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How I Met Daniel Drake and Became a Dancakes Artist

**This is a post from my own blog, originally posted on December 14, 2015, about 6 months after doing pancake art for the first time**

It was a hot day in Austin, which isn’t saying much. When isn’t it hot in Austin? It would probably be more interesting to start this story with, “It was an inconceivably cold day in Austin,” But alas, truth, no matter how insignificant rues the day. I was in Austin for a short term project for the telecommunications company that overruns that city, much like any other. I had already started booking the tour for “The Uncredibles”, the ill-fated “band” I created before I decided to be more truthful to who I am. During this time I was desperately trying to put a band together for the tour I had already start ed booking, and at the same time trying to put together a kick-off show in my hometown of St. Louis to get the whole thing started.

Thank god for my booking agent, Langen (Girl at the Rock Shows), she really helped pull the whole thing together and take some of weight off. Delegation is an important thing that I’ve only recently started to pick up on.

I’m a bit of a music snob, I’m not afraid to admit that. So, generally, when I look for bands to book for shows I want to make sure they’re actually good, at least in my eyes. Which may actually work against me in some sense, maybe my band won’t be the best one up there, I can only hope my competitive spirit will push my performance, a rising tide lifts all boats as they say. One such band that perked my ears was called “The Psychedelic Phsychonauts” a bit of a mouthful, but we had been on the same bill a couple of months prior, the show got cancelled, but it certainly served the purpose of introducing me to this great band and to my now booking agent. I listened to a few of their demos, and immediately realized that they were a great band, with a good sound, with lots of snark, irony, and brutal honesty all wrapped together. I found their contact info and sent off the pre-requisite email asking if they wanted to play a show at The Heavy Anchor towards the end of June.

I got a reply back from this guy named Daniel Drake, his reply was something along the lines of, “We’d love to play, but unfortunately our drummer won’t be in town that day, and we don’t have anyone to fill in.”

Well, not one to back down from a challenge that was never presented to me I replied, “I’m a drummer, kind of. I’m already going to be at the venue, I listened to your demos, I could fill in.”

This was a bit forward of me I admit, and my general expectation was that I would get a polite, “Thanks, but no thanks,” as most would do in that situation. But to my utter surprise, I got a reply back not long after.

“Sounds great, when do you think we could get together and rehearse?”

Uh oh.

This is what happens when you throw something out there with one expectation, not really considering the other. I was an adequate drummer at the time, but the drummer from this band was really flippin’ good. I listened to their demos again, drumming along on my steering wheel just to make sure I wasn’t in completely over my head. Drums have that great benefit, I can practice a lot of things without having anything resembling a drum kit in front of me. Maybe a bit over confident in my steering wheel drumming abilities, I replied back.

“I’m in Austin right now for work, I’ll be back in a month. I’ll spend my off time here making sure I’ve got everything down so I can jump right into rehearsals ready to go. If you’ve got any other demos or covers, send them my way.”

Dan replied back, “I think that will work, here’s a list of possible covers and some live stuff we’ve done. We’ll be in touch.”

I spent the next month working 6-7 days a week, 10-12 hours a day, listening to these songs over and over again between locations, drumming along on the steering wheel, throwing my foot into the mix whenever the cruise control was set. All the while I’ve got booking requests and questions flooding my email about the upcoming tour. I’m still trying to put my touring band together, which is hard when you can’t offer any sort of monetary reward for giving up your life for 2 weeks for a musical project you have no personal investment in. To say that this whole thing was a “by the seat of my pants” operation would be an understatement to say the least. Yet somehow I managed to pull the whole thing together and minus a few hiccups, was a beautiful experience that created some life long bonds that didn’t exist before. But that’s a story for another day.

Fast forward to my final day in Austin, trying to extract a small portion of the money I was actually owed from a prime contractor known for not paying his sub-contractors. This is not as uncommon as one would think, at least in a particular segment of the telecom industry, especially for companies that use coaxial cable as their last mile form of distribution. After finally receiving a small sum of cash for my gas home and a check for later disbursement, I made the 12 hour trek back to St. Louis, having left with far less money than I had started with. I had to be in town by 9am for municipal court, not for anything actually bad mind you, but one section of grass in my yard was too tall for their liking and they ticketed me, as they do all over North St. Louis County, if you live in or around the Ferguson area you understand my plight.

I made it, just in time. Did the court thing, went home and started to unpack. That afternoon was rehearsal with my band, I hadn’t actually slept at this point, but I had things to do. In between run throughs of the sets I would sit down behind the drums and work on the songs for the other band, it was non-stop and a little insane. As much as being able to practice without a kit helps, you really don’t know until you’ve actually sat down at the kit itself. It was a bit rough, but I felt like I could pull it all together in the 2 weeks before the tour.

