August 7, 2012

When the Snakehandler Slips

At 1AM on an average weeknight, roughly ninety percent of my small southern city is asleep, either tucked snugly in bed with a dog curled at their feet or with head lolling in the easy-chair in front of late night television. Myself, though, I'm forcibly awake, ignoring the clock, regrettably not plotting some daring heist or border-hopping escape ahead of the long arm of the law. No, instead I have a cassette tape half-unspooled in front of me, beached on a sea of scratched hardwood floor, and I'm carefully, tragically piecing it back together. 

I'm surrounded by a veritable sea of them, of all lengths and colorful designs, some of a recent vintage, some dating back to the early days of the technology. I'm not given to small motor skills by nature, and my hands fumble clumsily at this ever-tedious task. I've ripped the guts from this particular tape to run it carefully over a paperclip, to damage it, to scratch it so that the audio is noticeably degraded on playback. That's the fairly easy part; the hard part is winding the tape back into its housing. Pushed to its limits, the tape's stubborn about not twisting as I spin the little wheels and hope for the best. There. Almost done. But if I pull it along too quickly or with too much force, the tape will snap apart and be ruined.

And it happens. "FUCK!" I shout at the empty house. It seems like this just isn't happening tonight. A lonely late-night train sends a baleful whistle in response. I sigh in defeat, dig out another tape, and begin the whole process again.
This has been an admittedly tough time for music and my relationship to it. My project with my wife, Lost Trail, has been commissioned by a small label for an expansive multi-media project, encompassing film, poetry, music and photography, to be released sometime in 2013. I've never felt more pressure for Denny and I to make our definitive statement, the most perfect album of our young careers. In recent days we've recorded a half-album's worth of material, on many late nights such as these both here in Burlington and at our secondary studio on a small farm in nearby Efland, in six or seven hour binges that left me exhausted, headachy, and disoriented. Listening back, I've decided they just aren't good enough. Not up to snuff. It has to be right, and this didn't feel right. Denny and I sit down for a long discussion and thankfully, she agrees. But this means it's back to square one.

Some of our few dedicated fans might think our lo-fi aesthetic is an affectation, and while it's true that ninety percent of the motivation behind the way we do things is for the love of the sound of damaged technology, it's also true that we simply can't afford better. We've never used proper microphones, a mixer, monitor speakers. Our guitar effects are cheap, our various machines unreliable. It's just how we work, and I guess we do things the hard way. In trading the obligations of a full-time job for being a full-time musician, I've gained time to create but lost the money to finance it's making. In other countries, I might hope to be given a stipend for this sort of work. In America, I'm told to get a real job like a real American. Our country's valuing of the arts is nonexistent. One needs only turn on a radio to make such an assessment. 

And this night, breaking my third tape in as many hours, and collapsing defeated to the floor of my makeshift music studio, hands raw and almost bleeding, I ask myself for the billionth time why I'm doing this. I know there are friends, people in both my family and my wife's family, who assume that what I'm doing isn't really work. That it's as simple as sitting down, writing a song, and the rest of the day is spent with cocaine and groupies. The reality of what a full-time independent musician's life is really like is as foreign to some of my nearest and dearest as Qatar. 

If someone asked me what it's really like, I'd tell them: you'll work. You'll work incredibly hard for something very few people will ever care about or notice. Daily, you'll have some ridiculous task you've forgotten cutting into your hang-out time with your friends, your grandpa, your girlfriend, or husband. You'll grow to violently envy people who can walk away from their jobs at five o'clock and not think about them anymore. You'll despise people with a steady paycheck as you gaze into the depths of a diminishing bank account and wonder how to swing the mortgage payment, the car repair. You'll dodge constant judgments from strangers and those close to you alike as to how you 'don't really work', arched eyebrows while someone at a party asks, 'you support yourself on that?', accusations of extended childhood and laziness, pretension and the 'using' of spouses for money. 

