16 March 2010


The end of my live music career?

Neurotics in Tsawwassen - Sticky NeuroticThis piece is a text transcript of my segment on the latest episode (#79) of my podcast Inside Home Recording.

Most of my music career has had nothing to do with recording. It's been about playing live, mostly in a cover band. I've been doing that since 1989, more than twenty years. And I think that has now come to an end. Let me explain.

The first live performance I remember giving was on nylon-string guitar, to a group of senior citizens, I think at a music recital at a local church. It was organized through my elementary school, about 30 years ago. I was playing "Romanza," a well-known classical piece. And I forgot to tune my guitar beforehand. They applauded anyway, and I learned my lesson.

A few months later I played the same piece for a school talent contest. I remembered to tune this time, and I won the contest. But it was nerve-wracking. While I loved being in plays and skits, I found precision of live music performance a bit terrifying.

After I took my Grade 4 Royal Conservatory guitar exam in 1982, and then changed high schools, I quit guitar lessons, and stopped playing, and forgot everything, including how to read music. Every once in awhile I'd be startled by a string breaking inside the guitar case in my closet, but I never even bothered opening it.

I was inspired to take up music again at the end of 1987, when I discovered I could play drums half-decently without ever having tried it before. In 1988, my roommate Sebastien and I decided to form a band with our other roommates Alistair and Andrew, and my friend Ken. We'd all play instruments, and we'd all sing.

One day Sebastien and I went out with the agreement that I would buy a drum kit and he would buy an electric guitar. We got the cheapest, crappiest instruments we could find at pawn shops, and we were on our way.

The next lesson came when the bunch of us got paid for a show. But we didn't use our instruments, because it was a lip-sync contest at UBC. We were very silly and overblown, with costumes, makeup, props, a giant wall constructed of cardboard boxes (for a Pink Floyd song) and even some unauthorized flames (for our Alice Cooper impression). We won, and received $600. That was more than we'd get paid for a gig for quite a long time.

The lesson was that showmanship was important. Sometimes more important than musical skill or talent, especially when you're starting out and don't even know how to sing proper harmonies. You need to put on a damn show.

Our first real gig, in the spring of 1989, was at a year-end university party where we sounded great because the audience was really drunk. We played up the schtick, calling ourselves the Juan Valdez Memorial R&B Ensemble (though we played little R&B) and featuring Batman logos on our instruments and T-shirts, for no particular reason other than that we played the theme from the "Batman" TV show.

In some form or another, Sebastien and I have played in bands together on and off ever since, me on drums and him on guitar. We even tried it full-time for awhile in the mid-1990s, with a short-lived original act called The Flu we took as far as Australia, and cover bands with names like The Love Bugs, HourGlass, and The Neurotics to pay the bills. Sometimes we busked in downtown Vancouver for spare change. The direct rewards were a great way to learn what people liked, or at least what they'd pay for.

I left the band for a few years after I got married and had kids, but still guested when they needed a drummer in a pinch from time to time. I returned in the early 2000s when the gigs were more stable and better paying. We even got flown to New York City once for a single night's show in the fancy Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

The Neurotics, our long-running cover act, has had a rotating cast of musicians for years, but it's always been both about the songs—the classic hits people always respond to—and the show, including glittery jackets, wigs, fake British accents, improvised jokes, crazy stage-leaping, and intentionally mangled lyrics. This past decade, I can't think of a gig where I haven't laughed uncontrollably at least once at the antics of my bandmates, either onstage or in the dressing room between sets.

It's been so much fun that even after I found out I had colon cancer at the beginning of 2007, I tried to keep playing as much as I could. On Canada Day that summer, less than a week before my major surgery, and hopped up on morphine against the pain, I played drums and sang in the sun on the shores of Vancouver's Coal Harbour. Luckily our substitude drummer, Christian, was there on percussion, and could take over on the kit when I needed a break.

I didn't play again until the following February, having lost more than 60 pounds and then regained much of it. Once more, Christian and I spelled one another off, and I made it through. I kept playing through that year and the next, weaving around chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments, more surgery, side effects, and fatigue.

But it was getting harder. In 2009, I had to turn down more and more shows. Paul Garay invited me to fill in on drums with his new band Heist that July, for a long daytime outdoor pub booking. It was great, but setup, playing, and teardown exhausted me for days afterward. I had to refuse an offer for a two-night gig a few weeks later.

The Neurotics had two shows, at the end of September and beginning of October 2009, a week apart. Sebastien suggested that, for the first time in years, I try playing rhythm guitar with the band, in addition to drums and percussion alternating with Christian.

