Music by VICE

How to Start a Band

It's easy: You just start a band. But what does that mean, exactly?

by Zachary Lipez
Jan 23 2017, 7:37pm

The Guide to Life is exactly what it sounds like:a guide on how to live. The world is entering a different time, so across different verticals at VICE, we're exploring what it means to be alive today, and how you can be your best self.

As part of this Guide, today Noisey is publishing the first articles in a new series called How to Start a Band, which we hope will become a comprehensive resource for anyone looking to get involved in music, whether as part of a traditional "band" or otherwise. We cover music here every day, but loving music doesn't just have to mean being a fan. Music is part of culture, and if you want to be involved in it, you can be. To help out, each week we'll be publishing guides for handling specific challenges you may face and answering questions you may encounter as you embark on your creative journey.

When starting a band, it's necessary to ask two important questions:

  1. Why?
  2. Specifically, why a band?

These questions are not jokes. Music is good. Music is fun. Music is perhaps the oldest human art form and the most accessible. Despite what they'll tell you, everyone can sing. Our culture often treats being a musician as something you do as a route to getting rich and famous, but that is, at best, an exciting potential side effect. Art is worthwhile, both for what it does for the soul and for a viable society. And making it with other people can multiply those effects.

In recent years we've faced unprecedented changes to the simple ways we interact with each other. We've watched local, real world communities flounder even as digital ones flourish. As it becomes easier to live behind screens, assuming that everyone is living in a bubble except us, it's good to remember the enormous value of square but super important notions like civic involvement, participating in the world around us, and engaging with one's fellow bags of bones. Getting involved in a local music scene—DIY punk, country, jam, wedding cover band, whatever—builds community, the bedrock of civic life, and it happens to also be a good way to kill time before we all die in nuclear hellfire, in addition to being pretty fun. Even if you're not very good at it. Some people will tell you "it's all about the music, man" but, like, why? And who made them the "what really matters" cops anyhow? Play music. Make friends or at least enemies worth your time.

Will you succeed and become a star? Maybe! Or maybe you'll have to redefine your concept of "success." When I was 25, I swore if I was a 30-year-old bartender still in a local band, I'd hang it up and move. That was 15 years, four bands, and countless bar jobs ago. And look at me. I'm happy as a clam living under ascendant fascism. Being in a band is a Sisyphean task with disappointment built in. But being in a band is also the best. We're all pulling/praying for you. 

Getting the Band Together

Starting a band is easy; you just start a band. As Art Brut's succinct guide to forming a band, the song conveniently titled "Formed A Band," states: "Look at us / We formed a band… dye your hair black / never look back." Twenty-seven years earlier, The Adverts laid down similar guidelines in their smash hit "One Chord Wonders," leading by example with "the wonders don't care… we don't give a damn." Between the two dictums of 1. do it, and 2. don't worry about it, the rest is pretty much just parsley on the plate. 

I asked a number of musicians how one forms a band, and every single one gave an answer that focused on people—rather than equipment or booking or notes or chords or any of the hellish details that will eventually come up. They have good reason: A band is a sisterhood and a gang and love affair that, like most love affairs, will end, if not badly, then with enough tear-smeared mascara to power a black sun. Ideally you will play with like-minded individuals, but, depending on the size of your town, you're going to have to start with… the people who will play music with you.

"It's really like trying to find a relationship partner that may or may not work out," says Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This is true, but it's also often like trying to start a relationship when there's only one bar in town, it's always closing time, and the prettiest boy within 50 miles is an amateur UFC fighter with barbed wire tattoos.

If you're lucky enough to have a large pool to draw from in your high school or college or local civic club, try to meet people with at least one fandom in common, no matter how cheesy or old (both of you enjoying your parent's KISS records is a fine place to start). I would strongly suggest doing this in person—whether at the skate park, a bar with a lax carding policy, or detention. Nothing against online (at all), but, in the service of saving time, it's best to find out early if you can stand to be in the same room with a person for more than 15 minutes. You have hours of practice—and potentially years in a pee-bottle-infested van—together to look forward to. Finding the right people will feel like it's taking forever, but it will be worth it. 

