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Annie, Get Your Drums

The pouting! The cell phone bills! The rock star insouciance! All that glitters is not gold as a new band takes flight. A rock & roll diary.


Editor's Note: Annie Koh is a 25-year-old drummer and arts organizer. After listening to music all her life, she got off her duff and formed a pop band with three girlfriends. This is her story.

Sound Check: Aug. 30, 2002

Before we settled on a band name, we had offers from bookers. Before we could even play our instruments, we had groupies. Before we had songs, we snagged a producer. This is the story of four women, three amps, two personal digital assistants and one drum kit.

Some say love is like a river that drowns the tender reed. But nearly everyone says being in a band is like being married to three other people--but without the honeymoon. When freshly moved-in roommate Titania and I first eyed each other's instruments and mouthed, "Girl band," I had little notion we'd end up with MP3s and VH1 Behind the Music drama.

One of the benefits of making most of your friends through arts organizations is that invariably many of said friends own and/or play musical instruments. Community youth organizer Jane had acquired an electric bass years ago from a friend, and arts impresario Samantha had toted her acoustic guitar cross-country from New England. Two guitars, a bass and drums? Time to rock.

First Practice: Late January 2002.

I greet Jane and Samantha at the door with a bicycle headlamp strapped to my forehead. We are at the beginning of a 36-hour power outage delivered to us by PG&E, and clusters of candles light my bedroom/practice space. My drum kit lives underneath my loft bed, and the other three fit themselves and their instruments into the crammed room like Tangrams. Without electricity for the amp, the bass is faint, overpowered by the two acoustic guitars.

We quickly realize that our divergent musical tastes--hip-hop, alt-rock, folk, '80s, indie, R&B--leave us with few songs in common. While Samantha and Titania can pick out a few Ani DiFranco songs together, I only know the drum parts to the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and Radiohead's "Creep."

Luckily, Titania owns several guitar tablature books. Jamming is an alien concept, and we assign homework for the next practice: bring three songs you want to play and the tabs if possible. We soon tire of our mangled version of good songs.

While Jane is the band member most prone to erupting into music-induced moans of delight, she's also the shakiest on her instrument. After a few Monday nights of cautious plinking, she resolves to take lessons. I also vow to take lessons, because although I've owned my drums for nearly five years, this is the first time I've banged away at them regularly. Jane begins lessons with Titania's boyfriend's band mate and learns the part to A Tribe Called Quest's "Electric Relaxation." I forget about lessons and buy more drum-pattern books and a tambourine from Guitar Center, marveling at the boyness of the whole store.

Jane and I begin a Friday-night jam session with another group of friends who are technically more proficient but far less ambitious than this still unnamed all-girl band.

In the five months of drunken improv, we'll dub our configuration the Swollen Faces, and the musical style "lounge-core," but not one riff will be recorded and no songs ever completed. I joke about dabbling in the "polygamous band" lifestyle but assure Samantha and Titania that even if I'm in an open-band relationship, the girl band is the primary partner. This prompts a chortle, but they'll hold me to this quip in several weeks.

Samantha arrives with a song--our first original. I've never worked collaboratively and creatively with anyone before. This is completely alien to me, asking others what they think of my ideas, weighing in on someone else's output. Terrifying. Strange. Kinda cool. A week later, Titania emerges from her bedroom with a song. Her calluses, she announces as an aside, have returned.

Strangely

First Open-Mic: June 24, 2002

A week before our first stab at performing--a low-key open-mic session a few of us help organize--Titania realizes that her guitar was tuned down half a step when she wrote her song. The song as originally practiced fit her vocal range; now it doesn't. She's also rejected her original lyrics as way too sappy.

Three hours before the song's debut, I am pawing through old journals looking for phrases to cannibalize. The number ends up being about love anyway, but about the end of love--an ex-boyfriend song. I rhyme "confide" and "outside" to my great glee. Much later, Titania will point out that it's difficult to draw out lines with words that end in Ds. With the time crunch, she refrains and only objects to my cramming 60 percent more syllables into two or three lines.

