It's no secret around here that I am fond of music. I'm also a total geek. Imagine my delight when Open Beta came on the local music scene. Geeks with an amazing sound! I find them to be a quirky trio. Comprised of Paul Schmidt (guitar and vocals), Erin Lewis (violin) and Brian Abernethy (bodhran and vocals), Open Beta pulls from Irish roots, folk styles, and geek rock a la Jonathan Coulton. While Paul and Brian riff off of one another comedically, Erin often shakes her head woefully at their antics. She's a Wendy with a pair of Lost Boys. But when she puts bow to strings, holy shit, the woman is a kinetic firestorm. The way she plays with her whole body--sometimes even breaking into an Irish jig!--ignites audiences with Lewis's contagious joy in her work. After more than a year playing together at coffee shops and events around the Valley, Open Beta is putting out their debut album, the fan-funded Proof of Concept. I sat down with them so that you can get a better glimpse of Open Beta.
Pajamazon: So tell me about Open Beta, guys. Paul: Here's a stor- nah. We're creepy and- no, that's not it. Once upon a ti- that's closer...
Erin: On the surface we’re a band that does “Nerd-Folk/rock”. Open Beta is what happens when three longtime friends with a love for music, gaming, and geekdom blend it all together.
Brian: We like to sing about Star Wars and Firefly and zombies, stuff like that.
What instrument do you play? How long have you been playing? How did you come to play your instrument? Paul: I play guitar and sing lead or backing vocals mostly, but I also play bodhran on stage, and piano at home. I've been playing and singing since high school (playing keyboard in a Duran Duran cover band comes to mind). My Gran first taught me piano when I was about three, and I went to more formal training until I was twelve, at which time I wanted to learn something more than just theory and classical. I picked up guitar here and there, only to set it aside for awhile. Then at 25, I picked it up again and threw myself into it, and it clicked.
Erin: I’ve been playing the fiddle for...um…25 years? I started when a lot of other musicians start, back in grade school, and that same year I joined a group called “strolling strings”. We played the Orange Blossom Special, so I’ve literally been fiddling since day one. Round about sophomore year in high school I went on a field trip to this crazy place called the Renaissance Festival and heard another fiddler out there. I was completely hooked. I auditioned the next season, made it, and played there for the next decade or so. It was there I started going from just playing at the fiddler to really performing with it, finding where the music lives and breathes and letting it run wild.
Brian: I do both lead and backing vocals, (not usually at the same time) and I play the bodhran, a frame drum most commonly found in Irish music. I've been singing since I was a kid, and I learned the bodhran in my twenties. I was so hungry to get myself into a band, back then, and I realized that there wasn't much opportunity for just a vocalist. The bodhran seemed simple enough that I could learn it quickly and make myself more marketable. Turns out, it's a remarkably complex instrument; you don't expect to get a full octave of notes out of a drum. I picked up the basics from Paul, and practiced and honed those skills at Irish seisiuns in and around the Valley of the Sun. I've developed my style over the years to the point where I'm comfortable describing myself as "slightly above marginally competent".
Is there another instrument that you'd like to play? Will we hear you bring that to Open Beta sometime? Erin: *Laughs* I actually do play standing and guitar bass, English horn, a little piano, and some viola and cello. I’d love to get some bass lines in the sound on the band. I can hear them there, I just don’t have enough arms to do two instruments at once.
Brian: I'd love to learn to play bass guitar, if I could only find the time. Someday, perhaps, you'll see it on stage. I'm also getting into creating music electronically, as of late.
Paul: I'm teaching myself mandolin and octave mandolin. I don't have a pickup installed in it just yet, but one day...
Do you have a day job? How do you balance band and "real" life? Paul: Oh, yeah; my day job is part database admin, part "data scientist". That means I make ways to find and harvest meaningful data to predict trends, and then make ways to store that data such that it's easily retrievable.
Erin: You know the song “Code Monkey”? Yeah, that’s kinda my day job. I’m in IT, and oddly enough I really like it. It pays the bills, gives me a chance to take the kids to cool things. I’m a geeky mom of four geeky kids ranging from 16 to 7, and have the crazy family life that goes along with it.
Paul: She’s an awesome Mom, too, and while that can make some rehearsals interesting- “Mom(ma)! Where’s my fiddle/costume/backpack/book/snack/etc?" -it’s also something I know she draws from, in that one day the music will pay off so it’s the only “job” we do.
Erin: Integrating two families into one means a lot work for both me and Paul. If it wasn’t for my bandmates, I’m not sure what would have happened.
Brian: If by "day job" you mean "gainful employment" then no, not as such. I'm currently a full-time student at Glendale Community College, where I'm enrolled in their Commercial Music program. I also sink a lot of time into the band itself, seeking bookings, managing social media, planning out our next steps. Balancing that, and school, and family...it's a challenge. Most of my hobbies have fallen by the wayside, and there are people that I absolutely adore for whom there is never as much time as I'd like. Everyone's really supportive and understanding, but it's a strain sometimes.
