What makes a band engaging? What makes their performance attractive and likeable? When someone says, “That band had great stage presence!” what does that actually mean? The way that I like to think about it has to do with tunnel vision. When a band plays, the objective in my mind is to have the crowd tunnel vision in on them. To make them forget and ignore everything else outside of what is happening in front of them. Basically: the better the performance, the tighter the tunnel.
When a band or performer is engaging it draws you in and catches every bit of your attention and you feel compelled to disengage with the rest of the world. There’s no urge to check your phone, to look around and see how other people are reacting, the only thing that matters in that moment is you and the performer.
But the follow-up question to the “what?” is the “how?”. How is a band engaging? How do they suck you in and grab hold of your attention? There are a variety of ways to do this and honestly, no one way is the best. Yet if you are in search of a great example, look no further than Being As An Ocean.
I had the very real pleasure of seeing this particular Californian five-piece earlier this month in support of Stick To Your Guns (who we’ll talk about in a little bit) at The Corner Hotel in Melbourne. This band is almost unparalleled when it comes to a live performance and their high level of crowd engagement. It’s one of the many reasons that they’ve been able to not only survive but thrive over the years and not remain a small-time band only existing through unquoted lyric edits on Tumblr. When you go and see Being As An Ocean live, you want to tell people about it afterwards. When someone asks you how the gig was, they perform in such a way that it is the first thing you want to bring up and so much so, in fact, you want to bring it up unprompted.
One of the ways they do this first and foremost is the fact there is barely a second of silence in their entire set. There is always some form of synth pad, backing track piece or some atmosphere part playing between songs, even as frontman Joel Quartuccio thanked the crowd. This helps to always keep your mind on what’s coming from the stage and never gives you the chance for your mind and eyes to slip away. It adds a real sense of cohesiveness to the whole set.
Yet what they do the most, or what Quartuccio does particularly, physically engages with you as well. Quartuccio throughout the whole set split his time in two places; the stage with his bandmates and the crowd with the fans. Within seconds of them opening their set with the stunningly beautiful ‘Ok’ he was on the barricade, screaming right in people’s faces and looking us directly in the eye(s). If he saw you singing, you can safely bet he was going to come over to you, look at you and pass you the mic to sing and scream the words to him and the rest of the gathered audience. He was on our level. He wasn’t some distant, mystical performer on a stage above us; he was one of us. We were singing with him, we were feeling these songs, with him. Much like he was part performer and part audience member, we are also a part of the performance. And how could we not be engaged with the show when we were also one with it?
One moment in particular that stood out was during ‘Thorns’ where Quartuccio literally joined the crowd, roaming around the audience screaming his lungs out as a pack of hungry fans followed him, climbing atop one another to join in the fun and chaos. It was so much goddamn fun to be on par with a performer you admire and love and it got the people huddling at the back somewhat involved too. Whether they laughed at the sheer madness of it or were shy as he hurled towards them, it was something that they will vividly remember when they leave the venue.
Now, this method of physically going down to the crowd works well when the crowd knows your music and the words lest it comes across as “over-doing” it. For example, the show’s brilliant local openers, Cast Down, were able to do this on certain songs where they could see the punters knew the words and the songs. Their vocalist, Jack McDonald, threw himself into the faces of the crowd with poise and confidence and when tied together with the fact they were the opening band and weren’t afraid to do this, it really catches one’s attention. Not to mention the fact their physical energy and the constant movement from some of their members was always drawing your eye back and forth across the stage. Similarly, Hindsight’s Jack Nelligan also used this physical connection and rabid energy to much the same effect in their set as well; something that Hindsight really excel at live.
But here’s where Quartuccio also differs. What makes him a true performer is his guts to get up close and person with people he can see aren’t singing or fully into it. There were people on the ends of the barrier who were just happily watching along to Being As An Ocean’s melodic and massive set that he would go up and practically serenade. It was a way of saying: “I see you, I recognize you and I’m performing for you just as much as everyone else.” It causes a shift in that person’s relationship with the performance from that moment forwards, it deepens their connection to the band and the music being played.
Now I’m not saying this is the one hard and fast way to do it. I mentioned just before that Cast Down and Hindsight were able to simply use their physical energy and passion for their music to engage people. If you study film (insert reader’s eye roll here), you would know that one of the best ways to draw the viewers eye is movement. If you make something move on screen then you can make the viewer’s eye follow it as it’s a break in the pattern. In this sense, the rest of Cast Down and Hindsight’s members also demonstrated this very thing as these bands moved and shifted their way through their emotional songs. So that’s another way to bring your audience in; through simple movement.
On another end but similar, one way to engage a crowd is to verbally connect with them. Talk to them and using inclusive language such as “we” and “us” but also single them out with second person language like “you”. Stick To Your Guns, namely their frontman Jesse Barnett, loves to talk. It’s how they engage and how they draw the crowd in. It’s about the set up for the songs, the music’s message and heart that they care about. Though, the thing with Stick To Your Guns and Barnett is they talk a little too much and also not that deeply. (I’m going to say right off the bat, that STYG more often than a lot of other artists, put their money right where their mouth is. They have done work to give funding to children’s homes and woman’s shelters and pit bull rescues amongst many other things. So I am in no way here to talk about that side of things, merely the performance aspects of it all).
Barnett said a lot of things that night in Melbourne. A lot of it was to preface the tracks they were about to play and a lot of it was inspirational talking points. But here’s the issue: when all this talking was spread out over their set, pretty much intercepting almost every song break, time can run thin and as a result, the message can become diluted. As such, this causes the attention to sort of drift and wane as discussing the hardcore scene hierarchy for the third fucking time got old and stale with him repeating himself.
Veganism got the briefest of mentions with a classic, “this one goes out to my fellow vegans” (paraphrase). Even though it’s a huge part of Barnett’s life and his revolutionary attitude, it fell short to a lot of skin-deep attempts at motivational speaking that seemed like all it was trying to do was get the crowd hyped up when it wasn’t needed. The speech he gave three songs ago was still driving the punters up and getting them going and the two he had delivered since were only slowing things down. Stick To Your Guns‘ music is as energetic as you can probably well get from a hardcore band and the band themselves are physical to the point where stopping nearly every song to talk about changing the world was jarringly slamming the breaks on and breaking that crowd engagement.
Remember how I said the wall to wall ambience and atmosphere of Being As An Ocean helped to glue the whole set together and keep the spark alive? Well, that’s something that Stick To Your Guns needs to look at, not in the sense of playing some soft ambient pad in the background but more in the sense of how the output of energy from the stage is ebbing and flowing between songs. Because they are a great live band, they play really well and they’ve got some awesome songs that just go off live (‘Against Them All’ as one such killer example). It just seems like they have too much to say and not enough time to do so without realizing that their songs can do the talking. After all, they were the headliner for this show so they already have the crowd to begin with; all they have to do is keep their hearts and minds there.
PC: Liam Davidson, check out a couple more shots of his from the night below: