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Oct 2018 Feature: Whitt Vicena, from a musical child to an island rock star!

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November 8, 2018 by kidmoe11

whitt

How did you get started in music?

I come from a musical family, my dad was a bass player. When I was born, and for 28 years prior, he was employed as a bass player/performer/musician, and my mom was a sound engineer and had her own sound company. They met in San Diego because (as my mom puts it), some jerk of a bass player was trying to tell her how to do monitors. And then here I am!

They didn’t stay together for too long, but I was always around either one of them & their record collections. My dad was always off to gigs or rehearsals. He was in a Bay Area band called the Fundamentals. They were one of the go-to wedding bands in the area. He was in that band for 20 years when I was growing up. I would go to the gigs all time! I was always around and I would sit on the side of the stage.

I would imagine that your parents were eager to get you into music! What was your first instrument?

They didn’t really pressure me into music. The school band teacher asked me to play trumpet, so I did that for about a year, but it didn’t really stick. When I was about 11, I got interest in drums – like any 6th grade boy that likes to bang on things – so I got a kit, but no lessons. I was just figuring out beats.

Did you already have pretty well defined musical tastes by the time you were starting to teach yourself drums?

Totally! By 6th grade, I was already into the Meters and BB King, big time. I was getting heavily into the 60s stuff like Jimi Hendrix and Cream. And when I say “heavily into”, I don’t mean just their hits. I was submerging myself in records, listening to everything they put out! At 9 or 10 I was really into the Rolling Stones, so I was listening to “Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out” on repeat. That’s all I did!

I remember in 3rd grade I was devastated because I brought my walkman to school, which you weren’t supposed to do. I had my whole CD collection in it. I left it somewhere when I went to the bathroom, and it was gone when I came back! I was too scared to check the office to see if had been turned in, since I wasn’t supposed to have it. I was traumatized because I lost this rare B.B. King CD that I really loved. Of course now I can listen to it on Spotify, but looking back, that’s kind of a rare occurrence for a kid that young!

So you were that big into listening to music, but you still didn’t play an instrument at that time?

I didn’t play trumpet until the next year, and I kind of picked up drums, but I never had any lessons, so I didn’t have the drive to get any better because I really didn’t have any direction. I would just play along to AC/DC and Al Green, because it was easy.

What changed? Obviously at some point, you found the inspiration and motivation.

At some point in high school, my sister got a guitar. I was in late middle school and thought that was pretty cool! She showed me what she was learning – it was a D chord and a G chord – so I learned it. After about 2 weeks, by looking at her chord chart, I could play about 2 or 3 more chords than she could. So then I started looking up songs that I knew on the internet. She gave it up, and I just kept working at it.

The biggest thing though was that I had friends in the 8th grade were also learning guitar, and would show me what they were doing. One of my friends was really into Zeppelin, and I saw him play Black Dog. I was like, “I have to learn that!” and that was my quest.

I wasn’t very good at all, I could just play a pentatonic scale, but I was hanging out with a girl that was a little better than me at guitar and bass. She started going to these Blues Jams (with her mom) up in Santa Rosa, so I would come along. I watched all these guys play, and thought “that’s what I want to do!”. I moved in with my dad in 10th grade and he was still playing bass with a band playing blues, tunes by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, real simple stuff. It was the perfect time to get me up – as long as I can play 3 notes, I’ll be good!

What was it like sitting in with the band?

I was pretty bad. I remember the first time I played, my vision was blurry, I was sweating, and my leg was shaking! It was most horrifying experience. Of course I was playing in a tiny bar to like, 10 people! But I came back the next week, and I kept doing it, and I kept listening.

Playing with people and playing along to records – those were the 2 things that made me become really good really fast, in just a couple of years. I played with my neighbors that played guitar. I listened to a lot of records, and I spent hours upon hours in my garage playing along with everything from Freddie King to the Rolling Stones, to the Meters and Grateful Dead. That was a big changer to me, listening to the Grateful Dead when I was a little older and realizing a different form of music that’s not completely Blues based, but improvisational at the same time.

So you learned a lot though experience! Did you take any college music classes?

I was in Steve Sage’s Music class at Diablo Valley College. It ended up being the class that I met just about everybody that I play with now! I learned a lot that I still think about, from keeping my volume down, how to be on stage, and especially the business part of it – how to represent myself. What really got me was that Steve had so much passion, he cared so much about what he was doing! He was never just there for a paycheck.

After you left Steve’s class, did you start playing full time?

After my time in the class, I was just at a point in life when I didn’t know what to do. My mom had recently moved back to where she grew up, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, so I decided I would sell my car in California, move to the U.S. Virgin Islands for 6 months and work as much as I could so I could afford to spend a couple months backpacking through Europe. I had 5 jobs at one point! I worked at a funeral home, I was a freelance photographer, I gave guitar lessons, I worked in a restaurant, and I trained horses! And then I started playing gigs, and I realized I could make money doing that.

When I got back from Europe, I started playing with one band primarily, Flipswitch, which turned into Tortoise and the Switch. They actually releasing an album this month, which Tim Marconett and I both were involved with! I played in the band for about 5 years at weddings, hotels, resorts. We did 4 to 6 nights a week, mostly regular weekly gigs with random weekend events.

What’s life like on the islands?

I was on St. Thomas – it’s about 32 square miles, but about a third of it is forests. There’s two little towns and little bars and resorts everywhere in between. The population goes way down in the summer! Everything is really crazy there – you drive on the other side of the road, you collect rainwater off your roof that you shower in. Food and cars are really expensive, but all the things that are bad for you are really cheap there, like alcohol and cigarettes. A box of non-organic strawberries that are all bruised up are about $12, but a pack of cigarettes or a bottle or rum is about $3. It’s a whole different world, but it’s pretty easy going. When I got into gig mode, I would just hang out all day, go to the beach, then go to my gig where I food and drinks for free. It was a really good life, but after a while it gets tiring. After about 6 years though, I had enough, plus two category 5 hurricanes came through and wiped the place out!

You were there for the hurricanes?

About 8 months earlier, I had booked a month long trip to Thailand and Vietnam. Two days after I left, the hurricane hit, and it completely demolished the airport and air traffic altogether. I couldn’t fly back, so I came to California for a while. When I got to the islands a couple months later, power was just getting turned back on. Some people were without power for 4 to 5 months!

I decided it was time to go, so I packed up all my stuff, sent it through the mail, and now I’m back here trying to teach music and play gigs. I’m back in school, and planning to transfer to Cal State East Bay next Fall for music.

What’s your goal or focus for music school?

I plan to get my Master’s Degree, since Bachelor’s is like the new AA degree or like a high school diploma was 20 years ago. I feel like you have to have a Master’s Degree to get anyone’s attention!

The Bay Area is really expensive, and there’s a lot of great players. It’s a hard market to make a living or career! I plan to go to school because I love learning and because I want more career options in the music field because I can’t see myself being confined to a cubicle!

Please leave us with one final thought or piece of advice for the students, parents or teachers reading this.

A lot young people, with all this technology, don’t listen to music! There’s a reason why you’re playing music – it’s because you loved it when you heard Bach or Megan Trainor or whatever you like! You want to replicate it, or you want to write a song better than it. There is a reason!

Once you find that band you like, don’t just have one song on your phone! Look up the album! Do some research! Maybe there’s another song on the album that you haven’t heard yet and that you might like better!

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