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Weekend Warriors Interview 2012

Note: The following post is a reprint from my “Dave’s Rave” blog on my old site originally published back in late 2012.

I recently sat down with 2 of my students – Helen McLennan and Brendan Smart – to talk about their experiences participating in this years’ Weekend Warriors rock band program. It was Helen’s third Weekend Warriors and Brendan’s first. Here’s our candid conversation in its entirety.

Dave: Thanks for your time guys. Helen let’s start with you. This is your third Weekend Warriors experience. Why don’t you tell us a little about the program and what keeps you coming back.

Helen: Well I first heard about Weekend Warriors when I was having guitar lessons a few years ago at a music store. I’d gone away to Africa and when I got back they called me and asked if I’d be the singer in one of the bands as the original singer wasn’t able to do the gig in the end. So I had 2 weeks to prepare 10 songs or something like that, which was obviously a huge workload. But it was a really positive experience – the band were really welcoming and Paul Christie was very supportive and encouraging.

Helen playing and singingWith Paul, there’s no such word as, “can’t” or “won’t”, you just get on with it. I mean it was a massive learning curve for 2 weeks – there were probably 6 people in that band that didn’t know each other and it was terrifying getting on stage and singing but, you know, it’s kind of like the kids’ school concerts – you’re never going to have a more sympathetic audience than your friends and family (so nobody was going to start throwing tomatoes or anything). (Laughs). I suppose what keeps me coming back is that music is always a challenge and having come back to it after many years, it’s nice to have something specific to work towards. I guess I’m quite goal orientated and it’s the same kind of application I put towards my horse riding – if I haven’t got a competition coming up, it’s hard to get out of bed in the cold of winter and do it. For me, the same is true with the guitar. If I’ve got something to work towards, I’m much more motivated. On top of that, it’s fun! The people are always great and there’s no agenda. There’s also the feel-good factor that it’s for a charity which is nice.

Dave: You mentioned Paul Christie. For those that don’t know him, tell us a little more about him and his role in Weekend Warriors.

Helen: Yeah well I’d heard of Mondo Rock of course but I hadn’t made the connection in my mind with Paul being in the band. The first time I met him was when I turned up for those 2 weeks of intensive learning at the start of my first Weekend Warriors. I didn’t really know who he was but I was struck by his larger-than-life personality and I really liked his positivity. I never heard him say anything negative to any of the players and some of us were a little woeful at times (laughs) but he was always like, “Give it a go… be brave…”. He just loves music. He loves performing and I think he likes to see other people enjoying themselves.

Brendan: Yeah I only heard him lose it a couple of times but I think his patience was starting to wear a bit thin. (Both laugh). But you’ve got to hand it to the guy – 8 bands for 2 hours each and every week – it’s pretty full-on and he does an incredible job.

Dave: Brendan I know you thought long and hard about whether or not to sign up for Weekend Warriors and in the end you went for it. How did you find it?

Brendan onstageBrendan: Unreal. Best experience ever. There were times when I wanted to quit. I don’t take quitting lightly but there were times when I had thoughts like, “This is going beyond fun” and, “This is way out of my comfort zone and it’s starting to feel like a chore” but I’m so glad I stuck it out. It’s given me a whole new lease on everything musical – it’s given me direction in a big way. Like when I started lessons with you, I just wanted to play a few songs. You know I was vacillating a little bit and I was like, “Dave I don’t know where I want to go with this but I don’t want to formalise it” and then you told me about Weekend Warriors so it kind of gave me a purpose – something to work towards. Now that I’ve done it… well I’ve come back here asking to learn theory! I never thought I’d do that, so it’s really given me direction with guitar and it’s made me realise it’s a passion. I’m not just dabbling here – I’m serious about it.

Dave: That’s awesome. Tell us about the bands you played in.

