In the documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” the band Metallica hires a therapist to keep them from falling apart. Their bass player has just quit the band, and their frontman enters rehab to try to get a grip on his alcoholism. The therapist (or “performance-enhancing coach”) encourages the band members to look inside themselves and see how their past experiences may be affecting their current situation, but also talk to one another about their feelings. Eventually, they reach an understanding, and they are able to finish the album they are working on (and ten years later, they’re still together).
I’m not a Metallica fan, but I thought it was an interesting movie, and something you don’t see every day (heavy metal band revealing inner vulnerabilities). I It got me thinking about band dynamics and how I would work with them. I questioned some of the interventions their therapist (wearing bad sweater in photo above) used, and how I might do things differently. Since then, I have sometimes counseled musicians about anxiety, depression, finding meaning, and how to work with their own band dynamics. I’ve found there is some truth to the music industry cliche that being in a four-person band is like being in a four way marriage!
Sometimes band mediation is a good way to resolve band differences, especially around practical things like money and contracts. At other times, and for bands who are willing to go deeper, band therapy can be a great way to illuminate and resolve underlying conflicts with your musical partners. If you feel like your band is having chronic underlying problems and maybe talking about it would help, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Peter Sharpe is the mandolin player in a bluegrass/Americana band called The Railsplitters. He is not one of my clients, but has been a friend for fourteen years. Our lives have paralleled each other for a lot of this time, as we both went to Naropa University at the same time, did our internship together, and even worked for some of the same employers. Currently we both have found ourselves in working bands with our significant others. I recently caught up with him to continue our ongoing conversation about life, work and band dynamics, and then sent him some specific questions about his own experiences:
Neville: What are some things you’ve noticed about band dynamics?
Peter: Band dynamics are crazy in that they can look like family dynamics at times, but also involve friendships, co-worker dynamics, and relationship dynamics. Those roles are constantly shifting which can be confusing to navigate. You are essentially working, traveling, and living together at times in situations that can be both wonderful and super stressful, sometimes simultaneously. It’s pretty insane really. We have experienced some blow-ups or personal tensions on the road and have managed to navigate situations by meeting together to air things out.
Neville: Having band meetings where you can bring up anything and everything seems essential for the health of a band. What’s it like for you to be in a band with your significant other?
Peter: It has been wonderful overall playing with my girlfriend, Lauren. We anticipated more problems with being on the road together, needing a lot of time for personal space, etc., but we have found that we really like having each other there during road time. For me, I think it would be harder having to leave Lauren behind when touring and I like being able to share the experiences we have together on the road. With that said, we do try to take some time apart when we are back in town to recharge.
Neville: How do you keep your sanity when you’re touring in a van with the band?
Peter: I’m not sure I do! We all take a fair amount of space while we are on the road to read, sleep, etc. It helps when we get to festivals or conventions where there are other bands and friends to spend time with. I notice that in those situations, we all tend to go our own way for a while which gives us a chance to recharge and enjoy coming back together.
Neville: As your band has grown in popularity, you’ve gone from playing house concerts to larger venues like the Fox Theater. Do you get nervous before shows?
I still get nervous before playing shows, particularly bigger venues and festivals. I don’t consider myself a natural performer, but I have such a love for music, that I have committed to working with my stage fright. It is great when I finish a set and feel like I played in a relaxed way and gave my best performance. Of course, I recognize that it is a process, and that I will continue to work on the issue for as long as I get up on a stage in front of people. I really work on not getting overly negative with myself if I have what feels like a bad performance. Over time, it helps to see that there is a progression towards feeling more comfortable on stage the more I do it.
Neville: Any other significant challenges you’ve had to overcome in the past few years with the band, internal or external?
Peter: It has been a challenge to move from being a therapist who plays music as a hobby, to being a full-time traveling musician. I agonized over the decision for a long while before I finally decided that life was short and that I might not have the chance again. I continue to question whether I can make enough money or deal with the lack of security that most musicians have to confront. However, at least for now, I’m having really meaningful and new experiences and I really want to keep at it to see where things might lead.
Neville: I’m sure a lot of musicians can relate to that! Why do you do what you do?
Peter: It’s hard to answer that one without sounding cliche! I really do love the music and it feels wonderful when the music and the band come together and click. It’s really joyous when everything works and you realize that you are creating something that is really good and original. Playing music full time has also been a dream that I’ve toyed with for years. I never thought I would be doing it in my forties, but what the hell!
Neville: I get that–that has been my experience too–when everything comes together, those are some of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced.
The Railsplitters will be playing at Baurs Listening Lounge in Denver this weekend, Saturday the 19th. They will be at Avogadros Number in Fort Collins on April 2nd. After those gigs, they travel to the UK to play the Shetland Folk festival along with a month-long tour of Scotland and England. We will be overseas for about a month! Please visit www.therailsplitters.com for more info about the band.