Interview with Tom Bianchi!
Tom Bianchi is a veteran of the Boston music scene, an amazing musician, and an all around great guy. He is the host of the Lizard Lounge Open Mic Challenge on Monday nights in Cambridge, MA, the Singer/Songwriter series at the Burren in Davis Square, Somerville on Sunday nights, and performs regularly on bass as a solo performer and with bands, most notably these days with the Baker Thomas Band. Tom has a lot of insight into what it takes to be a successful working musician, and we talked about this and other topics at length a few weeks ago at the Lizard Lounge as he was setting up for that evenings open mic.
Lance: What made you decide to become a professional musician?
Tom: On one hand it was a natural progression. On the other, I made a decision to play music at an early age. I didn’t necessarily like college. These days I look at friends of mine who have thousands and thousands of dollars of debt. And I think to myself, I’m not doing anything I need a college degree for, and I owe nobody nothing, my credit is impeccable. No student loans, no nothing. I decided at an early age I wanted to play music, right out of high school, so when everybody else went to college, I went to New York City and started playing in bands. When I started, I worked at pizzerias and burrito shops and any old bullshit job I could get. But the more I played, the more roles I could play as a musician: recording engineer, bass player, singer/songwriter, host, whatever, MC, sound guy. I just weeded out any bullshit job I had in the past. My last job was 1998, 1999, at the Big Burrito. I didn’t aspire to wrap burritos for the rest of my life, I wanted to play music. I always knew I wanted to play music, actually being a full time musician was a matter of work and time.
Lance: What current projects are you involved with?
Tom: Baker Thomas Band is my number 1. It’s a big band, lots of musicians, lots of fun. It’s kind of like a rolling party that we take very loosely and very seriously at the same time. It’s filled with great local musicians, kind of a hodgepodge, we have some steady players, but we never know who’s going to show up on any given night. There’s the Sunday night at the Burren that I’ve been hosting with Danielle (Miraglia) for a while. Then I do this (Lizard Lounge) Monday night open mic show, which has been brilliant, I really have a good time here. And I’ve sort of been doing a home studio project, where I work with folks that I meet here at the open mic, and I try to target bands or musicians that don’t necessarily have a recording yet, a good, good, good recording. And my goal is to make radio quality, listenable music at a fraction of the price for up and coming musicians. Or musicians who aren’t necessarily… like my friend Noel is a full time teacher. If he should be a rock star and make a million dollars he’d be psyched, but it’s not necessarily his goal or his focus or his life dream. I think he just wants to make good music. So given his time and his budget, my goal is to give him a record that he loves at a fraction of the price. At the same time I’m also working on my own full length record. I’ve also completed The And Company’s first full length studio record.
Lance: Maybe I’ve missed some releases along the way, I have Park Street Blues (by Tom Bianchi), has there been anything since that?
Tom: Well I put out a record called 24-42 with Jason Gardner. And I put out Winchentuckey Breakdown which is me soloing live in the studio for an hour or two. It’s kind of a silly, fun record. But this Baker Thomas release, the CD release is March 25 and 26 right here (at the Lizard Lounge). That will be my first real… like all my records have been half comedy, half music. That will be my first music CD/band CD in a long time. Other than that, no… I haven’t been doing… I bought my own recording gear two years ago, for the sole reason of making more music. And after two years of recording with this recording software, I feel like I’m actually ready to make a good product.
Lance: How do you keep yourself motivated playing the same songs, the same venues. There’s a lot of repetition doing it night after night, how do you stay motivated?
Tom: What are you trying to say? (laughter). I love it. The only motivation I have to fire up for myself is the same as anybody, just getting out of bed and doing it every day. But I really do enjoy it. I love this job. Just like anybody else, I wish there was more money involved, but I think that’s anybody. You could ask people making six figures, and they’ll be like “I wish I had more money, because now, blah blah blah…” But I feel like I’ve lived a charmed life, I have a good time.
Lance: Any (popular) musician deals with something like that. Aerosmith has to play ‘Dream On’ at every gig, they’re accountable for playing all their hits. They’re never going to do a gig where they don’t do ‘Dream On’, or whatever radio hit.
