BarRoom Blitz: How are Free Drinks the Same as Music Business Nepotism?

Musician/bartender Zachary Lipez probably won’t give you a free beer, but he might play your band at his bar.

Nepotism in music criticism, like free drinks at the bar, rarely feels like a problem to the direct participant. It’s the guy/gal sitting — paying full price — and watching the person next to them drinking for free who justifiably feels aggrieved.

As both a writer and a bartender, I am conscious of this. I rarely give booze away these days, both by dint of wanting the bar to do well and of having far fewer friends than I used to. Quitting drugs and writing music criticism really clears up your social calendar. (That’s, of course, a total lie; I was always kind of a drag and my writing about music ensures I get invited to all sorts of bullshit — I just prefer to stay home…But the fact remains that I’m under little duress to provide free beer.)

As to the nepotism thing: I want to write about bands that I play at the bar, and I play some friends’ bands because I’m still, however tangentially and to whatever level of success, in the biz of show. But more than that, I want to walk out of an eight-hour shift with both my aesthetic sanity intact and at least $100 in my pocket. And sometimes you need to turn off your friends and put on Sam Cooke. But I suspect you already know about Sam Cooke. Basically, I’m saying you can rely on me to play fine, fine music — and to write about the new stuff on my iPod that scares the fewest paying customers.

For the Ethics in Music Journalism trainspotters out there, I personally know three of the eight bands in this month’s column, but feel free to send me things by humans I don’t know, or who I even personally dislike! I’m here to serve you, literally.

Here’s what I played at the bar in May.

Imarhan, s/t: As I’ve noted in previous columns, music from West Africa, specifically Mali, goes over very well at the bar. I play Tinariwen and Tamikrest and Songhoy Blues and a ton of other stuff from Mali’s capitol of Bamako and neighboring Senegal and even Mauritania. Imarhan are closely linked with fellow Tuaregs Tinariwen, but hail from southern Algeria; they add an organ stomp funk to the droning desert blues of their elder compatriots. Yeah, people ask if they’re Tinariwen, who they don’t realllly sound like, but I can’t get too self-righteous; it’s bar sound and it’s not like most people are running around being able to discern Metallica from Slayer.

I love this album with a capitol “L,” though. Some music industry dudes at the back table — like, stereotypical Boston/Air Supply sidemen dudes if you know what I’m talking about — asked if it was Tinariwen, and when I told them it was Imarhan, one of them said with his sesh smirk, “Oh yeah, this is the sound du jour, though, right?” I just sighed and said, “Probably not to them” and walked away. Lousy tippers, too, and you know these dudes were probably loaded with soul survivor chest hair residuals. Or maybe they were just extras from Vinyl and were staying in character. In which case, I salute you, hirsute suits. Anyway, Imarhan are great.

California, s/t: Speaking of sidemen, California is the new swell power-pop-punk band from Jason White, the longtime touring guitarist for Green Day, and Adam Pfahler from Jawbreaker. I feel sort of bad for these guys as I see them doing press for the new album and it seems like all the writers just want to talk about a possible Jawbreaker reunion. I’m sure they’re fine, though, and probably not looking for pity from the bartender. The album is solid and way better than it needs to be. Some of it veers into Gin Blossoms territory, but even that works, and it’s catchy and sweet. They toured with Beach Slang — who I won’t play at the bar as part of my “No Replacements Except Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” edict — so they fulfill the establishment’s pact with God to play the occasional Solid, Sad, Bar Dude Rock album. Customers like it because there’s absolutely nothing not to like.

White Lung, Paradise: Mikkeller, a great microbrewery with an exhausting backstory involving the main guy’s twin brother that I’ll not get into here, makes a White Lung beer. It’s an excellent, hopped Kolsch if that matters to you. The band has been to the bar, also, and they are very good tippers and, yes, for future reference, that totally affects coverage. Luckily, I’ve liked White Lung since their first Maximum Rocknroll writeup (I wrote them a nice note on MySpace that they never responded to), so my integrity is, for now, intact. I love this album, just as I’ve loved all of their albums.

Mark Eitzel, who is a regular at the bar — much to my constant teenage joy — asked, “What is this wonderful music?” He’s become my go-to opinionator at the bar, so that’s no small thing. There was another random customer who — while the term “bro” has been rendered nigh meaningless by both the usual flattening of language and Clintonian electioneering (not to defend Bernie Bros, who I mostly have no truck with, but good golly, LBJ would have made a lot of people in contemporary politics cry very hard) — was most definitely a bro, said, “This is good, man, but it’s no Clutch.” And who can argue with the incontrovertible, however you take it, truth of that statement? White Lung: Very Good, Not the Band Clutch.

Head Wound City, A New Wave of Violence: FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote the album bio for this new band made up of alumni of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Locust and Blood Brothers. As I’ve said before, there’s going to be a fair share of nepotism in this column. I’ve been a hanger-on and well-wisher of more successful musicians for many years, and by God I will continue to be so until all the Plus Ones have returned to the cosmic sea list that spawned them. I like my friend’s bands. I want them to thrive so that my friends can buy me lunch and occasionally introduce me to that guy that is always in the third-to-last skit on any given episode of SNL.

