LONG VERSION (for shorter version, skip to the end):
So, I’ve started talking a lot, recently, here and in interviews, Twitter, etc., about my version of what is actually a pretty universal struggle – put simply, trying to make a living doing something that you enjoy doing. We all wish we could somehow wind up at the intersection of “want” and “need.” I might get a little romantic about it and go so far as to say that for some who have chosen to make an attempt at doing that via the arts, what constitutes “want” and what constitutes “need” are often overlapping, if not actually joined at the hip from the get-go, and at the VERY least, are not, as it’s usually presented to us, mutually exclusive until that point of convergence – doing what I do as a “life choice” was really not much of a choice at all – I don’t feel even remotely (well… o.k. – a little remotely…) embarrassed when I say that it’s been a natural progression since I popped out of the womb, covered in blood and other effluvia (which could be why it feels so natural for me to end most of my nights that way as well…? Another topic for another time!). Anyway, I have a compulsion – “vocation,” to give a nod to one of the most powerful forces that formed me – and I was lucky to be in a place where I had immediate access to Punk Rock and Hardcore as they were still forming, themselves, and was offered a vessel, early on, that seemed tailor made to hold everything that was flowing out of me – and change its shape accordingly, but still somehow manage to accommodate everything I could pour into it without changing what TO ME – what I perceived to be – was its fundamental self. To quote Julien Temple and the UK Subs, “Punk Can Take it.” And I’ve lived in this world for most of my life now, and if ever I’ve thought of leaving, I’ve taken a good look at everything beyond its gates, and I’ve decided – as a proactive stance, not as a retreat – to come home, time and time again.
I’ve put a lot of thought since the demise of a band called Chisel that I was in for most of the 90s, into what my wants and needs are, and into how I can, as they seem to begin to diverge more as we age, continue to hold them together, living in the sweet spot somewhere near that junction. I missed out on some early touring opportunities with Citizens Arrest and Hell No because I went to college – which I don’t regret, but if I had someone to counsel on making similar choices, I might suggest they do a couple of things differently than I did; and after college, I missed out on some other years of touring opportunities because I don’t think everyone that I was playing with always had the same “all eggs in one basket,” prepared-to-always-live-hand-to-mouth mentality that I had at the time (and dear god, I don’t begrudge them THAT, at this point!); but I did what I could. WE did what we could. I worked jobs to pay the rent when I could and I went out on the road to play music when I could. My needs were few, but the paramount need was always to keep making music, and for me, that always included getting out there and playing it as often as possible to as many people as would want to see and hear it. So in about 1997, after ten turbulent years of being in serious bands (I’d had less serious ones before that) that took me everywhere from the old crumbling ABC No-Rio downtown, which I walked out of alive, to meetings in major label offices uptown, which I walked out of almost dead, and around the rest of the world (that, duh – we like to make metaphors about all lying in between those two extremes, but actually often pays no attention whatsoever to such cosmopolitan conceits) in between, I decided that I’d waited long enough – I was already getting “old” (or so I felt at the time), and I was already done with the games that one finds oneself playing when one wakes up to realize that there might be an opportunity to straight up make a few bucks doing what you’ve been doing for love (and lying to yourself about the fact that you don’t care at ALL about the money side of the “love/money” axis) because enough people actually care about “what you do” that they’re willing to support your doing it with their dollars at the door and in the record stores on the beautiful side of it, and because some other people see a salable commodity in you on the uglier side of it – and which, to be fair, also has its beautiful side, in that it usually also dovetails with those persons’ genuine appreciation for music, including the music YOU make, and their genuine desire to help you keep making it by funding your projects; and so I put it all aside, recorded some backing tracks on my own, picked up my guitar and my reel-to-reel four track, hit the road, and pretty much never looked back.
