From Rock Stars to Tech Startups – A multi part series

20 years ago I set out to become a great guitar player. 20 years later, I’ve set out to become a web programmer. The parallels are ridiculous.

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When I was 12 years old I liked skateboards and BMX racing. But my family had just moved to a new town, I had started at a new school, and no one I knew shared my interests. And as is the case with young people, I quickly gave up skating and biking to do things my friends enjoyed.

In music class when I was in 7th grade, a classmate named Will Adams brought out an old classical guitar and played the first few bars of “Here Comes The Sun.” It was probably the only song he knew but it was enough. I HAD to learn to play guitar.

My parents gave me a Yamaha acoustic guitar for Christmas. My mom bought it at a pawn shop for $100 (it still hangs on my wall today). They enrolled me in lessons at a local music shop and I began to learn to play.

The funny thing about learning a new instrument is that all of your efforts sound like noise….right up until they don’t. I clearly remember the first time my Dad came around the corner and told me, “Hey…that sounds like music.” Even better, I remember the first time I actually put a couple chords together and it sounded like music to me.

My first band was me, John, and Hjalmar (YALL-mar). We named our band Liar’s Choir, which is still a bitchin name for a band. We lacked a drummer and a bass player but by God we were a band. My first performance was with John on guitar and me singing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Hjalmar was there but he was too scared to sing. We were mad at Hjalmar for bailing so we had a stint where we kicked him out and called the band (me and John) Toxic Opera. Then we called it Noise Boys. Then back to Liar’s Choir at which point we invited Hjalmar back in. We were 13.

Two years later we finally had a full band. Jack played bass and Matt played drums. MAtt was older then all of us and he could buy cigarettes, so he automatically was welcomed. HE also sang in a band called Voodoo Grog that made fun of us behind our backs, but we didn’t care. We spent most of the summer going to their practice space (Matt’s converted garage), chain smoking, and playing our songs a couple of times before my Mom picked us up in our minivan. The Voodoo Grog guys hated us and thought we were dorks (and we probably were), but they loved that John could play every Metallica song. Our songs had names like “Feed My Aggression” and “Don’t Judge Me.” At that moment, we were the worst band ever in history. And even thought we knew we weren’t any good all we could think about was opening for Aerosmith and GNR and the Stones. Some nights we would practice in Matt’s garage and then Jack would call some girls from his school over to swim in the pool in to the night. On the days we didn’t get to practice I’d hang out at Hjalmar’s house. We would swim in his pool while his parents were at work, listening to Kiss records and discussing what our stage names should be. He was “John Doe.” I wanted to copy my hero Slash with a one word name; I would be “Mutt.”

Our first gig came at the end of the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore year of high school. We had practiced our songs but had no idea how to perform. We spent 10 minutes between every song making Beavis and Butthead jokes in to the mic. We ran out of songs so we played “Symphony of Destruction” while Hjalmar sang the words while reading the cassette insert of the latest Megadeth tape. I had changed my strings right before we went on stage and they hadn’t stretched so I was out of tune the whole time. Our first song was called “Sixteen” (which is still one of the best songs I ever wrote in an L.A. Guns sort of way). We ended with “Bangkok Girl” (pun intended). We saved “It’s Alright” for an encore that never came. The show was at North Shore Park in the The Woodlands. There were about 12 people there and all of them were in the bands playing after us. I wore high tops, jean shorts, a Faster Pussycat T-Shirt and a leather hat. Re-read that. Seriously, that is what I wore for my first rock show. (To my credit, I was playing a ’71 Les Paul Custom through a Marshall twin).

It didn’t matter – we were rock stars that night. When we came off stage we all lit a cigarette and talked about how we had just taken the first step that would eventually lead us to the Grammy awards and Madison Square Garden.

There is something liberating about being sure of your coming success.

