A Tale of Two Auditions, and Lessons Learned

Auditioning is something that most musicians have to do at one point or another. It’s much like job interviewing, where the more you do it, the better you get.

I didn’t have many auditions when I was young. My audition for the first-ever Cincinnati Reds High School Honors Band was nothing more than paperwork and an endorsement from my high school marching band instructor.

While most people had to audition to get into a music school, I did not because my drum teacher of 4-5 years was also my college professor.

While I was only in two bands in Indiana during my early adult years, I did not have to audition for either one of them. In this case, I was simply asked to be in The Beertonez, and I built a reputation based on that time. So when The Switch needed a guitarist, they asked me and I accepted.

This might sound cool or whatever, but the down side was that it didn’t really give me a great deal of practice with the art of auditioning.

Before I get to the two auditions that are the focus of this entry, I wanted to talk about some of my audition experiences from my early years in Los Angeles. Remember that it was 1986.

I’d go on auditions and often times get dumped immediately. Why? Because I didn’t have big hair, or I didn’t have the right look. One band asked if I would play in full-length leather pants, and I was told to walk when I said no. Nobody should ever try that, if you value having skin on your thighs.

Sometimes I would get far enough in an audition that I’d actually get to play. Sometimes I’d simply not fit what they were looking for. Other times, I’d fail miserably.

What all of my early auditions had in common was that they amounted to NOTHING. That is, nothing good came from any of it, beyond experience auditioining.

I’m only mentioning these so that you can see how this kind of thing works, with regard to joining musical or creative projects.

After auditioning for an acting role in a musical, I was asked to audition for the band. I did fine, but when the playwright learned of my songwriting abilities, he removed me from the audition process of the band and made me the Music Director.

That escalated quickly. VERY quickly, over the course of 3 hours.

Karin Mansson [center] asked me to join Sun On Skin in 1998.

After a singer auditioned for a play I had co-written with the above playwright, that singer asked me to join her band as their drummer. Sun On Skin was the band, and we had a good run in Hollywood for a few years.

The once was an exotic dancer in a nightclub who asked me what I did. When I told her that I was a musician, she decided to bring me onto her team with no audition at all, and we wrote and recorded an album.

Ruby Cassidy had not heard one note, and knew nothing of my abilities, when she asked me to head up writing and music direction for her album.

Those are but a few examples. Now, let’s get into the two auditions that are of particular note, before I get into the conclusion.

I had been working as a drum tech for a guy named Darren Leader. At the time, he was drumming and running a band called Video Star, that played at The Burbank Bar & Grill.

While I was doing drum tech work for him, he was building a band called Metal Skool. They’d signed a deal with National Lampoon, and were supposed to do a comedy movie. When that fell through, and National Lampoon owned the name Metal Skool, they changed their name to Steel Panther.

Darren was all about band building. He had Video Star still working while he was getting Metal Skool off the ground.

One day, between gigs, he called me to ask if I’d be interested in joining one of his projects. This was a phase where he was throwing as much against the wall as possible to see what sticks.

His projects are all about putting on costumes and re-creating certain eras. Video Star was an 80s pop/synth band with no synth player [the synth was on backing tracks]. Metal Skool was the heavier side of the 80s, with the ridiculous hair, leopard print spandex, and more. You get the idea.

He had a project in mind, where everyone in the band would be a redneck who wears coveralls, no shirt, etc. I can’t remember what the band was going to be called, as it had a few different names kicking around.

He asked me if I would audition, and I eagerly accepted. He told me to learn the song “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and to be at Sound Arena in two days, in the early evening.

I show up and get the backline drum kit situated for playing while the other guys start showing up.

Keep in mind that he asked me to “learn the song,” so I sat with the recording for two days.

We start playing, and Darren isn’t happy. He stops everyone, comes over to me, puts his hand out, and says, “Give me the sticks.”

When that happens, you know that something really bad is about, and things aren’t working.

He starts the band over. He’s technically playing the song, but instead he’s rocking it out, with an open, sloshy hi-hat, lots of riding on crash cymbals, thunder fills, etc.