I spent a couple of weeks woodshedding to figure out chords to songs I'd played for decades, but always on drums, and we had one rehearsal, because there were other new people in the lineup. Always confident behind the kit or the mic, I was nervous with the guitar around my neck, but I got through.

The last show was on October 3, at a golf club in Tsawwassen, one of Vancouver's southernmost suburbs. I did okay. My drumming and singing were fine, and I didn't miss too many chords on guitar. But the two gigs, even days apart, wiped me out. I slept a lot over the next few days.

Since then, I've returned to a more aggressive chemotherapy schedule to try to combat the cancer that long ago spread to my lungs and chest. I'm often nauseated, immensely sleepy, and unreliable. I can't in good conscience say yes when Sebastien calls me about an upcoming gig, because I can't promise I'll even be able to show up.

So, unless my cancer improves and I can take less nasty treatments—which isn't all that likely—I've had to admit to myself that my time as a regularly gigging musician is probably over. Sure, I might appear as a guest from time to time with some of my old bandmates at the occasional show, for a song or two, maybe.

But I've had to look at my studio at home now and think of how to rearrange it. For at least ten years it's included drums and PA equipment, cymbals and mics and stands and cases, packed on shelves and in bags, ready to load into the car. I think I can take them down, and maybe set them up to play at home instead.

It's no longer a storage room and preparation space for my job as a player, but a space for me to practice music as a hobby, when I feel up to it. I think now I may as well make it work that way.

Like many things I've had to jettison as my health has declined, I regret the change. But it had to come eventually. Even if I could live to 95, I don't think I would ever be like Les Paul, gigging until weeks before his death of natural causes. But I also didn't burn out and die drunk in a hotel room on the road somewhere, like others have.

The choice to stop playing live has been forced on me, but at least I get to make it. And I still have music all around me.

Besides, if my kids ever want to start a band after all their years of piano and singing lessons, then the rehearsal space is right here. And they don't need to buy a thing. Plus, I can teach them about how to put on a damn show.

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01 February 2010


My 13 jobs

This month, February 2010, marks three fricking years since I first went on disability leave for cancer treatment. (And, incidentally, since we got our Nintendo Wii.) This got me thinking about all the jobs I've had in my life, starting back when I was still in high school.

It turns out that I've worked for 13 organizations, if you include my own company when I was freelancing. I did not enjoy every job, but each taught me something:

Year(s) Job Lesson
1985? Graveyard-shift self-serve gas station attendant Don't be a graveyard-shift self-serve gas station attendant. Also, burnt coffee smells really bad.
1988 Park naturalist Science is fun, five-year-olds aren't patient, but summer jobs are a great place to meet your future wife. Also, avoid flipping your canoe.
1989 Science centre floor staff Science is fun, but you'll spend most of your time telling people where the bathrooms are.
1990 Student handbook editor Choose your fonts carefully, and people never get things in on deadline.
1991 Student society admin assistant It's a long way to pick up your printouts across campus when you type them on a mainframe computer.
1991 English conversation coach Japanese girls definitely interested in learning English; Japanese boys (who smoke like chimneys), not so much.
1992–1994 Student issues researcher Creating your own job is great, but it sure would be nice to have an office with a window.
1994–1995 Full-time rock 'n' roll drummer Playing live music onstage is often awesome. Everything offstage, however, usually sucks.
1995–1996 Magazine advertising assistant No matter how nice your co-workers, a bad boss can ruin the whole experience.
1996–2001 Various software company jobs, from developers' assistant to webmaster Even if you know almost nothing about how to do it, when someone asks you if you want to run a website, it's still worthwhile to say "sure!"
2001–2003 Freelance technical writer and editor The paperwork to run your own business is immensely boring.
2001–2003 Semi–full-time rock 'n' roll drummer Rock is more fun when you mostly stay in town and get paid better.
2003–2007 Communications Manager, Navarik Working with friends can be a good thing, especially when they have good ideas. Oh, and a decent extended-health plan is really, really important.

In the late '80s, I also helped my friend Chris install alarm systems in people's homes and businesses, but while I got some money from it, it wasn't quite a job in the same way. It was more like when I helped him repair cars and resell them around the same time. Though in those cases, I did learn that I dislike crawling around in fibreglass-filled attics running wires, and that I'm not too fond of all the grease, gunk, and rust involved in auto work either.

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20 April 2009


Photos from the Sun Run

18 April 2009


Join me and The Neurotics at the Sun Run tomorrow

UPDATE: Here are the latest photos from the 2009 run.