Paul: He really drives the band to go further. Not that we don’t want to on our own, but he’s got the most hunger for it, and that’s good, because it reminds us to keep reaching and pushing. Someday we'll be in the position where the music replaces the "job", and that will be living the dream.
Is this your first band? Erin: Oh no. I’ve played with a lot of different bands, from Alannah, to ClareVoyants, to Sheanachie, the McMorrows, Trotters Wake, The Muses…I was second string fiddler for just about everyone for many years. I loved playing with all of them, but being in your own band, where you get input into what you play and why? That’s worth more than anything I can think of.
Brian: Nope. I've played in a couple of Irish bands previously, One-Eyed Fiona, and The Hooligans. That was a ways back, though, 15 years I think? Great experience, played with some amazingly talented people.
Paul: Nope. You may have even heard of one or two before this one.
Why Open Beta? What about this band tickles your ivories? Brian: Why am I playing with Open Beta? I ask myself this one all the time. Simplest answer is this: Love. I love my bandmates, even when they frustrate me. (To be fair, I can frustrate pretty easily). I love the music we play. I love our fans, the community that's forming around us. I love the possibilities that we're opening up, both for new music and for growth. Love is what keeps us from falling out of the sky. Love, and a bit of magic here and there. Not magic in the wand-waving, robe-wearing, "Expecto Paycheckum!" sort of way. But the magic of a good song, well-played. The magic of being in the middle of a performance, right in the middle of a song we've played a hundred times, and suddenly wishing that the fiddle would do *this*, or that Paul would play the next chord like *that*...and with not a word spoken or a glance exchanged, those things happen, and it's a wonder, and it's GOOD, and I couldn't begin to tell you how the heck that just happened. Moments like that. That kind of magic.
Erin: They hear you when your brain goes, “Can we run this this way?” And do it, without even needing words. This band, seriously, is my family. Not the kind that you are born into, but the kind that you chose because they see you. Not the front you keep up for society, for work, for the blood family that wouldn’t get it. The kind of family that can tell just when you walk in that you need that extra moment, or a hug. Or even just an extra coffee. And that extends from the band to the fans, many of whom my kids have also adopted as family. That, my friends, is humbling and exhilarating at the same time.
So it's not just that it's a band, but that it's THIS band. These people?
Paul: Brian’s this big brother who’s kept me safe and sane on more than one occasion.
Erin:Brian’s a lot of encouragement in a package he tries REALLY hard at being gruff in. He’s the minutiae man of the group, making sure our “I’s” are dotted and our “T’s” crossed when it comes to the business, and is the ballast if you will, reminding us that flying is good, but we need to run the checklist first.
Paul: Makes me worry about him overdoing sometimes, but that intensity pays off when we start playing off of each other, building each piece, each interaction, and really making each gig much more than just a show; it becomes an experience.
Erin: And seriously, there’s no one outside of Paul that can keep up with me on a drum. *grins*
Brian: No easy feat. She is The Unstoppable Elfling. Erin is a delight to play with. I love her enthusiasm, her desire to charge full-speed ahead into whatever's next. There are times, when we're trying something new, and I watch her working her way through a new piece of music, and nail it, and then look up with eyes wide and a tiny smile, as if to ask "Did I get it? Did I do the thing?" and it's like somebody just gave Dobby a sock. Then there are moments where she just cuts all of the brake lines, and her strings start to smoke, and the cute little elf I've known for years is gone, and Titania herself is in her place, and fire and fury and passion and life all come howling out of that fiddle, so hang on to your hats. Erin genuinely believes that anything is possible, that we're capable of anything. She dreams for us, and she does it well.
Paul: There’s mischief there; she’ll get an idea of something to do with the fiddle that just snaps our heads around, and all we can do is keep up, or ham up from our end (see the photo of Brian balancing a bodhran on my head) just to give the appearance of keeping up.
Brian: This guy has no room to talk. He's got this infectious laugh and this devilish smile, and I don't think I've ever told him that I've learned more about music and the art of performing from him than perhaps anyone else ever. I wouldn't be making music if it weren't for him.
Paul: Brian's the big brother who's kept me safe and sane. On more than one occasion.
Brian: Paul is the guy I turn to, without hesitation, when I'm getting lost or maxed-out. I can turn to Paul and say "I need you to handle this," and then forget about it. When we're making decisions for the band, where to play, what to try, how to grow, it's Paul who acts as our voice of reason. He looks out for all of us. (This whole project was Paul's idea, really. So blame him.)
Erin: Paul's kinda the balance in the band, where I get ran out too far ahead, and Brian gets buried in everything else, he finds the middle ground and gets us back on track.
So it sounds like you're collaborative. Paul: Hell yes.
Erin: With these two, definitely! Music isn’t something that should be experienced alone, really. Not from the audience’s side, or the musician’s. There’s an energy that flows between bandmates, between the band and the audience, and among the audience itself. Without that, creating new things, wanting to create new things wouldn’t be possible.
