Jim Mathis

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stage Presence

I was part of a five-piece bluegrass group that played at our church on Christmas Eve. After the first service I asked my wife how we sounded. She said we sounded fine, but I forgot to smile or make eye contact. I related this to the other guys before the next service and with the first chord, we all had big smiles, looking out, looking people in the eye. The response was tremendous.

As musicians we tend to forget that performing is about 85% visual. What you look like is literally six times more important that what you sound like.

I was reading through the requirements for the Montreau, Switzerland Jazz Festival and the first thing mentioned was “Strong stage presence.” If you are auditioning for Montreau, you need a video, not audio recording. They need to know what you look like and how you relate to the audience. I don’t know about you, but I need somebody to remind me of that every time I walk out on stage.

I was relating this to my mother, who has about 75 years of performing experience of one type or another, and she admitted that it is harder that it sounds. Relating to the audiences and holding their attention is primarily a visual activity. All the nationally known acts know this, many local musicians don’t, and there is the primary difference, not how well they play or sing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bob Kaat-Wohlert

I first met Bob about seven years ago. I knew right away that he was one of the best guitar players I had ever met. I soon realized that he was THE best guitar player I had ever met, and since I have been around music and musicians all my life, this is no casual observation. Bob can play any style and genre of music with ease and is knowledgeable about all sorts of music theory and trivia. He doesn’t “showboat,” but plays whatever the music requires.

Bob and I began to talk about putting together a band and started meeting in the fall of 2004 to form what would become Sky Blue. Our intent was to form a Christian blues band, but our eclectic tastes and experiences soon caused us to outgrow that moniker. Sky Blue played our first date in March 2005 with Bob on guitar, me on steel guitar, Bob’s wife, Theresa playing bass, and Doug Gunn on drums. Doug was later replaced by Wes Burrows.

I learned a long time ago that a good way to judge a man is to look at his wife. The type of woman that would marry a man tells more about that man that most of us men know. Those of you who know the terrific Theresa can tell, by that theory, that Bob is a great guy.

Bob, Theresa, Wes, and I are coming up on five years and our 100th paying date together as Sky Blue, as well as having played numerous jam sessions and casuals together. Bob and I see eye to eye about 95% of the time, but we both realize that the music is bigger than both of us, and that tie keeps us all together and loving every minute of it.

One of the big puzzles in my life is why there aren’t lines of people around the block wanting to see the guitar master at work whenever we play. If you are guitar player, there is no better way you can spend your time, other than practicing, than to come and sit in front of Bob whenever Sky Blue plays.

Learning from other musicians and exposing yourself to all kinds of music is one of the best things you can do for your musical career. Playing with Bob has certainly improved my playing and encouraged me to work harder at my craft.

One of my greatest pleasures is playing in a band with these wonderful people.

Friday, November 27, 2009

British Invasion?

One of my favorite things is reading biographies and autobiographies of well-known musicians and performers. In the past few years I have read dozens. Most recently I read Paul Shaffer autobiography, "We'll Be Here For The Rest of Our Lives."

Paul is the band leader for the TV show "Late Night with David Letterman. " He also produces the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Concert each year. He was the original music director for "Saturday Night Live" and put together the "Blues Brothers."

He writes about a conversation over lunch with Animals bass player, Chas Chandler. They listened to an interview with the producer Don Kirchner about Phil Spector. "'Phil was an artist,' said Don. 'We'd cut three sides for $1,500 - no problem. Phil would go in the studio and spend four grand on one song.' 'Stop the tape,' Chas exclaimed. 'That's why those Brill Building blokes lost their way. Do you know how much it cost us to make House of the Rising Sun? Fifteen dollars, with enough left over for pints all around. British Invasion, my rear.'"

I think that is where are again. With the big labels spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce a few over-produced homogenized songs that will pass a focus group. They have forgotten that rock & roll ( and country) is about communicating energy and emotion and not about Auto-tune, Pro-tools and how many tracks of over effected guitar tracks can be used.