Neurotics onstage at Flickr.comThe biggest shows I've ever played with my band The Neurotics have been our annual performances atop a scaffold, at the starting line of the Vancouver Sun Run. Tomorrow, Sunday April 19, 2009, marks the sixteenth time the band will play at the event, and is the tenth time I'll be there on drums. (I left the band for a few years in the '90s, and missed 2007 because of chemotherapy.)

Anyway, it's quite the crowd—last year more than 55,000 people ran past our stage, which is like playing for a sold-out B.C. Place Stadium. Sean, one of our guitarists (turning to the left in the photo) calls the gig a "heads-up hockey" show: there are lots of stops and starts, usually without much warning, as run organizers make announcements and start each wave of the run. There are few if any breaks. We have to be hyper-aware of what's happening for several hours in a row. But it's lots of fun.

This year we're taking a different approach than usual. Every other year we've had four musicians on the scaffold, but this time we'll have six, adding an additional percussionist and a singer. We'll be just as silly as usual, however, so if you're heading down to the Sun Run, wave hi. I'll be on either drums or percussion when you come by. Alas, chances are I won't be able to see you in the mob, but you never know.

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04 April 2009


20 years behind the kit

Derek as Sticky NeuroticTwenty years ago this spring, I played my first gig as a drummer, at the Last Class Bash for the UBC Science Undergraduate Society. Our band, the Juan Valdez Memorial R&B Ensemble, was a five-piece with me on drums, my roommates Alistair, Sebastien, and Andrew on guitars and bass, and Ken Otter (now a professor of zoology) on another guitar.

We'd spent months rehearsing, but we still didn't know how to sing proper harmonies. Our playlist included mostly old songs from the '60s: "Gloria," "Long Cool Woman," the theme from "Batman." I skipped a final lecture for one of my high-level biology courses to set up for the show in the Student Union Building party room. Our friend Steve ran the rented PA system.

We were relatively terrible, but we were silly, and we had a good time. So did the heavy-drinking audience.

I'm still playing in a later version of the same band. Sebastien is still on guitar, I'm still on drums when I feel up to it. We're still playing some of those same songs. I've spent half my life in this act.

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29 June 2008


Sticky Neurotic looks baked

Sticky Neurotic looks baked at Flickr.comI don't play drums as often as I used to—I did it as a full-time job in the early '90s—but I am glad I still get to do it for money on occasion. Last night my band, The Neurotics, played a wedding in Chilliwack, one of Vancouver's eastern suburbs.

And you know what? When you play drums only occasionally and get home at 3:00 in the morning, your hands hurt the next day.

No, I was not actually stoned in the photo. I do notice that the wig fits much better now that I have very little hair.

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20 April 2008


Out there havin' fun at the Vancouver Sun Run

As I mentioned a few days ago, my band The Neurotics played, for the 15th year in a row, at the Vancouver Sun Run, which as of this year appears to be the largest fun run in North America. There were over 59,000 registrants for the 2008 race.

As part of the photos I took downtown today, here's me behind the drum kit, with Swingy Neurotic (a.k.a. Doug Elliott) on bass:

Sticky and Swingy Neurotic

Thanks to Dilly Neurotic (a.k.a. Sean Dillon) for snapping that one. We all look a bit chubbier than usual because it was freaking cold for late April in Vancouver (just above freezing), so each of us had at least three layers of clothes under our costumes—I was wearing a T-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, and a chunky sweater underneath my Union Jack shirt and glittery jacket.

Rock on, Sun Runners!

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14 April 2008


Join The Neurotics for the Sun Run next Sunday

Sun Run 2003 - 06.jpg at Flickr.comBack in 1994, I was making a go of it as a full-time rock and roll drummer, and my cover band The Neurotics managed to snag a spot along the route of the annual Vancouver Sun Run, where we got paid a bit of money and had the chance to entertain tens of thousands of people as they ran 10 km through Stanley Park.

We were pretty silly (as we always are), and the runners liked us, so somehow the next year we were recruited to play on the scaffold above the starting line for the race, downtown at Burrard and Georgia streets. We've been the band there ever since (among numerous others along the route), and next Sunday, April 20, 2008, marks our 15th appearance at the Sun Run. (The band's lineup varies a bit each year, but for once the group of four musicians will all be guys who've done this show before.)

It's a strange gig, and one of the reasons the organizers keep calling us back is that we've honed our ability to play what guitarist Sean calls "heads-up hockey" up on the temporary stage. We have to show up before 5:00 a.m. to beat the road closures, haul our gear up some rickety scaffold stairs, do a very quick setup, and then go get some breakfast. Once we start playing around 7:30, it's pretty much a continuous performance until all 50,000-plus runners and walkers have gone by. That takes several hours.

