First Gigs, Nightmare or Otherwise

Jessica Smith is Web QA Engineer at Harmonix. When not… web QA engineering… Jessica books metal shows in the greater Boston area, so she actually kind of knows what she is talking about.Check out her tips on booking shows & see for yourself.

If you’re an aspiring rock star, you’re going to have to do it eventually. I’m not talking about waking up naked being spooned by a stranger on the couch of a hotel room under a dirty sleeping bag. I’m talking about getting up on stage for the first time ever, in front of a (hopefully?) large crowd who probably hates you already because they don’t know who you are.

The truth is, chances are good that your first gig is going to be an epic failure. Hopefully it won’t be bad enough where you can’t recover and you’ll likely have some amusing stories to tell when you’re a huge superstar.

Harmonix is chock full of musicians who had some pretty rough starts. I got so many stories that I had to choose from the most cringe-worthy (except for those who refused to share, because they were just too embarrassing).

The multi-talented Jeff Allen, who was our drum authoring lead on Rock Band 1 and 2, produces electronic music under the moniker “prophetisaiah” and also plays the drums in Breaking Wheel and Death of the Cool. During his senior year of high school he rocked the synths and MIDI sequences using an entire 386, monitor and all, in a band called “Majestic 12”. He even played the alto sax for one song. They were going for the nerd rock/punk thing, and considered themselves pretty spectacular.

“Besides graduation parties and basements full of friends with no ride to the mall, our biggest gig was the Battle of the Bands, which took place in the acoustic disaster zone that was the school gymnasium,” Jeff tells me. “Even though we had practiced a lot and were pretty tight, we were doomed to failure. Our singer/guitarist couldn’t hear crap, either because the monitor mix was practically non-existent or because he was wearing a silver go-kart helmet. Amps were cutting in and out. The drummer couldn’t hear my sequences so tempo drifted in and out of time. Twice, some moron tripped over the power cable for my PC, which meant I had to reboot my key rig each time. My alto saxophone was an alto saxophone. All the dead silence was even less bearable considering the ridiculous crap we were all wearing… like some kind of underweight, acid tripping Village People. ”

Fortunately, the rest of the bands in the battle must have been worse, because Majestic 12 came in second place that day and Jeff earned himself a real-live prom date. He’s also pretty optimistic about a Majestic 12 reunion, now that nerds are cool and everyone uses autotune.

Jon Carter, an Associate Producer and member of The Main Drag and Blanks had a uniquely funny story to tell.

“My band Blanks first gig was in a gymnasium, performing for elementary school kids with ADHD. Not sure who put it together, probably (John) Drake. One of the kids had brought a flute or clarinet or something and the instructors encouraged him to play with us. He stood next to us and made enthusiastic noises and body movements, though I don't remember any actual notes. Another kid yelled, "That ain't HIP HOP!" at regular intervals. There was a Q and A portion, during which he asked, "Why don't you play HIP HOP?"  Soon after, one of the kids discovered a basket ball in the corner and we lost half our audience. Best gig ever.”

Harmonix coder extraordinaire and guitarist of Bang Camaro, Bryn Bennett was eager to share the story of his first band called “Innocent Madness”. He was 13 years old in a small town and psyched to land a 3:00pm gig at the local bar where factory workers hung out after their shifts. Bryn and his band mates made up some posters and managed to attract about 50 or 60 people, mostly made up of their classmates, but still pretty impressive for a small bar in a small town.

Despite only having a total of nine songs at that point, they were instructed to play four 45-minute sets with 15-minute breaks in between. Apparently if you’re the “bar band”, you are the entertainment for that entire evening. Needless to say, they ran out of songs to play during the first set and had no idea what to do next.

They decided for their second set to come out and tell the enthusiastic middle-schoolers that Axl Rose had died and that they were going to pay homage by jamming Guns n’ Roses tunes for the rest of their sets.

“We played ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ for the next three hours to a seriously depressed crowd,” says Bryn. “Our next and last show was at our Middle School. I signed the back of a girl’s jacket. I was officially a rock star. ”

The story of Phillip Hunt, our beloved Administrative Assistant, is probably the classic nightmare that rock stars hope never happens to them. He was playing with his band called Downgroove, and for the first song the singer’s mic wasn’t even turned on. Shortly after, the drummer lost control of his drum sticks, sending them flying to the other end of the stage. To top things off, both the bassist’s and Phill’s straps fell off of their guitars. The bassist had to play with his knee hoisted in the air and Phill broke a string, abruptly ending the opening song right in the middle.

Not every first gig story has to be a bad one. The Hellion’s first show happened by accident, when the opening band for The Acro-Brats dropped off at the last minute. VAGIANT had been playing as a band for roughly two months and had about four songs. The night before the show, The Hellion sat on her porch all night, chain smoking and telling herself that her whole life was going to change tomorrow.

“So, of course, like all first shows, it sold out,” Helen remembers. “We played okay-to-terrible. Although I remember Aaron DeMuth (Harmonix Artist) was there and he was really disappointed afterwards because he said, ‘I came to this because I thought you guys would suck hilariously badly, but you only sort of sucked a little. ’ It was terrifying… but it went pretty smoothly, all things considered.”

Another success story comes from a fellow web-team member. Colin Snyder from the math-rock band Thief Thief doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary at his first show. He played at the Bulfinch Yacht Club in downtown Boston with a bunch of random bands. After that night Thief Thief ended up sharing a practice space with one of the bands from that bill, and has since played with another one of those bands several times on much bigger bills. It’s all about making connections.

There is a lesson to be learned from these stories. You can prepare yourself to death but some things are just out of your control. The underlying theme I got when asking around for advice was to just get up there and do your thing like you were born to do it. Whether it’s your first show or your millionth show, don’t let it get to you!  You can take your experiences with you and thrive, or you can dwell on the bad memories and never play another show. The choice is yours.