Sometimes Being a Successful Band Means Not Breaking Up

Val Loper (Bear Hands) celebrates ten years of not imploding.

My band should’ve broken up by now. Lord knows we’ve had a million chances. The fistfight in Cincinnati, Ohio. The weeklong van breakdown in Wyoming. The fistfight on the Mass Pike. The time Dylan walked off stage in London. The time we got booed off the stage in Boston. The strangling incident in Philly. Shit, we almost broke up over a $5 payout for sandwiches after a show once. But somehow, miraculously, I’m writing to you just weeks away from Bear Hands’ ten-year anniversary.

I’ve never done anything for ten years. My longest relationship was eight and the longest I worked the same job was seven. My previous band lasted for six. Being in a band is like working a full-time job you barely get paid for with three girlfriends you don’t have sex with. It’s not supposed to work. Yet, somehow, here we are. Are we “successful”? Not in a Metallica sort of way — but through years of compromise, teamwork and embracing the absurdity of it all, we’ve created our own definition of success.

Years ago, we adopted the band mantra: “Just don’t break up.” It started off as tongue-in-cheek after seeing so many peers derail prematurely, but it’s proven to be soberingly poignant in some of our lowest moments. Good things can’t happen to a dead band, and I feel successful simply because we never say die.

I get why bands break up. Starting a band is easy. Keeping a band together is a battle.

Beyond trying to manage the egos, mania and delusions of other people, you have to be away from your friends and families for months on end with those same crazy people. You miss birthdays and weddings. You are forever drinking too much, eating shit and sleeping too little. Your body can start to hate you, and it can become easy to hate the people around you.

If I had a dime for every time we almost called it quits, I could probably pay a month’s worth of New York City rent. So why stick it out?

When things are really working, I feel like I am the best version of myself.

Well, we’ve been fortunate enough to continue an upward trajectory. It’s been a slow climb — and I mean really slow — but through all the conflict and bickering, things keep getting better for us. We recently released our third full-length album and can now draw a decent amount of people in most cities in America (except Houston, Texas and Milwaukee, Wisconsin — why do you hate us??) and a few places in Europe. The band is now paying my rent, and it’s allowed me to travel to a bunch of places I would’ve never otherwise been able to visit. I’ve gotten to experience the rollercoaster of signing to (and getting dropped by) a major label. I’ve played on late-night TV and have had a couple of songs on the radio. It doesn’t look bad on paper. We’ve somehow managed to cultivate a career out of perpetually chasing the insatiable fantasy of realizing childhood dreams. When things are really working, I feel like I am the best version of myself.

We are four very different people, but we try to keep egos and tempers grounded by adhering to a democratic voting system, which usually works. We’ve managed to streamline logistical nuisances by assigning specific duties to our strengths. Ted and I handle social media, TJ is in charge of buying and maintaining gear, and Dylan takes care of the van. These days we’re pretty efficient at keeping things together.

At our lowest point — breaking down completely broke in rural, awful Rawlins, Wyoming, in 2012 — we had to vote on whether or not to junk our van and rent a U-Haul to drive back to Brooklyn. I was in the midst of a bad breakup and voted to go home. We had a heated argument for an hour in an empty dirt parking lot and I got out-voted. After waiting five excruciating days — and missing four shows — the part we needed finally arrived. The van fired up and we booked it to L.A., making it just in time for our show at the El Rey. Looking back, I’m glad the majority ruled against me, because we ended up finishing the tour and bonded deeper for toughing it out together.

Over the years we’ve gotten good at saying sorry.

It may seem counterintuitive considering rock & roll’s reputation for reckless debauchery, but a lot of our days are spent sober in a practice room, practicing and planning, or running errands. We have a management company, and, yes, they help us out, but most of the day-to-day drudgery still falls on our shoulders. It’s nice to know that if you need new keys made for the practice space because Dylan lost them (’cause he always loses them) or you need to pick up merch in the rain in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and carry it to Bushwick or re-park the van under the BQE at 7 a.m. so we don’t get a ticket, someone, albeit begrudgingly, will always handle it.

