Last Thursday night, January 14th, 2016, my band Beware of Safety took the stage at the Troubadour for our 10 year anniversary show. It was an incredible mix of emotions: accomplishment, sadness, nostalgia. Mainly though, I felt a sense of wonder that, in my lifetime, I have been afforded an opportunity to do something like this. The reason this is so crazy to me is that music really wasn’t supposed to play any significant part of my life.
As a nod to that, I did something special during the show that I wanted to share.
I first started drumming in 4th grade because I had to pick an instrument to play in our school band (or I would have been forced into chorus). I didn’t want to read music, so, you know, drums. Also, my grandfather had a drum set available that I could use. Mind you, I didn’t just get a drum set, I also got my first teacher who happened to be a former Navy band drummer and student of the great Cozy Cole. Now, that didn’t really mean much to me at the time (because I was stupid): drumming was a choice of convenience, plain and simple.
I got the chance to tell the next part of the story in more depth at my Tower Hill Forum speech last year:
The short version is that I decided to go out for the 2000 Delaware All-State Jazz Band as a Junior in high school. That decision was important for a number of reasons. It was a response to bullying I tolerated for a number of years and was a way to define myself as an individual. It was also where I met Shelly Berg, who, at that time, was the head of the Jazz Studies department at the University of Southern California, my future alma mater.
The three days of All State were incredible, and accelerated my playing dramatically. But, after the intensive instruction and the concert that followed, music was still something secondary that I planned to give up. As I stood on the stage listening to the applause of the audience, I was overcome with a feeling that this was the greatest thing I would ever do with music in my life. And the amazing thing was, I accepted that fact. I believed it so deeply that when I got home from that show, I took the drumsicks I performed with and wrapped them up with a note commemorating that night. For 15 years, they sat on my bedroom shelf back in Delaware.
Now, I did continue to play music actively for two years after that point. My high school rock band Halfslide put out an EP of originals. When I arrived at USC, I played on the Trojan Drumline and in two jazz combos. Come Sophomore year though, I stopped all music cold turkey because it was time to “get serious with engineering”. What a learning experience that was.
Much to my surprise, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Difficult classes combined with severe family illnesses back east pushed me to the absolute brink. The problem was that I had suffocated my other half and had no means to process what I was going through. That was pretty much the bottom for me, and ever since that point I made a concerted effort to put music back in my life. I enrolled in music theory classes, hosted a radio show on KSCR (now KXSC), and started an electronica group called Slow Comfortable Screw.
As I was finishing up my first semester of grad school, I started searching Los Angeles for people to collaborate with. Most attempts didn’t pan out, but one day, an old friend of mine told me about a band he had started listening to called Do Make Say Think. I cued up “Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead” and was blown away. I hadn’t heard anything like it before in my life.
Normally I would search through Craiglist’s musicians personals for “industrial” or “electronica”, but that one afternoon I plugged in “Do Make Say Think”. Low and behold up pops “Instrumental Post Rock – Indie – Drummer Needed”.
I’ve told the Beware of Safety origin story so many times over the past decade, but I’m still floored every time I think about it. 10 years later, I can’t fathom the confluence of events that came together to make this a reality. That, at age 32, I’d be thinking back fondly to my 22 year old self cutting his teeth with these guys:
Every time I go back to Delaware, I’ve looked at the drumsticks sitting in their wrapper on my bedroom shelf next to the other odds and ends from my childhood. When I taped them in their packaging in 2000, they were a monument to a great achievement in my life. In the winter of 2002, they were a harsh reminder of a time when I had music as part of my day to day existence. After starting Beware of Safety in 2005, they were no longer a monument, but merely a gate that I passed through on my musical journey. This past December, though, as I took a break from my practice pad, I picked up the sticks and I realized they were symbol of my closed mindedness and lack of vision.
Maybe that’s too harsh of a self criticism, but, as I’ve said many times before, we live our lives at a fraction of our potential. Far too often, we shrug off opportunity. Far too often, we give up on ideas or dreams because they’re not realistic, or profitable, or what we’re supposed to do.
Here’s the thing: doing the reasonable thing didn’t get me into that All State Jazz Band back in 2000. It didn’t introduce me to Shelly Berg or bring me to the University of Southern California. Hosting a college radio show wasn’t the reasonable thing for an Astronautics major to do, nor was joining up with three guitarists I met on Craigslist to form a band with no bassist and no vocals.
The unreasonable thing put my band’s records in the hands of people all over the world. It let me play drums and keyboards in most of the states in this country and on two continents. It let me hear some kid in Poland with little grasp of the English language scream “John Bonham!” at me. It let me perform in front of my drumming hero. Yes, my “academic” life is an illustration that reasonable choices do yield successes. But sometimes unreasonable things do too.
And so instead of setting the drumsticks back on the shelf, I put them in my suitcase. While I was on stage at the Troubadour last Thursday, I unwrapped them and used them to perform “Kaura“, the first song I ever played with (what would become) Beware of Safety. Afterwards, I placed them back in their wrapper. I did this not to commemorate that night, but to serve as a reminder to myself that the only limits that we have in our lives are the ones we set for ourselves. Most of the time, those limits are far, far below what we’re actually capable of.
Whether last Thursday was the mountaintop or merely a foothill on the pathway there, here’s to what comes next.