A couple of days later was the first actual rehearsal with “The Psychedelic Phsychonauts”, I made my way to Dan’s apartment, up the fire escape and through the window. I could have went through the front, but this was the preferred entry point for anyone coming over. Everyone was sitting around, just chit chatting, I met Moses (the guitarist), Hank (part-time bassist) and David.. Their drummer. I didn’t actually play much, if any, during the first part of this rehearsal, I simply watched and listened. I noticed immediately that David is an absolute beast of a drummer, he has the kind of limb independence that most drummers only dream of. He was seamlessly switching out his left and right hand for whatever duty he pleased, it was effortless and intimidating. I knew after watching them play that I had my work cut out for me. We talked on the fire escape a bit, having all the introductory small talk that musicians have when they meet someone else of the same persuasion. I liked all of them immensely, despite the fact that they were all my juniors by at least half a dozen years, Dan being a little closer, but not much. I’m not sure whether to chalk up our ability to quickly become friends to their maturity or my lack of it, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

During all of this conversation I asked the obvious question that you ask most people when you first meet, “So Dan, what do you do for a living?”

His reply both confused and excited me, “I work at a diner and do professional pancake art.”

“Huh? Pancake art? Please explain.”

He showed me some pictures and then directed me towards a clip from The Today show, and I watched him draw Al Roker’s face, presumably in front of millions of people on live television.

“Dude, I think my brain just exploded. That’s flippin’ amazing.” Was the only reply that seemed appropriate. I wasn’t aware of such a thing, let alone it being a thing you could do for money. And to top off the whole experience, he was amazing at it. Which is all relative of course, I’ve watched his art transform over the last couple of years into something that was unimaginable at the time. I mince no words when I say that he is, by far, the best pancake artist in the world.

Introductions out of the way, and David on his way home I finally got my turn to sit behind the kit. Electronic kits are a strange beast, while certainly being the most flexible kit in terms of sound, they are not the easiest to play on. I equate it to trying to play guitar with gloves on, not super thick gloves mind you, thin enough that it’s still possible, but not without effort and adjustment.

I immediately go into “Gargoyle“, probably the song I had worked on the most, simply because of all the songs I knew at the time it was the most difficult.

It was rough to say the least, my lack of skill, mixed with the handicap of the electronic kit immediately filled me with doubt and anxiety. Could I do this? Was I kidding myself? Playing drums on my own album is one thing, you’ve only got to get it right once in the studio. Jumping into a band with very little prep is an entirely different beast. I powered through the song, making it to the end. I’m not sure what they thought, I’m sure it wasn’t great, but everyone in that band is truly forgiving and I’m eternally grateful for that.

“I just need some more time behind and actual kit with these songs. Don’t worry, I’ll have them on lock before the show.” I said this with all the confidence I could project while inside I threw myself into a panic, having no actual clue if I was going to be able to pull this off.

We played a few more songs, luckily they didn’t require quite the same amount of skill and I could fake my way through them. By the time I left I was feeling a bit better, but still terribly panicked, I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time with headphones on bashing these songs out in my basement.

We had a few more rehearsals, and even a last minute show that David couldn’t make. I flailed my way through these the best I could, it was getting better, maybe this wouldn’t be a total disaster. It’s worth noting, that up until this point I had never played drums in a band, while I had nearly a decade of drumming under my belt I simply used it for my own recordings and the occasional jam session. Being the backbone of a band was not an experience I was accustomed to, or particularly ready for, and it was a scary thing for me. But like a lot of things in life, fear is a wall, and if you manage to make it through that wall to the other side there’s usually a reward waiting for you. I chose to push through, not because I found it easy, I pushed through because it was hard and I didn’t want to let these guys, or myself, down.

Of course during all of this time I’m scrambling to integrate new people into my own band and finishing up last minute bookings, sending press kits to radio, etc. Did I already mention that it was pure madness?

We’ve finally reached the day of the show, my nerves were a wreck. Show tonight, tomorrow morning we pack up and head out for 2 weeks on the road.

Two bands played before us, they were all great. Totally different vibes, which I love. I personally dislike shows where every band is of the same vain, variety is the spice of life. Dan was doing pancake art for everyone while the other bands were playing, using a bent butter knife as a spatula as he had forgotten his. Somehow he made it work, which was nearly as amazing as the pancake art itself.

Daniel Drake playing with Psych Squared at the Heavy Anchor in St. Louis, MOBenjamin Daniel playing with Psych Squared at the Heavy Anchor in St. Louis, MOPsychedelic Phsychonauts were first, I set up my kit, Dan on bass and vocals and Moses on guitar, how very The Police of us. As if to be more Copeland like I strapped on my golf/drumming gloves as I have a penchant for dropping sticks. Dan was still in his apron, covered with splatters of pancake batter, it felt very hodge podge, and very rock n’ roll.

We ripped into Gargoyle, in which the drums take the lead, the song that I had struggled with the most, and one that highlights David’s ability as a drummer. I think that night was probably the first time I actually nailed it, no large mistakes, solid tempos, solid backbeat. It might have been the best I played it, even during subsequent shows. The rest of the set went similarly, even the drum solo section of “Come Together”, our only cover of the night. The only exception was “Different” which I tried to end prematurely, but quickly picked up, I’m not sure if anyone noticed, but it certainly stuck out to me.

