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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

The Commitments

You invest your aspirations and your savings account into recording an album, and then place it in someone else’s hands to finish, and perhaps ruin with a drum and bass remix.

And so the files were shipped off to Chicago right before Christmas, delivered to a city I’d never visited, into the hands of mixing elves—yet more strangers who controlled our destiny. It was they who would take the thousand or so takes of our songs and transmute them, through some form of cut-and-paste alchemy, into accessible, pop-inflected, independent rock. I offered to fly to Chicago, since I had time, to represent the band, but no one thought that would be cost effective.


The word “independent” didn’t mean much anymore; Schizopolis was by now entirely dependent on Original Syn. According to Donald, we were in hock for $42,000, when all of the expenses, the sandwiches, cab fare for Will, unnamed session guitarists, and duplication costs were tallied. We’d have to make that up in album sales, and we also owed Original Syn 25 percent of tour profits until we sold enough albums to cover the recording costs. This had sounded fair, until Jacob had mentioned it to a friend and found out that it isn’t standard in most contracts.

I spent a lonely-guy Christmas in Brooklyn. Para had gone up to Vermont and left me her place to housesit, so I could keep an eye on Butter. I slept through the baby Jesus’s birthday. On New Year’s, Para and I ended up at a party at a loft in Williamsburg, near the Metropolitan Avenue stop. A band, the Rolling Hoopsnakes, played, and I noticed that I could no longer simply relax and watch another band play; I was constantly analyzing their stage presence and their talents, comparing them to Schizopolis.

In January, we played with three other bands at CBGB. This should have been a profound experience, sharing the stage on which the Talking Heads and the Ramones had performed. But being one of five bands that night, with a few dozen people watching—it didn’t quite live up to the fantasy.

I worked my part-time days, and Katherine found a boyfriend. It stung, but I couldn’t get angry with her, given that I was also in a committed relationship. She called him “Boyfriend.” He worked with her on movie sets. He seemed kind of slack-jawed and dumb, but he came to the show at CBGB, showed up at practices, and listened intently as we played.

“Katherine thinks you’re awesome,” he told me.

“Dude, we all love Katherine,” I said.

“She wears silk pajamas,” he said, which hurt to hear.

The other gig that month was a party on a boat, off Pier 42 in Manhattan. It was for a friend of a friend of Katherine’s, a Vassar girl with a huge amount of money and a penchant for indie rock. We made $250, the most we’d ever been paid for a show. The birthday girl got drunk and showed everyone her breasts while she danced on a table. From the stage, I watched her shimmy and wondered where the Gary Benchley I had once been had gone. In a past life, this would have been one of my most profound experiences. My ability to rock had turned a snooty rich girl into a topless slut. But I felt absolutely none of the thrill I expected. I just wanted to get home and take off my shoes.

I had thought we’d be on tour by now, with February rolling around, but there was nothing to do. Jacob wanted to see if we could manage our own tour, get a van and push out into the world, but Scott suggested patience, saying that this would be a bad idea given Original Syn’s commitment. Also, he was in hot water for taking three weeks off and needed to show his dedication to BrandSolve.

Donald and Lou both told us to stay calm. “Let’s get the album back,” they said. “And we’ll see where it goes from there.”

It felt odd to return to my half-complete, part-time existence. We’d been through the songs so often that rehearsals were fairly straightforward; all of us were competent now, comfortable enough on stage. Scott would occasionally come up with ideas for using a projection screen, and he added the necessary equipment to his arsenal of gewgaws; Jacob bought a video camera, and the two of them worked to edit impressionistic videos of the songs to go with the music. One featured Jacob wearing a paper bag on his head riding the subway, in slow motion. It was more boring than C-SPAN.

Scott found a boyfriend as well, refusing to provide any details, and for two weeks, he was cheerful around the office, constantly trying to hide the chat window on his computer when I came by to talk. Then, one day, the chat window was gone, and he was back to his surly self.