Trundling up Van Ness to the open mic, we stop at a light where the homeless man on the middle divider peers at my upturned high-hat and asks us if we have a gig. We nod proudly, and he wishes us luck.

Our sound check is confident, and I hand off the tambourine to some friends and early arrivals. It will be a small, half-familiar crowd tonight: a boyfriend, a lover, arts regulars. We trade quips and practice our rock-star insouciance. But as it turns out, for all our bravado and all the hype, we're terrified of performing.

On a warm-up song, I dissolve into hysterical giggles and sit down on the floor. Samantha forgets her lyrics, and Titania's stage banter lasts longer than her song. Though I am somewhat sheltered by the drum kit itself, I find that I can only concentrate with my eyes downcast, and I miss a few passes at the crash cymbal entirely. Afterward, we stand outside, pissed and embarrassed, and vow to conquer the ancient dread.

The Demo Tape: July 2002

We are still arranging Samantha's song and Titania's song when the deadline for submission to piNoisepop, a local Asian American music festival, rolls around. The decision to submit is quick and unanimous, or so I think.

We need to put together a demo tape with two original songs. We have exactly two original songs. Reliant on guitar and vocal cues to shift between drum patterns, I refuse to record the drum track separately from the guitars. "I don't care if that's how a four-track works. I can't play it that way." That decision, plus the acoustics of my bedroom, renders the drums sounding like pots and pans on the demo tape.

More importantly, we still can't fill in the blank on the piNoisepop application where it asks for band name. After 20 emails and several Google searches on phrases, we settle on Strangely as our moniker.

I'm pouting a bit over their rejection of my favorite punk-rock band-name formula, i.e., The + Adjective + Plural Noun. "The Primary Sources" and "The Dangling Participles" are both dismissed as too nerdy.

We do manage to recycle one band name from the trash heap and turn it into a song: "This Is Where the Magic Happens." Despite the clear lineage, we balk at labeling our songs folk. We hedge and call our music "smart, wistful rock" on the band bio. Three days later, we're accepted into piNoisepop.

Yet instead of shifting into high gear, the band goes into neutral. Titania scoots to China for three weeks. Jane's youth program permits her to make only every other practice. Samantha and I are the only ones with time to fiddle.

I fall in love with Samantha's new song, and the two of us linger late working on what we'll christen "Walking" for easy reference. She wants extra vocal parts, some harmony, maybe an overlapping refrain a la "Frère Jacques" too. I've learned that I am no singer. Glee club is eight years behind me, and I had the smallest possible role in the eighth-grade musical. But I love the triumphant tone of this chorus, each chord ringing like boots on sidewalk.

The microphone missing, we record our tentative arrangements on my voicemail, having learned that inspiration quickly evaporates and it's damn hard to recall what neat flourish you did last week. Giddily, we spin out scenarios for this song; this'll be the crowd favorite, the rousing sing-along, the one where people start cheering as soon as they recognize the opening bars. Our big show is in one month.

Too Much Drama: July 30, 2002

The bass lines are beginning to mesh with the rhythm guitar, and I've found a simple rhythm that I can sing over for "Walking," a militarylike drum roll. With a trio of new songs in our repertoire, we feel prepared for another visit to the open mic.

I wonder briefly when Titania will return from China, but I don't email her to warn her of our planned public performance. When Titania tumbles off the plane the night before our show, I surprise her with the news. She is jet-lagged but game. The sound check doesn't leave sufficient time to conjure up a lead-guitar part, but we don't talk about the set list before we get onstage.

We decide on the spot, bickering in full view of the audience, to test out the new songs first. Frustrated that we shunt the two songs she knows to the end--making her presence onstage irrelevant for at least 15 minutes--Titania sits out the entire set, too hurt at our thoughtlessness to play. She exits in a hurry, guitar case swinging, and refuses a ride home, preferring to let the night air cool her down.

