Basic Piece Procedures.
1. A single person "conducts", i.e. directs the course of the piece. This is done either with a very brief, few word explanation of a mood or an emotion to be evoked (or visual image as in "Water" or "Desert");
or through (a) requested action(s) in the few moments prior to the start of the piece, of one or all of the other musicians (example: "drums come in w/ a slow 4, bass follows, then guitar & keys [or vox or whoever]"- but this much communication before a piece was pretty rare);
or the conductor begins the piece without a word and either lets the other musicians come in as they please or, through nods and gestures, brings them in as he chooses while the music is in progress;
or any or all of the above in combination.
2. Nods and gestures: most of the gestures, or hand signals, were invented by George Radai. Unfortunately many of these were difficult to use unless one stopped playing in order to direct, so only those gestures which were easiest to use while playing survived and became integrated into band habit. The most often used hand signal was the extended pinky, pointed at another musician by the conductor (and occassionaly at himself), indicating that the designated person was now to take a solo.
M. found that almost every gesture but the extended pinky was impossible to perform while holding drumsticks, so he came up with a few of his own, some of which he'd already been using before George joined: crouching down low, indicating a drop in volume; sitting up tall with a crazed look on his face, indicating an increase in volume and intensity; and dragging a drumstick across his throat in a "cut" gesture, to indicate an ending. He would also mouth things at us in code regarding "punches" (full band strikes of a number given at the time) and tempo and style changes. Live, this was seldom intelligible to anyone but us, as far as I know. As I'm sure he would tell you, we didn't always catch it either. At any rate, we all picked up on these and used them too, whenever necessary or convenient.
3. Rotation. Whether in rehearsal, in performance, or in the studio, Paper Bag improvised its pieces in what we called a "rotation"; meaning that someone would start the day's playing, whatever the event, and conduct the first piece. From there, we proceeded to let each player conduct, in either clockwise or counterclockwise order. Each player's turn was his "rotation"; average for live gigs was 3 per member.
(Anyone who has photographs of the band demonstrating any of these activities during performance or rehearsal, particularly the hand gestures, please contact me- I would like to post them. And no sending me shots of you flipping off the camera!)
Rehearsals were the time to experiment with new ideas, new techniques. Rehearsals were like athletes training for a sports season or an event. They never play the same games twice, do they? The rules might be the same, but the performances will vary with the opposing factors involved. For a sports team, the opposing factors are things like the skill of the opposing team, the weather, etc.; for us it was fighting fatigue (we all worked straight jobs, even when recording albums and taking every available show), coming up with good ideas, fighting frequently ignorant sound people, club owners and audiences for some consideration and respect; so, the usual, but worse because of what an anomaly we were on the club scene. Rehearsals allowed us to train for that part back there about good ideas.
Paper Bag rehearsing at Humphrey's studio in 1986. This is where the band practiced and recorded, from the very first rehearsal in 1983 until Humphrey shut down about 4 years later. This is where most of "Ticket To Trauma", all of our previous independent cassette releases, and the first 7 radio sets were recorded. You can see that we are set up to face each other- communication was totally essential here. Note Kenny's amazing array of equipment- this picture scarcely does it justice, but you can see the music stand draped with tape loops in the foreground at the left. Photos: Steve Shaw.
We experimented with improvising in various musical styles, with textures, with combining ideas which none of us had heard combined before. Here, we all got to try to force the other guys to play in our favorite styles. Each rotation took much longer than at a live show, as we tried to hash through our ideas with the other members. The intent was that these newly learned skills or rehearsed styles would spontaneously turn up live; sometimes they did. But many was the time when a gem would come up in rehearsal and disappear into the anals (sic) of history. Luckily, we taped most of our rehearsals.
1. "The Roller Coaster Effect". We purposely attempted to structure our sets, though improvised, by adhering to a simple rule: try to make your rotation texturally, dynamically and conceptually contrast the previous rotation. This was easy to forget in the heat of performance, and difficult to live up to consistently even when one did remember it. But when it worked it gave the set a lot of variety and showed the band's range. It was done primarily to prevent the audience from getting bored, and hopefully to shock them on occassion. Sometimes it worked all too well, in which case hostile and rude comments abounded. But for me, the level of variety the band reached with this format was one of its greatest achievments.
Paper Bag on stage, 1/10/89. This is one of the rare times all 4 members appeared in a single photo performing at once. The strange looking device in Kenny's hand is the Vacuumette, which can be heard (very loudly) on "Splattmandoo", on the "Music To Trash" CD. It is a length of vacuum hose with the bell and mouthpiece of a clarinet taped on to the ends. The pitch was then varied by stretching the hose to different lengths. Photo: Chris Gruenwedel.
2. Band Colors. The band colors were red and black, and all clothing worn at shows, onstage, was to reflect this motif. It was a strict rule. This was done in pursuit of a unified image, which hopefully could be used as a selling tool or for the audience to identify with. While I initially agreed with this, I soon came to sympathize with those who had been taught in parochial schools.
Red and black were chosen at first because we thought they looked cool; later, someone, I think it was Kenny or Michelle, maybe both of them, pointed out that black and red were the colors of anarchy, which of course suited us quite well. This later led me to formulate a bit of band philosophy- another story for another time.
Here's a good shot to illustrate the band colors and how they were flown- kindly ignore my colored beads and silver. Photo: Naomi Peterson, 4/87.
3. One of the band's favorite jokes: when the soundperson would say at soundcheck, "OK guys, let's hear your first song."
1. First: bring every instrument you own, or can borrow;
Second: bring lots of ideas;
Third: bring more patience than you ever thought you had;
Fourth: enjoy it, because this is it.
