Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why my childhood sibling band, 'Keane and the Cheezits,' is still important to me: an ode to my younger siblings

The original 'Keane and the Cheezits' album

When I was a kid, one of the things my younger siblings, my sister Vale and brother Lane, and I did for fun, especially on car trips, was to bring a little tape recorder and a blank cassette tape and record ourselves doing silly things (we referred to them as "funny tapes") like pretending we were on a crazy cooking show (I was "Chef Cookie," Vale was "Chef Bread" and Lane "Chef Apple." My older brother did not participate in any of this, as he must have thought himself too cool and old by this point.)  At some point, one of our ideas was to create our own little band called "Keane and the Cheezits."  This must have been when I was in middle school, around the same time I had my first attempts at composing music.  We made up one or two songs and recorded them on the 'funny tapes' and we even had my mom use the camcorder to film a little music video of one of them once.  But, (perhaps fortunately), these documents are all lost, or at least buried somewhere within our parent's attic.

However, there is one piece of "Keane and the Cheezits" history that has survived: an entire hour-long album (the only one we made, although we always talked about doing another one).  Around the time I entered high school, we decided, probably because this was about the time I was really getting into rock from the 60's and 70's, to record this full album just for fun.  At this point, I was fairly accomplished musically, had played piano for about 6 years, guitar for a couple, and could do some stuff on a handful of other instruments, but Vale was only about 9 or 10 and just had some very basic piano skills, and Lane had no musical training whatsoever, so we didn't have a lot of skills or experience to work with.  (I would like to point out that my sister is now a very accomplished classical singer and a school music teacher, and my brother has played trumpet in his college jazz band and sung in high school a cappella groups.)  But looking back, I'm pretty amazed at what we actually created.

We followed a few key guidelines (although we didn't discuss them, they just kind of developed as we went along): we only ever did a single take for each song, most of the music and the words were improvised on the spot (I'd estimate about 80%), and most of the songs were about animals, with names like "Goat Cheeze," "I've Been to France on a Goat with No Name," "Fish Don't Stink," and "My Llama Ran Away."  I played guitar, piano, harmonica, organ (an old electric one that my parents bought at a yard sale and put in the basement,) and sang, Vale sang, played the melodica, a little bit of piano and organ, and a few notes on tenor saxophone, and Lane, who was just 7 or 8 at the time and had no musical training, sang (sometimes in his 'opera voice') and did what he could on a cornet, kazoo, but primarily the drums (really just pots and pans).  We had a lot of fun, which you can hear in the music itself, and, for us at least, it was fun to listen to.  I made a couple copies (cassette copies dubbed on a tape deck) and gave them to a small number of friends at school that I thought might enjoy it, and, very unexpectedly, it somehow made it around the school, nearly developing a strange cult following.  I remember at some point meeting another kid from a couple grades lower who said "Whoa, are you the guy from 'Keane and the Cheezits?!?!?"

Unlike my fellow band mates, I'm actually pretty proud of that little album we created (whereas they just roll their eyes in shame anytime I mention it to them, which is why you aren't getting any links to actually listen to the music.)  What prompted this blog post was that a couple weeks ago I realized that all I have is this original cassette tape that by some miracle hasn't been misplaced yet, and I should figure out how to digitize and get the whole thing onto my computer.  It was thinking about it again that made me realize what a cool thing we had actually done.  It was us as kids, as siblings, just creating and having so much fun doing it.  It wasn't like our parents saw our musical potential and suggested we make a band, or that we were just spending our free time watching TV or playing video games (both of which we did do our fair share of, believe me) but we were doing it because we wanted to and we enjoyed it.  I'm very thankful that we had this opportunity to do something creative as kids with no one judging us or trying to steer us in whatever direction.  (One of our other favorite, and creative, things to do as kids was to make our own '3D' movies on Microsoft's '3D Movie Maker.' I wonder if Lane still has those...)  There is a famous quote by Picasso: "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."  Kids create because they enjoy it, and they only cease to enjoy it when they are judged over and over again on what they create, no matter whether people are saying it is good or bad (although they will probably stop enjoying it soon if they are repeatedly told it is bad rather than good, but both ways usually meet the same end).  People should have lots of opportunities to create when they are young; it's a wonderful way to learn, experiment, and grow, free from judgment, and I'm glad I had those opportunities myself as a kid.

But even beyond that, I think some really cool things that almost magically happened in the music itself.  There are moments where Lane's cornet 'playing' somehow hits the right notes and fit in the harmony, where we somehow sing the same improvised lyrics at the same time, and where things somehow work out perfectly and it all fits together.  For example, in Lane's two 'ballads,' "I've Been to France on a Goat with No Name" and "My Llama Ran Away," where we let him 'sing lead' and take the lyrics where he wanted, even though we didn't know how long the songs would be or what Lane would sing, they both ended with the perfect musical and lyrical resolutions (In "My Llama" the llama returns home at the end, it's perfect!)

I think part of these special moments is due to luck, but I think most of it is due to us actually listening closely to each other and just being musical.  I'm not just talking about myself, but Vale, who had just some basic music education, and Lane who had none at all.  I'm not talking about singing in tune, with a nice voice, holding a steady beat, or things like that.  I'm talking about an innate musicality, hearing what the others are doing, knowing when to come in and add something to the texture, knowing when a big loud climax is coming or when it is time to release the tension, knowing when to start a new verse or knowing when the end of the song is near even though we hadn't planned it.  We weren't thinking about what others would think, we were just going and doing what we thought was good, taking risks and not being afraid to make mistakes.  These are the kind of skills so many musicians strive to cultivate in collaborative musicmaking, and my little siblings were doing it naturally with almost no musical training!  I'm really amazed by what my siblings and I did on that little cassette tape, no matter how silly and out of tune everything was, we were really making music, not caring what anyone else would thing, and having a ton of fun doing it.  I'm forever grateful that I had such rich creative experiences with my siblings when I was young, and that's why 'Keane and the Cheezits' is still so important to me.  

Plus, it still makes me laugh.
My llama ran away 
to the desert one last day 
But then I looked out to the desert 
and saw a tiny dot coming towards me 
It was the llama! 
It was the llama from that very fateful day.
-Lane, from "My Llama Ran Away" by Keane and the Cheezits

Thank you, Lane and Vale, for making this silly music with me (and I somehow feel we should have had Dad join the band too.)

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