I used e-mail to book a tour before I had a cell phone, and during an era when you could generally still book an entire US tour only a month out from the first date, finishing it up along the way, if need be, with slugs and dialers at pay-phones on the side of highways, and lined notebooks with hand-written directions and phone numbers in them. These days, my life must necessarily be planned out at least six months in advance, and usually, I know where I’m going to be eight to TEN months out (sometimes an entire year, which is crazy – a lot can happen in a year). That was a European tour for my band The Sin Eaters, a short-lived band I did with my brother Danny, late of Providence’s Radio to Saturn, earlier of NJ’s Native Nod, and Sean Greene, late of NYC’s The Van Pelt, earlier of Ct.’s Another Wall – short-lived, but massive in my life as one of the most satisfying and inspiring projects I’ve ever been a part of. It was put together by my dear old friends Simon Henderson from Glasgow and Ingo Ebeling from Hamburg, Germany – two amazing lifers who you can still see “doing it” – Simon now walking the streets of New York City, and Ingo literally still sometimes in the driver’s seat of a van on the Autostrada approaching… Genoa (for example). On that tour, we travelled with my other brother, Chris, and the then current incarnation of his band, The Van Pelt, and crossed paths with Brian from UK crust legends Doom, Dennis and the Refused crew in Umeå, and our own Pete V., a/k/a “Jack Terrycloth,” one of the world’s greatest Punk songwriters, anywhere, ever, late of NJ’s finest, Sticks and Stones, and then currently with the fledgeling World/Inferno Friendship Society – all lifers in the midst of the same questions and feeling a new fire driving us onward – some of us in different directions, but always onward. I was so impressed with the Euro squats and community centers – it reaffirmed my commitment to a Chomsky-esque “Libertarian Socialism” – ANARCHY with a capital “A” – the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” – the strength of like-minded people coming together in community and carving out alternative space for themselves, to live and grow in, and hopefully be a party to some sort of devolution that would bring us back a step or two and allow Evolution to proceed along a different path than the technocratic Corporatism we were born into, where, it’s true, religion is still the opiate of the masses, but is also the weapon of the elite [but I (purposely) digress]. And I just travelled. I just travelled and played, travelled and played, played to 5 people here and there, 200 here, then no one there, a benefit here, a pay day there, gas money I literally had to fight for here and there, dignity I LITERALLY had to fight for there, lessons I had to learn here, etc. I put out a few records, started playing with other people in a “band” again, and then all of a sudden, around 2003, I had a “hit.”
Understand that I’m talking about a “hit” by indie standards, and even saying that, I have to qualify further and stress that it was by the indie standards of 2003, which are actually very different from the indie standards of 2010, believe it or not… Of course, we did more than a little bit to help that happen – aside from writing an album that people seemed to connect pretty strongly with at that particular point in time (I’m talking about “Hearts of Oak,” here), I was working with Lookout! back then, which, again, in the indie world of that time, was a pretty big label. We had an in-house “press person,” the amazing Tristin, who worked her ass off along with everyone else there at that time, including BUT NOT LIMITED TO, Chris, Molly, Cathy, Alicia, Erin, Taggy Lee, Dan, Todd, Andy, Patrick, and dear dear Erika, who’s no longer with us. They sent the records out, called people, boxed stuff up, answered mail – I mean, I guess, really, it’s just all the stuff we’d all done all along, but they had enough clout back then to have SPECIFIC PEOPLE for SPECIFIC JOBS – it was a revelation (no pun intended) of sorts, and a heady time to be involved with such an energetic and enthusiastic bunch. I loved them and I loved working with them, and I look back on those years fondly. But, yeah – so people started showing up – in ever greater and greater numbers, and it was fantastic, in part because it seemed so organic – we’d just kept doing what we were doing, and we did it harder, better, faster, stronger, year by year, and year by year, it grew and grew and grew until right at the moment when the old “want v. need” question started forcing itself to the fore again, I found that I was in a pretty enviable position, and one that I’d never really seen coming (the fortunate/unfortunate effect of keeping one’s nose so firmly placed against the grindstone – it’s hard to really get a sense for what’s coming in through the door at the other end of the room).
I wrote a piece back in …1997? for a fanzine that John Davis of Corm/Q and not U/Title Tracks used to do about the possibilities and pitfalls one might face in signing to a major label. It was more philosophical in nature and tone than Albini’s famous “let’s run the numbers” piece in the Baffler a year or two later, and in it I talk about how great my belief is in the fact that WITHIN “our world” we could support our own artists – the paradigm existed, the work was there, the audience was there, and the appreciation was potentially there within that audience. In the late 90s it had become a given that to carve out a life for oneself making music, you had to sign to a major label, but there were so many examples of people who had made it happen in the previous decade and who were actually making it happen right then and there in front of our very eyes, independently – why couldn’t we see it? Of course, there was Fugazi, but Fugazi’s massive “success,” to take nothing away from what the band could have achieved had it been the first project of everyone involved, fresh out of high-school or whatever, could really be seen as more of an example of the success of what these few persistent and visionary individuals had been working toward since 1978 (remember that Fugazi, in its earliest form, started playing shows in 1987, only 9 years later – kids getting into Punk in the 80s were closer to The Stooges than we are now to Nirvana), and there were other examples – right about then, Los Crudos and Avail, to name just two, were PACKING kids into shows and selling a damned lot of records (AGAIN, by “indie standards”) – shit – even Weston was buying new equipment! And nobody was getting rich, but people were making ends meet, and that’s all any of us were really hoping to achieve – the big word for me back then (and to this day, really) was “SUSTAINABILITY.” I believed that through hard work and good music, we ought to be able to, and indeed we COULD carve out our own niche and create a situation in which, as long as people still wanted the music you were making, you could take it to a level at which you weren’t LOSING money and/or eating shit all the time. That’s it – that was the big goal – just to be able to keep doing it, really. Maybe, if you were super lucky (or super good), you could even squirrel something away for a rainy day and hope to also wrangle a little “comfort” out of the deal, but that would be a bonus.