But while we're up there playing much of that time, there are a lot of stops and starts, dictated on the fly by the race organizers and announcers on the platform with us—and we get little warning. Sometimes we only play 30 seconds of a song. Others we get 10 seconds (or less) of warning that we'll have to stop another, or just as much notice that we have to start. The mayor might speak, or other local celebrities. There are speeches and announcements, and each group of runners has its own starting announcement and air horn. A group of Fitness World aerobics types helps everyone get warmed up. We need to fit into the gaps, so we learned years ago that a set list does little good.

It is an awesome thing to see tens of thousands of Vancouverites thronging the streets below. It's also a huge load of fun. I was unable to play last year because it was early in my combined radiation and chemotherapy treatments. This year the timing is better, so while I'll be tired, I expect to be able to play the show without a hitch.

If you're in downtown Vancouver early on Sunday morning—especially if you're running by on Georgia Street in front of the RBC tower—look up, way up, and maybe you'll see me bangin' like Charlie Watts. But I'll probably be too busy to wave.

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09 April 2008


Flickr does video

The Neurotics Fab Rock Invasion
Originally uploaded by penmachine

The new video sharing features of the formerly photo-only site Flickr are different: the designers obviously thought a lot about how to implement video without just cloning how YouTube and everyone else does it.

The key thing is that videos uploaded to Flickr must be less than a minute and a half long, and no bigger than 150 MB. That's a limitation, but also a gift. It forces you to think about what to upload, and if you have a longer video, to edit it down to its essence.

My first video upload there is a good example. I had to take a video of my band that was already only a few minutes long and make it even shorter. I had to cut out non-licensed music and any other extraneous bits. In the end it's only one minute, but it still gets the point of our act across, even without any singing at all.

I think the time limit will generate some creativity in the Flickr community, as well as avoiding those interminable videos that take forever to get to the point. Even if a video is bad, you'll only have to waste 90 seconds on it. We'll see what happens within the well-imagined constraints.

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14 March 2008


Probability, the Fab Four, and my kids

As always, there are some people who think those darned kids today are taking us all to hell in a handbasket with their ignorance and filthy habits. However, I seem to recall titles like this only in my university statistics course textbook:

L's grade 2 math worksheet

But that's not where it comes from. It's a school math worksheet for my younger daughter, who is eight and in grade two. I'm not sure "data management and probability" were words I could even say at that age. (Then again, I did know what "carbon monoxide" was from my first favourite book.)

As for my other daughter, who is ten, she drew a picture the other day. It's taped to her bedroom door:

Beatles by M (she's 10)

I liked the Beatles at that age too, but she loves them. I had no idea who the individual Beatles were, never mind what instruments they played—especially that Paul played piano as well as bass.

Notice that while John and George are playing their guitars left-handed, which isn't correct, Ringo's drums are frighteningly accurate. And even though his kit didn't have one, hers has a soundhole in the front drum head as most do these days. I guess my work as a drummer has rubbed off a bit.

Kids today. Too damned smart.

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01 July 2007


I'm totally spent, baby

My birthday party yesterday was fantastic. Thank you thank you thank you to my amazing wife who organized it, and to everyone who came. The gig with the band this morning was fabulous. I am completely wiped out, but it was worth it. Some photos (click each one to see more from that event):

Derek's Birthday Party - 23.jpg

More Neurotics at HBC Run - 34.jpg

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20 June 2007


See my band on CTV News Thursday night

Neurotics - Last Show of 2006 - 9.jpg at Flickr.comBecause of my cancer treatment, I haven't played with my band The Neurotics since December 2006, but tomorrow, with any luck, I will be in good enough shape to join them again. And you can even see us on TV if you're in B.C.

The event is the first of a series of Tamara's Block Party events run by CTV News, and hosted by weather anchor Tamara Taggart. (I went to school with her husband, guitarist Dave Genn, but that had nothing to do with the booking. Our friend Jill also made their wedding cake.)

Anyway, Tamara will be doing her channel 9 weather forecasts during the evening news on June 21 from a block party in East Vancouver, and we're the entertainment. We have a backup drummer (the excellent Christian a.k.a. Ringo from the Mop Tops) in case I run out of energy, but I'm hoping to play the whole show. The weather looks to be good, and it will be a fun time.

I had a crappy day today, not sleeping most of the night and making up for it almost all day, but the usual pattern these days is that the next day is better. We'll see how it goes. Rock on!

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