This is the proverbial match to tinder. Jane had hinted that her priorities aren't in line with the rest of us. Now all the conflicting expectations are exposed, arranging a new song vs. solidifying an old one, performance vs. process. Samantha fires a slew of heavy-handed emails, propelled by her strong sense of responsibility to the piNoisepop organizers and the fear of performing. "This is not me being a bitch, this is me reminding us that we've made a commitment to play."

The side band, the Swollen Faces, scheduled a long-delayed session for Sunday night, but Strangely pre-empts this slot after much maneuvering and blunt emails--and over Jane's registered protest and my quiet complaint. Both Titania and Samantha have felt betrayed by Jane's absenteeism, and while I fancy myself the diplomat, I've been irritated for a while by everyone's attitude. Too serious, not serious enough, too anal, too laid-back--the porridge has begun to taste bitter.

After receiving one too many scolding emails, Jane makes her priorities clear. The band is not one of them, she never wanted to perform and we never asked her whether she wanted to submit to piNoisepop. She quits the band but delays her exit until after the show.

All of our cell phone bills jump as we waste off-peak minutes in a game of "she said/she said" and getting counsel from more veterans of band drama. Nobody breaks any instruments or throws bottles, but Titania and I both nearly bolt from the band because it's become a burden rather than a joy.

Still, Samantha is right about the time constraints, and Titania ends her crusade for her lilting new song. We trade gestures of peace. Samantha offers to learn the song, and Titania apologizes for letting pride come before practicality. We have barely three weeks until the show, and we return to practice in earnest, if a little cautiously. Never forget the cardinal rule of bands and married life: communicate, communicate, communicate.

Homestretch: Early August 2002

I find myself humming the chorus to "Nerve" on errands, just snatches at first: "Routine kills dreams, and ... " I still don't remember all the words, but the hooks have sidled into my mind, nestling there as if they were part of any addictive pop song I heard on the radio late at night.

In practices, I finally stop using the floor tom as a crib-sheet holder, forcing myself to memorize the beats I've lifted from the drum pattern books. I feel emboldened enough to add the feeblest of flourishes, a modest fill that's nothing more than some right-hand/left-hand action on the snare. What an innovator!

Visions of songwriting intoxicate me, and I splurge on a $16.99 Kawasaki keyboard from Costco. Soon I discover that 12 years of piano lessons have been wasted; I retain little physical memory in my fingers and not a shred of music theory.

The fear of public embarrassment flogging us on, we schedule practices three or four times a week. We spend almost two hours hunched over our PDAs and old-fashioned day planners trying to coordinate four full calendars. Some nights, we don't meet until midnight.

We invite friends to sit in on rehearsals to break us of our stage fright. The first few times, I am so audience-shy that my knees lock, and I am physically unable to play eighth notes on the kick drum. Hip-hop critic and DJ Oliver "O-Dub" Wang sits in on a practice and suggests that maybe hip-hop patterns aren't the best fit for our pop-folk melodies. He's right, but I don't think I can adapt all four songs. I switch the beat on just one song, the wistful ex-boyfriend ditty.

The fifth-to-last practice session is scheduled for 10:30am on a Sunday, a week before D-day. We've already shaken the grogginess out and tuned up when Jane arrives exhausted and late, wrestling with insomnia. She promises she'll be in better form for the following practices, but she flakes out on the next two sessions.

At the second-to-last practice, Jane's still peeking off her notes. Everyone is crabby. I have to calm myself down with a slice of pizza and a cat-petting. Samantha tries to apologize for being grumpy, but Jane and Titania rush to placate her. We're all too aware that we have no time left to fix the gaping holes and the fuzzy timing--just enough time to try to gloss it over and sound like we meant it to feel awkward.

Strangely

Kick Out the Jams: Aug. 24, 2002

At the last practice before our real debut at piNoisepop 2002, we zip through our set three times. Leery of exhausting voices or hands, we stop an hour before load-in and fritter away the remaining time discussing our wardrobes and spazzing out. Samantha applies makeup to have something besides the show to obsess about. I decide against a suggestion to wear a cutoff tank top and black gym shorts, a towel draped around my neck. I wear a pink dress instead.