The set probably went better than my own bands, which was filled with its own set of problems as my usual guitar player had broken his clavicle in a pretty gnarly scooter accident and it forced in our touring guitarist that night, he was ready, but I think he still wanted another day to absorb the material and go over notes, even though he was well rehearsed. And I was forced to use a backup amp as I was having issues with my usual gear. It still went well, minus our power getting cut out mid song by Dan’s griddle, but we didn’t really hit our stride until a few shows later.

Cut to two weeks later, the tour is over, and I’m back home, ready to go back to real life and actual work. I was still keeping touch with the guys in Psychedelic Phsychonauts, who had now changed their name to Phsych Squared, I don’t make new friends very often, so this was a nice change of pace for me. They were working on an album, which they funded through a successful Kickstarter, everything seemed to be going well. I learned the rest of their set and filled in for about half a dozen shows when David broke his ankle, I became much more comfortable with the material and, in my opinion, pushed my drumming into a place where it would have never gotten without being forced to try and keep up with someone of David’s ability.

Then I was off to New England for the winter, telecom work in the winter can be difficult, fingers don’t work quite as well in the extreme cold, and most of what you’re working with is not particularly bulky, and sometimes small enough to be measured in units of nano-meters. My telecom career has afforded me a freedom that most working people never experience, and I’m forever grateful for that, but holy crap, I hate working in the cold.

At that point I figured it was time to start planning the next tour, I was intending on releasing some new music in the Spring and wanted to follow it up with some touring. I planned on doing one completely solo tour, but struck upon the idea of taking Psych Squared on the road. They had an album that was about to come out and it seemed like an opportune time to do so. And being realistic, I know Dan is far more recognizable, and pancake art is much more novel than another indie band playing some dive in Whatever Town, USA, we could both use his internet fame to try and project our respective music out there. My contribution would be the booking and general itinerary, figuring out places to stay and even getting Dan a well-paying pancake gig outside of the touring gigs. His band would serve as my backing band, which made it easy to fit us all in a van.

I approached Dan with the idea, and his initial response was, “I don’t think we’re ready to tour yet, and I don’t think we will be ready anytime soon. Sorry man.”

Fair enough, it was a bummer for me, but I knew the possibility of it happening was low, it was a farcical idea. But a good one, so I thought.

Two weeks went by, I was still planning the tours regardless when I got a text from Dan.

“Hey, you said you were going to be touring regardless, so are those dates are still happening?”

I replied, “Yup, Langen is working on them right now, it’ll probably be a bit before they’re all locked in. Why?”

“We want to do it, we want to be on the tour.”

I’m pretty sure I jumped in the air and did the classic “fist to the sky” that you see in all the 80’s movies. I’m surprised I didn’t freeze

We started to put everything together, I got music and tablature to his band to learn my songs, everything was going smoothly. We had nearly 5 months to make this happen. But as the dates grew closer and closer it was apparent that things weren’t going right, David had to drop out because he was starting an internship at the same time of the tour, then Moses couldn’t go. It because apparent that we had no band for the tour, and only a month before it was supposed to happen. What the hell were we going to do?

I informed Langen what was going on, I was ready to pull the plug on the whole thing.

“Can you still use backing tracks to play your songs? Could you two do it solo?”

“I suppose, but I’m not sure if I want to do another solo tour.” The last one hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped and I wasn’t eager to do it again.

“You should do it, we’re already this close, it’ll work out.”

“Let me talk to Dan, see what he thinks. He’s got a hip hop thing, maybe he could do that”

Before I could even talk to Dan I got a text.

“Hey man, it blows that everyone is pulling out, but just so you know I’m still your pancake guy. I just cleared my schedule, we’re good.”

I just want to highlight how much Dan didn’t have to do the tour at this point. His band was out, my EP wasn’t finished, it would just be him and I for 2 weeks in a Prius filled with pancake batter and guitars. I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but I can say that I’m eternally grateful that he’s such a stand up guy and stuck with it, even though he had no reason or expectation to.

I goaded him into mixing down some backing tracks from his unfinished mix tape so he could perform a Hip Hop set. Even though in Psych Squared he was strictly a singer, he’s also quite the capable MC, and he certainly proved it on the road.

We spent two weeks on the road, met so many interesting and weird people, and experienced the kind of madness you can only have on the road. We slept in cars, on couches, floors and the occasional hotel. We made a Dr. Who video that got used by BBC America and he gave me a crash course in pancake art, it was the kind of whirlwind that either bonds people together or pushes them apart. Dancakes has been growing exponentially and the opportunity isn’t lost on me. The handful of gigs that I’ve filled on have been by far the best days at “work” I’ve ever had and without a doubt this is the weirdest job I’ve ever had. I hope I get to do it for a long, long time.

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