Thursday, October 24, 2013

Nerdapalooza 2013 Review: The Careless Juja Live Band

The cover image of
The past two months have been a colossal exercise in multitasking and time management as I've done everything within my power to put together a cohesive band from scratch, while at the same time maintaining a pre-existing band, a few day jobs, and a functional life.

Our story begins with a semi-serious application sent to MAGFest and Nerdapalooza in February or April on behalf of a semi-fictitious "10 person" Careless Juja Live Band. The idea behind the application was that I had some free time at the beginning of the year and I was very interested in opening dialogue with some friends (and family) I'd been doing recordings or collaborations with over the years who I normally had little excuse to talk to. I listened to the best tracks that Juja and I had made over the years and counted the number of instruments needed to fully bring them to life, concluding that 3 guitars, 1 flute, bass, drums, accordion, glockenspiel, piano, and violin would be "required." I called Juja to see if he was on board and after promising to cover his airfare he reluctantly agreed to play a single show with a "CJ [Careless Juja] Live Band", in the rare event that we were accepted to perform at either venue. I also checked with the aforementioned friends who happened to play the various instruments listed above and got a similar response: If we happened to get accepted, that they'd agree to play.

The application was very laid back as a result, because even though I came up with the idea I really didn't expect us to get accepted. Here's an excerpt:
"We enjoy horse rides (don't judge it), walks on the beach, painting tabletop miniatures, sex, non-lyrical music, video games, rescuing orphans from bulldozers, cats, good television,  consecutive 18+ hour non-stop recording sessions fueled by a potent mix of energy drinks, propane, and King of the Hill."

My response from Nerdapalooza came in record time: "No." The application guy happened to be a friend of mine and did this every year whenever I applied as Random Encounter. I got a more formal rejection email a few weeks later from Nerda, along with a formal and friendly rejection from MAGFest. I specifically remember informing everyone in the "band" that we'd gotten both rejections and thanking them for being on call for my crazy idea... Then on August 12th, a mere two months, and one week prior to the festival, I got a phone call while was driving through North Carolina in hellishly warm clothing (a suit for work), on a hot summer day, in a truck that didn't have very good air conditioning. The call was from Nerdapalooza, asking if we were still interested in playing and if we'd still be able to pull off the show. I was in the denial phase, thinking the call to be a joke, so I confidentially told him that we could easily put together a half hour set (of music) from scratch, and it was only after the phone call ended, about 5 minutes past the point where I expected someone to reveal that the offer was a joke, that the gravity of the situation hit me. I immediately called all of my new band mates to verify that they could still be involved, and some were now unable to commit learning that much music in that short a time frame. It took about 3 days for Juja to understand that the application was serious and it wasn't until we were officially listed on the Nerdapalooza Website, a full week later, that we were able to confirm the band's full membership. I immediately commissioned the incredibly talented Jaime Kittens to make a logo for the new band that would give us a distinct look and feel from Random Encounter, whose toes I did not want to step on in the slightest.

I really wanted to start arranging the new band's music immediately, but I was already using all my free time to record an album, and playing shows as Random Encounter, which absolutely had to come first, so I didn't get to start arranging for CJL until a week and a half after we knew who as in the band. As I trudged through the first track, about a month and a half prior to the show itself, I had the very hard realization that arranging music for 9 instruments from scratch (in MIDI) was fairly time consuming work. This is the first song I put together, Cave Story: To Grass Town, where I envisioned all of the band members walking up on stage in a specific order to join in and add to the song, making it sound gradually more full. It took me over 6 hours to put together. As I was departing for Belize I downloaded Mixcraft 6 on my laptop so I could work from Central America and spent most of my nights there arranging without any way of effectively communicating with the rest of the band. Juja arranged two songs from his end and when I finally reached a steady internet connection I asked the 88 facebook fans of Careless Juja if they had any requests, because we still had about 4 minutes of music yet unpicked. Someone (I forget who) messaged me with "a song from Goldeneye" and by this point in the arranging/MIDI process I was getting very efficient to the point where I could put a song together in under an hour. At the very last minute Juja added the Game of Thrones theme and a mere month before the show the band mates were all given demos with their respective parts. A partial delay in the arrangement process was when one of the members of the band told me he couldn't commit to the show because a month wasn't enough time for him to deliver a quality performance. I admired his honesty and found a few extremely talented guest artists to take over his parts during key songs but in truth we were now an 8 piece band.

