Inspired by a raucous 4-piece English rock band, opbmusic contributor Matt Drenik composed a piece of freelance advertising music and found himself in a tug of war between creative freedom and commercial appeal.
A few months ago I was in the desert in California with my wife when I got a text alert:
“Palma Violets this Tuesday at Doug Fir Lounge.”
Instantly, I became emotional, turned to my wife, and said, “We gotta go.”
“Are we back to Portland in time?” she asked.
“We’ll get off the plane and go straight to the venue,” I quickly replied.
“Alright,” she agreed.
Several hours later we were in the club, standing there like lumps. I couldn’t believe it. No one was there. It wasn’t literally empty, but the room was only a quarter full, with most people milling around aimlessly, drinking from their sad, plastic cups. It felt like a sham.
We saddled up to the bar.
“What’s going on here?” I asked the bartender.
He looked annoyed by the situation, “I dunno.”
“I’m going upfront,” my wife said. “Grab me a drink.”
She disappeared into the darkness.
I tried again with the bartender.
“My brother turned me on to these guys,” I offered up.
He half-nodded, and turned the other way.
My oldest brother was religious about sending me mix CDs, especially on birthdays. Every year, without fail, one would land on my doorstep, with a note that read something like, “New jams for the birthday, kid.”
I’d open the package, read the cue sheet and usually lay it down on the table and forget about it. But inevitably, I’d find the disc again a few months later and be blown away by a few of his gems. And that’s how I’d first found Palma Violets. I vividly remember listening in my car, one of the only places left that I could even play a CD. I started from the beginning. Most of the stuff was too emotional, too acoustic, too dreamy, but then something sparked.
I cranked it up. It was devastatingly cool. I pulled over, looking at the scribbled track listing. “Best of Friends,” it read. And as I raced along Division Street, looking around at all the crappy new condos, I thought about Witness Wendy with her short hair and her pistol boots.
There’s something weird about seeing a band in front of fifty people. It can leave you utterly inspired, but at the same time miffed. On one hand you love the fact that you’re sharing a powerful moment with the few people who made it to that show. It can feel undeniably romantic. On the other hand, you’re angry that no one cares, at least not like you. And if you’re like me, you also start to wonder if anyone cares about anything important anymore.
As the band started to play that evening, I turned around and saw my friend Scott in the sparse crowd.
“Yeah?!” I yelled.
“God yes!” He yelled back, throwing his beer on the floor.
We stood watching, together. Meanwhile, my wife was up front, slamming against the hardcores, snapping photos. It was beautiful— a colossal masterpiece of noise and punk.
After the show I grabbed a shirt at the merch table. I stood there holding it, with my beer in my hand, telling myself that it should always be that good, like that, no matter what.
Right then, my wife walked up, beaming, interrupting my imaginary world.
“We gotta go to the studio,” she said.
I snapped out of it.
“Now?” I asked.
“Yeah, Scott’s here, let’s do it now.”
She turned to Scott.
He drained his beer, “Yeah, but let’s smoke a cigarette first.”
A little context. My wife works in advertising and every once in a while she asks me to help with the music on a gig. This can be a good ride, with advertising cash being big and gaudy. But usually it ends up turning into a drag, with me frustrated, begging for it to stop. One day I’m cashing checks, the next I’m pawning guitars, looking for a job.
Thirty minutes later we were at the studio, half drunk, plucking away. I fumbled around, tearing through the room like a teenage lush, unraveling cables, plugging in mics. Scott got to work on the drums, tuning things up and down, clobbering the cans like a giant with two unwieldy mallets.
“It should be like Palma Violets.” I kept saying.
An hour later it was a disaster. Things were plugged into things that weren’t turned on. Some were plugged into nothing at all. We were hopeless. Scott was lying on the couch, half asleep. My wife was writing new voice-over lines.
“I need something about granny panties,” she said with a straight face.
“I can’t figure out where the mics are!” I yelled.
I threw my head down on the console.
“It’s gotta be like Palma Violets,” Scott mumbled.
