Through Being Cool

Hotels @ Bumbershoot 2009 - EMP Sky Church Performance

Photo by Jason Tang

Las Vegas is a place where a lot of dreams go to die. Mine were no exception. I think I could still technically be sued for telling this story because of various things I signed, but I’m hoping all parties involved have bigger fish to fry now. I know I do.

Once it was a golden time for Hotels. We played festivals like Capitol Hill Block Party, Bumbershoot and SXSW. We had a good local following and got played on our local radio station often. A prominent Music Magazine/ Awards Show (We’ll call them ‘Music Company X’) was looking for a ‘Northwest’ contingent for their Battle of the Bands (I’m not sure they still even do this). Our manager also managed a different band, and Music Company X had an eye on them. The first band passed for some reason, and our mutual manager suggested Hotels in place instead.

And holy crap–that worked. Instead of this making me realize that things in the music business are not always what they seem, I instead naively thought it was a “big break” (the winner of the Final got to perform live on the Music Company X Awards Show in LA). Back then, I still believed that music worked like the end of Wayne’s World: play well in front of a big crowd or on TV, and then Mr. Big walks in to grease you with a hefty record contract.

And things started amazing. They flew us to LA for 2 nights to do some photo shoot for their magazine. They put us up in the ACE Hotel. We hung out with the other bands in the competition (who were themselves flown in for the photo shoot). I remember being hungover on the train back from the airport on a Friday morning, heading into my job at a software company where I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and thinking I wanted that other life more (and was better at it anyway). We had to win this thing.

The competition was a promotion in conjunction with a car company (remember this for later) so the idea was for all the bands to take a road-trip in their own borrowed model of the car from their hometown to the Finals in Vegas a week later. Each band would also have a reality film crew follow them and document the process (ha!). One winner got an extra weekend to go to the Awards show in LA and perform; the losers were all on a plane back home the next day.

This car–I want to say nice things about it…and I did. On camera. At the request of the people filming us. That is how ‘reality’ TV works. Yeah, I was a corporate whore; not very proud of it. At the time, I was like Steve Martin in the prison scene in “The Three Amigos”: saying “gonna make it, Gonna make it, GONNA MAKE IT!” Anyway, the car–it did have good gas mileage. But the big hook was supposed to be that it could connect to Facebook by voice and we tried to film this a million times and it never worked. I think they got rid of that feature eventually.

One cool thing we could do was rig our instruments through the car and play that way. I think we had a Rock Band drum kit and everything going into a mixer, which then went into the car input. So they filmed us playing in the middle of the Mojave desert. That was rad, but I doubt anyone ever actually saw it–these were supposed to be ‘update from the road’ videos excite people for the Final but I don’t think more than 5 seconds of the footage ever got used anywhere except in a brief intro to the winner’s performance on TV.

The first night we reached Vegas, I went to the Hooters casino to play poker and a guy that looked like a haggard Gallagher (the comedian) walked by our table, eyeing it. “Didn’t that look like Gallagher?” I asked the dealer. “That’s Gallagher,” she said, deadpan. “He plays here sometimes.” I so wanted to play even one hand of poker with Gallagher but he never sat down. Instead I hit 4 Aces and won a jackpot. Gonna make it. Gonna make it. GONNA MAKE IT!

When it came to the actual night of the final performance–in front of a 2,000 person crowd on Fremont Street in Old Vegas–I thought we played well, gave it our all, looked good. Mark McGrath–of Sugar Ray fame–was the host of the event and he said we reminded him of Joy Division. And I was like ‘Mark McGrath is my best friend in the whole world and I don’t know why I would have ever made fun of him at any point before now.

I met the senior editor of the company backstage and he said he liked us. I stood with my family watching the other bands play after us. My brother and stepdad kept nodding to me like ‘no way’, and saying “you got this”.

