HMX Bands Showcase: How To Go From Work To A Gig In Style

Fish McGill is the Associate Web Producer at Harmonix and the illustrator of the weekly 52 Weeks To Rock series. When he's not helping release content and new versions of the site, Fish can be found drawing folks at Harmonix, people in Central square and robot musicians. The drawings from the series were recently exhibited at the Space 242 Gallery at the Boston Weekly Dig offices.

Readers of "52 Weeks" are familiar with the show booking expertise and first gig tips of Jessica Smith. Last Thursday, Jessica pulled together six Harmonix bands including Abnomality, Thief Thief, Breaking Wheel, Death of the Cool, That Handsome Devil and Bang Camaro for a night of awesome music at The Middle East right across the street from the Harmonix offices, and many took notice, scoring a cover call out in The Boston Phoenix. How did all this come together? What is it like to go straight from work right into a show? Is it harder to wheel an amp in and out of a van or to brave through the potholes on Massachusetts Avenue? Christine Jandreau and I went straight to the source, talking to members of some of the bands, HMXers who enjoyed the show and the mastermind of the show herself.


Christine Jandreau: How long did the show take to plan? Was it always a Harmonix Showcase from the start, or did it just kind of turn out that way?

Jessica Smith: I had the idea to do an all HMX show for almost a year, but I started planning this one in May. I figured it would be a small, four-band show at a dive bar.

CJ: How did you pick the bands? It was quite an eclectic grouping.

JS: I picked bands that I've heard (or seen) before, and I purposely chose different genres of music in order to expose everyone to different styles throughout the night. I never thought Bang Camaro would agree to do it, so I asked Bryn very casually one day outside a bar and he actually was interested. I think that's when things seriously came together.

CJ: Would you plan another HMX showcase in the future?

JS: Absolutely. I would love to have some sort of annual HMX showcase. And I'd definitely consider doing smaller shows in between.

CJ: What was your favorite part of the night?

JS: I liked watching the crowd's reaction to Abnormality. Even at an all-metal show, Mallika always stuns the audience.

CJ: I like how she called out the fact that there were probably some very confused Bang Camaro fans.

JS: Haha, yeah. She was probably right.

CJ: How do you prep to go from "work mode" to "show mode"? You were stage manager last night, right? Is that a big mindset change from Web release engineer work?

JS: Yes, they made me stage manager at the last minute, which actually wasn't as frightening as I thought. But yes, it's a huge mindset change, having to switch gears from a quiet nerd in webtowne to telling people what to do. And switching gears back into work mode after an awesome night is probably the worst part.

CJ: Do you have any tricks to help you transition from webtowne nerd to boss-lady?

JS: Beer? Haha, I guess I'm used to it by now. I like running shows. But beer helps. It was an awesome experience and the bands deserve all the credit for creating an amazing evening.


Fish McGill: What is it like going from producer by day to on stage at a show within a few hours straight from work?

Naoko Takamoto: It's normal for me, sometimes it's weird since I get changed in the bathroom at work, and then I find that people are still in the office, so people who saw me 30 minutes ago now see me walking around with 10 pounds of makeup, a wig, and stilettos on.

FM: How do you mentally & physically prepare to get into your stage persona?

NT: The getting dressed up part helps alot, so does the whiskey. I think it naturally flips a little when I'm with the guys in my band, and especially when the music kicks in, but me and my stage persona aren't very different really.

Naoko! Photo by Joshua Pickering

FM: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

NT: I like the collision of worlds. It's all my friends from work, and a bunch of friends from out of work, and meeting people's friends, and getting confused how I know some people because everything's dark and hot and screaming with friends' music... it's not a feeling I get to indulge in often.

FM: Is it cool to see familiar faces from the stage?

NT: I couldn't see anything from the stage, there was a crazy light right in my eye. I tripped like 5 times! But when I could see someone for a quick second, especially people who had moved up close to the stage and looked like they were having a good time, that made me happy.


Fish McGill: What is it like switching from developer at Harmonix to being on stage at the Middle East within a couple of hours?

Geoff Pitsch: It mainly just makes me feel lucky that music can be such an integral part of my life, both in what I do at work and in my free time. There’s also an interesting dynamic where my coworkers become audience members, and I get to share a completely different experience with them, one that ultimately has a real positive impact on the workplace.

FM: How do you mentally and physically prepare to get into your stage persona?

GP: It’s not easy! Carrying equipment, worrying about set times, and dealing with pre-show technical difficulties don’t really get you into the “Yeah! Rock & Roll!” mindset. It’s important to choose a first song that you know is capable of throwing this switch in your brain just by hearing the opening notes.