Maybe it is time for an invasion by another country to teach us what we should already know. That spending $100,000 to produce a CD doesn't make it good music, or that spending $100 doesn't make it bad.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Andy's Music

This weekend my wife and I were in Chicago when we dropped by Andy's Music on the North Side. Andy's is an unique music store at 2300 W Belmont. The owner, Andy Cohn, has assembeled some of the most amazing and wonderful musical instruments from all over the world.

There are stringed instruments of every shape and size imaginable and some you would never imagine. The basement is of full of drums, cymbals, and percussion instruments from every continent.

From steel guitars to bag pipes and steel drums to wooden flutes of all types, I am sure they are somewhere in this wonderful old building.

I understand that Andy's has a another warehouse full of amazing instruments as well. Whether you are looking for a special kind of pick or a set of string for you oud; or maybe, like me, you just like to play instruments that you don't see everyday, Andy's in Chicago is your place.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Radio Programming

The other day was on a short roadtrip, about 45 minutes, so I decided to listen to a Contemporary Christian Music station. During that time they played quite a few songs with few interruptions, which was good. But without exception, every single song was a high tenor male voice, singing at the top of his range, accompanying by the same 4/4 bass beat and virtually the same drum pattern. All songs were approximately the same tempo.

In 45 minutes I didn’t hear a single female voice, a male bass or baritone, or any instrumental solos. I don’t think that creativity is gone from Christian music, but radio stations certainly show no creativity in their song selection. Secular pop stations are little different.

I presume the argument is that this is what people want to hear, but radio stations are all hurting because people are going elsewhere for music. I have a hard time feeling sorry for these radio stations, Christian or secular.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sky Blue CD - "What Would Jesus Drive?"

The Sky Blue CD, “What Would Jesus Drive?” is done. We will have a CD Release Party and Concert this Saturday, October 17, 2009, at Homer’s Coffee House, 80th & Metcalf in Overland Park, Kansas.

We spent every other Saturday this summer in the studio, writing and recording. We had no budget, no time limits, and no bosses telling us what to do. It was a true labor of love.

I have always been a little uncomfortable with musicians calling themselves “artists” as is the norm in some circles. But with this CD I am beginning to feel that it might be a legitimate title. For one thing the songs are all original, well 8 out of the 10 are, and the other two are greatly altered. So we really did create something from nothing, which to me qualifies as art. The songs were all collaborations between Bob, Theresa, and me with Wes adding his part later.
Working with others, who are true artists, to create something that is new and original, that we think others will enjoy, was a true joy itself. As independent artists, we see the CD as a calling card. This is who we are, at least at this moment in time.
Occasionally in the music business somebody will sell an amazing numbers of records – perhaps millions. This is highly unusual and should not be considered a realistic goal except for a very few groups with huge marketing budgets.

For most of us, making a record that we are proud of, that we can point to and say, this is where we are musically and we want other people to hear it, is a legitimate goal.

This is not an ego thing. It is not reclaiming lost youth or trying to be something we aren’t. It is a group of artists working as a team to create something we like, that expresses a little bit of what we have to say.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Playing for free

I thought I would comment about playing for free. In business there is often a question of how much you give away and how much and when do you charge. Free samples has long been a successful sales tactic as long as you don’t give away the store.

In music, giving away a CD to get a gig or a T-shirt to a fan is always a good idea. Playing a couple of songs for free on a Sunday morning to get people to come to a paid concert Sunday night is also a sound practice.

I know from business experience that people perceive value based upon cost. We naturally assume that if something is free it must be worthless. Competing solely on price is a dead end for any business. There are many products that are desirable simply because they are expensive…$100 concert tickets? …$100,000 cars? There are some things that are perceived to be of little value because they are cheap or free, for example, ball point pens and free concerts.

Playing for a “love offering” or “passing the hat” is not playing for free if the audience understands that they are merely being given a choice as to how much they want to pay, and if there is a reasonable assumption that there will be a good attendance.

