I love hearing my friends talk about something new they have learnt or experienced. Alex is a childhood friend of mine and over the last few years he has been on an incredible journey from singing in the shower to being in a very talented band. Here is his story - be sure to check out his videos and the Stressechoes homepage!
Paz said I could write what I liked about my band and music as long as it was “interesting and compelling”….easy-peasy! Here is a history of the band with my added personal insights into what it is to be an idiot with a guitar. What you must know first is that for years I was a secret musician, playing and singing in my room but never in front of other people, apart from close friends. Also, until the age of 20 I was very shy in front of anyone I didn’t know (I still am but have coping mechanisms) and the thought of singing my own songs to a room full of strangers would have had me running to the hills.
My music “career” started when I was introduced to Andy in March 2007 by our respective flatmates. We had both been playing our guitars and singing around the house, so they probably wanted to get us out of the way. The historic first meeting took place on a night out when we were both drunk, and we had an adolescent conversation which involved listing our favourite bands – “I like Radiohead. Do you like Radiohead?”, etc. After practising a few cover songs in the following weeks Andy was insistent that we play at an open mic night. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea, but some part of me wanted to push myself, and so I agreed.
When the fateful day came and we were sitting in the pub waiting for our turn to play, the pure fear of putting myself up for public ridicule hit me and I was a red-faced, sweating, palpitating mess. As the host of the evening plugged us in and we got ready to start I grabbed a stool to sit on – the idea being to make myself as small as possible – and turned it at right angles from the audience so I was facing the wall. During our 3 songs I didn’t look up from my hands once and was happy for Andy to sing alone, hoping that it would be over as soon as possible. Of course, the whole event was done in the blink of an eye and I was relieved to find that we hadn’t been pelted with rotten vegetables or heckled into the street by a baying crowd.
More open mic nights followed and our confidence grew. I was even able to stand whilst I played and look our audience in the eye! Andy and I had been writing songs together from our very first practice and we started to introduce them into our repertoire, but I still couldn’t bring myself to sing. On many occasions we would turn up to the pub having rehearsed my singing part. Andy would ask, “Are you singing tonight?”. My stomach would turn and I would quietly refuse. I eventually built up the courage to sing some harmonies to Andy’s lead vocal and received some generous encouragement – no booing! No rotten tomatoes! - from strangers and, more importantly, from musicians we had got to know from getting onto the local music scene. It wasn’t all plain sailing though.
When I did start to sing lead there were 2 or 3 occasions I can still remember where I had a brain-freeze half way through the song, either forgot the words or the chords, and stopped completely. I was unable to hide my mistake and it was pretty embarrassing at the time. But guess what? I didn’t die, no-one threw a bucket of water over my head, and, after a few days of self-pity, I knew that all I had to do was practice, practice, practice. The disappointment I felt wasn’t enough to make me want to quit: the satisfaction of getting it right outweighed the potential risk of getting it wrong.
Around this time – don’t ask me ask me exactly when or how, we can’t agree on either – Andy and I settled on the band name - Stressechoes. After a few months of playing our own songs as Stressechoes, Andy and I recruited Steve, a friend of Andy’s from the open mic circuit who bought a bass guitar just to join the group, and a drummer, Lee. We got gigs in our own right, playing covers mainly, and in mid-2009 we managed to get a weekly gig at a Cheltenham pub. This gig was secured through a recommendation from a musician called Colin Hartley and served to highlight one of the best aspects of playing music: friendship. This may sound corny but being in a band has allowed us to meet some very talented, generous musicians, as well as enthusiastic lovers of music, many of whom are now our friends. And friends help each other out.
That weekly gig gave us a platform to play new songs, get used to playing in front of an audience, make mistakes, and gain experience. In turn, we invited other musicians to share our weekly slot. However, our desire to collaborate and produce our own music ultimately led to some changes at the end of 2009. The landlord wanted us to play crowd-pleasing covers, not present a weekly variety show of original acts (he who pays the piper calls the tune – how true that saying is). We felt strongly enough about this to walk away. For whatever reason, our drummer did not share this philosophy either and we parted ways around the turn of the year. I, for one, have no regrets about making those decisions. Andy, Steve, and I knew that we didn’t want just to play other people’s music and I’m very glad that we had the courage of our convictions to do what felt right.
