Family Band

Phoenicia, NY. 2006 – 2010 or so.


Lukas Lerner – drums
Edith Lerner – vocals, guitar, glockenspeil
Nancy Howell – vocals, guitar
Mark Lerner – bass, guitar, vocals

How Not to Raise a Pedal Steel Player (or two)

When my twins, Edith and Lukas, were young (in fact even when they were still in utero) my wife, Nancy, and I used to joke about teaching them both to play pedal steel guitar. First off, it’d be a great act: twin pedal steel players, facing each other on stage! Second of all, they’d always have a job. (I’m not sure if this is really true anymore, but in 1994, there weren’t nearly enough pedal steel players in New York City.)

Once they grew up a bit and started listening to music, though, they seemed pretty genuinely creeped out by country music, so our plan was set aside. But the notion of how to pass on a love of music, and possibly musicanship, to our kids still loomed large. We encouraged them to take up any instrument they were drawn to, but we were very wary of pushing them too hard to practice. There followed a series of false starts. In 1st grade, Lukas took up the cello for a couple of tense weeks; Edith took violin and stuck with it for two years or so, somewhat begrudgingly. Then (5th grade or so) they both wanted guitars. Again, Lukas dropped it pretty quickly. Again, Edith stuck with it for a few years.

Edith with her violin, 2002.

Edith with her violin, 2002

In the summer of 2005, my wife and I moved the family from New York City to Phoenicia, NY, a small town in the Catskill Mountains. It was a stressful move for all of us, but especially for my son; when he asked for a drumset for his 11th birthday in August, we were so riddled with guilt about the move I think we would have gotten him a rhinoceros if he’d asked. But we were a bit gunshy: the cello, the violin… So we agreed to get him a snare drum and start him on lessons and we’d see about a drumset later.

It quickly became apparent that he’d found his instrument, and we got him a full set a few months later.

Lukas With His First Drum Set, May 2006

Lukas with his first drumset, May 2006

Edith was still slugging away at the guitar, though really she preferred to sing. (Exactly like her mother, a reluctant and infrequent guitarist.)

“Let’s Do Family Band”

It seemed obvious enough that the whole family should all try to play together. Since I’m a bassist and Nancy plays guitar, we had a full band. None of us had really made a lot of good friends yet in our new surroundings and we often found ourselves with not much to do. So every so often someone would say, “Let’s do family band,” and we’d try to play songs together.

It really does sound charming, doesn’t it? Well it was and it wasn’t. It was very hard to agree on what to play. Most things were beyond some (or all) of our abilities. The kids would push each other’s buttons and get in fights. But we did manage to learn a few songs that everyone agreed on: “Summertime Blues,” “I Fought the Law,” “Police on My Back,” “I’m a Believer,” “Hawaii 5-0.”

We actually played a couple songs at a friend’s 50th birthday party. Aside from that, the only time we played in front of people was on Father’s Day weekend, 2006. My friends Tom Adelman and Ben Shykind came to visit with their families, and my friend Mark Donato came over with his family from nearby West Shokan. In this video they’re all crammed onto a couch (along with our dog, Maddie, and Tom’s dog, Ella) to watch us play “Summertime Blues.” (Ben is behind the camera.)

My kids are 11 here; Lukas had been playing drums for less than a year. Edith had about 2 years of guitar under her belt.

Writing and Recording

Lukas and I would often fool around in the music room, usually with me on guitar, and I started trying to write things that we could play together. Stuff that was fast enough to be fun, and had room for drum fills, but was still easy enough for both of us (I’m not much of a guitarist). Lukas and Edith were both fans of an Australian band called the Living End, who were sort of a mashup of Green Day and the Stray Cats. So Lukas and I came up with a Living End-y instrumental (really a pretty blatant “Stray Cat Strut” ripoff), which we would take great pleasure in trying to play as fast as humanly possible. Sometimes we called it “Tardy Pass.” In October 2006, we recorded it on a little digital portastudio I had.