He then gets up, hands me the sticks, and says, “Lesson number one: NEVER play it like the record. That’s gay.” Remember this line for the next story.

I told him that if he wanted me to just rock out over any song, that I could do that, and he should have been more clear in what he wanted.

That band never took off.

The second audition came to me in the form of a phone call from drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz. Jon is best known for being the drummer for “Weird” Al Yankovic for roughly 40 years.

People call him “Bermuda.”

Yes, for FOUR DECADES, Bermuda made a living drumming with Yankovic, and he played the songs precisely as they were recorded, and would even go so far as to research e-drum settings, or the drums and mics used to record something.

Kind of goes against what Darren was saying at the previous audition.

Bermuda has a handful of local LA bands that he drums with when he’s not touring with Al. In this case, he was about to go on tour. Auditions had not yet opened for one of his bands, so he invited me TWO weeks early to have a crack at it before anyone else.

I show up at the audition, and we have a plan. I’m going to play for the first half of the rehearsal, and then he’d take the second half. These are all cover songs, and I knew them, so there was no prep necessary.

I play the first song, and it takes me no time to figure out that the guitar player is the leader of the band. He chimes in, “That was a little fast.”

No problem, I thought. I’ll just do better. After the next song, he says, “That was a little slow.”

He did this for EVERY SINGLE SONG that we played. So when the band went on break, I went off to the side with Bermuda. I told him that I felt badly that I couldn’t get a proper tempo for him. He replied, telling me to not worry about it and to stick around for the second half of the rehearsal.

At the audition: Bermuda is about to play the second half of the rehearsal with the band.

Bermuda plays the first song with the band, and the guitar player says, “That’s a little slow.” Bermuda leans over and whispers to me, “He said it was perfect last time.”

And, without fail, every single time, at the end of every single song, the guitar player had a criticism for Bermuda’s time. Every single song was too fast or too slow, according to him.

This observation informed me that my tempo wasn’t the issue at all. In fact, it lent itself to the idea that the guitar player had some other issues going on [it turned out to be alcoholism].

I told Bermuda that I should be removed from consideration because I can’t handle this guitar player’s bad attitude. I said, “You’re a better man than me, for being able to take all of that.” That’s especially true, because he doesn’t really even have to be there.

Over the years, I’ve learned many things about the audition process. Most of the time, it’s much like a job interview, in that it’s yet another opportunity to humiliate yourself in front of a group of strangers who will abuse you if they don’t like you.

I also learned that music is just one piece of it. How does everyone get along? What kind of drunk is Ricky? How reliable is Ben? Does Jennifer shower daily?

The decision can come down to whether or not they like your look, your hair, how you dress, your age, or even your name. In the 80s, a stage name was important. If you were actually Italian and had big Italian hair, then you were pratically a shoe-in. Hell, the band might even take you on and then secretly have a studio player do all of your parts for you.

While the audition is a place to show what you’ve got, your presentation might fail if they are not clear in what they want. Or maybe what you have isn’t what they want. Or maybe what you have IS what they want, but they don’t like your face.

Basically, many spend time building a package that may or may not matter down the road.

Most importantly, and this goes for job interviews as well, the audition goes in both directions. Yes, they’re figuring out if I fit in. But at the same time, I’m figuring out if I really want to be there.

The highest number of failed auditions came down to me not feeling right about a situation. It could be a band leader who is a jerk to the others, or maybe someone who doesn’t have their drinking under control. There are many things that can lead to a music project not working out.

In those failed auditions, I was the one who decided to walk away. There was not ONE instance of a band where I walked away and then they ended up being big. This could be said about every band I’ve ever auditioned for or worked with.

This makes avoiding regret easy. And you don’t want any of that. Regret is stupid.

Ask questions, be professional, and be prepared. But whatever you do, NEVER take a band leader’s advice to heart. Listen to it, sure, but then investigate it and see if it holds up.

So far as I can tell, playing the song like the record is fine, depending on the situation. And it most definitely takes more work.

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Published by DrumWild

Writing about drums, music, and philosophy.

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