Gig Economy: Greg Fox

On opening for DMX, painting houses, and the two best rules for any professional scenario.

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, drummer Greg Fox takes us through his life on the job.

—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music

My first job was at a family business, a sporting goods store called Player’s World, when I was really little. [I] was helping get shoes from the back—It was a babysitting-slash-cute thing to make a kid do. When I was 12 or 13, I got a real job working at an internet company in the West Village. It was proto–instant messaging file sharing platform. This was before the dot-com bust, so they had enough money to pay some kid 10 dollars an hour to hang around and get coffee.

After high school, I was a sleep away camp counselor for half a summer, but I quit and moved back to NYC against basically everyone in my life’s wishes (and, in some cases, orders). I contacted that internet company and ended up getting a job with them again, full-time, and got an apartment in Bushwick. But, in the interim, the company had become very corporate and stale. I ended up getting fired when they found out that I had posted some negative things about them on the internet… Should have realized they would probably end up seeing what I posted in a search. Oh, well. Lesson learned there. Years later, I bumped into the dude who fired me at another briefly-held job scooping ice cream on the Upper West Side. He came in and was like, [tersely] I’ll have two scoops, Greg.” After getting fired from the internet company job, I got a job at Manny’s Music, an old mom and pop instrument store in Times Square. I worked there for almost a year, selling guitars, pedals, and drums. It had its moments. I met people who ended up becoming big influences on my music. A now mentor and drum teacher of mine, Guy Licata, worked at the front desk, and we practiced a lot. I actually bought the drum set that I still play at Manny’s on my last day of work.

While I was in college, I was hired by a questionable rap-rock band. It was very industry-oriented, and it was a paying gig—something like $100 per show, so I was like, “Yeah, I’ll be in this band, whatever.” When we opened for DMX in Philadelphia, I was concurrently working on a paint crew in upstate New York, and had to drive overnight after the gig to start the day’s painting work. Sometimes at that gig, I fell asleep on the beds in the dorm rooms we were painting—we were painting white walls white a lot of the time, so I don’t think anyone really ever noticed. I also delivered newspapers very briefly. Driving around alone for hours at a time, for seven dollars an hour, was pretty brutal. One day, I delivered all the boxes back to the paper’s office and left the boxes on their front step with a note saying, “Sorry, I quit.”

Immediately after I graduated from college, I went on tour with my then-band, Teeth Mountain, for two months across the U.S. Then Dan Deacon hired Teeth Mountain to be in his touring band. The first gig I ever played in Europe was at Primavera with Dan—still probably the biggest audience I’ve ever played in front of. That trip was a lot of fun. It didn’t make a lot of money, which was OK, because I wasn’t paying rent—I was crashing on friends’ couches in between tours.

I got a job at a computer store in Brooklyn for a while. When I had a big tour opportunity come up, I told the boss, and he was like, “That’s cool,” and then just took me off the calendar permanently. He didn’t say, “That’s not gonna work”—he basically fired me behind my back. After that, when I wasn’t touring, I got a part time gig doing sound for talks and concerts at the Austrian Cultural Forum on 52nd Street. I lived at [the DIY venue] Shea Stadium for a minute before moving into a loft that had no windows, and lived in other very cheap and questionably legal living situations, so rent was always low. This definitely helped.

When I started playing with Ben Frost in 2011, music became more of a full time pursuit. I still take “part-time” gigs: I work part time in the music department at Pioneer Works in New York,  and I book some shows and residencies there. I also have a private teaching practice, and I do clinics and workshops. First, teaching was something to do while I wasn’t on tour to help financially. Increasingly, I liked it and got a lot out of it. Now, I consider teaching to be a natural extension of my music and art practice.

I’m learning a lot through teaching. It reinforces the ability to articulate something, as opposed to just doing it. My drum clinics are basically just art talks that focus on my creative practices and processes. It’s not just for drummers. A lot of people show up who have other things to contribute, and it’s very conversational, so it ends up that dancers are there, saying, “Well, that makes me think of this.” It sparks interesting, unexpected pathways.

