Tag Archives: keyboard

Stepping It Up

I teach a studio recording class at APU. The students produce an EP, I oversee (hang out and drink coffee). Every semester I push the students to go get real players to play the session. Go get the best people you can find, and ask them to help you out. If you’re not getting told “No” at least a couple of times, you’re not asking players at the right level.

This year, one of the teams took that to heart. They pulled together the following players for rhythm section tracking:

Oskar Cartaya (bass)
Chad Wright (drums)
Darrell Crooks (guitar)

This might be the most fun I’ve had in the class.

Mike’s Hottness, or Why Young Bohemians Need Dudes with Mortgages in Their Band

Ladies and Gentlepersons,

Last Saturday night, We witnessed an hour of great music. There have been offhanded references over the years to our friend Chris Steffen, who is the house engineer at El Dorado Recording studios. His girlfriend is named Abby Miller, who with her friend Jen Trani form Jen And Abby.

Chris helped them record their album, working his magic at El Dorado. He invited Mike to come and participate in the recording process sometime early last summer, and all went well, as reported by all parties.

Several weeks ago, Mike played a gig with them at a place called The Hotel Cafe. The Hotel Cafe has become something of a flashpoint in Los Angeles, a throwback to the days where playing a good set at the right joint could actually launch your career. Several well known acts, like Sara Bareilles, and The Weepies, and Ingrid Michaelson, and Meiko, have been broken in part because of their exposure there.

It’s the kind of joint that I thought didn’t exist anymore.  One where you can show up on any given night and catch not one but several good sets of music.  A joint where the audience has come to actually hear music, remains quiet and focused, and is self-regulating.  A place where the food and spirits are actually reasonably priced.  Hotel Cafe has become a brand of sorts.  You might think of music that could be played over an iPod commercial, and that’s sort of the sound.  It’s a place that The Dailies will play in 2009.  I’m word faithing, here.

Anywhoo, back to Jen and Abby, and Mike.  I actually don’t know how old the ladies are, but let’s face it… they look younger than us.  Mike and I are both keenly aware of the fact that we’re no longer in our 20′s.  We’re also growing keenly aware that cruel, cruel father time didn’t see fit to allow us to hit pause at 30.

Mike tells a story of the 1st time he sat in with Jen and Abby.  He told me that as he was leaving the stage, and passing through the crowd, Abby said something like, “Let’s give it up for Mike Lee, wasn’t he wonderful,” just as Mike passed what looked to be a tragically hip young lady in her early 20′s who, at that moment, looked right at him and said… “Meh.”

Aaaah, youth.  The freedom to be a total a-hole and not feel even remotely remorseful.

So, back to last Saturday.  Erica, Gretchen and I sidle up to the very front of the room as the sets are swapping out and people are making potty and beer runs.  We were mere feet from the performers as the set began.  The other band members all had that tragically hip vibe, all looking to be in their mid to late 20s, all cool and stuff.  Lemme put it this way, there was exactly one pair of hands on that stage who looked to be regularly wiping poop off of toddler’s bottoms, and that person was Mike.

I’m convinced that having kids ages you.  People who are my same age but don’t have kids seem younger to me, and I in no way mean this in a derogatory fashion.  It’s not even a physical appearance or beauty thing, either.  It’s just…  intangible.  Kids, should you choose to actually raise them, make you grow up.  I think and hope that Mike won’t be offended if I say that he looked a little out of place on stage at The Hotel Cafe, at least on the surface.

But then the set began.

First, a little bit about the rest of the band.  Abby is a great frontwoman, a delightful mixture of vulnerability, cute-girl-giddiness, and strong-willed assertiveness.  Jen sticks with her Martin acoustic most of the time, standing at all of about 5 feet with her strong features and straight hair, with that dreadnaught looking almost too big for her to handle.  Of course, it takes but a few strums for her to show you that she’s fully in charge of her instrument, thank you very much.  The bass player was a girl that I’d never met, but did a great job doing what the bass player is supposed to do, which is groove to death and never, ever miss a note.  The drummer was wonderful, tasty and tight, moving between mallets and sticks for effect and throwing a shaker into the mix when appropriate.

And then there’s Mike.  Within the space of a few bars of music, dear friends, our humble professorial hero transformed into a churning, hemi-powered, fuel-injected, tricked-out, hipped-out force to be reckoned with.  You have to understand that Mike is fully incapable of keeping his ass planted on the seat when he’s feeling it.  Oh, he might be sitting at the beginning of the phrase, but then by the end he’s halfway up and hunched up and over the keys.  Then, he’ll get out right as the 2nd verse drops, sit back down, and exchange one of those, “Oh hell yeah that chorus was happenin’” look with the drummer, who himself is wearing the unfaked grin of a musician who’s got his own mojo workin’.

Mike’s energy should in no way insinuate that he was out of control, or overstepping his musical bounds.  Quite the opposite, which is why it was so damn fun to watch.  For 7 1/2 bars, lets say, getting through a prechorus or something, he’d just be perfectly content to lay out, or comp chords that blend into the picture.  Then, in the last 2 beats, just as the drums start to fill and the chorus is a-comin’, he’d just go ahead and drop a little tasty treat into the whole mix, which would then just lift the whole enterprise up another few percentage points.

Again, this isn’t a story about how my buddy totally saved the day for this band that didn’t know what the hell they were doing.  This is a story about how things aren’t always as they seem.  This is a story about a couple of artists who already have a great band and great songs and a great vibe who have stumbled across a great sideman, and I can tell you from my own experiences that truly great sidemen are hard to find, and are even harder to get along with.

Anyways.  It was a great night of music, and I knew Mike wasn’t gonna brag on himself… at least this time.  Congrats, Jen & Abby, on your success.  It deserves to continue.  Also, if you try and steal Mike from The Dailies, I will totally fight you both in a dark alley.