I had a different band each year in high school after that. Mister Stone’s Garden was my sophomore year. Hjalmar had moved away and John had started a metal band. MSG wasn’t very good either, mostly because our singer couldn’t stay in tune despite fashioning himself as a teenage Scott Wielend. My junior year brought Spilt, wherein that same singer finally learned to carry a note and the rest of the band started to gell. Spencer played drums. He was good except for wanting every song to be two minutes long so he could smoke another cig. He’d had a drug problem so his counselor told him to “keep Marlboros, kick the hard stuff.” We were supportive. Chris played bass and wanted to grow up to be a mortician (seriously). I wrote all the songs and most of them were about the girls who I dated a little but mostly didn’t understand (the feeling was mutual in our small school). One night we played at Zeldas, which was a small dive bar in Houston. We had a lot of people there including my family and we played songs called “Scarlet” and “After Me” and “Life Flat.” I’ll never forget how afterwards my Dad came up with a big smile (mostly of surprise) and said “That sounded great!” as if he couldn’t believe we actually had evolved in to more then just noise.

As a note since I’ve mentioned Dad twice: no musician has ever had a bigger fan than I had in my mother. She took me to see GnR when my dad wouldn’t let us go without an adult. Se listened to the same Cinderella tape over and over as we drove across the country and never once complained. I am blessed.

My senior year I started Triggerfish with an entirely new group of friends. Mostly I wrote the songs and played guitar and my friend David sang the lyrics ( that i also wrote). Spencer was still our drummer but some other classmates joined in on bass and guitar. It was sort of like a Hootie and the Blowfish cum Pearl Jam band. When our shows ended, all the girls wanted to go out with David and I was left packing up my guitar. Todd, our bass player, would disappear in to the night. Spencer would smoke cigarettes and pack up his drums. Any girls not following David would circle around Hunter, the other guitar player. If you know Hunter now you are bound to see the humor in the girls chasing him around.

John’s band was called Urban Chaos and they rocked hard. He shredded on guitar, Mark banged on the drums, and my old bass player Chris was now playing with them. They played lots of Pantera covers.

And just like my bands they sounded terrible. Until they didn’t. One day both of our bands sounded like actual rock bands. John quit playing solos all the time. Chris started paying attention to harmony. And Mark quit thinking that 3 minutes of drumrolls constituted a song.

The songs I wrote for Triggerfish had structure, verses, and choruses. I tried to woo a girl in school with one of our tapes. She liked it, then she made out with another kid during one of our shows. Then, in the spring of my senior year our class gave out “awards” to each other. I was voted “Most Argumentative”. David was voted “Most Musical.” Not to say it’s the entire reason, but it certainly factored in to the fact that I have spoke to him (my best friend from 7th grade until graduation) exactly twice since we received our high school diplomas.

Anyway, I went to college and tried to start a band with guys in my dorm. They were awful. So I played Dave Matthews songs and leaned on that as a good use of my talent. Later my Freshman year, a well-regarded band on campus called “Smudge” enlisted me to play bass. So desperate to be a musician again, I complied. Then the second guitar player quit and I was back to my original instrument. I didn’t smoke enough weed to ever really be a part of Smudge but a tipping point had occurred for me as a musician. I wasn’t a guy that knew how to play a guitar anymore – I was a guy that could play in a band and make the band better. Smudge broke up after the school year.

My sophomore year in college I answered an ad in the Austin Chronicle and linked up with a guy named Jason. We formed a band called Urban Pet Collective. Being in UPC included a LOT of practice, a LOT of songwriting, more practice, and a lot of shows. We even played at CBGB’s in New York City with Paul Simon’s kid (the one he refers to when he sings “My traveling companion is nine years old…” in “‘Graceland’) as the opening act. I played in Toronto and Chicago as well. We were really good. We sounded like Matchbox 20 and LIVE but we were good. UPC was all Austin guys and we were baked in the oven that is the Austin Music scene. The bands that formed and played on campus at my school sounded like 3 or 4 guys playing instruments together. We sounded like a fucking rock and roll band. UPc ended 19 months later when Jason and I began sparring over who was the leader of the band (and he fell in love with my best friends girlfriend$,) our bass player started getting depressed, and our drummer would disappear for weeks at a time to visit his Dad who was locked up in federal prison in Mississippi. As a note, Brendan Anthony (Pat Green’s violin player) spent some time in UPC. Brendan is a sensational musician and performer and it is really no surprise that he ended up making a career of all of this.

