The Big Break
Members of Avril Lavigne's band return to their alma mater.
When Steve Fekete graduated from Berklee in 1996, he hoped he would soon land what he considered the dream job: touring the world playing the guitar. Eleven years later, he had plenty of gigs in Boston, but was still waiting and hoping for a career breakthrough.
Things changed quickly last year. Fekete and his bassist wife Jenn, also a Berklee graduate, moved to Los Angeles, figuring that proximity might lead to opportunity. Within six months Fekete was invited to audition as lead guitarist with chart-topping artist Avril Lavigne.
It looked like the dream just might become reality after all.
"I prepared like crazy for it," Fekete said during a clinic he and his two alumni bandmates gave at Berklee's Cafe 939 on March 31. "I learned more than the four songs they asked me to prepare. And I knew the previous guitar player didn't sing, but I learned all the harmony parts."
There was no question that Fekete, who had been a busy session player in Boston, was talented enough to get the gig. But what eventually landed him the job may have had less to do with the way he played his instrument than with the way he presented himself.
"Attitude is huge. It certainly helped me because I'm not the greatest guitar player in the world," Fekete said.
While Lavigne's musical director and rhythm guitarist Jim McGorman '95 clearly thought highly of Fekete's guitar playing—he was the one who invited him to try out for Lavigne—he pointed out that an audition goes beyond what notes one plays.
"Being prepared is the number one thing. I'm appalled at how unprepared some guys are," said McGorman, an old classmate of Fekete's who has been with Lavigne for nearly two years.
McGorman has also toured or recorded with Michelle Branch, Cher, Aaron Neville, Poison, and others. He has apparently witnessed so many blown auditions that when he talks about the subject, his voice gets clipped and sharp.
"It actually offends me when people walk in unprepared, saying things like, 'Can I borrow a cable?' It's unreal to me," said McGorman. "And if you're not prepared, don't make excuses. That just makes it worse.
More than 150 students packed Cafe 939 for the afternoon clinic. They squeezed around tables and stood along the walls, listening to stories about being on a big gig. Their questions had little to do with Avril Lavigne's music and everything to do with what it's like when someone like her is your boss.
Steve Ferlazzo, a 1990 alumnus and Lavigne's keyboardist, was the first to answer to a question about how a musician should dress for an audition.
"I've auditioned for Nine Inch Nails, Gwen Stefani, Dweezil Zappa. Know who you're playing for. Do the research. Clothing is part of it," Ferlazzo said.
Adaptability is also a highly valued quality in musicians seeking gigs with well-known artists, they said. Fekete, Ferlazzo, and McGorman all talked about dealing with different personality types, playing in a variety of ensembles and styles, and being able to switch quickly from one to another.
They also addressed the importance of singing, right after performing the Police's "Message in a Bottle" as a trio, with McGorman singing lead and Ferlazzo and Fekete handling background vocals.
"Most jobs I have gotten have been because I have a voice, not because of my playing," said McGorman. "I don't think I'm a strong singer but I'm good enough. I just listened to the radio and sang constantly."
Fekete credited the Berklee curriculum in preparing him for the demands of being a vocalist.
"Ear training is one of your number one tools; it was one of the biggest for me," Fekete said. "I don't have perfect pitch, but my relative pitch has gotten pretty good. If you have that, it can be the difference between getting a gig or not."
Once a musician becomes a member of a popular touring group, there are many perks, McGorman said. Holding his Gibson acoustic guitar in the air, he said, "Free gear is like the best thing ever," adding that seeing the world while someone else pays is a nice benefit, too.
Still, there are mixed blessings associated with a long tour. "When you first start touring, it's the greatest thing in the world,"McGorman said. "It's an alternative reality. You don't think about all the things a person thinks about in daily life. . . . But you're giving them 100 percent of your life. All the hours. We played last night, got up at 6:15 [for a morning taping of the Live with Regis and Kelly television show], rode the bus for four hours, and now we're here. Last year we played 23 countries in 35 days. We were flying every single day.
"I wouldn't trade my life for anything, but there are some things that are emotionally and physically draining," McGorman said.
For Fekete, less than a month into the tour, the grind wasn't presenting as much of an adjustment as was one small piece of audio equipment.
"With the in-ear monitor, I feel like I'm enclosed," he said. "I almost feel like I'm in a recording studio. I see all these people and I can see that they're cheering and everything, but I can't hear them."
One student in the crowd asked the three musicians how they manage to keep the material fresh when they play the same songs in the same order, night after night.
"I have the perfect answer," McGorman said. "It comes from [keyboardist] Paul Mirkovich. I worked with him in Cher's band. He said to me, 'There's a kid out there who bought his tickets the day they went on sale. Every time I'm playing, I think about these kids who are so excited.' I think about that a lot with Avril, because all of her fans are passionate. How can you not deliver?"
McGorman's desire to deliver has helped him acquire what most consider a musician's ultimate prize: his own record deal. After 11 years of touring, recording, and working as musical director for various artists, he's about to see things from a different perspective.
That view of things is not something Fekete is thinking about much just yet. After all, it was only nine months ago that he was still working full-time for Berklee's Office of Admissions.
"I'm less than a month into this," Fekete said at the March clinic. "It's still just kind of a thrill to work my [parts] out."
With an upbeat attitude like that, it makes you wonder if Fekete's next break might even be bigger.
Rob Hochschild is senior editor in Berklee's Office of Communications.