The private lessons come through referrals on my website, social media, or word-of-mouth. I also take DJ gigs now and then. It’s fun. It’s complicated enough dealing with all the correspondence and email organization between the different music projects, a teaching schedule, and then other gigs that come up. I have to remember to check the calendar a lot and go through all the emails to make sure I don’t miss anything. It’s a lot.

Ambiguity is the big problem in a lot of working relationships, no matter what kind of work you’re doing. The more clarity there can be, ultimately, will make the situation better, or make it clearer that you should leave it. Over the past ten years, I’ve learned some important rules—the one-of-three rule and the two-of-three rule.

The one-of-three: There’s one of three kinds of working situations that you should do. One: a boss very clearly hires and pays you in a way that justifies the time and energy you give to what they want you to do. Two: You are working in a shared situation, where the compensation is fair to the work you are each doing, and everybody understands how everything is divided. Not everybody is expected to do the same work, necessarily, but you share it all equally, and there’s no question about it. Decisions are made together. Three: You’re the boss, and you pay people in a way that justifies the time and energy they give to doing what you want. If a job is anywhere in between any of those three, it’s probably gonna be fucked up. It needs to be clear.

The two-of-three, which I learned from Guy, is about pay, play, and output. You need two out of the three for a job to be worthwhile. Like, in a creative situation, if the creative output and social aspects are great, and you’re doing something that you love, it’s fantastic, even if you don’t make that much money. If you’re only getting one out of three, it’s probably not worth your time and energy.

It’s important for people who are getting started in whatever they are trying to do to learn what’s worth their time and energy. You only figure out where you stand by doing things that aren’t. Then, you say no to the things that don’t meet your standards to make space for things that do. I believe strongly that if you’re doing things you ultimately don’t want to be doing, you are blocking out things you’d love to be doing. You won’t know about those opportunities if your energy is taken up with too much shit—I don’t think you’ll even be aware of them. Everything that I’ve enjoyed the most has come from leaving other things, either because I chose to, or because others chose for me. That made space to find whatever was next.

It’s easy to get stuck in situations where you’re like, “This is OK—it fulfills this one thing I need fulfilled…but not these other things. Will I regret it if I take a leap?” When you’re in creative territory, it’s not cut and dry. It’s easy to get into some analysis-paralysis: On the one hand I’m doing what I love, but on the other, I hate this situation. A great question to ask: If you leave this thing, are you still able to do the thing you love to do? It’s scary to sever connections to seek out more of what you need, but you can’t get that other thing unless you get it flowing. It’s about having standards, and making sure you hold yourself to them just as much you hold the outside world to them. I’m certainly still learning that, but I know more about it now than I ever have. It depends, also, on the people you’re working with—the way you want to be treated, having self-respect, and standing up for yourself when you need to. Sometimes, if something just doesn’t feel good, that is a good enough reason to move on. It doesn’t always need to be unpacked beyond that.

Drumming will stay with me no matter what. (It’s important to remember not everybody is as lucky about knowing what they like to do—figuring out what you actually want to do can be the hardest part about any of this.) It’s like, OK, I’m gonna be a drummer, but I’m always figuring out, How? Who do I really want to do that with? What do I want to play? As time goes on I get more and more clarity, and I feel I’m targeting more of what I want to accomplish, with more precision, in better and better ways. You just have to keep refining.

Greg Fox is a multi-instrumentalist, interdisciplinary artist, and teacher born and based in New York City. A versatile and prolific creative, Fox studied percussion with Guy Licata, Thurman Barker, Marvin “Bugalu” Smith, and has toured, recorded and released numerous records as a solo artist, as well as with Liturgy, Guardian Alien, ZS, Ex Eye, Skeletons, Teeth Mountain, Dan Deacon, Colin Stetson, Ben Frost, and many more.