Solo artist- funny how those two little words can seem to reek of ego. Only when applied to music though; people don't seem to be as quick to think that of writers or painters. Those are more or less expected to be solitary art forms, and when they're not it's viewed as a special case.
In my case, I do each of those things. I write and I paint and record. To me, recording solo is just one more solitary art form. I'm writing and painting with sound.
I haven't always worked alone, of course. I've worked with bands, done my share of gigging and rehearsing. Sometimes it was fun and rewarding. Sometimes it wasn't.
I'd be lying if I said there weren't drawbacks to working with other people. They're numerous: personality clashes, artistic clashes; people not undersanding or not agreeing with what you want to do for various reasons, drawing your ideas in other directions until sometimes you scarcely recognize the original inspiration in the end product. Or, if you're playing a support role: being used without proper credit, getting turned way down in the mix, having little or no say in the end product, having your fellow band members be nice to you so you'll show up and play but completely ignoring you at gigs until it's time to get on stage...it goes on and on. And it's not always about the people; sometimes it's about other things that it takes to participate. There are hassles traveling, hassles with moving equipment (and the wear and tear this causes on the equipment, your body, your car), hassles with cars, hassles with clubs and club owners and sound systems and keeping up your health under grueling circumstances. On and on.
I'd also be lying if I said there weren't drawbacks to working alone. For a start, if you're doing so and aren't modestly well off (or just don't want to get into many thousands of dollars of debt), you possibly aren't hiring a band and are REALLY doing this alone. No splitting the costs or the duties. No splitting the responsibilities for creating and memorizing the music. (Even if you are hiring a band, much of this still applies, and of course the financial costs are greater.) There are times I really miss the days when I was just responsible for the guitar or drum part and it was everybody else's task to hold up the other instruments. On the other hand, one of the main reasons I'm a multi-instrumentalist is that I love all these instruments and so it can be really fun to come up with a piece of music and do the drum part, the bass part, etc.
But then there's another, related drawback, which is the flip side of something I said above: no input from other people. That's potentially good news and bad news. Other talent and other viewpoints teach you things, even if it sometimes takes a while to appreciate what you learn. Without that you run a strong risk of stagnating, getting into a nice rut- comfy if you can work with no clue about it and can keep churning out stuff by some formula; not so comfy if you're stuck and you know it. There are a few ways out of this. One is to take your interests to new places- actively seek out things new to you that you find inspiring- music, writing, art, anything that gets the ideas flowing and your battery recharged. Related to this, you can revisit things you haven't tried in a while. And of course a very direct way is to collaborate with people again, whether it's short term or long term, live or recorded. I've recently used all of these methods and had a great time and tangible success doing so. The large burst of material from 2003 is testament to that.
An advantage to being a solo artist is that I don't have to worry about losing my identity if some key band member leaves. A related advantage is that there isn't a band sound or a band identity. What's a Greg Segal CD? One with my name on it. If I make 90 degree turns and, for example, put out an ambient CD followed by a hard space-rock CD- by this point people have come to know that I cover a lot of territory, and that they should read the notes on the site for a description before buying. (Considering they have to buy through the site anyway, that shouldn't be too much of a bother.) Imagine trying that with a band. Imagine finding a band that would agree to it! Hey, winning the lottery would be fun too.
One drawback of working alone, which honestly surprised me when I discovered it, is that some people will simply not take your music as seriously as they would if it had a band's name attached. (This has caused some solo artists to fake it and use a band name- that's actually more common than you might realize. Early on I was tempted to do it too.) I think this has to do at least partly with "ego" backlash. Group work is seen by some, interestingly enough, as an antidote to individual ego, and so solo work then is all about someone on a star trip. (Of course, we all know this never happens in bands....)
For me, it's a convenient and, most importantly, a very fun way to work. It's about getting lost in the act of creation. I get to enjoy the process in the way I would if I were doing a painting or a piece of writing. There's an intimate connection to the work that is very unique and rewarding. (Those cynics out there who compare solitary work to masturbation miss the fact that in the final analysis, this is better. More useful residue, for a start.) Personally I enjoy the fact that I don't have to exert my will over other people in order to create something, which I've never enjoyed. So for me it feels like there's actually less ego in it than if I were casting the Lugosi eye at a band and intoning "You will do my bidding!"