We continued to gig as a trio and in early 2010 we played a gig for local music promoters Cheltenham Underground who suggested we speak to a drummer friend of theirs, Ben. He shuffled into our next practice and by the end of the session we knew we had our man. It was an impromptu disco-beat rendition of Blue Monday that clinched it. Again, the network of friends and musicians had provided for us. We have basically never made any money from music and, at best, we have broken even. It was unlucky on our part to get into gigging just as pubs and music venues were finding it hard to make money themselves and were unwilling to take risks with bands that play original music.
From the start of 2010 we decided that we would pool any money we made from gigging to cover incidental expenses - hiring practice space, equipment, petrol, etc. Most importantly we wanted to record and release our own CD. By the end of 2010 we had recorded and released an EP, Bitter Acoustic Noise a collection of 7 original songs. We submitted the songs to BBC Introducing and were lucky enough to receive airplay, a favourable review and inclusion in their list of top 10 acts in Gloucestershire. I remember feeling very emotional when I first heard our music on the BBC. That came as the result of a lot of hard work, practice, late nights, and gigs in crappy pubs.
In June 2011 we devised and filmed a video for our song Onto the Sun which was a great creative experience. It was shot in a single take. By October 2011 we were gigging regularly in Cheltenham and were trying to play in more music venues, rather than playing in the corners of pubs. However, when we were offered a Hallowe’en Night gig in The Vine, Cheltenham, we accepted as it would mean a bit more cash in the kitty.
After the gig I was approached by a man called Ulrich who said he was in town on business and had enjoyed our music – would we like to go to Berlin to play at an industry convention the following September? Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to say that we would be very interested and business cards were exchanged. It is worth noting that, over the years, many people have approached us after gigs and said they would like to book us for birthdays and weddings but almost never hear back from them, so we were very excited to have an email from Ulrich’s company the following week.
By the New Year we had agreed dates, a fee, and signed contracts – we were going to play in Berlin! That happy accident taught us that, within reason, you should never be too proud to play any gig because you never know who is going to be there. In November 2011 we started work on our first full-length album, Goodnight, Impossible which was released in June 2012.
This period of practising and recording coincided with an increasing amount of collaboration with a very talented female singer-songerwriter called Juey. She is a multi-instrumentalist with a great voice and has been gigging solo, very successfully, for a while. Introducing her into the band was easy for us as she knew our existing songs quite well and worked hard on new songs too. As a result we started gigging together, and she appeared on four of our album tracks.
Another highlight of 2011 was playing at Wychwood Festival in June, but everything was geared towards our trip to Berlin in September, and the European tour that we had organised around it. The fee was enough to finance a 10-day road trip with all our expenses covered. We planned the route roughly then proceeded to research music venues and hostels in major towns and cities along the way. After hours and hours of trawling through websites, and hundreds of emails sent out, we managed to agree gigs in Brugges, Cologne, and an additional gig in Berlin. The feeling of leaving my house on that early morning last year will stay with me, and we each have memories from the trip that we will treasure forever. I remember standing outside a service station and excitedly saying to Ben, “Guess what? We’re on tour!”. The feeling of satisfaction was overwhelming – months of hard work and practice had resulted in an unforgettable trip across Europe playing our songs to a new audience. It doesn’t get much better than that.
This year we have fallen on our feet again as we had an application accepted by a German organisation called Songs & Whispers to play a 3-week tour of northern Germany and the Netherlands. Again, this will probably not be a money- spinner for us but could result in great exposure and experience for us. One of the consequences of gigging and practising when we all have full-time jobs is that I have ended up with quite few songs that have not got into the band’s set list. Recently I decided to push myself further and record these songs as a solo project called Paper Tiger and see if I can fit some solo gigs in around the band’s schedule. I have played a few open mics, and one charity gig so far. Having got confident singing with Stressechoes it has felt strange making myself start again and having to fight my natural inclination to run away. But I have learned that writing and performing music is what I enjoy doing most in the world so the risk of standing up there alone is worth it because, when it works, there is nothing like it.
Here’s a Top 5 of things I have learned through music:
1. Don’t let the irrational part of your brain scare you out of doing anything (unless that thing is actually dangerous, like jumping out of a window).
2. Do not give a damn about the opinion of some hateful drunk bloke in a bar. He will be sober in the morning.
3. Most people are lovely and feel the same way you do.
4. Nothing in the world feels the same as standing in front of a crowd and playing a song. If you have been thinking of learning an instrument or singing you should absolutely do it. Or try karaoke.
5. The best way to dispel your fear of doing something is to practice, practice, practice at it.
Thanks for reading,