Murray A. Lightburn, the longtime frontman of Montreal’s acclaimed The Dears, returns with his deeply personal new solo album, Once Upon A Time In Montreal, available digitally, along with a vinyl edition available online and in stores via Dangerbird Records.
I wrote this tutorial as a guide for my child who has reached the age when one usually starts their first band. However, I do realize that people with musical ideas may start at any point in their life. I was a teenager when I started my first band. I wish I knew all this back then.
Follow The Leader
I am starting with this point to simply get it out of the way. It can be a touchy subject; as much as one will deny, every group needs a leader. If you are starting a band, that person is you. Embrace it now and know the pitfalls. It’s all OK — you don’t have to be a tyrant or a dictator, and the whole thing can still be democratic. A leader is simply the first person to suggest ideas and direction, especially when there isn’t any. The leader will often spearhead initiatives, like writing songs or recording a demo or playing a gig. It’s also OK if someone else gets those ideas first; you can guide someone else’s ideas to their fruition. The leader of the band is to where many group decisions will default. Just know this: Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
You are not a leader if no one is following. There are lots of would-be musicians just sitting around shredding or muddling their way through their favorite songs in their bedroom. Putting a band together is not going to happen overnight. Much like writing a song, start with finding one key person with whom to collaborate. That person is just sitting in their room waiting for that opportunity. Maybe that person is a close friend with some proclivity towards music and just needs a little push to get started. When The Dears started, our first drummer (John Tod) was not a musician at all. He got some drums, and with just the two of us we started very slow, beat by beat. He would eventually play all the drums on our first album and he was absolutely incredible. No one believed that he had not been playing all his life. My favorite performance of his is on the instrumental piece, “Where The World Begins And Ends.” When I listen to that and think of the early days in the basement getting started with John, the transformation is just staggering. If you are reading this and dream of starting a band, you can also reference that tune for inspiration.
After you have found a key partner-in-crime, if you want you can stop there and just go with god. There are so many duos that go on to make a lot of noise and have great global success. The first one that springs to my mind, and who I know and love, are my close friends in Death From Above 1979. I toured with them and got a front row seat to what a two-piece can do, and it is A LOT. However, if you want to form the next Coldplay, you and your new bandmate can, together, source out the rest of your line up in short order. If you want to form, say, the next Broken Social Scene — well, that might take a while longer.
Here is an important thing that kind of sucks: you are going to have to size up these random musical strangers as people too. While it helps to get along, you don’t have to all be best buds. You will have to spot some personality traits that may be red flags:
- Drummers can be major assholes
- Guitarists can have massive egos and think they are indispensable
- Bassists can go awol
- All singers are utterly insufferable
- Keyboardists can be really flaky
Having this general information will help you figure who to put in your band. You will have to weigh talent vs attitude. You will also hope that your tastes are similar. It is a lot of data to process and you will have to do it quickly. Be wise.
You’ve put a band together, now what? You are all in a room and everything is plugged in and the sound of 60 cycle permeates around you. Start making noise. What, pray tell, is the noise you are to make? Hopefully if you are in the same room, there is enough in common between you that will help you get started. You will have to have a great deal of patience at this point. If you thought getting here was hard, this is perhaps even steeper than the previous stage. Some quick decisions should be made. Are you a cover band? Are you just going to start writing songs immediately? You can also combine these things, just to get going. If there is a song everyone kind of knows, start there. This way you can see what you can sound like, and it could be a great motivator. The downside is that playing covers gets stale fast. You might want to consider the “originals” part. Please refer to my guide to songwriting. This is the part that can be done by yourself or with everyone in the room. Start playing a few chords, on a loop. Maybe it’s a beat. The others will noodle their way along until they find a part to play. After several minutes of that, it will most probably start to sound like something. This is by far the most exciting part of starting a band. You will feel like you have discovered a cure for something, or like you invented the wheel. And you’ve only been playing for 10 minutes.
Make Some Noise
After your first “jam session” you will ask when the band should schedule another. With all these people with different lives it can get difficult to make a schedule. When you’re younger you can have more time on your hands and the band could get together every day! Realistically, however, you can try once a week — if everyone can find a day that works. That one day a week is holy. Stick to it and make that noise. In between sessions, you can dream about the noise you want to make. Some people in the band will have different levels of enthusiasm and you will need to keep them inspired. It is important to keep an eye on this. You don’t want the band to fall apart before you even get out of the driveway. It is important to engage them to see what will keep them inspired. Some players will want to be guided more on what to play and some players don’t want to be told anything. If you are the leader you have to be on your toes about this, without being manipulative. Someone has to do that job. Be open about it, discuss the noise you want to make as band. This is paramount. Just don’t waste too much time yapping — get to work!