There might be further concepts suggested which cause this negative reaction to solo artists. Solo work could be seen as antisocial, whereas group work is ostensibly about community. Some people feel much better about identifying with a group. That could be a positive- social- thing, or it could be a security issue, a "strength in numbers" form nattering vaguely at the back of someone's mind.
It could also have to do with the fact that in this culture, we tend to be outer-directed rather than inner-directed (the governing factor is outside of us rather than within us), and so tend not to trust anything inner-directed. From this comes the idea that something has to be approved by someone else to have validity. It's "tried and true, approved by experts" vs. "the lone crank". So in this case, the presence of other people- the band- is seen as validation, a sign that it's safe to consume. That's common sense if we're talking about medicine, product safety, structural engineering or even cooking. But it's music, it's art. Nobody's life will end if it's not done to certain standards. If you lose inner direction here- if you forget the primacy, the VALIDITY of inner direction here- boy, have you got trouble. In fact as I see it, if there are actually ways for art to be conceptually poisonous, this has gotta rank high. It reinforces a subtle concept that undermines everyone's value from the get-go. Bad news.
Perhaps the reason for the dislike has to do with the fact that much solo-produced material seems less high-energy than band produced material- not quite as "live". If you're talking about live recordings- vs. carefully produced, multi-track studio ones- then hands down, there's no argument against this and I have to concede. It's a different type of intensity in the studio, but generally speaking you can get more crackle and zip with a few egos at work. But considering how heavily produced a lot of band recordings are, depending on the solo artist and how he records, you're not absolutely guaranteed to hear a huge difference. I do try to keep this in mind. Part of the solution here is not to produce the crap out of something- try not to do punch-ins, better to leave in some rough edges if the majority of the performance is good. Take 1 or 2 usually has more edge to it than take 15 or 40. But take 40 is still fine if it breathes. (That's an art form all by itself.)
I have certainly noticed a decline in energy in some of my favorite artists, when they went from having their work interpreted by a band to going solo. While some of their solo stuff is good- usually early albums- eventually most of them have tended to fall back into a comfort zone or some mellow little creative backwater, with their music losing a great deal of balls along the way. (I blame this at least in part on the fact that most of these guys have reached a point where no one dares tell them if what they're doing is shit. When that happens, if your ability to step back and be self-critical has diminished too, you're in trouble.) In my defense I can only say I'm aware of these problems and how I've seen them effect others, and have tried to cover my bases as best I can. I don't ever want to forget aggressiveness as an element in my playing. I hope that no matter how many atmospheric or experimental things I do, I don't forget how to kick some ass. This is certainly a goal of mine, not to lose sight of this.
In the meanwhile, I hope Jugalbandi will provide an enjoyable fix for people who want to hear me work in a VERY live (no overdubs and improvised) context with another human being. Of that though, I do have to say that I find it kind of annoying for people to think, as some have, that my solo work is a departure from Jugalbandi, like I'm trying to get away from it to prove myself or have my own space, like I'm Phil Collins escaping Genesis. They've got it backwards: I've been creating solo work since before I was in Paper Bag, chronologically Jugalbandi comes well after my solo work. I view it now as concurrent, and as an important counterbalance to the ever-growing GS solo/studio catalogue; after all, it's my live/improv fix too! And at least in terms of actual playing time, it's not a very time-consuming project, when for example most recently, a week of sessions yields 4 full CDs. Most of my time is actually spent working on the solo stuff.