And here I was – in 2003, 2004 – one glorious year of fist-pumping “WE DID IT.” And then the internet happened in a BIG way, and things changed. That’s all I’ll say about that for now, because this is already running on, and that’s obviously a HUGE topic; but the upshot of it is that all of the old models, paradigms, whatever you want to call them, were exploded and time was catching up with me. I don’t really have much to complain about – things have remained largely sustainable since then, one year of fist pumping “WE DID IT” is more than most people get, and on the OTHER side of things, the love and joy and camaraderie that continuing to make music and touring and connecting with all of you who are presumably reading this have afforded me have been MORE sustaining than anything else, and in a lot of cases more evident than ever! But I’m not gonna lie to you – this year is looking to be a losing propsition, and now, 20+ years after starting down this road in earnest, I do find that my needs have grown, and the reason I talk about this in terms of “career trajectory” as opposed to just “getting a fucking job, you asshole,” is that I do want to keep making music, and the jobs that I have had, and I do take, and that I’d need to take more of to keep me going in the sometimes all-too-brief downtime (what – this has been my MAIN thing for the past decade, but did you really think I could’ve survived this long without EVER doing some other kinds of work here and there? That’s where actual record sales made the difference circa “Hearts of Oak” and “Shake the Sheets”…) aren’t the kind that can offer the amount of support that I’d need if I were to continue just grabbing something here and there between the six to ten months of touring I usually do in a year. My point is, something’s gotta give – that’s ultimately all I’m saying here – something’s gotta give, and so something’s gotta change.
(HERE COMES THE PART THAT CONSTITUTES THE “SHORT VERSION,” if you were scanning down for that…)
What are some other ways to make a living in the world of music? Sell your songs to commercials? Doesn’t sit right with me. Soundtracks? If the right one comes along, I’m happy to offer up my stuff for use, but it seems that people generally don’t like to have songs about struggling through life during shitty wars as the background to whatever ro-co or teen comedy they’re working on. Become a “Tin Pan Alley” style songwriter and sell ideas to other people? Hadn’t really thought of that! Might try it at some point! Why not, right? It’s like Albini again – not turning down work when you have a skill set that you can put to use – it doesn’t have to be your soul wrenching personal statement every time you put pen to paper or pick to guitar string, right? Hm… Interesting… Anyway, I’ll put that up on the shelf for later. For now, though, I’m talking about something else that has always been another love of mine – musical theatre. From my years spent with the Yates family, travelling around the northeast on weekends doing Disney movies brought to life on the stage for other children, to my high-school turn as Nicely Nicely, to Judas/John the Baptist in Godspell in college, performing in that other context, in that other WORLD, is something I’ve always loved, and have, indeed, missed. Thus: people often ask me about why it took me over two years after “Shake the Sheets” to get out “Living With the Living,” and aside from the fact that I went through a label change, and aside from the fact that “Living With the Living” is a DOUBLE ALBUM WITH A 5-SONG BONUS EP, I took some of that time to write an entire OTHER album’s worth of material, most of which has never and probably will never see the light of day (“Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” actually came from this project, but that’s about it), because it was for a musical that I was working on with a writer/director in New York, tentatively called “Red Bananas,” about Sam Zemurray, le Gros Michelle, United Fruit, the covert US involvement in the violent overthrow of the duly elected and sovereign government of Guatemala in 1954 (dubbed “Operation PB Success” – look it up), a modern day freedom fighter who was “disappeared” by the fascist government installed in its place, and the Harvard human rights lawyer who’d fallen in love with him and dedicated her life to recovering his body and exposing the truth of what was going on.
Not a lot of commercial potential there, I realize, but the guy I was working with had some funding, and this was something we were definitely doing for love, not money. For a number of reasons, it never happened, but I’d been bitten by the bug.
To make a long story a little less long by cutting down the details from here on out, we were already filming a documentary sort of thing with our friends Rob “Hatch” Miller and Tom Scharpling, when I was approached by a gentleman named, perfectly (I don’t think he’d mind me saying), Reginald VanVoorst about working on ANOTHER piece of musical theatre, and with cameras rolling, as luck would have it, I accepted.
Inspired by Julie Taymor’s Beatles show
Julie Taymor’s Bon Jovi show
and of course, the ineffable genius of the Green Day extravaganza
…we proceeded, and have, in fact, already COMPLETED the project, and I am hereby announcing that it will be debuted this coming Monday, August 23, 2010, on another web site that must as yet remain unnamed, but which will be revealed ON Monday (with a link here, obviously, duh), and which you will be able to watch in its entirety, and comment on extensively!
I am so proud of what we’ve achieved here, and I can’t wait for you to see it!
It is, hopefully, the new direction I’ve been seeking and a new path that I hope you’ll walk with me.
See you on Monday!
(please save all e-mails/questions until you’ve seen it)