So there I was, casually sitting and thinking about what Pot Noodle flavour was to be my dinner that evening when out of the blue, Edd Jones (A man I shall describe only as a very good friend to have) popped into my line of vision and asked me if I could, at short notice, cover the Battle of the Bands event that evening, all access pass included. 'Sure.' I said. Because when important people offer you access, you journalize that shit.
I already knew and had seen a lot of the bands that were playing, and it struck me as strange that they would all be on the same line up. They ranged from the gimmicky-yet-talented to the serious musician types, with the hobby-rockers playing Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy covers lying awkwardly in between. The night ahead was to be one of hour-long shoe gaze anthems, jitteringly epileptic guitar solos, and a surprising guest star from a man I gather was a one-man Beastie Boys tribute act who forgot to take his Ritalin.
I wondered what space there was between the acts besides their music styles. In the world of the local music scene, you’re faced with a whole mixed bag of attitudes. The aforementioned hobby-rockers are a far cry from some of the uniform wearing pseudo-professionals you see on the scene, the kinds of guys who pay for their equipment with a Sainsburys salary but set their Facebook profession as ‘Lead Guitarist @ Rock Band’. And then there’s that space between the hobby rockers and the professionals, those cool-as-cucumber girls and boys who sidle up to you at parties and slyly mention that they’re in a band, but it’s not a big deal.
When you’re a part of a generation brought up on a diet of rock stars rolling over in their hospital beds, there’s a certain amount of nostalgia to a time we never saw, a certain order to carry on a rebellious legacy. Whilst I wouldn't go as far as to call all young musicians pretentious, there is undoubtedly a large amount of pretence on the scene: brought up on that vintage ideal of sex drugs and rock and roll, a lot of people nowadays are somewhat disillusioned, stuck between living the dream, doing what they love, and that particular breed trying to turn it into a serious profession that their careers advisor might approve of. But what space is there for sex and drugs when your only gigs are in youth clubs? And how big is the gap between what some people call a hobby and what others call a job?
The opening act for the night – which was happening in a college theatre, not a boozed up rock locale – was The Kalebs, a suited and booted lot, with enough gimmicks to keep a prop comedian busy with his notebook – but not a bad bunch of musicians. The whole suit thing made them seem a bit like a band-for-hire, something you might expect to see at a wedding. I asked frontman Kiran if he considered himself a professional musician, to which he laughed, and jokingly complained that he wasn't being played on MTV yet, in a way that said ‘Why, do you have a gig for us?’
Backstage, I talked to Ethan, one half of shoegaze duo Lost Lore, a band who can literally fill hours with their material, without doing a single cover, or looking a single member audience in the eye, holding their status as one of the few local bands left that you can tribal dance to. I asked him if he considered himself a professional musician – to which his immediate answer was no, along with a cute little giggle. As professional nice guys, Lost Lore do gigs for kicks and free beers – and with all their original material free for download on their Facebook page – it’s clear that Lost Lore occupy the carefree side of the spectrum.
The other bands of the night included Mountains, who were cool even before they started playing their instruments, and Midnight Circus – the cover band I would define as hobby rocker – who went on to win the competition. Lost Lore (Once billed as ‘probably the best band on the set list’) out-played the lot, their set reaching towards the hour mark, smoke machines and crowd members working overtime, lights flashing and cardboard donkey cut-outs floating above the crowd. I learnt an important lesson during Lost Lore’s set – some bands you tap your feet to, some bands you mosh to, but some bands – whatever genre they play – beg a slow dance.
The Battle ended with some wise words from the judges - 'I think we all know who the donkey is going home with tonight' - which seemed incredibly relevant, being as there is only three kinds of gig - the ones where there shall be no donkey, the ones where there is a donkey but you're not sure who it is going home with, and the ones where everyone is aware who the donkey is going home with.
After shuffling my tired feet back to the nearest bed, I tapped my way onto Facebook to message Adrienne Cowan, a local hair-metal vocalist, a full-on Texas girl and probably the most professional musician who has their business card in my wallet – but I wanted to know if she considered herself the same. When her little circle turned green and she came online, she admitted to labeling herself with the precarious moniker: ‘Once my grandfather started calling me a professional, I decided it was OK to call myself a professional. But when you work as hard at it as another person would at their “real job”, I think that’s when the word professional starts coming into play.’