Helen: I had a great experience this time and was in 2 completely different bands. The first one was with much more experienced musicians so the rehearsals were very different in that they needed very little direction and they had their song list pretty much together before I’d even gotten into the band room. It was pretty much jump in and start playing straight away and I guess I was the one who was probably “swimming the hardest” in that band, which was good. It’s like playing tennis with better tennis players. You know – it lifts your own game. That’s where the music theory comes in handy – like if they say, “It’s in D”, you’ve just got to know where it’s at. So that was an interesting challenge – I enjoyed that. The other band were basically novices and 4 out the 5 members had never been on stage before – only the drummer and I had previous live experience. All 3 guitarists and the singer were nervous and didn’t know what they were in for and I think that in that sense ignorance was bliss (laughs). In terms of rehearsals, the first band only did the set rehearsals with Paul Christie and 1 extra run-through the week before the gig. The other band were like twice a week on top of the rehearsals with Paul so they were much more keen and driven to make it happen. On stage, the first band were quite polished I thought. They kind of just got up on stage and “did it”. In the second band we were headed for a train wreck a few times but we just kept going and managed to pull out of it really well.

Brendan: I honestly didn’t notice.

Helen's bandHelen: Well I guess that’s the point. We just said, “keep going and if we crash we’ll somehow get out of it”. I was the band witch in that one. (Everybody laughs). But with both bands, everybody came off stage having had a ball. They really enjoyed it and were buzzed-up. The guitarist in one of the bands had said before the gig it would probably have to be the last Weekend Warriors he’d do. When I asked him afterwards if he’d do it again he said, “yeah yeah yeah”. So it’s addictive you know. You want to get up there and give it another go. And it isn’t about showing off. It’s about playing music with other people, being “in the pocket” and getting it together. It’s such a great feeling.

Brendan: It’s a sense of achievement.

Helen: It really is – it’s huge.

Brendan: (To Helen) I was blown away ‘cause when I came here I said to Dave, “I want to learn to play… I don’t know how long it’s going to take… I should have started when I was younger” etc. etc. Dave said, “In under a year I’ll have you playing guitar and I was like, “Yeah right – whatever”. (Everybody laughs). But it’s 18 months later, I’ve done a gig and I want to do it again – I’ve got a passion for it. So like I’ve said before Dave, you’ve way exceeded my expectations.

Dave: So tell us about your band Brendan.

Brendan: Well I was initially in Helen’s second band. But because everyone was a novice I was moved into another band where everyone was a better musician than me, which was good. I kind of got dropped in after they’d already chosen their songs and I arrived not knowing any theory. Well they’d warm up in a song in “D” and I’d go, “What?”. So I’d kind of turn my volume off and just look busy. (Laughter all around). I was really stressed out after the first couple of practices but one of the guys in my band, Ronaldo, took me under his wing and said, “Look you can play it like this” and he showed me a lot. He’d done Weekend Warriors before and showed me how I could use power chords in place of some of the parts and I’m okay with power chords. When I didn’t know what I was doing I was pretty stressed but as soon as I had my part, I practiced it ‘till the cows came home ‘cause I was happy to be on target and know where I was going with it all. But then they kept changing songs. Right when I was feeling confident, at 10pm there’d be another “new songs” email and I was like, “not again”. So the next rehearsal, I’d get there and I didn’t know what to play again but in the end I panicked for nothing. It all came together and I had bigger parts in some songs than others but once I knew what I was doing it was fantastic – absolutely amazing.

Dave: So people from all walks of life join up?

Helen: Oh wow – criminal lawyers, a guy that runs a pie shop, plumbers – you name it. Our drummer was an excavator so yeah – all types.

Brendan: My bus driver was in my band!

Helen and Dave: Really?

Brendan's bandBrendan: Yeah I said to him, “I’m sure I’ve seen you before” and he turned out to be the guy that drives my bus route during the school holidays! Also, my father-in-law is an optometrist. Well one of the guys in my band is an optometrist too and he ended up knowing my father-in-law.

Helen: Yeah sometimes it’s a small world when it comes to music.

Brendan: In the beginning you kind of don’t gel and I thought, “You can see why bands break up”. There’s all these different personalities and there’s always one that’s rising to the top. Being the newbie, what I soon worked out was that just sitting back and letting the others take control was a smart move. I thought that at times there’d be clashes for sure because everyone wants to take the lead but it all works out. Like when someone’s personality takes charge, everyone just gets into line – it all gels and we were all getting along so well. Not that we weren’t getting along in the beginning – we just didn’t know each other and each of our strengths and weaknesses.

Helen: That’s the beauty of having a big personality like Paul’s though – he does sit on that “takeover” thing a little bit which stops it getting out of hand.

Dave: So it’s not just an education musically, but also in band dynamics, politics and culture?

