Solo musicians: Self-motivated virtuosos, or mole-ish assholes that can't get along with other people? And what's with slamdancing to MP3s anyway? The Mercury sat down with five of Portland's most prominent one-man bands—laptopians E*Rock (AKA Eric Mast) and YACHT (AKA Jona Bechtolt), spazz performance artist Panther (AKA The Planet The's Charlie Salas-Humara), ambient experimentalist White Rainbow (AKA Adam Forkner), and classical metalist Silentist (AKA Mark Evan Burden) to get some answers.
What are the benefits of being a solo musician? Do you feel that the rock band is dead?
Adam Forkner: I'd go as far as to say that rock 'n' roll is a fading format. If you listen to Top 40 radio, you're going to get a lot of R&B—that's where the cutting-edge music is. I can't think of the last very popular, cutting-edge rock 'n' roll band since, you know, Alice in Chains.
Eric Mast: The biggest problem, for me, is that you're working with other musicians—getting them to show up for practice, or recording, or whatever—and musicians are notoriously unreliable.
Charlie Salas-Humaras: [And as a soloist] there's less equipment to move, number one. You don't have bandmates getting mad at you if you get too wasted. But also, there's no one you can hide behind and blame for your problems.
Mark Evan Burden: Solo performances can often communicate the vibes of the performer more directly. No one's there to say your solo is too long—but at the same time, you know, no one's there to tell you your solo is too long.
AF: I think when people are between 19 and 22, still maybe riding off of mom and dad's money just a little bit, not a lot of responsibility—it can be a little easier. Most of the people that I know who were in bands in their early 20s, by the time they're in their late 20s, they haven't necessarily settled down, but they've made different priorities. I play improvised music, and no one ever practices. But for a real band band, you've got to get people over—and they've got jobs now, a dog, a girlfriend, an apartment, they've got Netflix they've gotta watch, they've gotta go see someone else's band at nine—it's hard.
What are the benefits of being in a band?
Jona Bechtolt: When you're making music by yourself, you're the light, you're the force, you're the one making all of the calls—and sometimes that's the reason you want to be making music. And then other times you want to work with other people—doing things that you would never do, having ideas that you would never make—it's really interesting, and hard, and fun.
EM: Plus, performing live is way better, because you have a band backing you up—you can't do wrong.
MEB: In a band sometimes you get caught up in your collective spirit and lose sight of what's actually occurring—and that can be a really good thing.
Do you think that people are more prone to solo work primarily because of technology?
CS: The way I did it to begin with was actually pretty janky—I mean, I just pre-recorded all the stuff on a tape deck. But the genre has become more accepted, to sing over pre-recorded tracks. Ten years ago it would seem karaoked and cheesy.
AF: All you need is some backing tracks on some sort of format—either a 4-track plugged into a P.A., a CD player, sampling pedals, just enough to make a lot of noise for just one person. And most of that stuff has only been around for the last decade. I mean, CD players have only been around for like, what, five years or something?
How do you contend with performing as a solo band?
JB: Most laptop performances are really boring—I don't like to watch them most of the time. People need to look at live music and recorded music as totally different things—making sure a show is a show. Also, not just playing in rock clubs, but art galleries, and, um, weddings, and other places.
MEB: I never really wanted to do a solo band, because I think that performing with backing tracks makes the performance a bit uncomfortable. Some people really appreciate that uncomfortable element. I sometimes do, but more often don't. It's nice when you can look away from some insane howling lunatic and check out what the bass player's wearing.
CS: Panther is primarily about the performance. I'm proud of the music, most definitely, but it's a release for me—basically Panther's just for me to freak out and have fun and get weird, do the dance moves and stuff. It's cathartic, but nerve wracking—you have to work so hard. It's just you, and you have to fucking entertain people.
AF: I tried to stick with the whole rock performance thing as a solo act for a while, and it was really kind of sad—what ends up happening in those sorts of situations is that you rest on comedy or a persona. For me, it's much more about creating an environment, including video, lights, etc, instead of having to squish my weird ambient into a 35-minute opening set at a club.
Are rock bands inherently more entertaining? Do you imagine this paradigm shifting soon?
CS: I think it's always more entertaining to see a live band. You have to be really good and work hard at it to be a successful solo [artist].
JB: I grew up listening to grunge music, needing to see the sound being made—I don't remember how that changed for me, but it has. When I see a band play, even if it's a really good band, I don't care that they know how to play the chords that they've rehearsed 3,000 times.
EM: Even with hiphop, it makes a big difference. Watching some of the crunk dudes just put on their CD track, and they've got 12 dudes on stage singing along to the actual CD track—not only not having a DJ, but not even taking the vocals out. I mean, I think a big part of it is just the sound in smaller venues—you have three dimensional drums, the bass and the guitar coming from two different amps, and when you move your head, you get different mixes—whereas with pre-recorded stuff, it's all running through one P.A.—I honestly think that shit makes a difference. It's easier to get immersed in it. Nowadays even with rock music, recordings come first, and the performances are a recreation of their recordings.
AF: There's more shit than there is shine, no matter how you scrape it.