Sky Blue has decided that we will play if any of the following situations apply: 1. We get paid (more than minimum wage); 2. There is significant ministry likely (prisons, etc); or 3. There is an obvious chance to increase our fan base (opening for a national act). If none of those things apply, for example, playing for free to six people, we will pass.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bob Jenkins - 12 Steps and a Winding Road

I just received Bob Jenkins superb new CD, "12 Steps and a Winding Road." Though certainly everybody would enjoy this music, it is aimed at a specific community of people with a background in addictions and recovery. The songs are poignant and true.

Since the days of Edison, the music business has had a problem in that the audience has been largely anonymous. It is very difficult to market even a well-known artist to the masses. A much better approach is to identify and target a very specific group. If you can identify your fans by name and address, it is even better. That is where the music business is today.

An artist needs millions of fans if they don't know who they are. If you have their names and e-mail address, a few thousand is plenty. If you know exactly what they want to hear, you are all set.

Bob Jenkins new CD is right on target. You can contact Bob at coloringmoses@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jim's Tips #18

Since I am longer producing 100 concerts a year, I don’t have as many suggestions for improving your show as I did when I watched people make simple mistakes night after night. But I have a few suggestions for becoming a better musician.

Always, or almost always, practice with a drum machine or metronome. I used to think I had a good sense of timing until I bought a basic Alesis SR-16 drum machine. I practice with it all the time now. Musicians I have known for years have commented about how solid my timing is. They never said anything before. Developing a good sense of time is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a musician.

Practice with a tape recorder or other recording device. Hearing yourself as others do can be a real eye-opener. It is also the fastest way I know to improve.

Play out as much as you can. My experience is that I learn about ten times faster in front of an audience than I do at home in my music room.

The nicest thing you can do for your fellow musicians at a rehearsal or jam session is to pass out a chord chart. Some cats can follow by ear, but most can’t. A simple lead sheet or chord chart will make friends in a hurry.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Music listening

Though I haven’t done any hard research, I’ve been doing some guessing and casual surveys about the way people relate to music.

I have heard that 90% of the population listens to music a little, but are not interested enough to listen to even one song all the way through without talking or thinking of something else. These are the people who buy records and go to concerts. It is extremely hard to get and keep their attention because they really don’t understand music or even care that much. This is the challenge for performers in a nut shell.

Less than 10% of the population are musicians, or musically inclined enough that they like a variety of genre’s and can identify tempos, chord changes, etc. About 3% of the people can play a musical instrument.

The weird part to me is that there is another group, maybe 10% of the total, that doesn’t like music at all. These people never listen to music on the radio, don’t own a CD player or tape machine, and believe that music detracts from the movies or a worship service. I know people that cannot name one song or one performer by name.

So that’s the gamut as near as I can tell. The listening experiences by population would look like a bell curve with musicians on one tail and the music haters on the other, with the big majority in the middle centered round the people who only like one style of music or a limited number of pop artists.

What is your experience?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jim's Tips - Over playing

Much popular music is overproduced with too many instruments and too much noise going on. Yet when I’m on stage playing, I tend to do the very thing I find so annoying with other groups – namely playing too much.

Taste is the missing ingredient. Playing just the right note at the right time is much better than playing a blaze of notes that don’t fit and only drawing attention to the player and annoying the audience. I’m as bad about this as anyone, but I see the problem and am trying to do better.

I think the reason that many bands play too loud is because each person is trying to be heard over the clutter. As everybody keeps turning up, eventually the audience is heading for the door with their ears ringing, and everybody in the band is blissfully happy that their bit came through. I know - I’ve been there.

This may come from age or maturity, but figuring out that you don’t have to play everything you know, is right up there with learning that you don’t have to tell all you know when speaking. We say what is important to advance the conversation. In music we should only play what is necessary to advance the musical conversation – and not step on somebody else, like the singer for example.

The most common complaint I hear about bands is that you can’t understand the words or that the vocals aren’t loud enough. The real problem is that a lead instrument is covering up the vocals.