FM: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

GP: Probably when one of our coworkers jumped on stage, tackled Izzy, and proceeded to molest him on stage while the rest of us kept playing. I’m waving at her now from my desk and she’s just shaking her head and groaning. Hi Kelly!


Fish McGill: What is it like moving from sound designer to lead singer on stage within just a couple of hours?

Izzy Maxwell: For me work and play are two sides of the same coin. The attitude I bring to the office is very much the same as what I bring to the stage, though the result is very different.

FM: How do you mentally & physically prepare for being on stage? Aside from getting baby powder for the opening which was so rad! [Izzy appeared on stage in a cloud of baby powder and colored lights.]

IM: It's very important to stay grounded before a show. At our level we don't have people setting up and testing our equipment for us, so there's always this hectic rush to get everything up and running as fast as possible. It's easy to stress out over technical difficulties. Like, if a cable isn't working, or something doesn't sound right. But if you get hung up on little things like that you'll be completely flustered for the show. So I make a mental switch from roadie to rock star right before the music starts.

FM: That's savvy. What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage? You were "attacked" by an audience member/coworker at one point up there.

IM: Hah! Yeah, Kelly.. but I had fun with it. Being reckless is a key part of rock and roll. But I think my favorite part of the night was having a fan scream at me angrily for DotC not having an album. He was so pissed off. I really get off on seeing the deep emotional impact music can have on a person... especially when it's music that I have created.


Fish McGill: What is it like moving from producer at HMX to being on stage in a short span of time?

Pete Maguire: It’s a good chance to worry about something else for a few hours!

FM: How do you mentally and physically prepare to get into your stage persona?

PM: I usually try to find somewhere quiet and run through the songs in my brain a few times. We have such a great Harmonix support group that I rarely have any stage fright knowing that I will see some familiar faces in the crowd. Harmonix is very supportive of its bands and we feel really lucky. There isn’t much physical prep, unless you count the babypowder which I think the majority goes into my keyboard. I bet you didn’t know my keyboard runs on babypowder.

FM: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

PM: There were 2 parts actually - 1 )Seeing Mallika perform was really astounding. 2) Seeing Kelly fall on Izzy was also very erm.. interesting!


Fish McGill: What is it like moving from developer at work to being on stage within a couple of hours?

Bryn Bennett: I don’t feel like there is much of a “transformation” if that’s what you mean. Playing music and making video games is something that I’ve been doing since I was about the age of 12. I’ve always had the game-geek/rock-geek sides to my personality, and I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to pursue both. Having said that, it would be nice if the guys here in my office at Harmonix would stand up and cheer whenever I finished writing a sweet line of code.

Bryn & Maclaine! Photo by Joshua Pickering

FM: How do you mentally and physically prepare to get into your stage persona?

BB: To mentally prepare myself, I would have to do 7-8 shots of Jack Daniels, straight from the bottle. Unfortunately, that un-prepares me physically. Ha, seriously, I try to spend at least 20 minutes warming up on my guitar before we play to get my fingers going. When I used to play indie rock, I would be able to jump up on stage and just go for it, but Bang Camaro is a different kind of beast. I really have to have my fingers ready to play some of the songs. Sometimes it’s a bit nerve wracking.

FM: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

BB: On stage, the best part was having Maclaine Diemer join us. He left Bang Camaro a while ago to become a full-time Composer/Sound Designer at Harmonix. So, he sang a number of songs with us and then played “Push Push (Lady Lightning)” and “Nightlife Commando” on guitar. It was like the good old days.

Off stage I really liked sitting back and watching the other Harmonix bands. I hadn’t seen Abnormality before, and they were intense. I am so afraid of Mallika now…


Fish McGill: What is it like moving from artist at work to being on stage within a couple of hours.

Mallika Sundaramurthy: For me, it’s not a big transition going from one creative outlet to another. I enjoy my job and I enjoy being on stage. Having co-workers see my band for the first time is sometimes weird because I tend to be reserved and friendly at work, but loud and aggressive in the band. I think most of them know what to expect from us now.

FM: How do you mentally and physically prepare to get into your stage persona?

MS: I don’t have much of a routine before a show. If I have the time I’ll do a vocal warm-up. The challenge is trying not to get nervous and tense before hand. I try to find distractions until we are ready to go on. As for my stage persona, it just comes out when we start playing and the music is blasting. The energy from the music and from the audience gets me pumped up.