I’d wanted to keep working part time, so I could think, wander New York, and fully explore my options as a lead singer and rhythm guitarist. But in the face of another winter and the accompanying wet, sludgy streets, having the freedom to go down to a coffee shop, sit with a pad and paper for three hours, and write lyrics, hoping that someone would ask me what I was writing—it didn’t seem like such a privilege. I spent too many days mostly alone, with only David for company, on some evenings. And he was too tied up in living a completely hedonistic life to be much company.

“Dude, I was raging last night,” David said. “Raging.

“That’s cool,” I said.

“Tranquilizers, man. All around. Then shotgunned beer. Bro, it was insane. I had no idea where I was. Totally pissed myself. Like, literally. Also, Sue called. She wants to get back together.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I already sold the ring, so I told her no.”

“You sold the ring?”

“Yes. I took a $500 loss on it. So, you know, not bad.”

I had the suspicion that the money had gone not back into his bank account but up his nose. And I started avoiding him, creeping home past his door late at night, flopping into bed. Now that the recording was done, I had too much time, too many hours alone, hanging out, with no reason to wake up in the morning.

So I took a full-time job at BrandSolve and vowed to make it work with the band. Scott was my supervisor. I had plenty of experience taking orders from him, with Schizopolis, and knew how to navigate his bad days. For the short term, I would learn how to build websites, and maybe over time I would learn to do some programming.

It sounded fine by me, and it pleased my father to no end.

Dad: Coming up in the world.
Gary: That appears to be the case.
Dad: Very proud. Pat is, too.

After two weeks full time, paging through HTML guides, wearing some new oxford shirts and slacks, and sitting in on meetings where Scott explained system architecture, I began to feel that I was accomplishing something. I went to a client meeting and listened to someone from a bank explain their goals for a credit-card services intranet. None of it made sense, but that didn’t matter. There was a sense of things happening, of things being built and getting shipped. And that was kind of exciting. I could see why Scott liked it.

While work was going well, I found myself getting really sick of Para. I was tired of working near her, tired of dating her, tired of her depressions and bad sex. Familiarity was breeding contempt. She has never been behind Schizopolis, I thought. She has never really said she loved me. She is a self-absorbed, stupid, horrible woman who cares only for graphic design and has no sense of true love, of what really matters in this world. I began to write her an email, telling her this, and I was editing it furiously when she came over and asked if I wanted to get lunch.

“Sure,” I said, “whatever.”

We went down to the Chinese place on the corner, and she told me about Butter, who had defecated dramatically outside of his litter box in protest of some unknown slight. She told it with her eyes rolling, her hands moving, and such a look of disgust on her face that I laughed and made her tell me the entire thing again.

Then she said, “You seem upset.”

“Everything is up in the air,” I said.

“You got a full-time job. That’s not up in the air.”

“True,” I said. “Are you happy with me? Are we doing OK?” After I said that, all of my anger faded.

“I’m sort of happy,” she said. “I think I am. I don’t always know.”

“I know what you mean.”

“But if you mean, am I bothered that we’re not really talking much any more, then yes.”

“Well, I guess I’ve gotten busy.” I took a bite of my egg roll. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t want to break up.”

“I don’t either,” I said, even though 20 minutes earlier, it was all I’d wanted.

“Winter is hard,” she said. “It’s really hard.”

So we made plans to spend more time together, to take another trip when we could, without any horses.

I bought albums by the dozen, stocking up on everything new and interesting. I could hear the way the studio shaped a song now, and it was interesting to note who was using which effect, to read liner notes and see which guest musicians had been brought into the studio. I could read liner notes like a short story, imagining the surly engineer, the producers in their designer clothes, the guest musicians who may or may not have been welcome.

And so it went, typing away, learning about source tags and codes. The weeks went by, and in mid-February we received word that Dancing About Architecture, our first album, was finished. Did we want to hear it on Thursday at lunch?

Yep, I thought, that would be very nice.



 

* * *




“Why is this a drum and bass track?” Scott asked.

“That’s the Will Parrish trademark sound,” said Donald.

“What about the Schizopolis trademark sound?” asked Jacob.

“It’s still there,” Donald said. He paused the CD. “Will and Chris both wanted to show that you guys could do something different.”

“But we didn’t actually do that different thing,” Scott said.

“It’s still your melody,” said Donald.