I’ve read several articles in music magazines and blogs about this lately, so it must be a topic that is hitting home. It all comes down to listening to what the band is playing and not just trying to get your licks in whether they fit or not.

If we consider that a piece of music is like a photograph or painting, there needs to be some white space, or neutral space, so the important parts can breathe. In a photograph we need to be able to quickly see the subject. If the whole page is covered with information we tend to dismiss the whole thing. It is the same with music.

Chew on the meat and spit out the bones and happy gigging.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Recording session

This weekend I worked a recording session. I don’t think anybody, particularly me, was overly excited with my performance. When I expressed my frustration to my wife, she was not surprised. She reminded me that I am an entertainer, not a studio musician. Session musician and entertainer are on the opposite ends of the personality spectrum for musicians. This has nothing to do with musical skills and everything to do with personality type.

I am at my best in front of an audience. I get energy from the crowd. Playing with people that I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing music with, doing a song I’ve done a hundred times, in front of a full house is the best. Sitting in a sound proof room with headphones on, playing a song I’ve only played a couple of times, is no fun at all.

That is why big time recording artists use studio musicians to record and take another band on the road. They are two different types of people. Great studio musicians generally lack stage presence or are uncomfortable on stage, and entertainer types are uncomfortable or lack energy, at best, in a studio.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Las Vegas

About 35 years ago my wife and I were in Las Vegas. We happened to notice in the local paper that B.B. King was playing in the lounge at the Holiday Inn. We went down and for a few dollars, spent a couple of hours with the “King of the Blues” at the very height of his career. Since then I had just assumed that the best music in Vegas was in the lounges and that the big rooms were for the likes of Barry Manalow and Cher.

Last week I was in Las Vegas and saw where a duo was playing in the hotel lounge. As I approached I heard what sounded like an eight-piece band playing old Motown, Stax, and Chess tunes, you know, ‘60’s R&B. When I looked in, I was surprised to see two guys singing along to tracks. I am sorry, but the subtle differences between singing cover tunes to tracks and Karaoke is lost on me. I am glad I had not paid any money to get in.

The next day I went to a Beach Boys concert. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston were as good as ever, backed by five wonderful musicians, who I am sure were not born when the Beach Boys were formed in 1961. Which brings up the question, when does a band become a “tribute band” to themselves? When the last original member is gone? Or is a band not a tribute band (impersonators) as long as there is a direct link to the original?

I’ve been listening to http://www.rockabillyradio.net lately and loving it. That early rock and roll is just good time music. As a result Sky Blue http://www.skyblueband.net/ has been taking on a little more of a “rockabilly” flavor. I think this is a good thing. It sort of makes me wish I still had my 1950’s Gibson ES-125, the one with the single P-90 pickup. I traded it for a 1961 Thunderbird in 1967, but that’s another story.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Worship vs Entertainment

The period from about 1500 AD until 2000 AD is generally known as the Modern Era. We are quickly slipping into the Post-Modern Era.

One of the characteristics of the Modern Era was the elevation of science to a religion. As a result of the Modern Era, other religions, such as Christianity, must now answer to science in the public forum. Christians find themselves defending themselves against things like evolution and astronomy.

Another characteristic of the Modern Era is that art, music, and literature have been subjugated to math, science, and engineering to the point where the arts are only considered good for entertainment, not to be taken seriously like math, science, or medicine, for example.

One of the problems we have in the church is that the things we use to worship God - music, drama, dance, & art - are considered nothing more than entertainment by the secular world. Since we are so influenced by the modern culture, we find ourselves increasing the entertainment value of our worship. (Worship, of course, should not be confused with Christian entertainment which can be a form of outreach.)

I don’t see an obvious solution, except to draw a harder line between entertainment and worship and find new ways to worship God. In my opinion, our worship times are too entertaining and Christian entertainment is little different than worship.

Since we are rapidly moving into the Post-Modern Era, this problem may get sorted out as the arts once again take a prominently place in society.

What do you think?