When I learned of our move to Japan four years ago, I immediately imagined the killer things we would see and do. Like watching sumo. Or traveling around Japan to go skiing, or look at wisteria and toilet museums, or visit temples near Yokohama. Joining a rock band wasn’t really on my radar. Yet.
About a year before leaving DC, seven-year-old Cy started drum lessons at Music On the Hill, our fabulous neighborhood music shop. After a few months of watching Cy tap away on the practice pad and then a starter electronic drum kit, I decided that I needed to get in on the action. I started drum lessons myself, and six months later we moved to Japan.
After arriving in Yokohama, the Google led me to my first music-related break: the lovely and talented Marcos, my drum teacher. Cy and I toiled away, performing in annual recitals with Marcos’s other students.
As loyal martayaki readers may recall, the big break came in 2017, when local band Honmoku Blues Express needed a bongo player for upcoming gigs. Lead singer Tom saw Mark and asked if I knew how to play bongos. “Well she’s a drummer….”, Mark replied. And that’s how I bought bongos and taught myself to play, with guidance from Marcos and YouTube.
A few months later some guitar-playing friends asked me to join them for casual jams, which eventually turned into gigs in the Members’ Bar at our club, Yokohama Country and Athletic Club (YC&AC). After a few months I cajoled the rest of the band into letting me play the drums instead. Gradually we added a bass player, a lead singer, keyboards, and a new name: Mamonaku. Mamonaku is Japanese for up next, and you hear it on train platforms as a train approaches.
A little after that, another band was born: Tempura Crime Scene. Bass player Brad tapped me as the drummer. Most of the TCS band members work for Nissan, so it’s widely known as the Nissan house band.
Our friends come to hear both bands play. But here’s the crazy part: they keep coming back. After a few gigs word got out that there are two more gaijin (foreigner) bands on the Yokohama music scene, and we started getting invitations to play with other bands, and at other venues.
It’s been absurdly fun. I mean, I get to play in a band! How fun is that? It’s a lot of work, but I love it.
The craziest part is that I’m only an OK drummer. Sure, my friends heap praise on all of us after every gig, which is really kind. Because who doesn’t love getting called a rock star? But honestly, I’m not that great. I’m competent, and I can keep a beat pretty well, and I practice a lot. I mean, A LOT. Between Mamonaku and Tempura Crime Scene, I’ve learned around 50 songs in the last year. Singers can find lyrics online, and guitar players can find tabs (chords) from different sites and apps. They still work hard to learn songs, but at least the web gives them a starting point. There aren’t really the same resources for drums; learning a drum part means listening, memorizing, and maybe transcribing some challenging intros or fills. (And in case you were wondering–yes, there is standard drum notation. Though I’ve been known to scribble “pssht on 3” and similar.)
Both bands have varied levels of musical ability. Some of our musicians are phenomenal, and some are pretty OK. I’m toward the pretty OK end. But a band playing together well doesn’t require absolutely phenomenal musicians in every spot. All you need is a baseline of competence, the ability to get along with others, and lots of patience for each others’ mistakes, suggestions, and crappy song ideas. Playing nicely with others is huge, and not just in a band. Think of examples in your own workplace or social circle. It’s easy to think of the brilliant writer who can’t meet a deadline, or the phenomenal soccer player who insists on taking every shot on goal himself instead passing the ball, and so on. Playing in a band is like that.
I learned a lot from Marcos, as I still do from my weekly lessons with him. He gives me exercises to tweak skills that I struggle with, and gives excellent feedback after a gig. I’ve also learned a lot from actually playing gigs. Learning songs at home mostly means playing along to a recording. Playing with other people means that *I* keep the beat, not the recording. If the song is dragging then I try to catch the bass and guitar players’ eye to speed up the tempo. If I make a mistake, I keep going without grimacing. If someone else makes a mistake–maybe missing a cue, or coming in early–the rest of us all follow along.
During a gig I’m constantly listening to myself play, and my inner dialogue runs nonstop. Am I dragging a little behind the beat? Did I get that kick rhythm right? There’s a big fill coming up. High hat control isn’t quite right, so keep it closed. Wow, Clapton drum parts are really tedious. The syncopated high hat rhythm is off, so go back to straight eighth notes. The toms are too flat and I keep hitting the rim; remember to pitch them forward more after the song ends. The ride is too far back; pull it forward between songs. Gah, the singer came in early, adjust! And so on. So for those of you who tell me that I look really serious when I play or that I should smile more–this is why.
So what’s the best part of a successful show? Afterwards, when a fan comes up to me and says, “That was so cool! I want to learn to play drums too!”.
Our next show is coming up on May 11 at Benny’s Place in Motomachi. Come on by!