Head Wound City is a special case as it’s made up of — besides the obvious case of Nick Zinner, who I’ve written numerous VERY GOOD books with — members of bands whom I’ve both opened for and liked enough to buy their records. I dig the Locust and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I honestly consider Blood Brothers’ Crimes one of the great rock & roll records of the last twenty years, so what can I do? I was going to adore and play this album, a streamlined amalgamation of all the member’s past bands, regardless. And I do.

Now a story that will bum out the band, who are very tired of everyone just wanting to talk about 2006, but by God, friendships aside, I am a Responsible Reporter Who You Can Trust (for the most part). A young lady came in (very straight-looking, but that’s OK) with her friends and, hearing whatever discordant nonsense I was playing, started talking about how she used to be “scene.” “Scene” being skramz being screamo being her requesting Fear Before the March of Flames and me saying, “Uh, yeah, sorry.” And then her asking for Blood Brothers and me being able to say, “Grrrl, I got you.” And putting this album on. She totally liked it. Tipped a $5.

Sidenote: She also requested Q and Not U…and our Saturday bartender used to be in them and has a rad new band with a dude from the Rapture called Horizon Unlimited. SCENE INDEED. Move to NYC, kids!

Dälek, Asphalt for Eden: I’m always conflicted when customers use Shazam at the bar. It automatically links to Spotify, therefore ensuring that musicians will get their .0000001% of a penny or whatever, but I like being asked, you know? Makes me feel like a big shot. When I see people holding their phone up to the speakers, I usually say, “You can always just ask the human person in front of you”…but I say it with a smile. More customers Shazamed Asphalt for Eden than any album on this list. Dälek, whom my band has toured with and been remixed by, reunited last year and haven’t lost a step in making bracing and beautiful white noise-heavy beat music that sounds vaguely overwhelming blaring from bar speakers. As they are Angry Young(ish) Men, I don’t know how they feel about being background ambiance, but if people want to get real woke, they can always buy the album and listen on their headphones. I can’t take responsibility for a person’s education. I can only serve them beer.

Horse Lords, Interventions: I’m not proud of it, but I’m really prejudiced against instrumental music. Like, I get truth and beauty, but I’d get it even more with some ill-dressed mook screaming over it. I mainly started playing the Horse Lords’ collection of drone bop because I felt guilty about not playing the last Zs album enough. Surprisingly, probably just to me, customers dig it. Especially dudes with wild, wild hair and not entirely clean V-neck T-shirts. Maybe they’re all polyrhythm majors. The album is arty/jammy enough to appeal to the Radiohead crowd but also spazzy/fun enough to keep me doing little David Byrne jerk-dancing while serving a full bar and not losing my shit cos the snare hits go real good with opening multiple bottles.

Morrow, Covenant of Teeth: Oh man. This album. I fucking love this album and can’t believe how well this goes over, against all sanity and common sense. Four songs, averaging ten minutes apiece, of sorrowful cello careening into blast beats and dog-left-alone-too-long-at-the-squat howling. The singer was in Fall of Efrafa, the best epic crust band to ever do THREE CONCEPT ALBUMS ABOUT WATERSHIP DOWN, and, while I’ll admit to missing songs about rebel bunnies, this album just crushes. And people love it. Or the ones who hate it see me and the customers who get it yelling, “I know! I KNOW!” at each other in glee and are too cowed to complain. If they’d only listen to the record they’d get the courage to ask the State (in this case, me) to turn it down. Mark Eitzel, who has great taste in punk but isn’t exactly noted for his crust roots, thinks it’s gorgeous. Covenant of Teeth is available on Bandcamp as Pay What You Want but will be out on vinyl on the eternally wonderful Halo of Flies later this summer (I hope…punks…).

PUP, The Dream is Over: I am so conflicted about PUP. I loathe so much contemporary punk/emo/rock for its solipsism and its — entirely understandable but Not For Me — worldview of music as therapy. Maybe I’m afraid they’ll put me out of business, or maybe I hate this because it reminds me of being seventeen and listening to Samiam and romanticizing my own crapulence and self-abnegation to the detriment of every living thing around me. I want to hug these nerds and then shake them to death or (more? less?) self-awareness.

I hate this record…and keep putting it on. It has some truly wonderful moments, in certain lines and certain riffs, and it can be genuinely moving. And then I get upset all over again when the singer starts talking about his goddamn band, which he does every other song, like there’s some sort of moral improvement in being a Grand Funk Railroad that regrets being a Band. The last song, “Pine Point,” kills me despite myself, and the drummer sure keeps it going throughout, doesn’t he? There was a shall-remain-nameless MRR columnist who was at the bar and I played it for him and we shared a solid half hour of “I hate this I love this I hate this” like we were picking dandelions in a field of tour van pee bottles. I’ve spent more time at the bar thinking about this stupid record than I do about paying rent, so I guess it’s good art. What do I know? I’m just the human Shazam on my sixth White Lung beer.

(Header image: Dan Schmatz)

Zachary Lipez is the singer of the band Publicist UK. He is the co-author (with Stacy Wakefield and Nick Zinner) of a number of books, most recently 131 Different Thinks (Akashic 2018). He is a freelance writer in NYC and tends bar at 124 Old Rabbit Club.