For a follow-up to our previous interview with Lou Musa, The Verve Pipe allowed me to come and shoot some photos of their recent gig opening for Cheap Trick at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thanks to all the guys in Verve Pipe and Van Andel Arena for letting me come and shoot the show and also give you a behind the scenes look at what goes on before the show.
Many of the greatest musicians are the greatest teachers. Professional musicians navigate a road wrought with twists, turns, bumps and dead end signs. A common stop on that road for many is teaching other aspiring musicians. I decided to talk with some professional musicians who have used their skills to train the next generation and get their perspective on performing, the road they traveled and how they teach their students.
To kick things off, I’ll be talking to Lou Musa. Lou grew up in Rockford, Il and started playing guitar at the ripe old age of 5. He studied classical guitar for 11 years and while in high school he started teaching and gigging in Chicago. He moved to Grand Rapids, MI in 1997, where he formed the hard rock group The Rockit King.
In 2008 he was asked to join a re-formed Verve Pipe which opened up an opportunity to play for audiences all over the world. If that wasn’t enough, he also records music for movies and commercials, produces albums for other artists and has picked up endorsements for Bugera Amplifiers and D’Addario Strings.
Anthony Nowack: You make your living through music. Millions of young musicians have aspirations of being rock stars but then settle for careers they think are more attainable. Was there a time when you thought you’d have to hang it up?
Lou Musa: Never! Though there’s been many times that I had to take on other jobs in addition to help pay the rent. If you stay realistic to your goals and expectations, you can survive pretty well in the industry.
AN: Seems that you’ve consistently worked your way up in your career. Much like an office worker might start in the mailroom and eventually keep getting promoted because of their skills and their work ethic. They don’t go straight to being the CEO. Is that how you’ve approached your career? Give us a little of your history in music.
LM: Well, I grew up with music constantly being played and performed in the home. There was always a get together for family and friends, where my dad and uncle would play music and entertain everyone. It would end up as a big jam session by the end of the night, and that totally caught my interest as a little kid. My dad eventually taught me some basics on guitar to accompany him at the parties. By the time I was a teenager I was hooked and I had that drive to spend hours upon hours to practice and study of the art form. I was just starting high school when I began making money playing gigs. It eventually grew into better gig’s and opportunities, that has led me to where I’m at now. I never had expectations of huge success, just wanted to make a decent living doing what I love.
AN: After playing music for so long, do you still find the guitar challenging?
LM: Yes! Guitar, like most instruments you can never master. There’s always room for improvement.
AN: What do you do to expand your skills or help keep things interesting as a player?
LM: I try to expose myself to as many forms of music and art that I can. You can find inspiration everywhere if you’re open to it.
AN: Can you give me an example of how an artist in a different genre that has influenced you?
LM: When I studied classical and flamenco guitar as a student. I was really influenced by composers such as, Mozart & Chopin, and guitar masters like, Paco de Lucia & Carlos Montoya. As I got older I really started getting into Jazz greats like Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny. I’d even get inspired by other instrumentalist (even to this day) like, Andreas Vollenweider, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, just to name a few.
AN: Yeah, many of the great players picked up tools from other styles. Keith Richards has said he wanted the riff to “Satisfaction” to actually be recorded by a horn section. It’s a very R’n'B stabby kind of riff that way. Is that the kind of thing that a guitar player should take in when, for example, they listen to a jazz player like Miles or Coltrane that they can apply to their playing? Differences in phrasing or rhythm?
LM: For sure! Usually when I’m writing a song or working on an idea, I’ll hammer it out on guitar and/or piano. As the idea progresses, I begin to hear different timbres and elements that help the idea grow into something more complete. It usually ends up with totally different vibe, then what was originally envisioned.
AN: I know I’ve told you before how a photo I took of The Rockit King in that skanky club way back when made me want to be a music photographer. That’s also why I send you a portion of all my earnings. The second part’s not actually true, but did you ever have that kind of moment of clarity about being a musician?
LM: I do recall you telling me that. You know I love to hear that story. Lol…. Anyway, I’ve never really had that kind of moment probably cause I started playing so young. Everytime I see or hear a great performer I do get exited for them and picture myself involved somehow. So I guess that’s my moment.
AN: Sounds like you’re going to have plenty of those moments this year. You’ve got a busy summer coming up between your two bands. What’s on your schedule this year that you’re excited about?
LM: Yeah, it’s going to be a busy summer for shows! Really looking forward to playing the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, MI with Cheap Trick in June. Also, Lollapallooza should be a blast in August. Got a few cool show’s scheduled with The Rockit King too. Hopefully get some quality time to finish producing the next TRK record for a possible fall release.