You'll go on tour, run out of money, and wonder how to get home. Your equipment will break, possibly halfway through an important show, and there'll be no cash or credit left to fix it. You'll live in constant terror of the broken car window, the items missing from the backseat or the trunk. You'll argue with peacock-proud soundmen, with beer-money-obsessed club owners eager to exploit you with condescending questions about your 'draw', with loud sorority girls in the crowd upset because you're too loud for them to talk to their friend over, with indignant managers cutting you off and calling your treasured art 'noise'. You'll be cancelled a day before a show for inexplicable reasons, or the cops will come to your house show and see no problem shutting down your job and costing you what little money you expected to make because some nosy neighbor complained instead of asking you to turn it down like a polite adult. You'll have clubs expect you to pay rental fees to hold shows there, as if it's standard for someone to pay to do their job . You'll play sometimes to two people, sometimes none at all. Your car will break down on tour. You won't be allowed to cross into Canada because of work visas, and you'll lose half your expected tour guarantees. The album won't sound as good after two weeks of listening. The label will tell you they can no longer afford to release with you. You'll have mental breakdowns, crying jags, crises of doubt about everything you do. You'll threaten in tears to quit numerous times, sick of all the pain and frustration and hurt and disappointment, willing to throw it all down and walk away, never looking back. People will see what it does to your health, mentally, physically, and they'll worry. Your envy for those with more success while you starve will drive you to bitterness. I wish I could tell you that the times when people 'get it', when there's an amazing crowd, a financial windfall from a great show, a nice blog writeup, make it all worth it. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. It gets easier over time, but incrementally. Kranky is not going to swoop down out of the indie label sky and rescue you from obscurity. You can't depend on anyone.

So why do it at all? Why even bother when there's thousands of office jobs with reliable paychecks out there that you can just turn off at the end of the day, not stress out over? Why even bother tilting at the windmills of such a futile endeavor? 


I could say it's because the first time I heard William Basinski, I cried. I cried because the broken beauty music moved me to such emotion, and because I knew that after years of grasping through so many various forms, I had found the kind of music I wanted to make. I could say because this is the sound I hear in my head all day and I need for it to come out in order not to drive me mad. I could say because I'm tired of all the polished digital perfection in music, and I agree with many of my peers that it's time we all appreciate some damage, decay, and imperfection in art again; some dust and some corrosion. I could say it's because I'm not built for day jobs, which is meant in an entirely un-arrogant, unpretentious way, just a statement of pure fact. I envy those who are. I could say I want to leave a mark behind in this world, to make something beautiful, some form of emotionally-resonating art, and not to die wishing I had done so. I could say because this is both what I'm good at and what I love best to do, even when I hate everything about it, as I often, often do. I could say it fulfills me in a way nothing else ever has.

I could say all that, and it'd be true. But the starkest truth of all is that I don't have a choice. There's a difference between doing something because you love it and doing something because you're compelled to do it. Not an addiction, but a compulsion. I do this because I have no choice. I have to do it, period. 

So I keep writing the emails to venues and labels I know will never write me back. I keep fighting through equipment problems and car problems and not having money for the mortgage. I keep soldiering through people asking me what my 'real' job is, the people who think I'm using my wife for money, the people thinking what I do is just 'noise', the hipsters who don't think I'm cool enough for their cool kids high school club. I fight back my taste for a normal job with normal pay, a boring life. I swallow down my fear and insecurity, and disappointment; my furious frustration when something seems to go wrong for Lost Trail every single day. I've built up a resistance to blog buzz indifference, to crowds I can count on one hand. I have to do this, there's no choice involved. Making the music itself is supposed to matter, not what comes in its wake, but thats easy to say when you're not making a few thousand dollars a year at an eighty-hour-a-week job. The music itself matters, but the making of it is a necessity. I've found it I simply need to do it to survive.

So I continue, hoping that as things gradually get better for this band, so will everything else. I pick myself up from the floor again, resigned, and go back to slowly feeding the tape through its housing, hoping it doesn't tear a fourth time.

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