Brendan: Absolutely. And you know I’m good with people but I need to be sure of myself and I need to know my product – like in my sales job. But here I was so far behind everybody else that I just couldn’t throw my personality into that mix because I wasn’t sure of myself – I didn’t know what I was doing.

Helen: That’ll come though. And I think one of the things I’ve realised (being my third one in) is that I don’t have to be perfect – I just have to know where I am so that if things go wrong I can pull back and pick it up again later in the song. Whereas when I first did these, I’d think, “If I make a mistake I’m sunk”. You quickly learn that in a live performance something will probably go wrong – the mic stand could fall over, you could break a guitar string – whatever – and it’s how you get out of that situation that’s part of the challenge and growth process.

Brendan: Paul said to me, “I’m sick of seeing the top of your head”.

Helen and Dave: (Laughs).

Brendan: He said, “Stop looking down at your guitar all the time and trying so hard to get the next chord – just dive for it. If you make a mistake… you make a mistake”. My wife said to me, “You can either get up there and look really mechanical like you’re trying to work it out and you’ll probably still make a mistake. Or you can look like you’re having fun and people may not even notice your mistakes”. So the last few weeks I really tried to relax and have fun with it – hopefully it came across that way.

Helen: You looked pretty confident up there – it was great.

Brendan: All I could hear was my heart beating. (Everybody laughs).

Dave: Tell me about the material you played. What songs were in your set and who chose them?

Brendan: That guy in my band, Ronaldo, kind of became the leader and chose most of the songs. We did “Sorry” by The Easybeats (which I’d never heard – I didn’t even know who The Easybeats were). It turned out great and I played it mainly with power chords. We played “April Sun In Cuba” by Dragon – awesome song. “Stray Cat Strut”, which I wasn’t a big fan of in the beginning but I got a run in it which made it a bit more enjoyable. Um, then there was “Satisfaction”. Luckily I’d learn’t the riff on YouTube beforehand. I think someone else in the band was supposed to play it but when they said, “Okay – next song is ‘Satisfaction’”, I just launched into the riff and they were like, “Right – it’s yours”. So that was my moment of glory. (Laughs). And we did “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix which was good as well.

Helen onstageDave: Favourite?

Brendan: Oh “Satisfaction” for sure.

Dave: Helen?

Helen: I think my favourite was the Dire Straits song we worked on…

Dave: “Water Of Love”.

Helen: Yeah that’s it. And although I love Dire Straits, it wasn’t a song I was particularly familiar with but it’s got a really wonderful bass line – thanks for your help on that one Dave. And what was really great about this one was that because you and I had done the work on it before the band started rehearsing it, when they kicked off with it I could just cool-ly drop in which was such a good feeling. There’s nothing worse than standing there going, “Uh… which notes do I play?”. (To Brendan) So yeah I’m with you on that – I like to know what I’m doing. When I look now at the videos of the stuff we did, “Route 66” was the one that really bugged me and I don’t know why ‘cause it’s just a rocky 12-bar sort of thing. It’s not that hard but it just became a bit of a nemesis… so it was good to hear on the video that it sounded okay.

Dave: I thought it sounded good.

Helen: Yeah it came off alright in the end. That last little bit you helped me with made a huge difference – just that little run down to the “E”. We also did “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. I will never like “Folsom Prison Blues”. Most of our songs were chosen by our lead singer, Tim, because he could already sing them but I did put my foot down and say, “I really want to do “Black Magic Woman” by Santana” and I was backed up by the other musos on that one. He didn’t really want to do it at first but then he liked it when he got it together and that went pretty well I thought. In the other band we did a pretty eclectic mix – a bit of Queen, Fleetwood Mac, The Cure – that sort of thing. We started off with “Stand By Me”, which has a really cool bass line so I think that was my favourite in that band although I do like the bass line in “Go Your Own Way” as well. We had a good drummer so the rhythm section was good in that group. I must admit I pushed for a few songs in the second band that I already knew because I already had so much to do with the other band. Even so I probably had to learn 8 songs all up so it was pretty full-on for 4 weeks.

Brendan: I don’t know how you did it. There’s no way I could have done 2 bands.

Helen: I was losing the will to live a little (laughs) – especially when I heard Dave was going on holiday!