A few minutes later we gave up and agreed to try again later.
The next day my wife flew to LA and left me with Scott to work on the piece.
“I’ll call you tonight and check in,” she said.
At the time, I couldn’t help but feel crappy about the way things were turning out. I felt like a hack. Why were we doing this to begin with? I chalk it up to record sales, or lack thereof, and the demand for more, relevant material to stream. Increasingly, musicians have to look for other ways to stay afloat beyond the traditional income from selling records and playing shows, hence advertising work and the competitive world of commercial music. And if you’re a fan of the “play live” scenario, plug in Palma Violets, who are on Rough Trade. They’ve gotten love from pretty much every influential critic of our generation, but were unjustly playing to a half-empty room at the Doug Fir Lounge.
Increasingly, musicians have to look for other ways to stay afloat beyond the traditional income from selling records and playing shows, hence advertising work and the competitive world of commercial music.
Still, I kept steady. I was going to finish the job.
“It’s gotta be like last night.” I said to Scott.
“Absolutely,” he agreed without hesitating.
We commenced. At first the piece was sluggish. We upped the tempo, took a break, tried again. Then it was too quick. We tried again. Finally, it clicked. Scott came in and listened to the take. The drums were raw, visceral. He nodded in agreement. I finished up the first round of tracks and sent them out for review.
Then, my wife called.
She was already stressed out.
“They need a final version of it now,” she said.
“Now, now?” I asked.
“Yes. Now, now.”
“Why so fast?”
“They just do. Can you do an edit?”
I’d never seen more stress on creativity—deadlines and clients demanding that everything be quick and painless. But I tried and hurriedly sent something to her.
Thirty minutes later I got a text.
“It’s too slow. It needs to be faster,” it read.
I shrugged. Scott was long gone now. So I did what everyone else does, I went in and started adjusting the tempos.
“It sounds bad,” I said.
“Can you make it not?” she asked.
I went back again, cutting and twisting the drums to a faster tempo, mangling their spirit into a whirlpool of doubt, all for the sake of commercial art. But something about it was working. I set up some mics, recorded a swirling, guttural synth line, sent it through a Leslie amp, added a blown out guitar, some vocal “oh’s” for effect— and voila, I had a finished track.
I pasted all the new stuff to the final cut. It worked, effortlessly. I really couldn’t believe it! I wanted to buy everything they were selling.
I called Scott and told him how great it sounded.
“Did we get it?” he asked.
“Probably not.” I said.
Something deep down told me that the client was going to pass, with comments like, “not modern enough” or “can it not be so, you know, ironic?” It was always something like that.
Unfazed, I sent the finished song off for the final presentation.
A few minutes later my wife called.
“It’s great,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s totally working.”
My hopes went from zero to fifty. My imagination was swirling. I was already buying new gear. An old Guild. And a Neumann u87!
Fifteen minutes later she sent me a few other tracks that they were presenting to the client as alternate options. They were all EDM type stuff.
“It’s all electronic,” I said.
“I know. The client requested it,” she said.
“But that’s not what we did,” I replied.
There was a pause. I knew I was doomed.
She sat on the line, thinking of things to say that would make me feel better, like I was doing something beyond just a spot, that I was fighting the good fight. It was a valiant effort. I loved her for it.
The next day I did a few revisions. I was still reeling from the show, thinking maybe something like this would get through to the client. Maybe, just maybe, we’d win.
A few days went by with no response. Then weeks passed. It was over.
A month later Scott came in for a session.
“Any word?” he asked.
“Like always, huh?”
“Why do you do it?”
I thought about that for a minute.
“What else am I going to do?”
Later on that night we had some drinks and were bawling on the whole thing. Scott slammed his beer down on the table, “It was that goddamn Palma Violets show, man!”
I nodded in agreement. It was. It really was.
Matt Drenik is a musician, part-time writer, lives in Portland, plays in Battleme, and enjoys getting lost in the desert with his wife and dog. Email Matt at mattvondrenik[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MDrenik.