Tom: I have a good friend of mine who’s doing very well for himself, in a good band. And was complaining that “I’m finally doing well, we’re on our third record, and we’re selling out rooms on the East Coast, and we’re doing really well when we travel.” He’s not a household name, yet, but they could be en route, they’re doing well. So he says, “There was this guy at a show, he starts giving me a hard time, he starts heckling me,” and I said to him, Bruce Springsteen played the Somerville Theater last year, two shows solo acoustic for this huge benefit. Somebody heckled him I heard, somebody yelled out Freebird or some shit like that, and wouldn’t stop, the guy had to be taken out. It’s Bruce fucking Springsteen and he gets heckled. Just because you’re famous or you’ve doing it a long time, doesn’t mean it’s any different than playing a fucking bar gig. You’re still a performer and you’re in front of anywhere from 50 to 50,000 people, and there’s always going to be some douche bag in the audience. You’re always going to have to play a standard song, people like that. Comedians are the only ones who can’t do that kind of stuff. Nobody requests a joke - “Hey, do that one about the duck in the bar!” If you’re a musician and you’ve got hit records, or a routine, people are gonna want that routine. Of course, you have to keep it fresh with new stuff, but you’re also gonna have to keep you’re old stuff pretty fresh too, maybe put a twist on it or something, you still gotta do it.
Lance: Where do you think music is going in the future, what do you think will become popular?
Tom: If I had the answer to that, I wouldn’t be hosting open mic Monday night. I don’t know man, I don’t know, and for better or for worse, I don’t really care. I just try to keep my own stuff fun, keep myself entertained. I’d like to think that there’s always gonna be a roots movement. I don’t think music has changed at all.
Lance: There’s always that sort of standard cliché criticism…
Tom: There’s always pop shit.
Lance: Yeah, exactly. Music back in my day was better, music back in my day really meant something, music back in my day was more fun, had better energy. It’s the same comments generation after generation, but obviously styles change.
Tom: Yeah, exactly. Pop is pop, and some of it’s bubblegum, some of it’s good. Rock is rock, teeny bopper stuff is teeny bopper stuff. For the most part, all that stuff comes and goes. Some of it has longevity, a lot of it does not. I don’t think it has been re-written it since the Beatles, that was the time it (music) was more rewritable.
Lance: I wouldn’t put it quite so far back. Bands like Cream or Led Zeppelin, or progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis, these bands ran with the style a little bit more.
Tom: Anything were there’s a drum set involved, is gonna fall into a category. Anything that has a drum set, a bass and a guitar, and then add everything else. Even techno music which is drum and bass and some other sounds, it’s all rock n’ roll.
Lance: You wouldn’t say it’s blues or jazz?
Tom: Blues and jazz are rock n’ roll. There’s a similarity between… OK, maybe it’s not all rock n’ roll, but it’s all one thing. Cause blues is just guitar, bass, drums, rock is guitar bass drums, pop is guitar, bass, drums. You can throw horns, you can throw all kinds of shit into it, but it’s still the chemistry between a bunch of human beings playing some instruments. It’s only gonna change so much. When you get into digital stuff, it goes in different directions, but I think that will always be digital stuff.
Lance: What are the most common mistakes beginner performers make?
Tom: Rather than common mistakes, it’s more about the learning process. You can tell somebody a million times to tune their guitar before they hit the stage, but some people just don’t really know how to tune it yet. A lot of people don’t know if you rub a little bit of pencil in the nut of your guitar, it helps the strings run smoothly along the nut so they don’t get hung up and they don’t ping, when you turn the machine (head), and it doesn’t do anything, all of a sudden it snaps and it’s a half step out of tune. A lot of people don’t know if you put on brand new strings, you gotta yank ’em out a little bit, you gotta stretch ‘em a little bit. It’s all a learning process. This is open mic, and there is a significant aspect of open mic that is for exactly that. Sure, I have some seasoned pros come in here and kill this show all the time. But it’s always balanced with beginners figuring it out. One of the reasons I love doing this type of show. I really enjoy watching this show. I’m kind of jaded. I have to like somebody before I can even think about liking their music. And generally speaking, when someone’s pretty cool, they’re gonna learn and they’re gonna get better. The only people I see who don’t get better are the stubborn, closed minded, moody, prima donna type folks. They generally don’t get better cause they think they’re great. There’s not too many of them out there, there’s really not. People come here open minded, and they know that they’re beginners and they want to get better. So it’s not necessarily common mistakes. It’s more about (learning to) tune the guitar, stage presence, (not) looking down at the guitar (but) addressing the audience. That’s what this show is for, to figure that shit out. That’s what we’re here for.
