LCW's origin story
In the spring of 2008, after having spent some time recovering from participating in the Portland music scene as a very minor player, I got the itch to try something new. Over the next several months, that "something new" led to the formation of LCW, an improvisational instrumental trio consisting of Stephen Caird on bass and cello, Joe Williams on drums and me, David Lamkins, on guitar.
To help you understand what led to the formation of LCW, it's important that you understand my relationship with the Portland music scene. In general, I am a big fan of Portland music. There's a lot of incredible talent performing every night in Portland at - depending upon how and who you count - dozens or even hundreds of venues.
However much I appreciate the talented people in Portland's music scene, I'm definitely not a member of the scene's primary demographic. In 2008, when this story begins, I was in my mid-50s. I have a career that requires me to be physically present and mentally alert in an office well before noon. I actually spent a few years playing mid-week shows, arriving at the venue in the early evening and loading out at closing time; that raised hell with my ability to function on my normal schedule for the next couple of days.
I have no expectations that, at my age, music will ever be anything other than a beloved activity. My day job pays the bills, puts food on the table, and enables me to indulge my love of music. Indeed, given the state of the music industry, even a modestly successful career in music (positing some unforeseen miracle) would mean a significant reduction in my income.
Despite my not playing for the money, I'm still acutely aware of the way financial arrangements work at "my level" in the local music scene. When you do the math, factoring in equipment expenses, practice time, rehearsal time, time spent at the venue, money spent on meals and libations, fuel and maintenance costs, parking, and everything else that goes into putting on a performance, it's obvious that even the musicians who would like to be in the business for the money are compelled by circumstances to perform for the love of presenting their art to a live audience.
Just to be clear, all of my comments about the nature of the local scene are about musicians who write and play only original material; obviously there are other models - corporate gigs, for example - that don't involve pouring time and money into a bottomless well to gain the ability to play for an audience. Also, I know that there are original artists who have managed to persevere and eke out a living playing their own material; I admire what they've accomplished. My comments refer to the rest of us; "the 99%", to borrow a meme.
Understand that I don't see the plight of Portland's aspiring musicians as an "us vs. them" thing. A venue's owner has to pay for rent, utilities, supplies, maintenance, staff, equipment, taxes and fees, advertising, and much more. Not only that, but the venue is the owner's "day job". There's no other source of income to cover a shortfall when the expenses exceed the income. It's not surprising then, that up-and-coming bands find that they must play for a cut of whatever is left of the door receipts after the venue exacts a portion to cover - sometimes unsuccessfully - their fixed expenses.
I certainly don't begrudge the venue owner's need to operate a viable business. However, I did arrive at the realization that the guy who's paid minimum wage to collect money at the door went home at the end of the evening with more in his pocket than did my band mates and me. I figured there must be a better way to be heard than, in effect, inducing my friends and their friends to pay money to hear me play and - in order to have a chance at a repeat show at the venue - consume alcohol. I enjoy being a musician; less so a beer marketer.
That, then, is what I was thinking in 2007 about the business of music in Portland as it relates to the aspiring original-music artists in the scene.
I decided that I'd rather enjoy simply creating music than to worry about who's going to hear me play.
I spent my free time working on my musical skills and developing my ear, and eventually invited Stephen to join me for a few impromptu jams during the spring of 2008. I had worked with Stephen at Rulespace (an internet startup) during the early `00s and knew him to be a talented multi-instrumentalist. Stephen had also engineered a four-song demo for my first band, Netochka. More recently, I had been a founding member of Gradience, a band in which Stephen has played since 2004.
Stephen and I enjoyed our first few sessions. We revisited material we had worked on before, began writing new material, and established our preference for improvisation.
After a few sessions, we decided to invite Joe to join us. Joe had played drums in Netochka and had worked with Stephen and me at Rulespace. Due to various obligations, Joe didn't join our ongoing sessions until the summer of 2008.
LCW was formed with the explicit notion of being a place for us to experiment with improvisational music; more of a musical art project than a band in the conventional sense. We have, over the years, developed a shared vocabulary to use in our improvisations. There are certain motifs and themes which recur in our music; we weave these together with fresh ideas to establish a familiar launching pad for our experimental flights.
Sometimes an improvised motif will catch our ear and we'll stop to develop it; at other times a new musical idea becomes a one-off. Were it not for the fact that we record every session, much of what we play would evaporate as the sound fades. Being able to replay the recordings has allowed us to critique ourselves and to mine some of the transient motifs for future development.
In the next installment, I'll talk about the evolution of LCW's recording process and how that led to us to consider doing live internet broadcasts.
This article, the first in a series of three, first appeared as a guest blog post on The RadioStumptown Network.