Somewhere in the United States right now, a band is breaking up. Possibly because of a death or an out-of-state college enrollment or a rustling of members by another band, but just as likely because they’re sick of each other. Members will load out of the practice space for the last time and drive home turning the last three years over in their minds, stung by perceived betrayal and cursing themselves for letting themselves get involved with people who turned out to be so different from the ones to whom they once bared their musical innards.
Somewhere else, a band is getting together. They’ve picked a name. Members are somewhat self-consciously introducing parts of possible songs they’ve been working on privately, infecting each other with their ideas. They might be drinking beer and huffing up huge bags of pot to squelch their nervousness and lubricate the process of “jamming” together. To an outside listener, it might sound like a lot of clumsy fumbling, with the guitar player turned up way too loud in such a tiny room and the bass player so pleased with his contribution of an especially adhesive bass line that he simply plays it over and over until no one can think of anything else to do. Inevitably, someone breaks the trance, shakes a cramp out of his picking hand and cheerfully excuses himself for a cigarette. Everyone feels strangely spent, even though they’ve only been playing for 20 minutes.
A new creative endeavor, anyone will tell you, is like that: exhausting, especially when there are other people involved. Members will later tell the local alternative newsweekly, in their first-ever band interview, that the band chemistry was there from day one (or at least since a change of drummer early on), that they felt something special from the first time they plugged in together.
But bands always say that, especially when they first start doing interviews and the hierarchy of spokesmanship has yet to solidify. The band is still a democracy, and with all this freedom members find themselves forgetting most of the idealistic but down-to-earth sentiments they’d been rehearsing for the interview and unconsciously spouting the same old clichés and inside jokes about a genesis they’d hoped would sound more legendary. They haven’t yet learned how to speak together as a band, don’t really know what their philosophy is beyond a loose aggregate of generally like-minded individual opinions about dope, ecology, vegetarianism and recycling. They’re all perfectly aware of how ridiculous they sound to each other in this interview, hope that someone will say something really funny or important, blush slightly after putting in their two cents, leave hoping the interviewer will weave it all together magically and say really cool, original things about their music.
All the same, they feel their first interview is somewhat overdue: They’ve already amassed a considerable local following. Or so they’ve decided after noticing lately that their shows have been drawing at least as many people they’ve never seen before as friends and the usual contingent of China Cat Sunflower types who show up and twirl for any band with the modifier “jam” mentioned within ten words of the band name in the newspaper’s weekly nightlife calendar. Emboldened by what they take to be a universal (though actually more like pan-college-town) appeal in their eclectic synthesis of funk, jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, they’ve also played out of town a few times with girlfriends in tow selling t-shirts and CDs in slimline cases at the merchandise table. They’ve played on bills with compatible bands, partied with the locals, spread around their satchelful of vibes and called it good.
They also mention in the interview that they’ve got a huge tour lined up for the summer, with everyone quitting their restaurant jobs and postponing plans to go back to school in the fall to see where the road takes them. They’ve got high hopes for this or that festival, going back to this or that bar they’ve played in the next state to see what kind of word-of-mouth their last show has bred. They’re going to try and make it.
And it’s usually at this point that things start to unravel. Sometimes acrimoniously, like when tempers boil over at a truck stop in Utah. And sometimes almost imperceptibly. The dream of touring the country and living off shows that didn’t turn out to be quite as lucrative as everyone was hoping starts to wear a little thin after a month and a half of breakdowns and black moods. Upon returning home, members quarantine themselves from the others with whose annoying habits and bodily functions they ended up on the most intimate of terms, start trying to get their former jobs back, their former lives back. They tell friends expecting a triumphant homecoming show that they just want to lay low and take a break from playing out.
Sometimes they play out again and sometimes they don’t. Band members, their strength restored after two harrowing months of living the dream, still get together to jam with each other, though less frequently and now minus the banjo player, who “left things open” before taking an extended vacation to his family’s home in Missouri. They try new things and play with different people. New band names pop up on flyers stapled to telephone poles around town with “featuring members of...” after them, while the “...” in the equation hasn’t played a local show for months. By Christmas, the band is still officially on hold, but everyone knows it’s over. Maybe someday, though, right?
All this is starting and ending today someplace around this country: the life and death of a jam band. Most jam bands fold long before achieving anything near the success of Sound Tribe Sector 9, periodic visitors to Missoula whose music, first and foremost, is head and shoulders above the usual level of undistinguished and formulaically danceable jazz/funk hodge-podge that characterizes so, so many jam bands out there. Originally from Atlanta but now calling Santa Cruz home (meaning they’ve survived one of the toughest tests of band cohesion: a group move), Sound Tribe Sector 9 turn their shows into elaborate productions that place as much emphasis on environment and visuals as music. And to hypnotic effect—you don’t have to be on something to get the full effect of synesthesia, with light shows and laser beams and huge works of art being created onstage while the band is playing. Their shows close the gap between the jam-band and rave crowds—cyborganically, you could say. Time flies when you’re at a show like this, even while it sometimes seems to be almost stopped. You leave feeling wrung-out and happy, and like a really good band got its ideas all over you.