Lance: What’s the secret to having a career as a musician?
Tom: I’d say the secret to any career is to do what you enjoy doing, and try to make a living at it. I don’t want to get too Jerry McGuire on you.
Lance: How much do you practice, and what are you practicing these days?
Tom: Not enough, I don’t practice enough. I used to play in the subway where I would sit and play anywhere from 3 to 8 hours a day, four to seven days a week. I rely on that a little too much these days, all the tricks I learned.
Lance: Are you still playing in the subway?
Tom: No. It’s time I’m very grateful for, but not time I want to relive.
Lance: So you’re saying that you’re still relying on that time as far as…
Tom: as far as the bass. As far as performing. It’s changed. You can only practice by performing. And I’ve performed plenty. I’m out all the time. Even though I don’t pick up the bass on Mondays. I feel like as far as performing goes, it doesn’t matter if it’s jazz or stadium rock, performing is still connecting with your audience. So even when I’m here on Monday nights, I try my best to connect. That’s performing too. I’m always performing, I perform Sunday nights at the Burren, I host half the night, then I’ll play the second half. I’m at the Lizard Lounge every Monday, the band will play once a week, I’ll play another gig or two once or twice a week. On any given week, I’m out performing 7 nights a week. So, every time I get up to do it, it’s kind of like practice, or a learning process. But as far as sitting at home and practicing the instrument, I don’t do that enough. These days I’ve been doing more recording, producing. So rather than practicing scales and licks, I’ll be sitting there playing bass to a click track. I don’t practice as much as I just play, which has always been my mantra. Even when I played the subway, it’s like, why sit and home and practice when I can go out and make money practicing, which is pretty much what I did.
Lance: Is there a certain kind of gig you wouldn’t take?
Tom: These days, yeah, plenty. Unless I’m playing for a friend or family, I don’t take cover band gigs at all. I will not do wedding gigs. Even more so, you gotta pay me really good to play a cover band gig. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, I end up picking up gigs where I play covers and Irish songs all day. But I’ll often walk home on St. Patrick’s Day with stupid money in my pocket. If somebody said “I need a bass player for a wedding on Saturday, I’ll pay you $1500,” sure, I’ll take it. It’s nothing I look for, it’s nothing I aspire to do, it’s nothing I focus on, I don’t have a website for it. But because I’ve been out so long, I get random shit like that all the time. Danielle (Miraglia) and I picked up a wedding gig that’s a little blues duo, acoustic guitar finger picking and upright bass. And that’s nice.
Lance: You can do your own stuff instead of taking requests and that kind of thing.
Tom: Yeah, we’re also doing blues stuff, playing Robert Johnson, etc. Danielle’s repertoire. I don’t like playing music for douche bags in sports bars. I did that for a little while, when I first had a son, and I was desperate for money and I was just taking anything. I saw that as a money gig, I would do that. But I’m done. I gave that up long ago.
Lance: What did you do to start to develop the connections that you have today?
Tom: Just get out there. I love when people complain, and one of the complaints is “It’s all about who you know.” It’s like, no shit. It’s the most ridiculous thing, cause if you don’t meet anybody… stay away from the idiots, cause it is all about who you know. Just like mom always tells me, you’re only as good as the people you associate with.
Lance: Do you feel the music business is very youth oriented?