AdamOne's Setup
The practice phase for this band new 30 minute set should have taken every waking hour of my days, but Random Encounter had an album release show, an Escapist Expo, and a Nerdapalooza to practice for, which had to always come first as it's my life's work and passion where Careless Juja is more of my free time and an enjoyable hobby. As a result I focused the bulk of my practice efforts on key moments of the CJ show: the part where I'd reveal to the world that I'd been taking violin lessons for the last year, the part where I'd perform the ridiculously complex Professor Layton accordion solo, and the entirety of the Game of Thrones theme, which is my girlfriend's favorite song and the one people will most clearly recognize if I've screwed up. I was more or less on call for 4 weeks as band members would periodically check in with arrangement questions, transportation issues, or important realizations at odd hours of the night, like the fact that none of us owned guitar amps or a full sized keyboard. As I borrowed practice guitar amps from friends, rigged my computer speakers to accept a guitar input (yep, it came to that), upgraded my room-mate's guitar, and bought a glockenspiel stand, I started to feel excitement as the greater plan started to come together. The musicians I was working with were incredibly talented and if it was not for their collective and individual prowess I don't think we could have pulled it off. The band consisted of:

Ben, Chris, Juja, AdamOne
"Who Ya Gonna Call?"
Juja - One of my best friends, though he lives in Utah, who's just as quirky and into the music as I am. We only met once in person for two weeks but record music together regularly for Dwelling of the Duels.
H3lios - A piano-major in college who created Random Encounter with me many years ago. I see him less than once a year and he's all but my brother.
JY - H3lios's better half, a professional grade concert pianist from South Korea, and a dear friend.
AdamOne - A living, breathing metronome, and the original drummer for Random Encounter. He's now a father of two, a husband, a visual artist, co-worker, and a drum instructor with a few school-level music manuals under his belt. As a drum instructor his qualifications for glockenspiel, an incredibly unforgiving instrument, were perfect. He also can translate my gibberish into music-speech and doesn't get to interact with people our age often due to his occupations.
Lord Pike - A true rock drummer involved in quite a few awesome bands including: The Returners - VGM, and Lords of Thunder! I greatly admire Pike but for some reason we never get to hang out.
The Chris - Another fairly new friend, he is the bass player for Gimmick! and a fellow obscure-game enthusiast i'm sure I'd be extremely good friends with if we lived closer than a 17hr car ride apart.
Ben - The singer/songwriter/guitarist of Space Camp Dropout and my nephew. I can still remember the day he was born and though we sometimes record stuff together, we've never formally worked on anything publicly.

Lord Pike, JY, Helios

Walmart Quest!
The week before Nerdapalooza I'd easily logged over 11 hours into practicing the 20 second solo part for the Prof. Layton song, and still hadn't learned Warcraft 2 or Sword Master at all. I fully expected to have some time to practice the following week and was caught off guard when Ben showed up on Monday ready to learn the set. Suddenly the prospect of free time to learn my own parts, or to go for a relaxing swim was gone. My heart sort of plunged, I think I went pale, and taught him everything I could for as many waking hours as we could fit into each day. Juja arrived the following day, greatly helped speed up the learning process, and by the time the next installment of the band arrived on Thursday Ben knew the entire set. I'll credit him that he was able to pull it off and learn everything before they arrived. As Helios and JY arrived and went to sleep, fresh from a 17 hour drive from Texas, Juja and I left for a 6 hour drive to and from Orlando to practice songs with Random Encounter. We got back well after midnight, practiced our set with just the two of us, and fell asleep at about 2am or 3am on the morning of Nerdapalooza. At some point during all of this I'm told that we went shopping for food and that I cooked two or three meals by myself, that I didn't light anything on fire this time, and that they tasted surprisingly good, despite me failing at cooking at every moment prior to food coming out of an oven.

Sort of like an engagement photo but they're already married
Later that morning, after a hearty breakfast and we practiced as a half-band with AdamOne (who drove over from Tampa). An hour or two later Pike and Chris arrived (with Jen and Jen) and the band met in person for the first time. No one actually knew anyone else in the group except me, so it was a pretty neat experience watching everyone I personally knew interact. AdamOne started talking and snapping poly-meter beats (two different time signatures that line up and are done at the same time!) with Ben, JY was laughing with my girlfriend (who was an extremely good sport about all this much noise on a Friday morning), and Chris was telling stories about some bad RPG's he'd played, while I recalled a few cautionary repossession tales. This was all during a lunch break we took because the rest of the day was spent practicing the hell out of our 10 song set list from 11 or 11:30 through almost 5pm. Then we packed up and departed for Nerdapalooza. Notably I thought I forgot to pack my 3DS, though I just hid it well within one of my bags, and missed out on two days worth of street passes.

A short (~3hr) ride through traffic later we arrived at the official Nerdapalooza hotel. The lady at the front desk was either very friendly or hitting on me, i'm sort of oblivious to the finer points of social interaction, but either way I got the hotel room keys, parked next to a truck with 4'' steel spikes on its wheels, and climbed up the 4 stories to the hotel room. Juja, myself, Ben, Clay, and Prophet (who drove in specifically for the practice) stayed there until around 9 or 10 practicing [video link]. We left immediately after, unloaded our gear at the band room, parked at what I thought was the closest parking lot to the event, spent another 20 minutes walking to Nerdapalooza, got our badges, and immediately started seeing people we knew. People from the Random Encounter album release show, people i'm friends with on the internet, people i'd met at Megacon, at MAGfest, at Nerdapalooza the years prior. All of them were genuinely friendly and every person we passed with the 3DS made me curse my careless nature. We were able to catch the majority of Professor Shyguy's set, which was very energetic, and to both my and my girlfriend's enjoyment he played the Simple Pop Song, and Doctor Who am I?. He also did a song from Tool (a band I don't really know, but other people seemed to really feel it). During the set I noticed that the calm and collected Ben, who previously had no care in the world for geek culture or music, went wide eyed as Shyguy proceeded to play a guitar solo while simultaneously playing the keyboard. It was the first sign of happiness i'd seen him show all week.

View from the Green Room between sets
The rest of the night was sort of a blur and besides bumping into a dozen other people I knew, and giving all of the members of the CJL band tee shirts (which were hot off the press from earlier that day due to a shipping error), I only really remember a horrible restless night of tossing and turning in the hotel bed. I was utterly terrified about how the next day would go down. If we lost our place at any point during the set, none of us (save AdamOne) had any reference as to where we could come back in, especially during the more progressive songs. Before the lights went out Juja mentioned that he wasn't even entirely sure where his guitar solo fit in Tristram or Warcraft 2, and asked that I cue him somehow for both. At about 2am I woke up in a cold sweat realizing that we never figured out how we were going to end the Prof. Layton Song either. I tossed and turned, waiting for 3am, 4am, 5am, then 6am. An eternity of anticipation later and it was somehow Saturday and I was already exhausted.

Photo from the show, not the sound check
We had apples and peanut butter for breakfast, rallied everyone, and showed up at the OCCC promptly at 10am. It turned out that TMBG [They Might be Giants] (specifically their tech crew, not the actual band) was doing a sound check, so Lauren and I got in some last minute practice... because I now realized that she had never practiced with anyone from the band before. As we practiced in the hallway near the stage, John Flansburgh walked by and tried to open a door that I'd previously discovered was locked. I think I must have said something stupid, maybe a horrible pun about the doors or locks because he stared at me for a moment as if I was crazy before the door somehow opened for him. This now marks the second time I've left a not so awesome impression with J.F., and though I'm sure he forgot the moment I'll embarrassingly remember for the rest of my life. Lauren and I followed John out (we had been locked out for awhile) and watched as TMBG sound checked to Rhythm Section Want Ad. About 20 minutes before we were supposed to start our show, we were given the green light to load onto the stage and set up gear for 11 musicians in record time. The sound-guy asked if we could cut one of our songs and we obliged without question.