“I can’t play drums like that,” Katherine said. It was true. The drumming on the track was glitchy, lots of stops and starts. Not like Katherine at all. “How am I supposed to play that way on stage?”

“You’ll use a backing track,” said Donald. Theoretically, we could burn select tracks to DVD and then play them back, sort of like indie-rock karaoke. We’d have to do that if we were going to use the guitar parts on the album, or the drum sequences of the “Hoyt-Schemerhorn (Baghra Mix)” that had appeared suddenly, with three other remixes, at the end of the album, bringing the total number of songs to 12.

“I guess so,” Katherine said, disappointed. I could tell what she was thinking; she was already the least flexible member of the band, musically, and having to use a backing track felt like a failure.

“Chris loves the mixes,” said Donald. “He says they take this album somewhere else. Feels it’s money well spent.”

We skipped through the entire CD, with Donald explaining the choices that had been made in Chicago. At first it was unsettling, because it was radically different from the demo—whole stretches of vocals had been processed through reverb, and there was a weird droning-flange intro on one song that lasted about 20 seconds. But even with all of that, when we were done listening, I felt a huge relief.

Jacob said what I was thinking: “Taken objectively, it’s not an embarrassment at all.”

“I kind of agree,” I said. “Of course, I wish I could hear the vocals a little more cleanly.”

“There are a lot of synth takes on there I wouldn’t have kept,” said Scott.

“Where are my drums?” Katherine asked.

“Just take a step back,” said Jacob. “I mean, as a music critic, I kind of like it.”

And it was done. Where before there was a demo, there was an album. Something needed to be fixed with the mastering, to repair the levels on two tracks—I couldn’t hear it, but Donald seemed to feel that this was an essential step. And then, they were going to press 4,000 copies.

“This is a lot for a band like Schizopolis,” said Donald.

“How many copies would you press for Slake?” asked Jacob.

“Slake is in a very different situation. They’ve had a successful first album with college radio play.”

“But how many?”

“Twenty-five thousand,” Donald said. I quickly worked this out. Slake was 6.25 times bigger than we were.

“Now look, this is the plan,” said Donald. “We didn’t bring this up because the details are kind of random, but you might want to start thinking about it. Slake is going out in April, to promote The Tomorrow Forgotten, and Chris thinks you should go out to support them.”

“Open for Slake?” asked Scott.

“Yes.”

Tour! This was it, finally. The chance to go out, to prove ourselves, to make an impact, to generate buzz, to gain a following.

“Where would we play?” I asked.

“Fifteen cities,” he said. “New York to Seattle,” he said. “I’ve got confirmation on all but three of them. Now look—” he said.

“April?” said Scott. “If I take off three weeks in April I’ll be killed.”

Donald frowned. “It’s in your best interest that you go out,” he said. “Chris feels that Schizopolis and Slake are a good match.”

“I’m just saying, April is tough.”

“It’s also in your contract that you’ll work with us to promote the album.”

“I know that,” Scott said. It was a little unnerving to have the contract, a barely remembered beast of a document, brought up in conversation. I wondered what else was in there, what sort of evil tasks I’d promised to do. After the weirdness in the studio, I’d been feeling less trusting. I vowed to read the contract, really read it, as soon as possible.

“This is a good opportunity for you,” Donald said. “People are very curious about Slake right now, and Chris wants to do as many tours with labelmates as he can, because he wants everyone to start thinking about Original Syn rather than just the individual bands. So you guys are his natural choice.”

This meant, I think, that Donald had had some other band in mind and had been shut down by Chris. The synergy model was working in our favor. Promising to send us the details, Donald let us know that he had a busy day, and we showed ourselves out of the Original Syn offices, back to the street.

“Look,” Donald had said. “The deal is, you go out, you give a good showing, you sell some albums. Slake is a built-in audience, and you get that exposure. A bands like this one, there’s usually no way you could play these venues.”

Slake was in the studio through the end of February, working with Will Parrish. Martin, however, was off the project, and a new, younger, less cranky engineer had been installed. I learned this from Donald, as he explained the issues involving support, transportation, and the other miscellany of going on tour.

“But basically, you get in a van and go, right?” I said.

