Mile High Makeout: Falling in the Forest

Recently, I sat at the Old Curtis Street Bar and watched La Boom – a band I’d never seen before – rip through a tight, exciting set of Brit-inflected bouncers. The band members’ families and girlfriends clustered close to the stage while the numerous members of the headlining act, Birdy, sat a few tables away. Other than that, the bar was pretty empty.

La Boom is not new to the scene. They’ve opened for some great acts, played some of the town’s top small venues and are enjoying a certain degree of success. But their unique and spirited combination of backpack hip-hop, spacey indie pop and Arctic Monkeys-esque snot rock has yet to find its groove. While they’re combining some diverse influences, they haven’t yet found a way to do it without imitating their heroes. After the group’s impressive set, singer/guitarist Leon told me, “We’ve been going through a lot of stuff as a band.” Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that the band is barely legal.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering why more people weren’t there. Like any typical Saturday night in Denver, there was stiff competition for live local music – Achille Lauro, Mothership, 29th Street Disciples, Reno Divorce, Frontside Five and the Rooster Brothers were all on my calendar that night – but if La Boom didn’t draw a crowd, Birdy certainly should have.

Birdy includes local badass engineer and incessant gum-chomper Colin Bricker and vocalist Dav Hoof, whose voice is a dead ringer for Arcwelder’s Bill Graber – who was, himself, a dead ringer for Husker Dü-era Bob Mould. The ensemble writes hooky, heavy songs that come off great on their EP, but which the outfit fails to sell effectively live, even with six musicians on stage. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of room for so many guys to move around much on Old Curtis’s compact stage, but I still would have liked to have seen more energy.

In Birdy’s defense, it’s hard to project a lot of energy when no one’s paying attention. If a tree falls in the forest and all that. Conventional wisdom says that you should play your heart out every time, whether you’re playing to a packed club or to one bored bartender. But when you know that no one there is going to remember your performance and that the club is going to hand you just enough cash to buy a suitcase of Keystone Light at the end of the night, where do you find the motivation to give it your best?

That depends, I suppose, on where you motivation comes from in the first place. Psychologists and behaviorists break down motivation into two main categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivators are external incentives to engage in an activity – things like money, fame, record deals, positive reviews and getting laid. Intrinsic motivators, on the other hand, are the internal, altruistic incentives that give us internal, soul-feeding satisfaction when we do something.

Most musicians start out being intrinsically motivated. Something about writing, playing or performing music makes their hearts feel more whole and quiets the little demons in their brains. At some point, however, many of us become motivated by the seductive external promises of wealth, attention and sex. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, there probably wouldn’t be any Rolling Stones or Beatles if it wasn’t for the powerfully motivating factor of libido.

The problem comes when the external factors trump the internal, and especially when all of our well-intended efforts don’t earn us the external rewards we were shooting for. Psychologists call the result “learned helplessness” – the conditioned sense that our actions have little or no effect on the outcome. La Boom played their hearts out that night, but that didn’t magically fill the room with adoring fans.

After a while, this can even start to undermine the internal satisfaction we once enjoyed. Artists become so overwhelmed by the debilitating feeling of futility that they throw in the towel. And who can blame them? It makes me genuinely sad to contemplate how many brilliant artists we’ll never know because they were beaten down too soon by frustrated and unfilled extrinsic motivations.

It makes me even sadder to think that truly talented bands like Birdy and La Boom might give up the ghost because not enough people are paying attention. As I said in the very first installment of this little series, in my admittedly arrogant opinion, Birdy’s and La Boom’s job is to play music they believe in as if their lives depended on it – to be the loudest tree in the forest, even when no one is there to hear it. This means shrugging off the reviews, the empty clubs and the case of Keystone Light, and clinging desperately to the intrinsic motivation that got them started to begin with.

Even if it isn’t getting them laid yet. -- Eryc Eyl

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Sean Cronin