The Careless Juja Live Band
The show itself was sort of weird, sort of fun; A lot like how the old-school Random Encounter shows used to go. I'd spent the last two months envisioning the moments on stage, planning, plotting, practicing, preparing, and once I got on the stage it didn't go exactly as I'd planned and sped by as if I were but a passenger on a roller coaster. For starters we didn't have time for any sort of grand entrance, just a "You've got 25 minutes, go!" so much of the suspenseful visual stuff I'd planned for the first song, where everyone got up one at a time, was lost for the sake of not cutting more songs. This really wasn't anyone's fault except my own. Sound checking is time consuming work and I didn't want to start our show until I was confident that we sounded great. I'd already made the mistake of trying to play a full set without a proper mix two years back and it didn't go so well. Two other moments that didn't go quite as planned was when I pulled out the violin, played it with the best intonation I've ever managed, and later found out that none beyond myself could hear it because I forgot to sound check the violin into the vocal microphone. Lastly, due to a false start on the Prof. Layton song, band members got confused and the solo i'd spent the bulk of the last month practicing never happened. These three incidents aside the show was a complete success by my standards. I was personally ecstatic as I got to hear the songs I'd been working on for two months (in MIDI) performed with real instruments as the band I had no idea would ever exist actually performed a show! We started and ended the set strong. We kept peoples' interest. We got through the most important/difficult songs well. We nailed Sword Master, Goldeneye, and the crucible of Tristram. All of the members of the band had fun and all of the fear left me as we reached the end of the set. In many ways I was surprised that the set was already over, feeling that way even as we started the last song. We broke down the equipment, cleared the stage, and finished loading all of our gear just in time for the Lords of Thunder. Rasputan, a former RE member who I'm still good friends with, helped us out a lot on Saturday and between him, AdamOne, and Helios we were back in time to revel at a masterful execution of the Perfect Dark Ending Theme (a song we'd recorded as RE but never completed) by LoT. Special thanks are also due to Clay, Jen, Jen, David, Konami, Prophet, Lauren, my parents (who showed up!), and the guy who bought one of our tee shirts.

The first time we got to hear To Grass Town with the full band was on stage
My sense of time after watching the fantastic Lords of Thunder gets a bit warped. I remember getting food with the CJL band, talking about how Lauren and Juja were absolutely beaming during our set and how even Helios had cracked a smile for a few moments. For JY a live show with other musicians was something she'd never experienced, and Ben finally understood what we were all about, and a bit about what the whole nerd-culture thing was like. He referred to it as a sort of "hidden world" akin to the wizard's world in Harry Potter, located just behind the trudge of daily life. We traveled through the vendor/artist areas and spoke with almost everyone we passed. There was a lot of talent there and AdamOne/I began talks to commission one of the artists. I also got to finally meet the extremely friendly and stylish Jaime Kittens (who made the Careless Juja Live image!). We caught the OneUps with brentalfloss set and enjoyed their classy renditions of brentalfloss songs, which are video game songs with often comical (but sometimes serious) lyrics. As I watched the end of the set, people from the side of the stage hurriedly motioned for me to get ready to load my gear next to the stage. Oops... I forgot about that. So, I quickly ran to get my accordion and regretfully missed the end of their set.