Tom: My music business is youth oriented to anyone over 21, just because I spend a lot of time in clubs and bars. The next step for the Baker Thomas Band would be festivals, and even that is maybe, 18 and over. I have kids and they love Green Day, and that’s a whole different thing. If I step into that sort of market at some point, God bless. It’s not what I do right now.
Lance: Building on that, being in this business and getting older, in this area especially, there’s a lot of turnover with college kids moving into and out of the area, they stay the same age while you’re getting older.
Tom: Is that a quote from Half Baked? (laughter) One of the things I’m working on right now, and I’ve got a couple more booked, is a performance workshop. It’s a three hour seminar for aspiring singer/songwriters. It’s divided into three sections, I call it a survival guide to the up and coming aspiring singer/songwriter. I’ve done a couple of them down on the Cape at the Cotuit Art Center. I might do one at the Armory (in Somerville), I don’t know when yet. I have another booked an Bentley College in March. And basically it’s a survival guide to anybody who’s just starting out doing this. The first part is just knowing your gear. Not everybody covers that, and I feel it’s important. We were talking about the most common mistakes of a songwriter when they come up here, and they don’t play out a lot, and they don’t realize that when you leave the input in your guitar, it eats away at the battery. They don’t know how to use a DI box (Direct Input). They don’t know that on an acoustic guitar, if your volume is on ‘2’, you’re not getting a very good blast from that pickup, you gotta put your volume up to ‘6’ or ‘7’, you gotta juice that input a little bit. If you’re an aspiring singer/songwriter, you’re probably gonna play the Clear Conscience Café in Central Square that doesn’t have a PA system, or has a little shitty PA system, but nobody’s gonna run it for you. And you spend the first hour of your first gig trying to figure out the sound system. So my theory is, if you’re an aspiring/singer songwriter, how could you possibly feel comfortable performing if you don’t know shit from shit as far as how to plug cable A into hole B. So my first section of that is all about the gear.
The second part of it is all about actually performing. I’ll have people step up and perform. And then the third part of it is hanging in your own music scene, whether it be around the country at a folk conference, or around your town. Good behaviors, bad behaviors, ways to handle booking. People email Billy here at the Lizard Lounge for gigs, and they get all pissed cause he never fuckin’ writes back. Booking is hard man, I book one night a week at the Burren, I used to book the Middle East corner. Booking’s a bitch. It’s easy to bitch out the booking agent cause you get a bunch of slow nights in a row, and then, when it’s busy, it’s like he’s the best dude on the planet. It’s a very thankless job. And people will get mad at Billy cause he’s not writing them back, and it’s like, he gets a million fucking emails, and you never know what’s gonna be hit, and what’s gonna be miss. The rookie mistake is, and I’ve made this, is you get mad, and you’re like, “What’s the matter, you don’t like my music? How come you’re not writing me back, what the fuck?” All you’re thinking about is your music and your art and your ego, and this dude is thinking about 700 emails a week he’s getting, from touring artists to nobodies. So it’s all about who you know, well, get out and find out who your booking agent is and shake his or her hand.
Lance: Last question, what are you music goals for the future?
Tom: Other than scratching out a living, my biggest priority is the Baker Thomas Band. I’m very much looking forward to 2011 cause we have, not only a new CD on the way, but a whole shitload of songs for the next CD as well. I just booked the CD release show which is exciting. My other goals for the recording projects I have is to make them sound good. Treat them well and make anything coming out of my little home studio something that people want to listen to. I just changed the set up on this show (Lizard Lounge open mic), the list, the way people sign up, I’m always working on this show.
As far as all this shit we’re talking about, I’m a big believer in music community. I live here, I don’t tour, I got kids who live north of here, so I don’t really want to tour. I’m happy living in my town, so the way I look at it, why would I not run a night like this. Being completely selfish, it only serves me to run these nights. I’m out two nights a week, I could tell everybody for the next two months, hey, my CD release is coming up. Just looking at it from a completely selfish point of view, why would I not do this. It’s a great position to be in, it’s a lot of fun, I make a little scratch, I have a good time, I meet a ton of people. I always find that people who play instruments are just cool.