Playing the Field

There’s a scene in Mike Judge’s recent movie “Extract” – a good film, but not as instantly memorable as “Office Space” or “Idiocracy” – in which a rocker dude who works in the warehouse is describing the subtle differences between the five metal bands in which he plays. One is speed metal, one is more “grindcore,” etc. Two of the projects are actually the same four guys, with different band names because they play different kinds of death metal. This scene resonated with me, and not just because the over-categorization of metal is always good for a laugh. I can sympathize with warehouse metal dude because I sometimes find myself trying to explain why one band is just not enough.

I’ve been playing with Mike and Scott from Mystic Canyon for 8 years. In that time I have evolved from a guy with congas trying to figure out how I fit in, to a multi-instrumentalist looking for new challenges. I have learned to appreciate simplicity in songcraft and to seek my ideal contribution to each song we play. But the irony of playing in Mystic Canyon is that, as I improve and expand my range as a performer, the band  narrows its scope in order to establish an identity.

When we changed our name from the intentionally vague Verge of Something to Mystic Canyon, we wanted to send a signal that this was a new band, not just with a few new players but with a new acoustic direction.  We wanted a name that conjured images of serenity, wisdom and natural beauty that we hoped to echo in our music. We made it our mission to make music that felt like it could not be played on anything but acoustic instruments.

Over the last five years, we have worked hard to achieve that aesthetic while maintaining the adventurous approach of the jambands that have inspired us. A lot of the time, we nail it just like we want it to sound. Every now and again, though, we fall back on our natural jam tendencies and we become just another rock band that happens to play acoustic instruments. As much as I love what we’ve been able to create, I’ve found it difficult at times to stay within the lines we have drawn for ourselves.  

So, much like Jerry and Elaine concluded they had to have sex to save their friendship, I realized that in order to give my best to Mystic Canyon, I had to stray outside the band to satisfy my other appetites. One such fling was with a barbershop quartet I found on Craigslist. We called ourselves the Four Hoarse Men and we made some beautiful harmonies on a wide variety of a capella tunes. The experience helped me to relearn some vocal discipline I had forgotten since college and gave my voice and my ear a huge boost of confidence that has made an impact on my background and lead vocal work in Mystic Canyon.

Fortunately, our bassist Scott Hewitt had similar feelings about trying something new. He wanted to play some guitar, electric and acoustic, and find another outlet for his songs that didn’t quite fit the Mystic mold. Scott and I share many common musical tastes, so finding a new project together made perfect sense. For the last two years, we’ve been playing with friends in a project we call the Jersey Rhythm Mafia. While it’s always a fun jam and occasionally a party gig comes along, Scott and I sought more of a challenge. So this past summer, we turned once again to Craigslist to find a new kindred spirit.

We hooked up with yet another Jersey refugee by the name of Ed Travalia to form a trio we are calling the Harmless Eccentrics. Like us,  Ed has had years of jamband experience and an appreciation of quirky covers you don’t hear every day. He plays bass, keyboards and guitar, giving us a myriad of instrumentation options, and also brings a great voice and a keen sense of harmony. I appreciate that he can sing high parts, so I get to sing some juicy middle harmonies on a few tunes. 

As this year comes to an end, I find myself jamming with the Eccentrics more often than the Canyon guys, who have also been keeping busy with new projects. Plans are already under way to bring Mystic Canyon back to Portland stages in 2010, but I intend to continue my “transgressions” with the Harmless Eccentrics and Jersey Rhythm Mafia, plus the occasional one-night hookups with the likes of MiMo, Jerry Rig and Samba Soleil. In fact, my first performance of 2010 will be as the fill-in drummer with the Magenta Theater Band. While none of this is getting me any closer to quitting my day job, I believe each experience makes me a better overall musician.

I hope everyone had a terrific holiday and look forward to a fantastic 2010 for all.

3 Replies to “Playing the Field”

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