"Choose friendship over musicianship," Eric Paul of the band Doomsday Student tells me, explaining that all bands should remember this mantra. "No matter how innovative or talented or even just competent a musician is, if they are an asshole your band will never work… If you invest in a person, their ability to play their instrument will come around, but if you invest in them as a musician, most likely the person they are will not come around."

The human soul is unknowable, but don't ignore red flags or your gut feelings. People rarely get less sketchy with age. If someone seems creepy or has a mixed reputation for how they interact with others, the time before you're in a band with them is the last chance you have to not be forever be associated with whatever mindfuck or predatory bullshit they pull in the future. Fortunately, there's a wide middle ground between joining up with a bunch of psychopaths who will ruin your life and resigning yourself to a life of reclusive genius.

"There's this three-way trade off that goes into finding/choosing bandmates," says Sam Ray, who plays in the band Teenage Suicide and also performs as Ricky Eat Acid. "You want people you can get along with, but if you start a band with your friends, you will all hate each other. You want people that are talented, but hiring random talented people is a wild card, and you might all hate each other right off the bat. And then you're stuck touring around until one of you inevitably loses it and beats the shit out of the rest of you or pawns everyone's instruments and runs off with everyone's MacBooks. It's a mess, generally. That's the point, I guess. It's a mess." 

Kristin Kontrol, of her eponymous project and Dum Dum Girls, offers a voice of comparative hope and reason, stressing that forming a band is less of a puzzle than you might think: "It always seems daunting and stressful, but you're usually only a few degrees away from people who are down. Just gotta put it out there. As much as my hermit ways want me to Grey Garden my life, it's these sort of repeat/serendipitous experiences that keep me active in my community (ish)."

The point is: A band requires other people. Try to find ones with at least a couple favorite bands in common and no swastika tattoos. Also, if you don't like the way they chew now, imagine it after sleeping in each other's butts and playing to nobody in Tulsa for three weeks in a row. Of course, if they write better songs than you and know a booker, get the fuck over it. 

Practice Makes—Well, Not Perfect, Probably, but Definitely Better

Now that you've found at least one person to "jam" with, you need to practice. I was once in a band with a fine fellow who was insistent that "practice" was what a musician did alone and "rehearsal" is what a band does. He also felt strongly that a band shouldn't record or play in public until it was "good," so our band, with a singer (me) who subscribed strongly to the Fake It 'Til You Make school, was ill-fated from the start.

Regardless, practice/rehearsal is essential for both songwriting and social reasons. You want good songs, but you also want to be a unified front against the world, even if the "world" largely consists of promoters who shortchange you or "loved ones" who want you to go back to school. As for "how to write good songs," you're largely on your own, but I'd suggest making use of… everything available, whatever's lying around, from the Tabs & Chords By Ultimate Guitar phone app to a deep dive into the catalogs of Smokey Robinson and The Slits.  If the muses fail you, rather than give up on your dream before starting, Zohra Atash of Azar Swan suggests the "KLF Method" (as laid out in KLF's 1988 how-to guide The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way) which is basically: attempt to plagiarize music you love. GarageBand for iPhone's "Smart Instruments" will literally play the chords for you, which you can customize with Fisher Price ease.

"You'll start to get a feel for basic construction after ripping a few of your favorites," Atash says. "Don't worry about being found out—your skill won't allow it to be actual plagiarizing. Unless it totally is, which'll get you on the wedding band circuit in no time. You'll likely have a lo-fi punk version. Furthermore, don't get frustrated. As time goes on, unless you have hooks for hands and are completely tone deaf, you are, as much as you're willing to spend time developing your own style, whatever the starting point, going to be amazing." She does add, and I strenuously agree, please don't attempt to plagiarize lyrics. That's simply retyping, and you'll just end up a plagiarist.