It wasn’t enough. Or it wasn’t what the judges wanted. Or really more honestly I was worried about the winning band from the start–I thought they were a cleaner, poppier, more-pleasing-to-the-ear-and-eye-in-every-way version of our band. Same sensibilities. I’ve always been a good judge of talent. They won.

So I proceeded to get very drunk, which was not a good idea. But I also played Blackjack, which actually was a good idea, because I am a much better gambler when I’m feeling nihilistic; I manage the risk better. That night was also the only night I’ve ever been cut off at a bar, a bar in Vegas no less. Here’s how I remember it: I was literally aggressively moping through Vegas and I plopped into a booth and bumped the table top, which for some reason was not even attached to its base, and the thing actually tipped on to the floor for a moment before we could fix it, and when I went to order a drink the waitress told me I’d already had enough. In retrospect I’ll say it probably wasn’t a great look.

My father–rest his soul–took the band to the fancy strip club afterward to try and cheer us up. It didn’t really work for me, and at 5am I was wandering through early morning Vegas, wondering what went wrong, wondering what I could have changed, like I had just been dumped. I saw the sun rise and was sure my dreams had burned up with it.

Back home the next night we decided to be good sports and watch the Awards to see the winners, who were nice guys that we liked. There was a 2-minute intro about the competition itself, which featured 5-10 seconds of us and of course had to include me commenting on the gas mileage of the fucking car. Then the band finally came on. They looked good–probably some help from LA stylists. Fuck, I really wanted to meet Rihanna, I thought. They started to play… and about 15 seconds into it the logo from the car company blotted out the whole screen and they cut to a commercial for the car. We all looked at each other and laughed.

A little while later I was visited New York, and watching the news items on those little TVs in the back of a taxicab, and I saw something else: Some band from somewhere had won some other battle of the bands for some company in relation to some product, and now their whole experience–maybe their life’s dream–was condensed to a two-second soundbite. I forgot everything about it when I got out of the cab, except that I realized that’s what my Vegas dream had amounted to for most other people. It’s about all it amounted to for me, too, if I really stopped to think about it.

I remind myself of this story–of the comedy of it all–often. Whenever I lose sight of what I like most about music, whenever I find myself distracted too much by the non-musical stuff, whenever I feel tinges of bitterness or jealousy because I believe someone is getting opportunities that I’m not, whenever I feel like I’m trying to play it too cool–I remember this story. There’s music, and the rest–as they say–is noise.

I want people to enjoy and connect with my music.

This seems like the least cool thing for a musician to say, even going back to when I was a teenager. So many of my friends, even some artists I greatly respected, would inhale on their cigarettes and nonchalantly proclaim: ‘You can like my music or not; I don’t really care’. Well that sounds like some too-cool-for-school BS and I’m through being cool, daddy-o.

I don’t think you’re a great artist because of how many people you can keep out, but because of how many people you can let in. My currency now–and indeed the only one that matters–is empathy. Are we connecting out there in that ether of life–where everything is scary and uncertain and bound to end up in chaos? Can we find each other out there and share something beautiful and sincere and genuine? That is my hope.

Someday I will be really old, and my brain will have turned to mush, and I won’t be able to remember the details of ‘that whole Vegas thing’. I wanted to get it down somewhere for posterity. The lesson of it will stick with me for a long time, though. The truth is none of it particularly mattered; it was just a good story (I hope). Music is about something deeper, something more. Chasing truth, not contest votes. It’s about any time someone came to me and said: ‘Hey man, THAT song–that one really meant a lot to me’. What the hell else are we here for? I think I had to fail like that to learn that.

I hope you join me on my journey. I hope that something in my music connects with you. Even if it’s just the way a sound, a chord, or a single note hits you somewhere deep and unexpected and sacred. If that happens, I’ll have done my job.

If you want to connect and see what’s what, click here to listen to my personal favorite Hotels album, “Where Hearts Go Broke.”

Thank you for listening. Thank you for choosing Hotels.

Blake