Editorial – Stagecraft 101: Why Performance Matters

A little article I wrote on why your rock/metal band puts on crappy shows and some advice for fixing the problem.

Vandala Magazine

Amon-AmarthPhoto Credit Lana Nimmons

Article By Jeff Black
From Junes Vandala Magazine – READ MORE REVIEWS HERE

If your idea of playing a show involves tying back your hair, slipping into your favorite Cannibal Corpse tee and staring at your toes and fretboard for forty-five minutes, you’re doing it wrong. Said it, I meant it, now I’m here to represent it.

Every time I go to a local show, I find myself confronted by these types of bands. Lazy, uninspired non-performers who look like they’d rather be at home munching on Doritos and watching reruns of Friends than onstage, and it shows in their crowd attendance and overall response. If your show has me reaching into my pocket for my iPhone (or for a gun to put in my mouth) then we got a problem. No wonder turnouts for local gigs are at an all-time low and bands can’t make…

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How weird news teaches us great storytelling

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

The Red Pen of Doom

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah…

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Tales from the Lesson Studio: Part One

My final student of the day, a lad of eight years abruptly stopped his rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” He wrinkled his nose.
“Did you fart?” he asked.
“No,” I lied.
“I’m pretty sure you did,” he said, his expression grave, “Unless you just smell like dog crap all the time.”

Can’t get enough of these kids.

New Fantasy Anthology: Swords of Steel

A friend of mine in Chicago named Dave Ritzlin is putting together a paperback anthology series of Sword & Sorcery stories in the tradition of olde. We’re talking Howard, Smith, Wagner, Lovecraft, Leiber, Anderson, Haggard, etc etc. It’s due out early 2015.

Here’s the gimmick: These are stories written by Heavy Metal musicians.

 Here’s the lineup thus far. I believe DMR Book is still accepting submissions.

-Varg Vikernes (Burzum)

-E.C. Hellwell (Hellwell, Manilla Road)

-Howie Bentley (Cauldron Born, Briton Rites)

-Byron Roberts (Bal-Sagoth)

-Scott Waldrop (Twisted Tower Dire, Walpyrgus)

-Jean-Pierre Abboud (Funeral Circle, Borrowed Time)
-Jeff Black (Gatekeeper) (Me, woo-hoo!)
-Logon Saton (Demon Bitch)
-Jason Tarpey (Eternal Champion, Graven Rite)

None of these are household names by any stretch, though fans of the underground (specifically in the Epic Metal style) might recognize a handful of these groups. Howie Bentley has written a few articles on Sword & Sorcery for the Cimmerian, if I recall. I’m really hoping that this goes well and the idea takes off. Hopefully in subsequent volumes we will get to see some bigger bands contributing.

Check out DMR Books on Faceplant:


And a recent interview:


“You have HOW many cassettes?”

So today, Sunday, my only day off, I spent my time organizing my cassette collection. Yeah, tapes. With, like, music on them. I organized them alphabetically and then priced them out based on condition and rarity. ‘Cause that’s how I roll. I think I have close to 300 right now. One for every Spartan at Thermopylae, baby.

This is some of them

These are some of them

I love tapes. Just love ’em to goddamn death. I know they are flawed; I’m all too familiar with the ear-raking screams, the background hiss and purr, the terror of prying them apart to put the pads or the tape itself back into place (about as stressful as open-heart surgery). My Dio Last in Line cassette modulates in and out of key every 11 seconds due to the back-breaking strain I’ve put it through since I purchased it from some backwater record shop in Red Deer, AB.

Despite all this, I’ve found myself drawn to tapes, ever since I was a little guy. I’m now in my mid-20’s. I like looking at them. There’s something occult about them. I treat tapes the same way I’d treat the emerald tablets of Atlantean gods placed under my care. The shape of them, the size. The holes. I want to do terrible things to cassette holes. When I hunt through flea markets for new tape acquisitions, I feel like I’m Indiana Jones or El Borak, stalking through temples older than the seas in search of antediluvian artifacts. When I find a cassette from my want list, I get a chill when I slide it into my tape deck for the first time.

The other thing I love about tapes is the sheer DIY, underground quality of them. When I go see a band play live and they put their album or demo out on tape format, I buy it even if I hated their music. There’s this vibrant, raw energy that surrounds these dinky little chunks of plastic. I think this stems from the fact that recording music on tape represented a sort of paradigm shift in the music business, where all of a sudden, you didn’t have to be independently wealthy (or injured in a car accident) in order to afford to record your album. With the advent of tapes came the advent of home recording and the do-it-yourself mentality running in the veins of the punk and heavy metal movements. Vinyl records were the goal, the big leagues, the ivory towers, and tapes represented the stepping stones to get there.

I also love tapes because of the material you tend to find on them. Many bands released their full-length albums on tape format, but eldritch demos and obscure live performances are my bread and butter. I love listening to a recording and feeling as though the band is right there in front of me. The sound from the amplifiers is blowing my hair back and I’m surrounded by other crazy rockers in club where there’s sweat practically dripping from the walls. The drums sound like they were recorded in the bat cave and the singer’s mic punctuates the riffs with keens of feedback.

Ugh. It just rocks my world.

So anyways, that’s what I did with my Sunday Funday. I’m a goddamned nerd.

Reality TV is Bullshit


But you knew that already right?

Last weekend I attended a cast party for a musical production I was involved in. As the evening crept into the dark of night and the beer/wine/liquor diminished, the power went out. What do you do when the power goes out in a group of Theater Folk? Hot tub! Once we were settled in, we went swapped stories. Upon her turn, one of the actresses (who I shall refer to as “Shannon”) delivered a harrowing tale of being a guest on the show Dr. Phil.