“Yes, basically,” he said. “But you want to pay attention to the details. First, we need to talk about costumes.”

“Costumes?” Katherine asked

“Actually, let me get back to costumes. We’re still working that out. Let’s talk about merch.”

Merch(andise) is where tours can make money. Normally, I’d learned, you brought along a merch girl, whose job was to stand fetchingly behind a counter at a venue and shill your crap. I’d seen many merch girls in my life, and bought many things from them, but it had never occurred to me that they were actually with the band. Slake, Donald said, would probably let us share its merch girl if she could have the standard 10% cut of the gross.

This was an unusual arrangement, but it might make life easier for us. We were responsible for our own merch, which meant we needed to make T-shirts and buttons, and blow-up dolls and board games and whatever else we thought someone would pay for. We would keep all the profits from the merch. And here we were fortunate: Katherine could be in charge of merch manufacturing. Monotreme had a silkscreen studio, and Katherine had proficiency.

So we pooled resources and spent at least $500 on 200 T-shirts. We had planned to buy our T-shirts from American Apparel, in order to avoid sweatshop labor, but when we saw the prices, we had to compromise on our principles and buy shirts made by little slave children with tiny fingers. It was either that or spend well over a grand for the same T-shirts made without torture. We went with torture.

“I don’t like sweatshops,” said Katherine.

“Sometimes you have to kiss the devil’s hoof,” I said. “Just a peck.”

I thought of asking Para to help us design a logo. She’d offered to help with the album cover, but Original Syn did all of that in house and refused any input. As a result, we had no idea what the album looked like; we’d simply emailed them our individual liner notes, I’d handed over a compiled version of the lyrics, and that was that. I decided that bringing Para in on the logo would be a mess; I could imagine Scott and Jacob criticizing her work, and Para and Katherine looking at each other suspiciously. In the end we just put the word “Schizopolis” across the shirts, in a random typeface that Katherine liked.

At BrandSolve, Scott went in to tell Tom that he was going on tour in April, as was I, each taking three weeks off. I thanked God that Scott was willing to deliver that news, instead of me.

Tom didn’t take it well, calling us in for a meeting.

“Look, first of all, Gary, you can’t take three weeks off in April. You only get two weeks, and you started under a month ago.”

“Then…I don’t know what I’ll do,” I said.

“Scott, for you—I mean, I know you have this vacation coming to you.”

“I do, Tom. I didn’t think it would be such a problem.”

“You’re a manager. You know it’s a problem.”

“Craig can keep an eye on things,” said Scott. “And I’ll have my cell phone.”

“Shit,” said Tom. “I’m all for pursuing your rock star dreams, but this is a pain in the ass.”

“It’s one time,” said Scott, although he and I both knew that if things began to work out with Schizopolis, we’d need to tour constantly. “Three weeks, and then I’m back, and I won’t go anywhere for a year. I’ll work Christmas.”

“I’ll work Christmas too,” I said.

“We just had Christmas,” said Tom. He looked over to his yacht picture for a long moment. “All right. I’m going to say yes. But I’m pissed.”

“Thank you, man,” I said.

“Actually, Gary, let me talk to you alone,” said Tom.

Scott left and I sat back down. “Look,” he said. “I can’t hold you back from what you’re doing, but it really puts me in a position. I just hired you, and now you’re bailing on me. What I’m saying is, I have to put some thought in this.”

“What kind of thought?”

“Honestly, OK, total honesty here.”

“Lay it down, bro,” I said.

“It stings. We’re trying to bring you into BrandSolve and you’re taking off before you’ve even started to add value back into the enterprise.”

“I’m trying to add value,” I said.

“I know, but what I’m saying is that right now, you cost me more than you’re worth. To be frank. I’m worried that I’m going to sink a lot of money and time, that Scott is going to sink money and time, into getting you up to speed, and then you’ll bail on us.”

“I would never do that,” I said. “I really appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given.”

“All right, whatever,” said Tom. “But seriously, no more vacation for a year. That’s it.”

“I hear you,” I said, genuinely grateful. “I’ll be back in here, it’s like nothing happened. And no more tours after this.”