Logistics are one thing; emotions are another. Over the years we’ve gotten good at saying sorry. For years our career was plagued with mismanagement, debt and interpersonal strain. You know, normal band stuff. While trying to juggle day jobs with an increasing demand for time but no increase in pay, tensions ran high. We used to fight. A lot. Verbally and physically. Our guitar player, Ted, has been in a fistfight with every member of the band. Twice with me. The first time started with childish name-calling, then turned into a full-on hotel brawl in Cincinnati, Ohio, after a long day in the hot sun and a bad show. It ended after blood was drawn and we passed out together in the same bed. The second time happened while broken down on the Mass Pike after a show in Boston, Massachusetts. We pushed the van a quarter mile down the highway in the pouring rain to the nearest rest area. While waiting for the tow truck, soaking wet and covered in mud, tempers flared over the ludicrous situation, and Ted and I ended up on the floor of the van, attacking each other until we were finally pulled apart. It was pretty ugly, but we made friends again within hours. Even in the most heated of blowouts, we have always been able to focus on the bigger picture, and somehow keep our relationships intact.

Holding grudges is a death wish for a band, and I am incredibly thankful that even after a bloody nose, we’ve all learned how to apologize and move on. Sometimes it takes until the next morning because you got out of the van in Kansas in a drunken rage and tried to walk back to Brooklyn, but it always happens. Every fight has eventually made a great tour story.

I think we’ve been able to ebb and flow with the stresses of the road because we legitimately like touring. Being on the road is your band at its most proactive. It’s the opportunity to engage people every day with your art, and the best part is, if you play a bad show, you have the ability to redeem yourself the next day. It’s rare to have the possibility of immediate redemption in any other career.

We recognize the sum of our four parts as too valuable and our chemistry too rare to be squandered.

On the flip side, the daily grind can be mind-numbingly tedious and requires a high threshold for discomfort. It’s not for everyone, but it’s where we thrive. After paying so many years of dues, I’m proud to call us road dogs. I can comfortably talk shop about the best rest stops, shitty dive bars and venues across the country. I’ve been threatening to get a Flying J tattoo for years. I still might do it.

We’ve always been down for a twenty-five hour drive to start a tour, sleeping in the van and living without basic amenities. In 2009, we went on tour in the UK with another band whose singer complained that he never wanted to sleep in a Travelodge ever again because he didn’t think the beds were comfortable enough. We slept on the floor with our jackets as pillows, just happy to be there.

Those days are far more infrequent now. Over the past few years, as things have improved, we’ve started getting a few hotel rooms each night, even occasionally splurging on a three-star hotel on Priceline. I still bask nightly in the fact that I don’t have to share a bed with my band mates anymore. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a huge step up from having a dude snoring in your face every night.

When we got a driver a few years ago, it eased the fight of who was going to DD every night, and that added about a year of happiness. Getting a trailer, allowing us room to lie down in the van, also added a year of happiness. Those steady little increases in luxury go a long way and have been imperative to us maintaining our collective optimism and sanity.

Today, we have reached a point of stability where we’ve accepted that the band is our life and, honestly, it would be a shame to give up now. The idea of starting a new band now seems exhausting and overwhelming, anyway. When the band was three years old, or even five years old, there was still a way out. We were young enough that walking away seemed doable, sometimes even imminent.

But somewhere in the past two or three years, a switch flipped. After signing to a new management company and releasing a well-received album, we saw our years of efforts culminate in something that was working. The fighting subsided. We finally began to embrace each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. It started to become more fun, like a pressure was lifted. When you treat a band like a family because you know you are stuck with them, it kind of sets you free. We used to talk about quitting. We used to talk about kicking members out. That’s doesn’t happen anymore. Statements such as “he’s an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole” are common nowadays. We got to the other side.

As I write this in the van, driving from Chicago, Illinois, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, I feel lucky. While we aren’t the epitome of traditional success (no mansions or fancy cars), we’ve been able to continually overcome obstacles by working together for the sake of playing music. We recognize the sum of our four parts as too valuable and our chemistry too rare to be squandered.

I’m proud that, through everything, we’ve always followed our own advice: “Just don’t break up.” We’ve used the hard times to push each other to learn, grow and improve ourselves. I’m not sure if we will last another two years or another twenty, but I’m grateful we’ve made it this far. Either way, I have three guys I can always turn to and say, “Hey, remember that time in…” And that feels like success.

Shout out to the best jerks a girl could ask for. Happy anniversary y’all.

Val Loper plays bass for Bear Hands. He has a solo project called Rubbing Alcohol that will be releasing a new EP titled Stressful Jazz as soon as his friends finish mixing it. He lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Abby. He can be found at @rubbingvalcohol on social media.