By Shannon McDonald
How long have you been playing?
Oh, God, since about seventh or eighth grade. Probably eighth because I remember going to garage band practices and reminding everyone in the band that I had to go to marching band practice. I was in marching band in eighth grade, so that had to be it.
Why did you start playing?
My friend Eugene wanted to be a rock star when he grew up, but he needed other people to be in the band, and originally he told me to play drums. I tried but we found out I can’t really do that, so we decided we could just both play the guitar for a while. But one day I found this huge four-stringed guitar and thought it was pretty cool, so I picked it up and just started messing around and really liked it. We thought maybe the bass would work out.
What was the first song you were able to play?
Oh, I know this one. My dad, when he heard that I was learning how to play, thought of the simplest, most easy to play song he could possibly think of to have me start off on. Something a 5-year-old could do. And it was, “Brain Stew” by Green Day. It was the simplest song he could remember, so he just taught me how to play “Brain Stew.” And that was the only song the three of us knew.
It was me, my friend Eugene, who was singing and playing guitar, and—I wouldn’t call him a friend—this awful, know-it-all kid named Carl, who was the best drummer in the percussion section in band. So the three of us knew how to play Green Day, and that was pretty much it for a really long time. We could play that one song, and we thought we were the coolest ever, until we learned how to play other stuff. But that was pretty much along the lines of about three notes. You know, super easy for eighth graders.
How would you describe your art?
I would describe it as pain and suffering that I like for some reason because I’m a sick and horrible bastard.
Learning to play was torturous, but I didn’t know it because I thought I was hot shit. And then I look back two years later and think, “Oh, God, I sucked then, now I’m totally into this instead.” And then I struggled to learn that, and two more years later I look back, “That sucked, now I’m into this instead.” And then I thought I was hot shit again, and struggled again to learn a new thing. Every time, I drop a thing and pick it back up and struggle with it and get good at it again.
This is really ambiguous, the way I’m describing this.
What I’m really thinking about here is when I play with Eugene. Every time we reconvene, he’ll be into a completely different style of music. We started out trying to emulate Green Day, and then we dropped that and started emulating more hardcore punk bands. Green Day was heading more towards pop, and we wanted a different direction. So then we started trying to be more like Alkaline Trio. And then he decided he didn’t want to do that anymore, so we started trying to emulate Muse, and so on.
Now he’s into this thing where he’s trying to find his own style and not emulate anybody. And every single time, we have to erase everything we’ve worked for, and start over again. Write a whole bunch of new songs, and realize that we want to do our own thing. But that’s impossible because everyone likes a certain kind of music.
So any musician, no matter how original they think they’re being, is going to emulate people that have influenced them. And sooner or later, Eugene is going to realize that, and he’s going to drop this whole “doing his own thing,” and come back with another new big idea, and we’ll erase all the songs that we worked on and start over again.
And for some reason, we really get off on that. It’s fun! I don’t know why, because the way I just described it made it sound awful. But it really is. Just writing a whole bunch of cool songs thinking, “Oh, we’re totally going to make a record out of this, it’s great.” And then we flush it all down the toilet and start over again. That’s the reason we’ve been playing since eighth grade and have nothing really to show for it.
Who has inspired you the most?
That one’s easy. There’s Eugene, who is the founder of the band, and even after that band failed and the next band failed and the next band failed, Eugene and I played together, ever since eighth grade. Just constantly trying to make it work.
And the two of us play great together; he’s a brilliant lyricist and really good musician. The two of us, we click, you know? So he’s definitely a big inspiration for me.
Then my father is one, he taught me how to play. Well, sort of. He gave me a guitar and said, “OK, this is how you make it go bum bum bum bum,” and then kind of let me go from there. But I mean, he’s been a musician all his life, and he’s the one who’s always given me all of the equipment that I need, and instruction when I needed it. And he’s given me some really great tunes to listen to over the years because he’s got his own band projects going all the time. So it’s definitely my dad and Eugene.
How often do you practice?
Well, it started off as never, ever, ever, and then all of my band mates would yell at me—well, all of them consisting of two, would yell at me—because, “Oh my God, Alex, you never practice, what the hell?” And then there was a really long stretch of that, of never practicing except during band practice. And then there was a really long stretch of intensely and obsessively working at it, all the time until my fingers bled, and that was near the end of high school or beginning of college because I thought it would validate how cool I was if I knew how to play some sick bass.
That was during the time I stopped playing clarinet and was channeling all of my interest into guitar because high school was done, and I wasn’t in the marching band anymore or anything like that. It was an instrument that I could keep on playing. So I put all of the focus that I had put in marching band or concert band into an instrument that I could actually do without the percussion section, the trumpet section, and the entire orchestra. I could just sit in my room with my crappy little amp and play. So there was a stint there where I practiced all the time.
For the past few years I’ve gone back to never practicing, ever, because I am firm in my belief that I am a god and that nothing can be better than me, so I don’t need to practice. And then I started practicing a little bit more within the past few months because I was bored. Then I realized, “Hey, so I totally should have practiced all that time because I am not invaluable in my skills, and now my fingers hurt playing basic songs, and this is bad. Really, really bad.”
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I don’t. It’s not really something that I need to stay motivated for. It’s just me twiddling around on a guitar. The band is long gone, so it’s just me.
Any advice for people interested in picking up an instrument?
My only advice would be to pick it up, practice, do it. And if you don’t like it, then don’t let anyone tell you to keep doing it. That’s why I stopped playing clarinet, because I had to do it, and I felt like I had to do it. So I kept doing it, and then when I realized I didn’t have to anymore because high school was done, I dropped it like—a thing that you drop.
Point being, the only advice is if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Only do it if you really enjoy it, because if you really enjoy it, you’re not going to need any motivation or advice or anything. You’re just going to find a way to make it happen, and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be, you know?
Alex Schlee is from Minneapolis, majoring in mass communication at Bemidji State University. He hopes to go into journalism. Shannon McDonald is an English education major who plans to graduate in the spring of 2015 from BSU.