Getting back to rehearsal: You have to find a place to do it. Depending on where you live, and barring living in a space with either non-existent neighbors or neighbors/roommates friendly to drums (electronic or non), that probably means finding a dedicated practice space. Often, unless you're fabulously wealthy, your band will share this space with other bands. That's OK. It helps form a musical community to draw from for both emotional and artistic support, although it does mean you have to trust everyone involved to not be the guys/girls who use other people's amps without permission and to not put up terrible magic eye posters, even ironically. Make sure, from the very start, that everyone in the band pays equally or at least what they're capable of. Money resentment is such a weak grudge to have to carry and if you're paying for everything, it will gnaw on you whether you think it will or not. Avoid it for as long as you are able.

Speaking of not having equipment: Get equipment. It can be cheap, and it might not be what you originally imagined—some of the best music ever made has come from innovations created through technological limitation—but, please, save up as best you can and buy some gear, especially before you play a show. Do not show up at a show just assuming you can use another band's kick pedal. Especially the touring band's kick pedal. This may seem basic but, trust me, it's not. Assuming you can use another band's gear isn't punk or DIY. It's entitled and obnoxious. Some bands don't mind, and some do, and the ones that do mind most likely have reason to. So ask a week in advance and if they say "no," respect it with a smile and either make other arrangements or don't play. This may seem tremendously unfair and wildly capitalist, but unless you want a reputation as a scrub, learn to live with it. 

Let's Put on a Show!

Once you have band members you can tolerate, instruments that you can at least grip in your sweaty paws without shame, and some songs (let's say, depending on length, at least six) that don't entirely suck (subjective, but I trust you, and either way they'll get better), it's time to book a show. Even if you're not exactly ready. Booking a first show is the ultimate Get Ready deadline, and, anyway, we're here to take chances.

There's a few ways to book your debut, again depending on where you live and what kind of band you want to be and what kind of "scene" (if any) you want to be part of. Some venues have websites where you can submit recorded music, and depending on the venue you may get an opening 7 PM slot on a Sunday or whatever. This is fine, and I've certainly done it in my life, and I don't regret it.

That being said—and this is where the intrinsic unfairness of the music industry comes into play and we come back to the variables in finding band members—it really helps to have at least one band member who is sociable and goes to shows and talks to people. You may be surprised to discover, after the all the connections you make nerding out over analog synths with other weirdos and just doing the day to day business of being in a band, that you're that person. IRL chatting with other bands and promoters—and by promoters, I mean everyone from the strange 30-somethings in Interpol T-shirts and footwear incommensurate to their age who book clubs to the kid down the street with a garage to anyone with access to a school community room—will always beat out cold writing a venue. You'd be surprised the number of bands that really don't want to play first on a five-band bill, and if you are reasonably friendly and haven't been tossed from the club for stealing tips, that slot can be yours.

After you play your first show, you're either on your way or not, to whatever strange ambition you've set for yourself, whether it be an entirely fraudulent career of being the middle-sized font band at Coachella or a lovable shambolic local opener that all your significant others and former bassists adore. World beater or beat-ee, visionary or solid enough post-punk journey people—in all these examples, I favor the latter, but it's your life and band.

Go forth and flail mightily. Always be nice to the staff. Especially, for your own sake, be nice to the sound person, but don't let them push you around (though they're probably right, and you should turn down the bass a little). Tip the bartenders even if you're playing and paying with drink tickets. And, for the love of god, if you're lucky enough to tour, be kind to each other. Even the rhythm guitarist who chews weird and everyone else in the band has decided sucks. Remember, you're as much in his/her dream as he/she is in yours. 

Illustration by John Garrison. He is an artist living in Chicago and a member of the band The Howl. Follow him on Instagram.

Zachary Lipez is a writer living in New York and a member of the band Publicist UK. Follow him on Twitter.