AN: Thanks Lou. I think that’ll do it. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to add. Your favorite neo-classical metal guitarist maybe? Yngwie or Randy Rhoads? Also, would Steve Vai be as good without that fan blowing his hair back all the time?
LM: Randy Rhoads, though Yngwie can kick a guitar pick right at you while shredding a riff. Vai, regardless of the fan, the guy is a monster player and a real nice dude. Had the pleasure to hang out with him years ago at a NAMM show and he invited me and a friend out to one of his private party shows in LA. Though, the fan makes him look even cooler when he’s throwin’ down.
For the aspiring guitar players out there we recorded a mini guitar lesson with Lou where he showed us some of the exercises he teaches his students to help build their chops.
What makes a great performer? It’s something that every aspiring musician hopes to figure out. It’s the magic formula that grabs your audiences attention. It means the difference between playing to yourself in your bedroom or a having fans sing your words back to you in a stadium.
As a photographer, I’ve observed countless bands big and small, great, not so great, and just plain bad. I’ve captured performers who seemed more comfortable in front of ten thousand people than I am in front of ten. I’ve seen small bands nobody knew going in and everyone was talking about going out. And I’ve seen big famous national acts whose performances nobody remembered the next day. But performers who make it big and stay there are able to connect with an audience. Just playing your songs well is never enough. Whether there are ten people watching or ten thousand, you have to be able to capture their attention. My advise to aspiring performers: work on your stage presence. If you’re timid on stage an audience will chew you up if they don’t just ignore you completely. Learn to dance with that partner. Some of that ability comes from experience and practice, but sometimes you just have to take the big risks. In my experience here are a few examples of artists who could do just that.
A Green Day performance is like a group of adolescent pranksters crashing their friends house party when the parents are away and destroying the place. With guitars. Through the course of a night, singer Billie Joe Armstrong will ask numerous audience members to join the band on stage. Sometimes to dive off the stage into the crowd.
At other points in the show they may bring people up to sing along or dance. When I photographed the band at Lollapalooza in 2010, Billie liked a fan’s ability to sing their song Longview so much he gave the man his guitar. That’s one way to make a fan for life. They even brought out hoses to spray down the sweaty crowd and set off huge fireworks both on and off stage. It was a spectacle that set the bar for performances at the historic festival.
Metallica were one of the inventors of thrash metal in the early 80′s. Thrash was a response to the glam rock/hair metal bands that dominated the Los Angeles music scene at the time. Instead of the glitter and hair spray that L.A. bands relied on for theatrics, Metallica went for a more primal reaction from audiences. They played faster and louder than anyone and the headbanging throngs have followed them ever since. Thirty years later they’re still getting fans to throw up the metal salute and whip their hair.
I took photos of a show on the Death Magnetic tour and they definitely still had the same ability to get the crowd pumped with adrenaline. They had a huge stage that sat right in the middle of the arena so even the cheap seats didn’t need binoculars to see them. They also put lights on the audience so the band could see the fans raising their fists and screaming along. You could immediately see the effect this had as the band could play to every part of the arena and no matter where you were, one of the band members was playing right in front of you and seemingly to you.
In complete contrast with the blue-jeans-and-t-shirts blue collar sledgehammer of Metallica, Of Montreal brings the theatricality in buckets. Their shows are like musical theater where the musicians share the stage with the actors. Throughout the show, actors will come out and silently act out skits that correspond to the songs, complete with outrageous outfits and props.
The band is also made up as flamboyantly as a parade through the Castro with feather boas, face paint, and outfits that Elvis would have died (again) for. The band doesn’t seem to ask “Why?” or “Why not?”, but instead “Why not go even further?” Of Montreal are like Rocky Horror Picture Show on tour with mimes. Most times, you don’t know what’s going on, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.
If anyone was born to be on stage, it’s Paramore singer Hayley Williams. She was only 16 when the band put out their first album, All We Know Is Falling. Her small stature might fool you into thinking she’s still 16. From watching her bounce around the stage with seemingly endless energy and the way she belts out every song with a barely controlled fury, I can’t help but think of a kid in her bedroom singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror. Except that she doesn’t care if everyone’s watching.
The theme with all of these acts is they are far from timid. Performers have to be fearless. Hayley personifies this fearlessness. In a male dominated industry, Williams isn’t just showing a generation of young girls that being in a rock band isn’t just for boys, she’s setting the bar for all rock singers in the new millennium.