze-fuelled adventures ahead. So here I am, and while it was supposed to be Friday night again, I ended up going to the pub after work, and didn’t fancy sitting at the computer. So now it’s Saturday evening, and while I was intending to be at the Levenshulme Beer Festival by now, I’m actually still waiting to go. We ended up doing a marathon shop in advance of next weekend’s music and booze fest – Bearded Theory (which you might remember me blogging about last year) and now we’re just chillin’ for a bit.  

The weather’s good though, so maybe I’ll see you at the Levy Fest in an hour or so, or at Bearded Theory next week. Have a good ‘un and I’ll see you back here next week (though probably on Thursday rather than Friday), when at this point I am intending to post about an Irish Cream three-way. It’s not quite as interesting as it sounds, but if you like Irish Cream and you want to know how three different brands compare… this is where you want to be. So, yeh… not as interesting as I made it sound. BOOBIES!


  1. Alcohol or not, you're a much better musician than you let on.

  2. aw, that's like the nicest thing anyone's ever said. much appreciated!