Brendan: Yeah when I heard you were going on holiday Dave, I lost the plot! I thought, “Are you serious?”. (Laughs all around). But seriously, one of the things I think helped make it all a bit more manageable was that I was given parts that were just right for where I was at. When they advertise Weekend Warriors they kind of say, “You just need to know one end of a guitar from the other”. Well I think you need to know a bit more than that but they sure are good at matching the parts to the level of the player. (To Helen) Like there was that guy in the Hawaiian shirt from one of the other bands – he was obviously a novice like me but Paul had literally given him one or two notes to play so he was just getting his timing right and putting them in the right place.

Helen: That’s where I find Paul quite a genius really ‘cause I mean in our band all three guitar players were beginners and playing the same strumming patterns as each other, and he was like, “Nuh – you can’t do that”. He’d tell one guy to play this, another to play that and so on and immediately… the whole thing just fit together wonderfully. He’s a fantastic arranger in that sense and for the players themselves, because they’ve just been given parts that are tailored to them, it’s no longer intimidating. But I’m with you Brendan – I think that with Weekend Warriors, if you know “G”, “C”, “D”, “E” and “A” you can pretty much play most of the songs.

Dave: Which brings me to my next question. Hypothetical situation… I’ve only been playing a few months. I can play a few chords, I’ve never played a solo in my life and I only have a beginner’s guitar. Can I be a part of Weekend Warriors?

Brendan onstageBrendan: Absolutely.

Helen: I’d say so – there were a few of those. Yep.

Brendan: You need to obviously say it – make it clear that that’s where you’re at. You know when I turned up I was scared as hell because of all these players. My guitar doesn’t exactly help me blend into the background and I was doing my best to hide but when Paul spots the green Gretsch he takes it off me, holds it in the air and says to everyone, “Now does this spell Rock and Roll or what?”. (Laughs all around). So that was my cover blown! After that he said, “I want you to all understand – you’re as good as you are and I don’t expect anything of you that you can’t deliver”.

Helen: That’s not true (laughs).

Brendan: Well I think he lays into you depending on what he thinks you’re capable of. Like he was really hard on our drummer, Drew. He really held him to a high standard – almost to the point where he was considering quitting. But Paul felt he was capable of more and he was right. After our gig, Drew came off and said to me, “That is the best thing I’ve ever done”. He was buzzing! Whereas with me he didn’t push as far because I’m a beginner and he knew I was already out of my comfort zone. So he’s really good at that – if you say you’re a beginner he’ll cater to you.

Dave: So do you have to audition and if so, what’s involved?

Helen: No it’s not really an audition. You register your interest in being a part of it. Then they send out a song for you to learn. This time around it was Tom Petty’s “Running Down A Dream”. So you learn your part and turn up on the jam day. On that day it’s almost like a random selection where they say, “Okay we need a guitar player, bass player, drummer”, etc. and they put people up on stage and get them to run the song. A bit of “sorting” goes on after that but often the people you first get up on stage with become your actual band. Put it this way… I’ve never seen anyone turned away.

Dave: Okay. So let’s say I’m accepted… I’m still scared of making mistakes, not being as good as everyone else and making a fool of myself.

Helen: Join the club.

Brendan: Exactly.

Helen's bandHelen: Everyone’s in the same boat. I mean sure – you do get people who are confident performers who turn up and they obviously stand out but I would say that 70 percent of people who sign up have either not done music for 30 or 40 years or have never done it and it’s on their bucket list. And everyone’s a little nervous on the night of the gig. I don’t care how many times you’ve done this – it’s always in the back of your mind that you could make a fool of yourself.

Brendan: And nobody judges anybody. What you’ve just described now in your question Dave – that was me to a T. I had to deal with that myself. But I was the only one bullying myself going, “Mate you’re not good enough”. Nobody else did. I had to go through that internal struggle myself and convince myself that I could do this – even though there were times I felt like ringing the guys and telling them I wasn’t going to be a part of this anymore. And because of it all, I’m a much more confident guitar player now.

Dave: What’s the best part about doing Weekend Warriors?

Helen: Um… I think meeting like-minded people. I’ve met some really nice people through doing this 3 times and I’ve formed some great friendships. But best of all – especially for me as a bass player – being able to play in a band situation with other people gives my playing a sense of purpose I suppose.