A few years after graduation I would form the Broken Stars. We played 100 shows over three years, made an album, and had a lot of fun. One night our pedal steel player told me, “this band can’t exist without you….you brought us all together and even if all of us quit, there would still be an awesome band here.” I ended up walking out on them, quiting. They were mad at me for a long time (justifiably) although we’ve mended those fences now. They think I quit because I wanted to get married. I tell people I quit because I was tired of loading gear out at 2 a.m. on a work night after playing to 4 people and getting only a $10 comp at the bar in exchange.

THe truth is that I quit because there was a moment where I realized i was never going to be a professional musician. I was never going to be a rock star. And I quit not the moment I became fine with that fate but even earlier, the moment I was honest with myself and realized that no amount of work or practice or stone cold luck or great shows or late nights loading gear was ever going to transport me back to being 13 years old, diving off of Hjalmar’s diving board while listening to Physical Graffiti and dreaming of jamming with Joe Perry.

My songs were good, but they were far from great. My voice was good, but far from great. My story of being a good kid from a good family and having no drug problem or social issues or whatever simply wasn’t going to lend itself to making me a star. I was a normal guy who wrote good songs for a pretty good band. The. End. I quit the band and I hung up my guitars for good. Literally.

When I quit the Broken Stars, I sold my Taylor acoustic and my Gibson ES135. I have a ’71 Les Paul Custom hanging on my wall next to my original Yamaha acoustic. I’ve maybe played the guitar 5 times in the last decade. I only play at parties after everyone has had too much to drink and we want to sing Robert Earl Keen songs. Occasionally I play “Fact of The MAtter”, which is a song I wrote that my wife loves (which makes no sense because it’s extremely, unapologetically misogynistic). I don’t miss being in a band or playing music at all. Given the chance to get on stage again I can say with certainty that I would rather eat a hand grenade.

But somewhere in there along the way I went from struggling to play a single chord to being able to play every chord 6 different ways without looking at my guitar. And I can still do it. I may have lost a couple of chops here and there but I can sneak my guitar down off the wall for a few minutes and it’s like I never ever put it up. I looked down the other day while talking to my wife and I was fingering a Major scale on my pants leg. With my right hand. Which is odd because I never fingered a fretboard with my right hand (that was my strumming hand). At some point it goes from being something you think about to something that is in you. And it never goes away.

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I’m 34 now and trying to teach myself how to program web applications. THe model holds the same – you bang around on a keyboard and nothing good happens. Then, with enough practice and study, you start to see how things work and you start to make music one note at a time. Then you learn a chord. Then a chorus. Then a song. And you keep at it diligently until you look up and it doesn’t take a lot of thinking but rather it just sort of happens, like how an artist doesn’t see the block or marble but rather the thing that is stuck inside it. Like playing the guitar, coding just starts to flow. You don’t think about the transition from a D chord to a G chord…it just sort of happens. And you finally get to the point where you don’t think of what you are doing but rather what you will do next and next and next and suddenly it’s there.

20 years ago we all wanted to be rock stars and play the Forum and wear leather pants and turn up the Marshall stacks to 10. But Les Pauls have been replaced by Macbook Airs and pentatonic scales have been replaced by Ruby on Rails. The goal is the same. THe vision is the same. TO take a language not everyone can speak and make it do something amazing. To take an instrument and sting together notes that make people happy. That resonate with them. To form small, tiny pieces in to experiences that can be repeated and remembered over and over again.

***UP NEXT – How tech startups are like being in a band***

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