I used to play in a band called Maegashira here in Jersey. Well, not really play, I was the singer, and a standalone singer at that in a four-piece, which since I couldn’t really sing and never learned to play anything made me a lyricist and the next best thing to useless. The other three dudes played guitar, bass and drums. I just kind of stumbled this way and that on stage, got drunk and obnoxious, yelled and embarrassed myself. Most nights we were good, on a couple more than that. I was never a deciding factor toward the positive.
It’ll be two years next month that ended. We played our last show Dec. 10, 2010, which is a date I remember specifically because I reviewed the show – at the Cake Shop in Manhattan; The Brought Low, Kings Destroy and Alkahest also played – otherwise the exact day probably would’ve been relegated to the humid swamp of my memory. I’d be lucky to know the year. Part of writing for me has always been the simple act of documentation.
Anyway, in our time, the four of us put out one full-length, which was called The Stark Arctic, named for a phrase I heard my mother-in-law say. Looking back on it now, the album was too long by at least 10 minutes, but it’s hard to know that kind of thing when you’re hooked into making it. I blew my throat out to record those songs, more than once. Drove to Little Silver from work in the city to get the tracks down with Lou Gorra from Halfway to Gone, who was a patient engineer. You’re damn right they’re all going in. There were a couple other splits and demos as well, but the album was a highlight. One of the songs had the line “It will never be like this again,” because part of me knew that was true.
We fizzled the way a lot of bands fizzled. The novelty faded and when emptiness persisted at our shows, the record got little reaction and the second batch of tracks for the next album – which everyone but me recorded live in Lansing, MI (I was sick and did vocals later) – weren’t as good, it was easier to hang it up than keep going. I’d have probably kept on it for the sake of the songs alone, which I loved, but the shows were less and less fun, we knew by then that there was no way we would be able to tour, and one week I saw on Facebook that one of the guys wanted to end it and then we did. Once you get to a certain point, being in a band is like death – there’s nothing you can say about it that isn’t a cliché.
At the end of that Cake Shop show, I was intoxicated enough on four-dollar Newcastles to hug our bassist and apologize for being a dick in general, specifically for being a miserable drunk on the several occasions I was. I went home and puked my guts out. There’s probably a metaphor for purging in there somewhere, but really I’d just succumbed to Newcastular temptations for not the first or last time. The next day was as turbulent gastro-intestinally as the next few months would be emotionally.
You get used to processes. I was used to group creation, and scared to lose that as a part of my weekly routine if not my daily thought pattern. Scared to not hear the “new riff” in my head anymore. I had another band I’d been practicing with for a while, but ultimately it would turn out I’d be with them 18 months and never do a show – the one opportunity we had, the last show before a member was moving to Virginia, a basement gig, was the day of a freak October snowstorm in Jersey last year – and another project never took off. Finally I joined Moth Eater on vocals.
They were more metal than I was used to, but as I’d always been a better screamer than a singer – though I chided myself for giving into the easy option vocally, like I wasn’t living up to an artistic drive to be constantly facing some imagined challenge – it made sense and worked. They were out on Long Island, though, which was a hike and made practices infrequent. There were other issues on my end as well. When my second job went from a no-show-do-something-periodically type of deal to the everyday concern it continues to be, suddenly the hour and a half each way on a Saturday afternoon was spoken for, if not for work itself than for the other real-life concerns that work pushed to the side. It was a milquetoast email, but I more or less told Moth Eater if they wanted to get someone else in, that was alright.
I’d never done a show with them either, though we took pictures. The last time I was on a stage was at SHoD in Maryland in 2011, singing for Mynoch, a short-lived band with Ken-E Bones of Negative Reaction, Andrew Riotto of Agnosis and Joe Wood of Borgo Pass, who’d also been the drummer in Maegashira for the last several years of our run. It was more or less a disaster. We’d only practiced twice because of the distance factor – those guys were even farther out on Long Island than Moth Eater – and it showed. One of the songs we fucked up so bad that we played it twice. I knew pretty much immediately that it wasn’t something that was going to happen again.
But that was last year and Moth Eater continued well into 2012. I don’t know if those guys are going to get another singer – I hope they do, as they were killer and I liked the songs they were writing – but what it rounds out to is the last couple months have been the first time in over a decade that I haven’t been in a band.