All this said, I have certainly seen cases where it's not about creativity, it really is about ego. I'll give you an example. I knew a bass player back in L.A. who was really talented and had been playing with a metal band for a few years. It was a pleasant surprise to discover he was a big fan of Paper Bag, and once dived in front of the stage to retrieve some souvenir scraps of an acoustic guitar I smashed. So one day, years into our acquaintance, I was working on putting a band together and discovered he was no longer with his metal band. I asked him if he wanted to put a group together with me. He said "No, I'm not doing the band thing any more, I'm going solo". I said, "Oh, cool! I didn't know you wrote songs." He said "No, I don't have any songs. I'm gonna sing. I'm gonna put a band together and sing." I asked him where the songs were going to come from. He said, "Well, you know, I'll do it with the band. I'll come up with something, you know..." I said, "I didn't know you sang." He said, "I don't. Well I mean I haven't before but I'm gonna do it now. It'll be cool." I asked him, since he didn't have any material, if he'd consider a band situation if he got to sing lead instead of play bass- since he had no material at this point. "No, I gotta go solo man. I gotta be out front." Now is this what most people think of when they hear the words "solo artist"? Here was a really good bassist who, it seemed strictly for the sake of being out front, was dumping his main creative gift to pursue something flashy. I could understand this if he wrote songs- even if they sucked. I could understand this if he'd been singing the whole time and preferred it to playing bass- even if he sucked. He did neither. He just had to be out front. Will people believe me if I assure them that ain't the case with me? I hope so, but it appears there will always be those who make their minds up ahead of time and don't look at the facts. I'm drowning in material and ideas. They pile up much faster than a band could handle them, and I need to get them out as surely as I need to exhale or excrete waste. Now if someone feels the latter is an accurate analogy- AFTER hearing my stuff- well, fair enough. But to shoot me down before they've heard a note, just because I'm solo, is ridiculous. And, in my egocentric rock star gotta be out front sorta way, I have to think it's their loss. Jump back ah wanna kissa mahself hey.
ADDENDUM, 7/7/04: SOME THOUGHTS ON THE BAND ARCHETYPE
It occurs to me there are a few points (well, probably more than a few) that I left out. Important among them is a discussion of the popular myth of the band. This is a sort of "magic group" concept that lies somewhere between Robin Hood's merry men, elves and Hobbits on a Tolkien quest, and the Superhero's Hall Of Justice. (Or just an epic carousing with the boys, living the endless party myth of rock and roll.* ) It's an idea which has had great help from things like promo photos, album cover art, the careful manipulation of image, press releases...a combination of art and hype. It's an identification of a band- real people- with the substance of its music and image in a way only possible to believe from the outside. This is OK when you consider that this is, after all, supposed to be entertainment. But there are always real people behind it. (The press will frequently take advantage of this, which has an opposite, yet weirdly symmetrical effect: faults, real or imagined, get built into legend. The whole thing just serves to further bury the truth of an actual live person by building them into, somehow, something more.) But I'm getting off track here: being mythologized certainly happens to individuals too, and what I intended to discuss is a mythologizing of group experience, and what this means. We are, after all, fairly social animals; and we need our myths as exaggerated guideposts to follow as we pass through life, trying the whole time to figure out how to live as we go. We want to believe that somewhere, even if it's not in our own lives, the group dynamic functions in a beautiful, powerful way- in a pure way. Bands give us hope of this; especially if we don't look too closely. I skewer the concept here having been willingly steeped in it for years- hell, I still haven't entirely purged it from my system, in the hope that one day I might find some greater depth of reality to it, something I missed. I'm skeptical but not immune to the dream either. It's a beautiful archetype, and difficult to let go of. But the reality I have found- both from personal experience and a careful reading of actual band histories- is unfortunately much more mundane. In the long run, it's less myth than mess. You try to work in it, do your best to function, stay intact, keep things moving ahead. Ego, politics, personality clashes, and even simple differences of viewpoint will surface and have to be dealt with in addition to the creative work; so, not really any different from any other type of group work. It is something like the myth surrounding family: the concept is frequently more rosy than the actual living of it. But the concept, in true carrot-on-a-stick fashion, helps keep you going. In both cases, if you're lucky, the good outweighs the bad and real benefits are to be found, things which eventually can become myth in the memories of people; events which, during the living of them and over the years, will provide you with some warm feelings and smiles. You will hold onto these despite the rest of the package, which you do your best not to think about.
So is the band experience ever worth it? Of course. It's invaluable and every musician should do it at least once. Is it worth it in the long run? Depends on the individual situation. Don't I think it ever really works? See last answer.
Just to be sure my meaning is not mistaken here: I feel personally indebted to many bands- and the individuals in them- who have fought the industry, each other, and every other headache you can imagine in order to bring us great music. And here's an advance thank you to all the great bands to come who will do the same. I just prefer to see the situation without the myth. The reality- and the fact that so much good work has come out of so problematic a way of working- is, in its own way, more impressive. This said, I have little patience with the view that work not done this way is somehow automatically less valid. Music first, myth second.
( *Pete Townshend: "There's this idea that rock and roll is this glorious flame that will burn forever...and then you get a little closer and find that what's keeping it lit are bodies. My friends are dead. They're you're fucking icons but they're my fucking friends. And they're dead.")