Brendan onstageBrendan: It’s not enough for me to sit at home now and play guitar on my own. I was happy doing that before but after this experience, that seems empty in a way now. So the best thing for me was experiencing something that I would never have otherwise had the chance to do. You know like most people who’ve seen live gigs, I’ve often thought that it would be a really great thing to do but in my mind it was so far fetched and I was telling myself I’d never get the chance to do anything like that. Well this opportunity has come along and I now know what it’s like and it’s pretty professional in terms of lights, P.A. etc. It’s as if you were in a touring band… it’s the next best thing. I now know what it feels like to get on stage and rock out.

Dave: With black fingernails.

Brendan: Right. (Laughs all around). Actually, funny story about the black fingernails… I said to my wife, Cindy, “Before you paint these, have you got nail polish remover?” to which she replied, “No problem”. So I had this appointment with a massive firm the next morning. Well I get up and she tells me she actually doesn’t have any nail polish remover after all! So I had to rock up to meet this client with black fingernails. (Laughs). I was going to try and hide them but I thought eventually someone would see them so I had to come clean and tell these solicitors all about why my fingernails were painted black. They thought it was really funny – it was a good ice-breaker.

Dave: What’s the hardest part of doing Weekend Warriors?

Helen: Well for me this time around it was having so many new songs to learn – and without you Dave. But in a way that was kind of its’ own discipline. I was thinking about it this morning actually and one of the good things that’s come out of our lessons is I’ve watched what you do and I had to try to use the same process to work on the songs myself while you were on holidays. It was a lot harder than I thought but I persevered and didn’t do too bad a job of putting some of the songs together so that was another little jump up in the learning curve. The other challenge was I think my husband was getting a little ticked-off with me being away 4 nights a week. (Laughs).

Brendan: My wife too.

Helen: Yeah so it’s good it’s only a 4-week thing.

Brendan: Cindy said, “Band life’s not for us”. I said, “Speak for yourself”. (Laughs all around). But she was really supportive and she said she’s really proud of me.

Dave: What (if anything) did you learn about yourself though doing the program?

Brendan: Pretty much that my limitations are often only in my mind. Like when I started I thought, “There’s no way I can do this”, and the hardest part was actually turning up to each practice and doing the work but when I started doing that and seeing the results, I realised it was nowhere near as hard as I’d told myself it was going to be.

Helen onstageHelen: Well not from this Weekend Warriors in particular but more from coming back to music in general after years of being away from it I’ve realised that whether I’m doing horse dressage, playing bass, knitting – whatever – the discipline I apply to all those things is a constant. I can’t give only half. The difference… well I actually chose dressage because it’s a solo thing and I didn’t have the pressure of letting a team down whereas playing in a band is very much a team sport and I’ve got to say… I really enjoy it. That whole sort of orchestral meshing of playing together and supporting each other – you have to do it. I mean you know Dave – I’ve only been playing bass for about a year (Ed: Helen played acoustic guitar previously) – and so relatively early on in my bass journey I’ve learn’t I love playing with the drummer and being in that supportive role that gives the rest of the band somewhere to launch from. I don’t want to be the frontman – I’ve just fallen in love with the bass.

Dave: Do you think you’ll keep in contact with the friends you made and played with?

Brendan: I think so. There’s talk of an open mic night in a month or so and a casual gig at a sports club somewhere for anyone that was involved in Weekend Warriors. So yes – I hope we’ll keep in touch.

Helen: Yeah well there’s some people I’ve done previous years with that I still play with occasionally and whenever I roll up to a new one, there’s always familiar faces to reconnect with so it’s a nice sociable thing in that respect.

Dave: How much does Weekend Warriors cost?

Brendan onstageHelen: It’s $300 to join and because they asked me to play in the second band (‘cause there’s never enough bass players) I didn’t have to pay twice.

Brendan: It’s 300 bucks well spent.

Dave: So would you do the program again?

Brendan: For sure.

Helen: Oh yeah and I like that it’s normally run twice a year.

Brendan: Paul told me he’s pushing for another one soon.

Dave: What would you say to anyone thinking about doing Weekend Warriors?

Brendan: Don’t think about it – just do it.

Helen: Great answer. Yeah give it a go.

You can learn more about Weekend Warriors here.