(I should mention that the recordings in this episode of Every Band I've Ever Been In contain a lot of mistakes. To be fair to both of my kids, who—justifiably—pride themselves on some real musical talent, I should point out that they were pre-teens and new at their instruments. I'm not sure what my excuse is.)

Lukas got a kick out of being recorded, and I decided that this might be a way out of the what-to-play dilemma for our family band. I would just write songs that were easy enough to play.

Our dog, Maddie, loves to be in the room when people play music. She never seems to bothered by the noise. So (around the same time as "Tardy Pass") I wrote a song about her, called "Rock Dog." After a rough first attempt at recording it, I asked our friend Robert Burke Warren (aka Uncle Rock) to come over and play guitar on it. I sang, backed up by Edith, Nancy, and Robert. This version was recorded in January 2008.

Then I wanted to write a song for Edith to sing, so I wrote a song called "I Don't Drive." This was recorded in November 2006. (The kids were 12.)
Usually when we'd get the whole family together, it wouldn't be to record, but to play our covers, or we'd try to learn new ones. That was hard, because the kids were starting to like some more complicated stuff (Cake, Fountains of Wayne, Death Cab for Cutie, Green Day).

But, particularly with Lukas, I kept writing and recording stuff. I had an instrumental that had been kicking around for a while, called "T in China." Lukas and I recorded it in February 2007. Lukas added a coffee can to his drumset. I played melodicas and guitars and bass.

In November 2007, I returned to the wildly successful theme of pets with "Pusscat." Lukas on drums, me on the rest. A small, silly part of me thinks this is the best song I've ever written. Or that anyone has ever written. With "Rock Dog" a close second.

By this point, Lukas was really pretty darn good on the drums. But he really didn't know any other kids yet who were quite ready to play with him. I kept writing and we kept recording. It was really fun, and I was happy for a chance to write and to play some guitar. This is "Oh, No," recorded January 2008. There is some very sloppy guitar at the end.

We were both really loving surf music around this time. In that vein, I wrote "Ooh, Scary" and we recorded it in March 2008.

In 9th grade, Edith was persuaded to join the school band on glockenspiel, which she had never played before. So I roped her into the recording of a sort of complex thing called "Don Quixote Versus" that she and Lukas and I recorded in November 2008. (The glockenspiel departed her life after one semester.) This was a blatant attempt to sound like a really thrilling band we'd seen called King City.

My kids were now teenagers. Family band was happening less and less frequently. The kids had more friends, wildly divergent tastes in music, and people their own age to play with. (They even had a band together for a while, Lukas backing up Edith and a bunch of her friends with the intriguing name Tell Him I'm Ugly.) As high school went on, Edith started singing regularly with a trio called The Shandettes, and Lukas had a group called The Dubs, among other projects. (He also subbed in Uncle Rock's band with me, as noted elsewhere on this blog.) (Edith also abandoned the guitar for the ukulele.)

In April 2010, when Lukas was 15, we recorded one more song, another surfy thing in a middle-eastern scale, which I called "Doha" (my friend Ben was living there at the time).

The picture I've painted here is that we started out family band as a way to find stuff that was easy enough for our kids to play, and in just a few short years they were musicians in their own right. But if I'm being honest, it was also a matter of Nancy and me trying to find something to do with our kids as they changed from little children who were delighted to hang out with their parents to teenagers who—like teenagers everywhere—would rather be with just about anyone else. Music gave us a bridge across those years. Edith and Lukas are both juniors in college as I write this. I'm not sure when we'll next manage to reconvene the family band, but I'm glad we did it.

3 Comments on “Family Band”

  1. Rock Dog! God I love that song, that dog, those kids and THIS POST. An honor to be included and to have watched as those kids became killer musicians.

  2. Ana says:

    That’s really sweet, I wish my family had made more of an effort to play music together when my sis and I were little. My dad was a pedal steel player and I always wanted to learn but for some reason he pushed piano on me, and after several years of rebellion it stuck.

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