You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”. But only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha…”
– Vizzini, the Princess Bride
Back before Apple’s software co-opted the term, a Garage Band was a group of kids who decided to start a band, and the only place they could go to rehearse was someone’s garage. The acoustics of the space didn’t help – everything was echo-ey, and hearing yourself was difficult. Since this was everyone’s first time in a band, typically everyone would play all the time at full volume trying to show their friends how awesome they sounded, creating a veritable wall of sound devoid of any real dynamics.
Of course we would never do that in church. 😉
Yet there seems to be a negative pressure sucking people into doing precisely this. If they are on stage, they feel like they should be doing something, specifically making sound. Very few people feel comfortable not playing during a tune. There may even be a sense for a paid musician that they are getting paid by the note, so the flowerier they play, or the more notes they can fit in, the better.
But what if it became your job not to play?
Part of the job of the producer is to push back on the natural disorganization (decrease the entropy) that is naturally occurring. One way I’ve pushed back on this, is to make it each musician’s job to not play one section of each song. That could be the second verse, the bridge, the chorus after the bridge, the first verse – something!
When this happens, dynamics begin to emerge. People begin to think about how the way in which they are playing (or not playing) really serves the song instead of what serves their rock star image. This is the perspective of the producer.
Of course, as the producer you are free to dictate, “Hey guitar, why don’t you drop out the second verse and let it be a piano thing with bass and drums, and then come back in on the chorus?” Not only will this provide a wonderful relief to the naturally occurring wall of sound, the guitar will sound a-w-e-s-o-m-e when it comes back in.
This “subtracting not adding” is an idea that reoccurs in music time and again. We see it with the sound engineer applying parametric EQ, “cut, don’t boost”. We see it in the idea of a crescendo, as the secret to a crescendo really is to start quietly. The longer I live the more I’ve come to trust that less really is more.