What Can You Do That's Fantastic?
how to hold them and pass them
or how to win at auditions — Tony Bacon comes in after a count of four.
"...two days later I came up to the recording session and Frank Zappa was sitting in the control room. I walked up and said, 'How do you do. My name is Ian Underwood, I like your music, and I'd like to play with your group.' Frank Zappa says, 'What can you do that's fantastic?' I said I can play alto saxophone and piano. He said, 'All right, whip it out!'"
Not a typical audition, for sure. But back in 1968 the Mothers of Invention were not exactly keen on a conventional approach. However, Mr Zappa's question remains crucial to anyone searching for a place in a group now (or for any group looking for a new member). What can you do that's fantastic? And what makes your fantastic feats more appropriate than those of the next person?
Read on, and discover how you may more successfully whip it out — or have people whip it out for you.
Melody Maker is the traditional and, still, the effective medium, and that's not just because they happen to live near us and have quite big fists. However, MM is a little London-oriented in its Musicians Available and Wanted listings, so you could try a local paper insertion (tricky) if you're extra-Metropolis material.
Avoid starting the ad with "A ABLE BASSIST REQUIRED..." as people still look under an instrument heading first. So keep it short, both for impact and, of course, economy.
Put a phone number on the ad, but not that of the phone box on the corner — best a phone that you will have constant access to.
Write out a series of short questions to ask respondents. This will have the double effect of directing your rambling towards getting the info you need, and helping you sound more professional about the whole thing.
Your list will need to be tailored to your own requirements but as a start try: the person's name and contact phone number; how long they've been playing; what they're doing at present; the instrument(s) and equipment they own (not for reasons of one-upmanship, but for hard practical reasons — like will they need to borrow the spare synth?). Also, their availability — are they working? And do they have other relevant abilities (a degree in computing, a friend with a Transit?).
If you decide to give them an audition, tell them a time and place, with any special directions to the rehearsal room/front room/loft/garage/railway arch etc.
Not all of those venues just mentioned will be suitable, although once again it depends on your precise requirements. If you're after a relatively conventional instrumentalist or singer, then a rehearsal room will be the ideal place for a full group workout with the prospective new people. The more arcane modern group jobs — drum machine programmer, personal beauty consultant, and so on — could be auditioned for at home. But for most, it's money-spending time down the rehearsal rooms.
Make sure before you even place the ad that you can book the venue for the time you think you'll need. A good bet seems to allow each person half an hour — enough to tell what their personality defects are and, coincidentally, whether or not they have any playing ability, too. It's also a good idea to give yourselves some time between auditionees to discuss these finer points.
Have a set of songs ready to play with the hopefuls — three is a good number and make sure they balance across the types of music you'll be playing.
Have some sheets with chord symbols written out for the players, who can't be expected to learn everything you want them to play instantly. See how they react to chord symbols — do they know what they are? Are they all drummers? Can they do anything that's fantastic?
To a large extent, the audition can seem like a lottery to both parties, so do your best to play down the inevitable elements of chance at your audition by at least giving the impression that everyone has an equal opportunity. Employ the cold but realistic theory that even obvious idiots could prove to be useful contacts at some time in your future. Or, you could just be the ruthless bastard you really are and show blatant prats the door before they've even had a chance to say hello. You're running the audition.
If the hopefuls need to set up their equipment, chat usefully while this is going on. Try to get each group member chatting — just as if you were a friendly, tightly-knit unit, you know? — and perhaps even note down your impressions for later analysis.
You'll be able to tell very rapidly if someone is likely to fit in — and usually before they've played a note. People can improve musical skills very rapidly with the right incentives — just look at Gary Numan — but will find it much harder to become more pleasant human beings with whom you can enjoy spending time. So get the balance right.
Don't get embroiled in lengthy equipment discussions: suggest they buy One Two each month instead.
When you're set up and ready, give them the prepared chord sheets and have a few run-throughs of the muzak. Note their general attitude and skills, what questions they ask about the stuff and, most importantly, how genuinely enthusiastic they seem about your project.
Be business-like but not off-putting. Be yourself, if possible.
You can tell quite a lot from the first contact — when you ring up. No-one there? Perhaps they have more important things to do? Good-bye. Who answers the phone? If it's someone else, do they seem resentful of Frankie Adplacer being in a band? Do they sound capable of inexplicable but violent mass murder? You should attempt to answer all awkward questions before you decide that your future is with this group.
When you eventually speak to dear Frankie, ask as many relevant questions as you can squeeze in between the pips. Why do they need a new guitarist? What happened to the last one? Was there a last one? What's the band doing? Any money around? What sort of stuff do they play? Who do they like? How often do they rehearse, if at all? Do they have a regular place to do it in, and how much does it cost? Where are they gigging next, and can they put you on the guest list please? What equipment do they own, and does this involve collective ownership? Is she really going out with him?
If you get offered an audition — and with that mass of questions over, you must at least sound keen — make sure you get exact details: place, address, date, time, phone number of the venue, directions, and a person to confirm with nearer the time. And do you need to bring anything special with you — a spare microphone, perhaps, or the manual for MIDI implementation on your synth?
Avoid the I'll-feel-much-more-relaxed-and-therefore-impress-them-better temptation to drink or use any other kinds of drugs. You are going to have to work hard to impress these soulless bastards, so you're going to have to keep all your wits about you. You'll need to be aware of exactly what's going on. So don't. Find out as much as you can about the group members: see what the relationships between the members appear to be, and identify the "leader" and see if you reckon you could take orders from him/her. Basically, does the group seem at all organised and "professional"?
When you get to play — assuming you do — don't be overflash, and try not to get too nervous. Relax, be yourself. Ask relevant questions about the material you're working on, and if something seems pointless, say so. Be constructive — if it's a group worth being in, they'll value this.
Even if they're patently a bunch of mad no-hopers, make your excuses politely and leave as quietly as you can. Mad no-hopers have been known to make it (see current charts), and might just remember you when they do.
"We'll let you know..." They might actually be making a shortlist — see if anyone is evidently making a note of your name. But it probably means they won't.
"We've got plenty of people to see..." They probably have, and reckon that there's very likely someone better than you amongst them.
"The job's yours if you want it... " This means it's time, at last, to go to the pub and celebrate joining your new group. But note who pays...
Feature by Tony Bacon
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