Paul: There’s been many a moment where one of us will start goofing around on their instrument, or make some really bad nerdy pun or cliche, and one or both of the others will have that look you get when the lightbulb flicks full on, and then it’s a frenzy of writing or “hey, can you play this?”, and the next thing we know, we have a piece ready for show.
Brian: I let them think it's collaborative. Actually, it's a benevolent despotism. Don't tell the elf.
What's the creative process like for you? Paul: Personally, for me it’s a lot of second guessing myself right now. I’ve got probably about a half-dozen pieces from years past that are a few minutes from being finished, but that need to dig out and actually get comfortable with finishing them or touching them up with more recent insights, and then putting them out there.
Erin: Until working with Paul and Brian, I couldn’t get a single bloody note down to paper. I always lost it somewhere in the aether between paper and pencil. I can’t stop writing now! When something new hits, be it a change in a riff in a song we’re already doing, or a new fiddle tune that demands attention, or writing a filk, when the creative muse hits me it’s like a freight train, and you can ask the guys, I can’t focus on a damned thing until I get it written down. With writing and arranging songs IN the bands, a lot of it is the three of us finishing each other’s sentences, an idea hitting more than one of us at the same time. Sometimes it’s just a key change, or a modulation, or a total rewrite, we do that together.
Brian: First, I undergo a ritual purification by submerging myself in a vat of boysenberry yogurt...
NEXT! So a lot of your growth and creativity seems pretty organic. Like it happens in the moment. What's rehearsal like for you guys? Erin: Slightly organized chaos.
Brian: Have you ever tried to herd cats? It's kind of like that, without the purring.
Paul: More often than not, I’m the cat that needs to be herded.
Brian: There's usually some talk of business, bookings and payments and merchandising and the like. There's discussion of whatever music we're currently doing, what's gone stale, what's not working well, what is REALLY resonating with us and with the audience.
Brian: Lately, there's been talk about what I'm picking up in school. Eventually, someone remembers that we really should practice some music.
Paul: Erin writes fiddly bits on the spot, and I find different ways to attack songs. Then we put it all together, rearrange, rehearse, miss cues, miss giving cues, and then we nail it.
Erin: A break for caffeine and calories followed by another burst of music, sometimes with a scattered, feverish scribble of a new tune or some lyrics that popped into someone’s head.
Paul: Maybe we even remember to write down what key we’re playing it in.
Erin: It's insane, and I love it.
Turning to the future...What do you hope comes of your time with Open Beta? Wave the magic wand, shake the snow globe of destiny and tell me where the band is in 5 years if you had your druthers. Paul: The dream? They say if you find a job doing something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. That, right there.
Erin: Day jobs are a thing of the past, and Paul and I only do IT-related stuff for or own enjoyment or to help out a friend. We’re regularly booked at DragonCon, NYComicCon, etc.
Brian: Well, Paul likes the security of the regular paycheck, so he's still coding, but on his own time and working from home/the road. Because we'll be spending perhaps 150 days a year on the road, touring and making our music. We're working on our latest album, "Dork Side Of The Moon".
Erin: Weeks are spent with family, writing new songs...
Paul: ...gardening, videogaming...
Erin: Living rather than survivng.
Brian: We'd be hitting conventions, playing gigs in game stores, selling our music, planning out the next thing. Staying connected to our fans, keeping in touch with them, taking them (figuratively) on this journey with us. We'd be celebrating being booked on Jonathan Coulton's "JoCo Crazy Cruise".
Erin: Our Patreon, gigs and album sales are supporting all of our lives, and in return we’re crazy close to our fanbase.
Brian: And Glee has just infringed on our copyright for one of our songs.
Erin: This is the music-geek dream.
Brian: Proof Of Concept will have a very limited release on November 28th. $15 gets listeners our EP, photos, and more all on a nifty custom-made flash drive with a free Open Beta keychain. We're having our release party that night at SoZo Coffeehouse, from 7:30-9:30PM. The album and other merch will be available there. We'd love to see you there!
If people can't make it to SoZo, is there a way they can pick it up? Paul: Right this second, it's a physical release only. With the proceeds from sales, we'll be looking into the possibilities of digital distribution, including licensing costs for our cover tunes. We'll make announcement as soon as that's available. Follow us on Twitter or Facebook to make sure you catch it.
Other than this weekend, where can we see you? Erin: If you check our Bookings page on our website, you can find out where we're playing. We also announce gigs through our Facebook page and Twitter feed. At the moment we play a free gig every Wednesday at Cup o' Karma in Mesa. We'd love to see you there! If you can't make it to the shop, we broadcast our shows live on Periscope.
Guys, it was an absolute pleasure sitting down with you and learning more about what makes Open Beta tick. Dear readers, make with the clicky, if you please and follow them. Watch their shows on Periscope if you can't make it down, and consider buying Proof of Concept.
And if you're in the states, have a safe and happy holiday.
*All photos in this post are courtesy of Open Beta and Melissa Wold McCollum.