Another drummer is lending his kit for the gig, so we arrive at Bindlestiff Studio with just the electric instruments slung over backs. Our show badges dangle from our necks, and the ego gets another tickle when the piNoisepop crew greets us with a hopeful "Hey, rock stars! How ya feeling?"

piNoisepop is set up with two stages so that as one band finishes, another one begins. While other bands trundle people-high piles of gear back and forth, when our cue comes we creep up to the stage just to plug in our instruments. Our extreme lack of gear brands us as newbies.

Smugly waiting for the others to finish fiddling with a borrowed electric tuner, I realize I've forgotten all my sticks and brushes at home. Loud, embarrassing squawks ensue. An observant drummer lends me his Vic Forth A5 whateverhaveyous. I spend the remaining time before our set stalking about Bindlestiff with the sticks shielded in the crook of my elbow.

A Los Angeles band, Movin Train, finishes its set, and then the spotlight turns its glare on us. In the endless minute of last-second adjustments, I take off my sandals, then my sweater, and I belatedly ponder the fact that I haven't shaved my armpits. I wasn't expecting this, but when we all mutter, "Check, mic check, mic check," into the microphones and our friends scream our name, more adrenaline thunderclaps into my bloodstream than when my skydiving instructor pushed me out of the Cessna.

Like the enormous nerds we are, we've actually practiced our introductions and banter, partly because we've got a bare 15 minutes to rattle through four songs, and partly so we don't babble out of terror. And then, bringing the borrowed sticks together, I yell and tap out a "1-2-3-4," and we launch into "Nerve."

It's a little messy at first. Our introduction to the first song lasts eight measures too long as we tinker with the levels just a little longer. Titania gets to perfect her rock-star slouch, displaying her week-old Fender Mustang reissue to best effect. The audience closest to me claps along--to help me carry the beat I suspect, as the sticks feel odd and flimsy in my hand. After Samantha introduces "This Is Where the Magic Happens" in her trademark wryness, we all recover from the shock of the first song.

I wish for a moment that the lights were blinding. As they are aimed, I can still make out faces of friends in the crowd. My friends tell me later that they can tell when I hit my groove, because I start smiling. Jane is smiling, too--her youth group brings a glitter-and-marker teenage fan sign reading "We [heart] Jane." My college roommate films the show with my dad's Handycam. By the final song, "Walking," Samantha's voice has settled into the usual confident richness, and we've become addicted to the milk of public adulation, or at least our friends' heckling: "You're my American idol, Titania!"

We finish our four songs, and the next band warms up on the other stage. People cheer, and we stumble offstage into a ritualistic orgy of post-gig hugging. "That was great!" Hug, hug, hug. "You were awesome!" Hug, hug, hug.

Wading through the crowd, I proclaim the gig an undisputed success with a couple caveats. The vocals weren't loud enough. Titania's lead sometimes overwhelmed because of the volume levels. Jane wasn't close enough to the mic. Samantha's voice shook in the beginning. I missed at least three notes in the last chorus, and the kick drum almost disappeared on two songs.

I sunned in the afterglow for days, coercing friends who couldn't attend into watching their own private screening. Yeah, I'm band proud. Despite the phone bills, despite all the tears (yes, tears!), we succeeded. We made smart if sloppy music, got to bask in the love of our friends and erstwhile fan club, and I finally learned to play the drums.

The rest of the band continues to entertain fantasies about the future: a minitour, a standing offer to record at a friend's home studio. Most of all, we still have to have that talk about expectations. We've got another show lined up, and Jane has promised to bear with us until then, so we'll see what happens. I wonder how much band T-shirts would cost ...


Strangely performs Sept. 28 at APAture, an emerging-artists festival organized by Asian American arts organization Kearny Street Workshop. The band plays 5:50pm at SomArts, 934 Brannan St., San Francisco. For Strangely MP3s and information, point your browser http://strangely.manja.org.


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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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