A few months ago, I was talking about that with stellar human beings Chris Jones and Lew Hambley, over a barbecue dinner on a deck. The two of them, who are collectively known as the garage thrash duo Rukut and with whom I’ve done numerous gigs over the years and whose work I continue to admire, seemed more than fairly astonished when I told them I didn’t miss it. “What do I want to be in a band with three other smelly dudes who can’t agree on anything?” I asked. “Like having three girlfriends, all a pain in the ass. Fuck it.”
I should clarify that. I’m not without my positive memories of every band in which I’ve ever played a role. In Maegashira, I made friendships that I’m happy to sustain to this very day, Rukut among them. Clamfight, whose CD I’m putting out in a couple months, are another. There are people who know me as JJ Maegashira, and I’m fine with that. We had more than a few good times, and I won’t deny that even as things got less pleasant toward the end. But I don’t miss it.
And I think that’s actually what’s surprised me most of all. In life, you go through these identities. You’re a kid, then you’re a student, then you’re working, you’re this person here, that person there, always the core of you, but here and there different pieces emerge. I was from The Aquarian, then I was from Metal Maniacs, then I was from Rutgers graduate program – less a critic and more a writer – now I’m from The Obelisk and The Aquarian again – all but entirely the opposite – from this band, that band, you’d know me from here, not from there, so that’s how I’ll introduce myself. But as I’ve given up that identity, sacrificed those good times for lack of frustrations, I can’t honestly say it’s a decision I regret. Maybe it was just time.
There’s bound to be a piece of me that misses it, but I don’t long for it anymore, and I did when Maegashira first ended. I was in a panic. I’m not scared now not to have it. Part of that is due to this site, which occupies a good portion of my waking hours, and part of it is work, which takes up most of the rest, but for someone of such ample physical proportion, I’ve managed to spread myself figuratively thin enough that I wouldn’t really have space for being in a band if I wanted to. Watching Clamfight last week, I thought about it, thought about getting on a stage and doing that again, and I felt the same way watching Ichabod – with whom I did a weekender tour once – at this year’s SHoD. But there’s a difference between relating to the process and involving oneself in it. I’m not there and I don’t know that I ever will be again.
A few reasons for that, but foremost among them is I wasn’t that good. I already said I couldn’t really sing, and how long am I supposed to not feel like a fool standing up there screaming and growling words that I’d rather express some other way? I’ve always been just smart enough to know how dumb I am, and that self-consciousness that makes me go back and read my sentences over again (sometimes) is the same one that always seemed to stand between me and letting my voice really go where I wanted it to. I was always a better writer anyway.
So that’s what I do. People treat you differently when you’re in a band and you’re not. Someone I knew from that end of things will ask me if I’ve got anything going musically and when I say I don’t and I’m writing instead, doing this, they’ll give me a kind of pitying “aw.” An automatic response, without even thinking about it. Truth is, I wrote before I took part in any kind of music. I wrote before I wrote about music. If the law of averages says anything, I’ll probably die in front of a keyboard. But it’s not the same, and I’d be a fool not to admit that. The difference between someone who does and someone who describes is always there — even if I’m contented in what I do, which I have to admit I am as much as I’ve ever been.
But the question isn’t being judged one way or another. If I cared so much about that, I’d shave, cut my hair and jog compulsively (all of which part of me wants to do all the time; these things are never as clear-cut as we present them in type), but I don’t do any of that, and I’m not desperately trolling Craigslist looking for “lazy hack doom singer wanted, tour immediately,” so I must not want that that badly either. I’ve lived through enough contradictions to know better than to say definitively I’ll never be in another band, but right now, at 31 years old, I feel like my time is better spent the way I’m spending it, rather than spinning my wheels to get ready for the next shitty show, the next faraway practice, the next argument, passive aggressive barb, and so on.
Yeah, there’s something sad about that realization. That’s what life is. You miss things when they’re gone, people when they’re gone. If I don’t make the most of what I have to work with and what I feel I’m best suited to work with, then how am I not just cheating myself, distracting myself from whatever sense of purpose I might be able to glean from anything, ever, be it writing, performing or any other sort of toil or expression in which I might be involved? I’ve got my good memories and my bad memories, but more importantly, I’ve got the lessons I’ve learned and hopefully what I’ll be able to continue to do is use those lessons to help define who I am as a person, my responses to the world around me and the point of view from which I see it, the ears with which I hear it. In that way, whatever identity I might inhabit in this moment, I haven’t lost anything at all.