Shannon had struggled with weight issues and dealt with bullying and had serious problems with self-esteem. She had just conquered Bulimia when she applied to the show, mainly because she’d heard that guests would be given access to professional help for their struggles.

To her amazement, she was contacted by the producers of the show and invited to appear in an episode. It would be an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood for her and her family. After a serious discussion with her parents, Shannon decided to go through with it. She was living in a smaller town at the time, so this trip took place in secret, because anyone who has lived in a small town knows how quickly information can spread and become infected.

Shannon and her family hopped on a plane and flew into L.A., where they were picked up in a sexy and sleek limo and taken to a high-end hotel where they were doted upon hand/foot. In a short while, they were carted to the set of Dr. Phil via limo where the first day of shooting would begin. Backstage, Shannon encountered the rest of the folks who would be on the show: One overweight girl, a dangerously anorexic young woman, plus a beautiful, curvalicious lady who, thanks to abusive boyfriends, was totally convinced that she was obese.

Shannon started out with an interview conducted by Dr. Phil’s son, Jaw McGraw, a seriously hunkified slab of Hollywood stardom. He was on the show because he had just released his new book (The Ultimate Weight Solution for Teens, perhaps) She was naturally a little nervous, being a scared 15-year-old sitting next to a human Ken Doll. One of the other producers, an intelligent younger lady sat down with her to wrap up the interview. Shannon rather liked this other lady: She was down-to-earth and actually had some great insight.

During the interview, Shannon was asked “Do you hate your life?”

The answer: “No, I don’t.”

The day’s shooting carried on with Shannon having to do a few scene where some of the crew members pretend to bully her which will go on her intro clip that gets played before Dr. Phil’s guests appear on screen (if you’ve seen an episode of Operah or Doc Phil then you’ll know what I’m talking about) and that was that. Shannon and her family spent the rest of the day touring around Hollywood and seeing the sights. It was a jolt of high-voltage culture shock but so far, so good, right?

When Shannon + family arrived for the second day of shooting with Phil himself, things got weird.

When she arrived on set, one of the producers gave her a look. “Is that what you’re wearing?” she asked. She took her backstage and gave her a new wardrobe, putting her into clothes that Shannon would have never worn in her life. Shannon was called to the stage for her interview with the Doc himself, along with Jay. Before Phil kicked things off, they played the intro clip that they’d shot with Shannon the night before.

Everything was wrong.

Shannon stared, dumbfounded. Her interviews the previous day had been torn apart and stitched back together together to form a horrific sob story of an overweight girl who had no friends, no hope, and who hated herself and everything about her life. Shannon was shocked.

Dr. Phil and Jaw started their interview. Shannon felt so trampled that she could barely answer the questions. She described it as “I just said ‘yes’ to whatever they asked, I felt like I’d stepped outside of my own body. Like I was just floating away.”

The interview eventually ended and Shannon sat back down in the front row of the audience as the rest of the guests went onstage for their portions of the show.

Dr. Phil had some nutritional advice for the teens and young adults. Dr. Phil opened to floor to questions of comments from the audience. Shannon’s father, a high-school basketball coach who works with teens on a regular basis had some disagreements with Phil’s advice and the two of them had a respectful back-and-forth about it.

At the end of the show, when Shannon had been hoping to be put in touch with a weight-control specialist or counseling of some kind, Phil said “Our guests today will receive a copy of Jay’s book!”

At that point, Shannon knew: She was being used. She was a tool to sell a product.

And that was that. The shooting ended, and the guests were rushed from the set like stray animals. As Shannon left the building, head spinning, she passed Jaw McGraw. Their eyes met, and he mouthed the words “I’m sorry.”

They were piled into the limo and set immediately to the airport. Shannon exploded into a fit a of tears and her father dialed up the show and had an A+ fit of rage against the people who had embarrassed his daughter.

When the episode aired, Shannon appeared on it for less than two minutes, likely because her father threatened to sue. The Dr. Phil website had a forum where viewers could discuss the episode, and when Shannon logged on and saw people talking about her and getting all these wrong impressions, Shannon made a few posts to try and set the record straight. The topic was deleted.

Shannon described it as “The worst experience of her life.”

Being a performer, I’ve had a few friends try out for competitions such as Canada’s Got Talent, Canadian Idol etc etc. Every single one of them found it fishy.

Several talented and trained singer friends of mine auditioned for Idol, and were told to leave when the producers realized that they were dealing with people who had actual voice training. The reason is because the vocals coaches of Idol are going to tell you what to sing, regardless of your range or what is good for your voice.

Two average-looking people with incredible voices would be turned away in favor of a hot, terrible-sounding singer (who would be told by the producers “you’re amazing! You’re Idol material!”) because the viewers at home will get a laugh out of someone going ape-shit on national television after being told the truth by the celebrity judges.

A wonderful singer that I know auditioned for Canada’s Got Talent. Before she could see the celebrity judges, the producers had outfitted her with a whole new gothy wardrobe and gave her a dark, tragic backstory to match.

Everyone loves a sob-story. Everyone loves an underdog.

The point: Reality TV ain’t reality. These are not good people. They are not trying to help struggling teens work through their issues. They are not trying to develop long-lasting talent.

These are sharks looking to make a quick buck.

These are people who will stand on the heads of the unfortunate and the confused (and occasionally the deluded or truly talented) in order to catch ratings, fluttering like elusive fireflies overhead.

Hollywood is a dream land. And I don’t mean that in a fun, “dreams come true” way.

It’s fake. It has that dark veneer of reality, but it’s about as legitimate as the WWE.

Don’t go to dream land to deal with your problems. Talk to the people you care about. Go see a real professional. Take your music career to the next level by joining a band and hitting the touring trenches and recording albums and getting your hands dirty.

It’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for ya.”

– George Carlin