FM: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

MS: My favorite part of the night is definitely while we are playing. It’s such a thrill and a release. I also like to see people’s shocked or confused expressions when they see us play for the first time, like they don’t believe that a female is singing what they are hearing.


Christine Jandreau: What is it like moving from Web QA Lead to Rock Star within just a couple of hours? How do you mentally and physically prepare to get into your rock persona?

Colin Snyder: Well first I usually leave work early! But that's mostly because even when a show's not scheduled to start until 8 or 9, there's a few hours necessary to get a car (neither my bandmate Jeff or I own one so we usually have to borrow or use a car share), drive to our rehearsal space to load up gear, haul it to the venue, load out, then return the car and still have time to get a bite to eat, warm up and relax for a few minutes before things get started. Yesterday was a 10 hour day for me and Jeff and we only played for a half hour of it.

CJ: Yikes. That's a lot of prep. Do you have any rituals or tricks to switch from "work mode" to "show mode"?

CS: I definitely do a lot of deep breathing relaxation whenever possible between the end of the work day and the beginning of my show night. It helps keep me focused and mentally sharp. I usually have a pair of drum sticks in my hand for like 2-3 hours before we go on. I hold them upside down and play patterns on my forearms to warm up and stay loose.

CJ: I noticed you had the sticks with you when I walked in. That's a neat trick... How does having so many co-workers in the crowd affect your show?

CS: I thought it would affect me more, but last night wasn't bad at all. I realized once I got up on the drum riser that I couldn't really see past the edge of the stage thanks to the lighting, so I felt as comfortable as I am in my rehearsal space.

CJ: What was your favorite part of the night on or off stage?

CS: I'd say right after we finished our set and before Death of the Cool started their set...I got to walk around the crowd some and a bunch of people had some really good things to say about our set. I'm really proud of myself and Jeff anytime we earn unsolicited, positive feedback and the people I talked to last night really made it feel genuine.


Christine Jandreau: How did the idea for creating a show poster come about?

Rumsey Taylor: Jessica asked if [Fish & I] were interested in doing something, and we absolutely were.

CJ: Was the plan always to do a limited-run silk screen printing? Or did you have simpler goals in mind - a paper-printed poster, for example?

RT: We definitely wanted to screen print the poster. Most of the show posters you see at the Middle East (or plastered about Central Square) are these cheap flyers, or posters printed on inkjet printers. Fish and I from the beginning wanted to do something more, I guess, considered.

Silkscreen poster by Rumsey Taylor & Fish McGill

CJ: How did the collaboration between you and Fish work?

RT: We more or less divided the technical responsibilities equally: getting materials, the actual process of printing. The design is collaborative as well--Fish selected the colors and illustrated the patterns, and I designed the type. We were volleying the work to each other throughout the entire process.

CJ: You were at the show last night. What was your favorite part of the night?

RT: The variety. There was so much variety! I've never been to a show in which head-banging was followed by dancing.

CJ: Do you think you two will collaborate on art for future Harmonix shows?

RT: We hope to, certainly. Last night I kept badgering Jess to manage more shows. "Sure," she'd say, "Twelve months from now."


Christine Jandreau: You’ve been to a lot of shows over the years…have you ever seen one as musically varied as last night’s?

Brett Milano: Definitely not for a long while…maybe since the Breeders, Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins at Lollapalooza? It’s really the most fun when bands play together because they’re friends or because they work together—any other reason than because they sound alike. They way you get a lot of different audiences hearing something they wouldn’t hear otherwise. That happened at the WBCN Rumble this year too—I think our own Anarchy Club played on the same bill with a country band and a low-fi punk group, and many eyebrows were raised…

CJ: You stopped at another local show before coming to the HMX show. Was the atmosphere different at the HMX show?

BM: About as different as you can get. The other show was Allen Toussaint, who’s kind of the maestro of New Orleans — He wrote a lot of R&B classics and made an album with Elvis Costello a couple years ago. Very elegant solo piano stuff — Kind of an appertif for the main course at the ME. Lots of people sipping chardonnay and eating salmon appetizers, which you may not want to do at the ME…

CJ: What was your favorite part of the night?

BM: I really wish I’d seen all the bands, especially since I heard a whole lot of good things about Thief Thief. But I really enjoyed the three bands I saw. I already knew I liked Bang Camaro and Death of the Cool, so That Handsome Devil was probably the best surprise for me. I knew they’d be a little theatrical after hearing their RB track but that was a little more than expected… Got to love a band that throws a lot of information at you and then you spend all of the set break sorting it out! Also there’s no way I would have recognized the female singer, and I see her around the office on a daily basis.