For me, anyway. Paper Bag in the studio was for me, the band in its most favorable element. We could generate furious intensity in a small room; but without the audience, we were free to take that few extra minutes between takes to really get an idea of how to interpret what each conductor wanted to get at with his rotation, and I don't mean we structured it to death with preliminary comments, although that did happen on rare occassions. (Key and time signatures were named! Cheating bastards!) More often than not, it was the same, quick comments you'd hear at a gig; but while the engineer was getting the tape ready, each of us, without talking, had a few more minutes to come up with an idea. And then there were other things which increased our level of performance in the studio. Because we could hear each other better (quite important when you're improvising), the pieces found direction that was often lacking in live shows. Also, when music is made this way, frequently more than just notes are exchanged. The experience becomes much more psychic. It was always easier for me to tell where everyone else was coming from in the studio, whether words were exchanged or not. Subsequently the ratio of good music seemed to be a lot higher, despite the difficulties imposed by headphones and sound baffles. I doubt seriously if everyone else in the band would agree with me about this; I think M. especially felt that the live show was the element for the Bag. The exception that would probably please us both was the live show at Be-Bop Records from which most of "Improvised My Ass" was culled. I feel that was the exception though; it was an extraordinary show.
This was taken during the recording of " A Land Without Fences", and it gives a very good idea of the atmosphere at Spinhead studios during most of our sessions there. The only photos I have of the full band at Spinhead show our setup for the live-in-the-studio show for "Improvised My Ass", and that was very unusual for us- we were all against the back wall, and the photos were taken with a flash which makes the room seem very bright. All of which doesn't represent how it was most of the time. Normally when we were there, we faced each other, like at rehearsal; we had sound baffles between us, blocking us into our little dark spaces, but nothing we couldn't see over; and it was generally pretty dark and moody in there, much like this picture shows. There were spotlights over each of us so we could see what we were doing- pedalboards, etc.- but we had the option of moving them away or even turning them off. Sometimes Phil Newman, Spinhead's owner and engineer, would even bring in colored light bulbs. It was usually darker in there than it ever was on stage. We all liked it much better that way. I think we all felt it was inspiring.
Photo: Most likely Tom Shannon, who was there and thinks he remembers taking this.
(You can see the "Improvised My Ass" photos mentioned above under the section for that album, on the page dealing with the recording.)
After the Studio: Putting Together the Records (or Tapes)
1. "The Paring-Down". Once we had finished recording, we each took home a rough mix of all tracks. We always recorded more than we needed, which gave us room to pick the best cuts. Everyone made a list of their favorites over the next few days, and then we called a band meeting to listen and vote. Frequently we each would have picked many of the same songs.
Part of the process of choosing the songs was timing them, which was vitally necessary to see if we could fit them all in, or where to place them, or to choose what to sacrifice and cut. Since none of us owned a stopwatch, this part was always a big favorite. Sometimes we knew these pieces VERY well before they were accurately timed.
2. Names. The most common question I have received about Paper Bag over the years (other than "You mean you make it up as you go along? ALL of it?") has been, "Well how do you name your songs then?" And the answer is simple. During the paring-down process, the conductor of each piece chosen to appear on the album was asked what he wanted to call it. If he drew a blank, which was often the case, then a brainstorming session began. Poetry pieces were easy, because the poems usually had names already. This was often one of the most fun parts of assembling the albums, I think.
3. The Roller Coaster Effect really applied to the albums. Once our pieces were chosen, we made sure that there was a lot of contrast between one cut and the next. We tried to give each album a maximum dose of variety, and in fact it was common for extremely good pieces to be rejected if we already had too many that were similar.
(There are no photographs known to me of the band at work at this process. Rumor has it that the above is all a filthy lie and it was really done by aliens, or possibly some bigshot producer who thought it would be funny. If you have any pictures of the band doing this, let me know. )
We were not above using processing on drums or vocals, or sometimes the whole mix; and we were quite fond of after-the-fact stereo panning in the early days. So some pieces do not sound exactly as they did when they were performed. But when you consider how many times this happened to us at clubs in live situations without our consent or artistic input, I feel this is excusable. There were never fade outs, edits or overdubs, only processing. And quite often there was none of that either.
(Let's see... really the only processing Paper Bag used during mixdown were reverb, small amounts of delay, stereo panning, and once, on "Drunk, Fat and Dancing", a noise gate on the drums because we thought it would be funny. [Almost all of that was done only on "Music To Trash". The stereo panning was on "Ticket To Trauma", mostly at the behest of producer C. Allecca, and in one case over my protestations.] Oh yeah, and we balanced levels.)
Photo: unknown, but there are only 5 people who could have taken it. (Most likely it was M. Segal, but at this moment I can't be sure.) Please contact me for credit.
-GS, 2/23/92- slightly revised '99
(In early September of '99, when M. Segal assembled a version of PB for the Zoogs Rift benefit, he wrote up something similar to this to educate the new members as to our way of doing things. I've heard it read over the phone and am waiting for a copy; it's very concise and offers a nice variation from the way the theory is stated above. When it arrives it will be posted here, added on to this page.)
(12/6/99: Done! Here it is. (Click here!.) Thanks to Tom Shannon for providing a copy. M. tells me there is a more refined version written up but hasn't sent it on yet. When it arrives that too will be posted.)
(5/20/00: Done! Here it is. (Click here.) M.'s refined and expanded version also includes a detailed listing of hand signals.
(6/6/00: Last, for now, here is the addition to the PB Theory that I brought down for the 3/31/00 session. It had been kicking around in my head for a couple of years but until recently there'd been no reason to put the energy into formulating it on paper. I believe it is the next logical step for this method of improvisation.)
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