Katamari on the Rocks w/ brentalfloss
The Random Encounter was almost entirely stress free for me. All my nervousness was long gone from the CJ set, we (RE) already had a huge crowd of friends sitting front row as we were sound checking, and i'd overpracticed all my parts for a show I could have played with my eyes closed. Just before we were ready to get on Juja was fussy and wouldn't get off his 3DS, but the awesome fog effects (a mere 5% of their total fog abilities I was told) again distracted me from noticing too much. Dead Labs went amazingly well, and I was surprised to see people singing along. I think that's my favorite song we've done so far. Katamari also went very well, and it was awesome to share the stage with brentalfloss again. My only complaint for the set was that I found myself wishing the stage wasn't so high so we could interact with the audience more. Just as we were getting to the part where we intended to play Death of a Friend I had the sudden realization that I hadn't seen Dr. Wily, the lead vocalist for the song, arrive. It turned out that he'd driven to the wrong venue, the Social, about an hour away (parking and walk included) and missed our show by mere minutes, so we played Terra instead. The rest of the set went without a hitch, except for me making a great miscalculation at the end and totally toppling Rook's Korg keyboard off the stand, key side-down in front of everyone, and running from her (she's also wireless) through an area of the stage I certainly shouldn't have run through (lots of delicate gear almost got destroyed by me) but that I couldn't really see until it was too late. I got yelled at for that as well, made two genuine apologies, and felt oddly down for completing an otherwise good show. It's not every day you can leave two negative impressions with your favorite band in a row. Still, getting to see and talk with all of our friends/fans/family after the show helped cheer me up. I was also later told that the TMBG roadie who I spoke with had actually enjoyed our set and felt kind of bad about yelling at me, so perhaps I didn't leave such a bad impression after all.

A rare photo of Jeff Douglas, the guy who takes awesome photos of the bands
I packed my gear quickly, did my best to stay clear of Rook, and followed Clay to some kind of green room that overlooked the main room. There was also a lot of walking before this, and a dinner in a strange restaurant with giant replica animals, but I don't remember how we got there or what we ate. Ben, Clay, Juja, my girlfriend, and I all found ourselves in the otherwise empty green room a few hours later, too exhausted to rock out with the incredibly talented Moon Hooch: a sax duo that circles each other while playing and makes their performance look a lot like a 1980's knife fight musical. We got to briefly chat with the drummer from Green Jelly, who had some neat stories, and Schaffer the Darklord, who had completely forgotten/forgiven the time I'd accidentally screwed up his name at a show two years ago. Schaffer is a pretty chill guy and I felt bad for missing his set. In addition to being a solid performer, the last time I'd seen him he'd given me some musical ideas I'd implemented into my own original works.

Who's that Icky guy?
We (joined by Chris, Jen, and "Mad Hatter" Jared of The Gekkos) entered the main room about the time a crowd started to form and were able to get within 10 feet of the stage for They Might Be Giants! This was the closest i've ever been to them at a show and it was easily one of their best shows to date. They always put on an incredibly live performance, this time starting with Istanbul, going through a lot more of their newer songs (which was awesome). I'm pretty sure J.L. glanced down at me at smiled at one point, which made me feel much better about any negative impressions I might have left with them in the past. It makes no logical sense but if being starstruck makes me feel better about the weekend that works for me. I had a blast and it was only after physical exhaustion started to take its toll on us that we reluctantly departed from the scene, as stickers were being handed out after the show. A quick thanks should be mentioned as Mrs. Douglas saved one of our number from a case of actual heat exhaustion that evening. All of us slept really well on Saturday night, and I forgot to mention but Helios + JY already started their drive back to Texas earlier that evening.

The Returners!
[The only band that my camera-phone was able to get a good picture of]
Sunday was kind of a hangover style day for us. We stumbled out of our hotel rooms by 11am, checked out, admired the Ben-Hurr spikes on the truck next to us (again), and got to Nerda in time for the best (non-TMBG) set I saw all weekend, The Returners - VGM. They rocked a FF VI medley, they rocked Echo the Dolphin, and Lauren sang the Metal Gear Solid ending theme AND the Phantom of the Opera "inside my mind" song! It's not just that they picked good songs to perform, it's not just that it was my first time seeing them in person, or that I'm friends with most of them; It's that they played well, they surprised me with something I didn't expect (singing!), they were cohesive, fairly diverse in style, and everything they played was well arranged. They were also soft enough for my girlfriend to enjoy (she generally dislikes rock), which gives me some kind of +7 synergy bonus to my own enjoyment. Even Ben, who had previously hated VGM (video game music) was smiling up and applauding the Returners by the end of the set.

