Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Sebastien Grainger of Death From Above takes us through his life on the job.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
My first job was working at a summer camp. I was probably 17—my folks didn’t make me get a job in high school. [Death From Above’s] Jesse [Keeler’s] first job was probably delivering a newspaper when he was eight years old, or something. After high school, I inherited $25,000 from an uncle that passed away when I was a child. It grew into a different, slightly larger sum of money, and I had an allowance of $700 a month from the time I was 19. It was meant to be my college fund, but I spent it on being a bohemian and was able to pursue music and be a bum without having to grind as hard as other people. I was able to be marginally employed for my early 20s. I worked at clothing shops and CD stores—whatever crummy retail, or customer service, answering phones. I was fortunate enough to never have to schlep too hard. If I lost my job, I could still live off the $700 a month to pay rent and buy food. If your rent is 400 bucks and you have 300 bucks to spend on bean sprouts and salt, then you’re doing pretty good.
Death From Above’s inception date was September 11, 2001. Though it might sound a little hokey, that was when I put things into perspective. I woke up to Jesse telling me that a building had fallen down in New York, then we watched the rest of it all happen live on TV. Jesse and I were both living in a house on the East Side of Toronto, and we’d been playing in a different band together called Femme Fatale, a seven-piece hardcore, noise-wall grind band. All of our gear was sitting in the living room, because we were supposed to go to Detroit to play a show on September 12—clearly, that didn’t happen. The borders went crazy and everything went nuts, and nobody knew what was going on
I was on my third attempt of post-secondary education, in art school. I wasn’t good at school at all, and I’d been playing in bands for a while, so, since I thought that the world was going to end, I thought I might as well spend my time working on something that excited me. After the days’ events were seemingly all wrapped up, Jesse and I went and spent our last 20 bucks on beer and roti and made a band that afternoon. I dropped out of school for the third time and started playing as much as I could.
A couple of lucky things enabled us to travel quickly. After we made some demos, we traveled to Vancouver very early on to play with the band that was also our label. Jesse’s mom gave us airline points, so it was free for us to fly there right away. A friend of ours also worked at University of Toronto and was privy to an internal auction where they were auctioning off vehicles, and we bought a van for 300 bucks. Even that money, we had to borrow. We got mobile so we could go play shows in other cities very quickly. We didn’t play Toronto until our third or fourth show. The first month that Jesse and I made enough money to pay our rent was the exact month that my inheritance money had run out. Coincidentally, that’s also the month that Jesse lost whatever job he had at the time. We were lucky. It was some cosmic alliance.
There weren’t a lot of two-piece drum-and-bass bands at the time, and the songs were catchy. We were able to fit in with anybody because we were weird enough that there wasn’t a scene for us to have come out of. We would take any gig. I remember getting a call at four in the afternoon when I lived down the street from this Toronto venue called Lee’s Palace where a friend of ours worked. The promoters were putting on an Anthrax show that night, and their opener dropped out. We were able to fill in because it was only two of us—it was very easy. We didn’t take up a lot of room. This was a week after opening for Yeah Yeah Yeahs—the breadth of the bands we could open for meant that we were exposed to a lot of different audiences
Being able to jump onstage very quickly also helped us. We were always the band that got there on time, loaded in quickly, played under time, and got offstage. It won’t help you if you roll up late, take forever to get your stuff onstage, sound like shit, and take forever to get off—people aren’t going to want you to come back. Crews, sound people, bouncers, and bartenders loved us because we were easy, fast, and weird. If a bouncer said, “Oh, you guys are awesome, I’m here seven days a week and usually I hate my job, but, tonight, I thought it was fun,” that encouraged us. We were able to go hit the same places twice or more in a year because we got along with the people that we’re working with. Our archetype for success: You go to a club, and there are five people there. You go back six months later, and there are 10 people, and you go back after that and keep doubling your audience.
The first person we started working with in a business sense was a booking agent, even before we had managers. For us, having an agent was most important, because that’s your connection to playing live and a band makes cash by playing shows. The first relationship we had in management was with these two people that were our lawyers, our label, and our management. It was an unusual arrangement, and maybe conflict of interest-y, but it worked for us then. Everyone’s experience is unique, so there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Through the years, we’ve been managed by a bunch of different people, and the most important thing is making sure that your interests are aligned. It’s difficult to find anybody that has as much energy and interest in what you’re doing as you do. No one’s going to be as excited as you are, so you have to find someone who’s dedicated to what they’re doing and loves doing it. With management, you want somebody who’s into music and gets obsessed with all the little machinations and details, because you’re busy doing the art stuff. Even with sound engineers and crew-type people, you have to find someone who’s into their job. Those are the best people to work with.
Sometimes you learn lessons the hard way. We’ve been mismanaged for most of our career, and I only feel now that we have someone that is actually doing the work. When you’ve been at it for as long as we have, sometimes people are scared to ask you to do things. They think that we’re going to be tough about it, but it’s cool to have someone that tells us what our options are and asks us instead of being afraid that we’re going to say no to shit. Our manager now isn’t afraid of our getting upset at her. She asks us to do things that maybe we don’t want to, but not in a way where we’re being manipulated.
No one’s going to have a better idea than you will have as the artist. You’re the person with the best ideas. Obviously if you’re a musician, you’re going to obviously have the best musical ideas, but in terms of promo stuff, no one has good ideas. You have to be prepared to come up with everything yourself and use the business as a way to facilitate your own ideas and concepts. Sometimes you have to make people believe that they’re coming up with the good ideas.
No one makes it without putting everything they have into it. Anything that’s worth anything, you have to be able to sacrifice for. Everything always takes a lot longer than you think it’s going to—sometimes double, triple, ten times the amount of time. You have to be willing to sacrifice and believe in it completely. It can’t be a casual endeavor. Most people have to work really hard to get anything done. That goes for anything—it takes a tremendous amount of effort for some people to get out of bed in the morning. Imagine losing 10 pounds, or going out and getting a job, or writing a song, or making a record. It all takes a lot of energy.
—as told to Amy Rose Spiegel