Eddie Japan have had a banner year. They are the 2013 Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble champions, holder of the 2013 Boston Music Award for Live Act of the Year and have been excellent ambassadors of the crown.
David Santos, the lead vocalist and founder of Eddie Japan, shared what I considered a “spot on” assessment of the Rumble and how his band went about their preparation last year.
I have already shared this with the 2014 bands as a way to help coach them along.
What better way to prepare than with the advice from a champion!
Eddie Japan will be there on Finals night Friday, April 25 to pass on the crown!
An Underdog’s Guide to Winning the Rumble
By David Santos
In just a few weeks, Eddie Japan will relinquish the Rumble crown to some very happy band or artist on a champagne-soaked night in late April. It’s hard to believe that it will soon be that most wonderful time of the year for Boston rock. The Rumble is a tremendous event, so congratulations if your band is among the class of 2014. Whether you win or not, you will officially be a part of Boston rock history.
I wrote this piece to shine a bit of light on the workings of the Rumble and to suggest things that just might help you capture the crown. Going into the Rumble last year, Eddie Japan just wanted to get past that first night. We felt like if we could just win the first night, then anything could happen. The Rumble really is all about which band or artist performs best between the lines. So always keep in mind that your band could win it just as easily as any other band. You were chosen for a reason, but you won’t win if you don’t prepare. Here’s how:
Timing is everything
Your Rumble set will be 30-minutes long. This is the perfect amount of time to engage the people, hold them, and then let them go. And that’s exactly what you want to do. You can’t give them one chance to tune out. It has to be all-out everything from the first note. And they are serious about that 30-minutes thing. If you come in just under at 29-minutes or over at 31, the judges probably won’t hold it against you. But if you pull the plug at 25-minutes or go over by five, you will lose points. So rehearse your set with a timer. Make sure you are practicing your set exactly as you would play it on stage. Don’t go up there thinking it will all work out. Make it work out. Eddie Japan consistently nailed that 30-minute mark in rehearsals leading up to the Rumble. It took away a lot of the stress.
Set time — it just doesn’t matter
Whether you are playing first, last, or in the middle, you need to deliver big. If you are playing first, you need to let everyone immediately know that you are not the opening act. Eddie Japan won two nights playing first. Take that early time slot as a challenge, and then go out and clobber. Make the band after you fear playing after you. This is a friendly competition, but it is still a competition. And musicians are competitive. That’s part of what makes the Rumble so much fun.
Be very disciplined in rehearsal, and you will kill it on stage. If you are the front person or the band member who usually does the talking on stage, go so far as to rehearse what you are going to say between songs so you aren’t up there winging it in the moment. This may seem awkward and uncomfortable, but I guarantee it will pay off. It also will keep your timing on track. If you think that this sort of “choreography” will rob your set of spontaneity, you would be incorrect. Good improv comes when you aren’t nervous about what you plan to say. Even 2013 Rumble finalists Twin Berlin, a punk band that probably would cringe at the word “professional,” had a great sense of showmanship. They added aspects to their set that engaged the crowd and seemed spontaneous but probably were planned. They were funny and charming but still very punk.
But on that note, keep the set moving. This isn’t the type of show for grand oratory. When you finish a song, don’t give the crowd time to stop clapping, unless you plan to engage them in a way that will make them clap more. Tuning should be done on the fly, or you should have extra guitars at the ready. I saw video of a set from last year in which a very good band finished a song, the audience stopped clapping, and the band stood there awkwardly for a bit before going into their next song. You could hear room tone it was so quiet. Don’t do that!
Unless you are Bad Rabbits, you probably shouldn’t just go up there and do what you usually do. You need to make sure your 30 minutes on the Rumble stage are finely tuned and exciting. You are not just playing seven or eight songs. Look at your set as a whole. This doesn’t mean you have to jump around if you’re not a band that usually jumps around. You just have to do something that will keep everyone wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Reimagine it all. Pick songs with varying tempos. Work on your dynamics. Tweak your arrangements to create moments in your songs that will grab the audience. For Eddie Japan last year, a few little touches made an impact: singing a verse in Spanish in the mariachi-flavored “Pushing Years,” adding a giant pause in “Return to Blue” to emphasize one vocal line, and then soloing the vocals at the very end of the song. Maybe it’s a guitar solo that builds and builds to musical catharsis. Rumble finalists Glenn Yoder and the Western States did that last year to great effect. People were clapping DURING the song, and it scared me! If you can get them to clap during the song, you are doing it right. Not only will these types of strategies better your shot at advancing, but you will be a much better live band after the Rumble.
A set set list?
One question you have to answer is whether you will play the same set if you make it past the preliminaries. You obviously have to bring everything you have on the first night, so it might be a good move to go with what you think works best for your entire run. Eddie Japan decided to open with a different song on our second night, and then we went with that same set in the finals. But I’m sure bands have been successful mixing it up after winning the first night. I guess if you have the time to rehearse something different (and brilliant) in between the shows, then go for it. Either way, put this in the “good problem to have” category!
Special effects — less is way more
Don’t incorporate anything into your show that will be overly difficult to set up and break down. The set changes are quick, and the last thing you want to do is to delay the next band. Don’t use any effects or tech in your set that might not function properly. A formidable band that we were up against had technical difficulties with some projections, and I have to wonder whether it hurt them. Yes, it is good to stray from your typical set, but keep it simple. I personally think it is sacrilegious to cover the Rumble banner during your set, but that’s just me. When photos were taken of Eddie Japan during our sets, I wanted the Rumble banner in them. Save the projections or film accompaniment for your album release show and make your Rumble set about the music and the audience. Eddie Japan incorporated a string trio into one song. One song was plenty in a seven-song set.
Hire a sound person
I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m sure whoever is running the board at TT’s will be more than competent, but will that person know what your band is all about? Probably not. Spend some money and hire someone like Joel Simches, or Joe Stewart, or Rafi Sofer. We hired a brilliant gent named Tom Streit. He came to three practices, heard the set as we would be playing it, and took lots of notes. He knew what to expect. And we sounded great according to the feedback we received.
To cover or not to cover?
This is always a tricky one. In a short set, it seems that a cover is not a good idea unless it somehow makes total sense in the context of the Rumble or perhaps in the context of something happening in the world. For instance, had a band elegantly launched into a Boston-centric song like “Roadrunner” last year after the Marathon bombings and amidst the campaign to make “Roadrunner” the state rock song, it could have been beautiful and unifying. But just don’t try “Shipping Up to Boston,” okay?
Don’t be a jerk!
Many people spent many hours preparing this amazing event for you. Be gracious. Thank people. Also, don’t bring anyone into the club as part of your crew who will cause trouble or be rude to the organizers, the staff at TT’s, or anyone else. Literally everyone we came into contact with during the Rumble last year was amazingly nice and helpful. The stage managers that Anngelle taps to help are all people who have probably been in your Rumble shoes. They were awesome. Everyone met us with smiles. Notice that and give it back.
Go win, already!
So there you have it. Follow these steps, and you just might have Kerri-Ann Richard pouring champagne over your head on April 25, 2014. And remember this: one of the great things about the Rumble is that it seems to turn everyone in attendance into the most appreciative and adoring music fans you could ask for. The crowd will want you to do well, and you will feel it. So don’t let them down! But win or lose, enjoy the hell out of it!