Practice Makes Perfect
When you have more or less decided on the noise you want to make, this is where the rubber meets the road. Now you have to play your noise over and over and over. When you have done that, do it some more. You will want to develop muscle memory, to get to the point where playing is natural and intuitive. There are songs that I have played so many times, in practice and in performance. I have probably played “Lost In The Plot” 10,000 times and that is probably not an exaggeration. There is not a chance that I don’t know how to play that song. It is as natural as walking and breathing. Getting to that point can get really intricate too — maybe there is a spot in a tune that always sounds weird and wrong. Go over it with a fine tooth comb, component by component, over and over, until it sounds right. You do not want to be practicing the wrong thing. What is the point of all this practicing and getting good at this? Let’s find out!
Showtime Or Studio Time
At this point you and your band are absolutely dialed. You have a solid 30 minutes that you can take anywhere. You have two options: hit the stage or hit the studio. These two options and their results are very different. You might want to play in front of people before cementing your vibe in the studio. Alternatively, you will want to hear what you sound like before presenting to an audience. The two sides inform each other. Are you a studio band or a performance band? Both? A studio band will spend a lot of time on sounds and production and that becomes their thing. You may hit the stage and someone in your band does something crazy, and the crowd goes wild and your next show is sold out. Both of these scenarios can happen. Here is the thing: studio time costs money. You can make a DIY recording too but you will need to invest in the equipment. Either way, you will have to make a financial investment. If this is your choice, try to get everyone in the band to pitch in. An alternate solution would be to play a few gigs. Eventually, you will raise the funds you need to hit the studio.
If you are a new band you might be in a “pay to play” situation — playing for free or “exposure,” playing venues that ask for rental fees, etc. Try your best to avoid this and keep all show-related costs as low as possible. You’ll start with little to no audience, at the very bottom. That’s OK; it will test your mettle. The more you play and build, the more people will catch on, the more money you will raise. You will not need that much money to make a recording. For The Dears’ first album, we rented a 16-track recorder and mixing board, borrowed a few microphones, and bought one reel of tape. It cost us around $1000 Canadian dollars, which is really not much. That’s, theoretically, 100 people paying 10 bucks to see you. Maybe that won’t happen in one show, but it might not take as long as you’d think to accumulate. When you have raised the dough for recording, you can now record a few of your best.
Name Your Band
You are about to set sail on your path as a band. What are you called? This can be so difficult. My only pro tip is don’t be lazy. If you pick a band name, steer clear of confusion. Pick a name that has not been used. Lots of bands screw this part up and it can get sticky. In 2002, we paid to trademark “The Dears” and even included alternate spellings! 25 years later, some young brand new band thought they could get away with a name that sounded exactly like ours, and most of the music press was about to let them get away with it. To us, it was a violation that threatened all that work we did. The headline was that we “forced” them to change their name — as if we were trying to take their lunch money in the school yard. It was a terrible look. However, the truth was: if anyone was forced to do anything, it was us, unfortunately. The experience was excruciating, as for some reason we were publicly crucified on the indie-rock cross for simply protecting our trademarked name. Don’t be lazy, kids; do you research and don’t be a shit. Be original.
You’ve got your name. You’ve played a gig. You’ve recorded a couple of songs. You will want to play more shows and record more songs. You will need band photos. You will want to find people in the music business (lawyer, agent, record label, manager) that can help you reach a wider audience and that could take you around the world. You are now on The Path. You will have to learn the rest along the way like I did, and I am the last person that can tell you how to keep a band together. You will learn everything about yourself, about others, and about the world. Hopefully you will find success, or if you are lucky, it will find you. Be smart. Wherever you are, I hope this information has helped. I’m rooting for you!
You can catch Murray on tour this fall:
10/21: Montreal, PQ @ Espace Knox
10/26: Huntsville, ON @ Algonquin Theatre ^
10/28: Ottawa, ON @ National Arts Centre ^
11/03: London, ON @ Aeolian Hall ^
11/04 : Kingston, ON @ Blu Martini ^
11/05 : Peterborough, ON @ Market Hall ^
11/09: Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall ^
11/24: Vienna, AT @ Blue Bird Festival
11/25: Istanbul, TR @ Zorlu PSM Touch
11/28: Cambridge, UK @ Thirsty
11/29: Nottingham, UK @ Metronome
12/01: London, UK @ St. Pancras Old Church
12/02: Paris, FR @ L’Archipel
12/03: Zwolle, NL @ Theodorachapel
^ Hawksley Workman
(Photo Credit: Richmond Lam)