Earlier in the day I had overheard plans about drug-related arrangements for the next day’s gig, which was happening at a youth club. There were certainly mixed opinions relating to it, so I asked Adrienne for her stance on the drugs in the sex drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. A ‘clean rocker’, Adrienne dismissed the whole matter as a distraction – ‘I mean, you do get the randomers from other bands asking if anyone’s got any weed, but no one ever does – not at the places I've played, anyway.’
Fast forward through the next day and that evening, I arrive in street lighted Woking to find my friend Henry chasing a large percentage of the nights bands down the street, coat billowing, shouting ‘We’re meant to start in 20 minutes! You won’t get back in time!’ Admittedly, 20 minutes later, they arrived, considerably more stoned, but for those 20 minutes, Henry practiced his vocal warm-up of ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, shit, shit, shit’ whilst we bought a can of Rockstar Energy and the cheapest wine available. I asked Henry if he considered himself a professional: ‘Professional… No. Depressional? Yes.’
The centre was run by that particular group of born-again Christian nineties throwbacks who swarm on despondent youths like hip vultures to an angsty cadaver, arms wide with Bible verses tattooed on their forearms and bellies poking out from beneath their band t-shirts, a grade below the youth workers that they actually allow to run Sunday services. Throughout the course of the evening, the rules were definitely not in consensus with the population of the building. Commissioned ‘street art’ adorned the walls of the entrance and backstage area like the death rattle of a bygone youth culture. Not that anyone was sober enough to notice. The best thing about the venue was the half a foot-high stage, which gave an incredibly relaxed atmosphere, and resulted in much stage invasion. In second place for best feature, the motivational posters above each urinal, one of which was broken and adorned with a sign which read ‘Please don’t pee on me’.
Henry’s band, the chronically depressed and self-effacing Deer Sir or Madam, is certainly a gem – a match made in hell – the deadly combination of skilled musicianship and pure apathy. Before each show, Henry buys a plain white shirt which he adorns with a different catchphrase every time. Tonight’s phrase was ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Morose’. The highlights of their set included finding angsty teenage emo rants on tumblr and matching them to a ballsy punk soundtrack (The hit ‘Quote My Father (You fuck everyone and everything up)’) and the grand finale, an unnamed feisty Spanish track filled with fajitas and naps in the middle of the afternoon which had made its debut at my slam poetry night a month earlier.
The night rolled on, a night of emotional breakdowns at 100 cigarettes per minute through seas of tequila and Glens vodka, stripping down to your pants only to realise an hour later that CCTV was watching you the whole time, dropping the microphone mid-set and having to recruit audience members to hold it up, much to the disapproval of the on looking organisers. 'It’s not about breaking the rules,' said Henry, whilst I searched for a rule list to work through, 'we just do what we want really.'
By the time Lost Lore were on that night, working their way through a set that managed to damage the sound equipment with its power, my feet were starting to hurt, my head ache, and I began to yearn for my bed. I decided to do what any real journalist would do in the situation – throw perseverance to the wind, complain of illness, and make my way towards the train station.
In my head I began to draw contrasts between that night and the night before – and the over-whelming thoughts that ran through my head were the readings from my Fun-O-Meter. At the Battle of the Bands, the fun started during Lost Lore’s set, when people were starting to lose themselves and get involved, when couples began to slow dance beneath the donkey in the mist. But the following night, the fun seemed continuous. I hadn't taken anything, only a bit of vodka which I had poured into someone’s Mountain Dew and immediately had to drink, not thinking myself morally corrupt enough to drug a stranger. Nobody seemed to care that night in Woking, and it was liberating.
Sure, none of them had as many career prospects as Adrienne might, but it didn't matter. Whether Lost Lore or Deer Sir or Madam consider themselves real musicians, real professionals, it seems irrelevant – because at the heart of playing music, when you take away the money, and the business cards and the tequila, it’s about having fun and entertaining people. And if Russell Crowe were, by some miracle, to storm into the youth club that evening and scream ‘Are you entertained?!’ I think the answer would be a resounding yes – and without sounding too cliché, that really is all that matters.