The Gekkos
A few minutes later, as Under Polaris took to the stage (I was only able to be present for a few songs sadly. Those guys are a fantastic example of what synth/chip-rock should be and their front-man is the very definition of a High Energy Act!), I talked to the Gekkos and discovered that they wanted me to play accordion for a few parts of their set... as much as I could learn and transcribe to tab form in ~47 minutes. Their accordion player, Jarred, had been in a brutal bus accident that i'm told might not allow him to play accordion ever again (I really hope that's not true), and the day before he was told by a doctor that he wasn't allowed to play accordion for the show, regardless of if he could muscle his way through the pain. As a brother in the ever-secretive League (of accordionists) I transcribed as much of the set as I could and played with them for maybe 6 songs, clapping and singing along (sans microphone) during the other songs. They ended the set with my favorite song of theirs, Pokemon League of the Living Dead and by all accounts that show was without real incident. As I got into an issue with the OCCC parking security the OneUps played a great set, and after that we were semi-forced to load up and head home to watch the rest of the festival via stream. We said our goodbyes quickly (from a tow-away zone) and got ice cream on the way home. The reason I mention the ice cream was that it was served by my roommate's girlfriend (of a few months, who is at my home every week), only I couldn't recognize her outside of the context of where I live, which was sort of amusing because she couldn't recognize me either until after she served us ice cream. We watched the rest of the livestream of Nerdapalooza as Juja and I thought up more ways to advertise our Kickstarter for the new Careless Juja Album. Then, just like that, in the blink of an eye, Nerdapalooza 2013 was over... but it's effects were not...

During the course of the week Ben had gone from an apathetic guitar mercenary, playing music he didn't really care about (so we could spend some time together), visiting a "weird and nerdy convention" he didn't identify with, to becoming one of us. It started with Shyguy's multiple instrument solos, the subtle references to Nerdy things Ben was familiar with but didn't realize were nerdy. It expanded through some genuine and friendly conversations with people we met at Nerda (and the CJL band mates). All night on Saturday (and all Sunday morning) Ben complained that he didn't have a 3DS, after Chris had talked to him at length about how 3DS's work, so I lent him mine to use on Sunday (after finding it) and Ben had a lot of fun picking up street passes and battling armored ghosts. By the time he saw The Returners, their blend of VGM covers with the addition of vocals and the non-vgm song pretty much won him over. Now whenever Juja and myself would hum a tune from the CJ or Returners set, Ben would join in (as opposed to cringing and putting a headset on, which happened earlier in the week)! Ben claimed that Juja and I were popular in the VGM scene and was surprised when he, walking all by himself, was approached by someone we didn't know to autograph a poster. I don't that's ever happened to him before and it left a big impact on him, realizing that he was now a part of the community he didn't think he would like. Later that night, at his request, we went to Best Buy to get Ben a 3DS XL and a copy of Animal Crossing, which he swears his friends in NY will never know about. I smile every time I think that he's become one of us... and as I dropped Ben off at the airport on Monday there was actual sadness from both of us because we'd had fun and wanted him to stay. Nerdapalooza had it's magical affect on him, and I've been getting text all week about how there are certain hotspots in his home town, or how he's frustrated that the stores near where he lives are sold out of Pokemon X and Y, and how he just got Pokemon Y and a copy of Monopuff. Nerdapalooza 2013 was a special time for all us. For Juja it was a chance to really shine, in his words: perhaps the only chance he'll get. For JY it was a time to meet friends from her new home town in Texas. For all of us it was a great time with friends... and for me, it was a chance to bond with my nephew for the first time in over a decade.

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