Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
I Threw a Show in My Heart and Nobody Came
“I’ve played with these guys. Good songs, boring musicians, not very nice people.”
— Anonymous comment on Brooklyn Vegan post about Freshkills’ last show
I was in a band for nine years. We put out three records, two of them financially backed by small labels. We sold, approximately, a thousand copies between all three. We never got reviewed by Pitchfork or Spin. We went through four bassists. Eventually we had more ex-bassists than audience members. Then we broke up.
I imagine my failures are at least ten times as boring to you as they are to me, and the only thing duller than a guy talking about his tattoos (which I’ll get into later) is a guy talking about his band, so I’m going to skip a lot of details; but a quick story, to illustrate numerous points: I once met Jim White, the drummer from the Dirty Three, at a junk shop on Bedford Avenue where various made-its, made-it-once-and-maybe-agains, and almost-made-it-but-that’s-OKers, would gather to ogle girls and boys on the first days of spring. I, being relatively new to the crowd, mainly listened to him talk to the other (slightly) older guys about who’d died or gone jazz.
But I ran into him again that evening on the L train. I reintroduced myself and sort of invited myself to walk with him when we got off the train. I told him about my band Freshkills, and about how we were doing pretty well but were running into a few obstacles: Our demo was pretty well received and we’d played with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio… but there was now a wall, both in crowd enthusiasm and in show booking. I explained at length, for at least six blocks, that our main problem, what was really killing us, was that we were “too art for the rock crowd and too rock for the art crowd.” Jim, who hadn’t said much — and, it’s important to point out, would never recall meeting me again, even after my band opened for another band of his years later — stopped me and without really bothering to make eye contact said the following:
“Maybe people just don’t like you.”
What’s it like being in a band that you think is amazing and everyone else is completely indifferent to? Well, it’s a lot like a job where you’re the laziest guy on the shift and everyone knows it; it’s not great, but it beats working. Except you’re working really hard and it sucks. And all your friends are getting promotions, and even if they eventually get dropped by their promotions, they at least got a taste and what did you get? First on a bill of three on a Tuesday night. Like your life, the analogy eventually falls apart.
Freshkills, as it’s doubtful you’ve heard of us (no, it’s OK, you’re thinking of the former landfill, now park, that we named ourselves after), existed from roughly 2003 to this last March. We started as a proper Nation of Ulysses tribute band and evolved into a better-than-decent post-punk band. We did fine. We got to tour the United States numerous times, playing for dozens upon dozens of people; we played with bands that I’d loved since I was a teenager and we played with amazing bands that were practically teenagers that I never would have discovered if I weren’t stuck in Tulsa with them on a rainy Monday night. I’m both cognizant of and grateful to the fact that we succeeded more than most just by virtue of recording songs and getting to leave our hometown. But, see — and here’s the thing that I hope many aspiring musicians will be able to relate to — we rarely got asked to do any of this. We toured because we wanted to and we booked the tours ourselves. We wrote to clubs and said we’d like to play. We wrote to labels and said “Hey! We work cheap!” We had to beg, borrow, and steal for whatever the universe gave us. And while I never felt our recorded output lived up to our live show, I thought we were pretty swell, and could never figure out just why people weren’t knocking down our doors to play their house party.
There are three questions that you can ask yourself when you’re in an unpopular band:
1. Why don’t people like me?
2. Are they right?
3. Is our existence dependent on the answers to questions 1 and 2?
After three years of existence you can answer Question 1 with “because people are stupid.” You cannever go wrong with “people are stupid.” Because, really, they are. They would rather listen to She Wants Revenge than your band. By any reasonable scale of judgment, that’s completely insane. But they also like the Mekons and Lou Rawls and all sorts of amazing stuff, so eventually that theory holds less and less water. So then you have to ask, “Well, if it turns out people are often entirely reasonable in their music choices, but rarely more than 85 of them at any given time like us, are the rest correct? Are we (and our limited fan base of friends, exes, and boyfriends of siblings) the stupid ones? The answer to this is the subtext of every “Are you guys still playing shows?” conversation you will have for the next six years. Simply put, yeah, probably. This leads to Question 3. What is to be done? The void beckons, you’re going to die sooner than later, do you still want to be in a band? Well now, that really depends on what you wanted out of the band in the first place.
Ha-ha. Just kidding. No it doesn’t. Look, there are millions of musicians who will swear to their dying day that they make music for its own sake, and the joy of creation is what it’s all about and if you’re in it for any other reason you are a poseur and a fraud and, hey, “Check out this meme on my Facebook wall about how artists are shooting stars and special and shit and, BTW, QUEEN IS WAY BETTER THAN BEYONCE.” To them I say, “Cool.” They aren’t wrong — I felt all that too, to varying degrees (except the “Queen is better than Beyonce” meme. That shit is entirely annoying). But they’re just better humans than I and therefore outside of my purview. I wanted to be successful. Not rock star successful, but successful enough that I’d be tending bar six months out of the year instead of twelve. I wanted to be at least Murder City Devils successful. And I have the idiotic tattoos to prove it. You don’t get a flaming 13 on your arm unless you’re deeply invested in being the sort of person who’s earned a flaming 13 tattoo on their arm. (Of course, one could argue that if you truly want to succeed, you should maybe set your sights higher than “almost as famous as the Dictators,” but hindsight is the guy who signed Spoon after they wrote that song about their first A&R guy.) I wanted to die semi-young and leave a semi-successful corpse for my mother to cry over. So what one wants out of the band is entirely irrelevant. The world is a vampire and you are a bucket of blood sitting in the corner, unattended yet still strangely ignored, until you go bad and somebody inadvertently kicks you over and the floor is incredibly sticky and still the vampiric world fails to pay you a morsel of mind. Poor li’l bucket of blood.
If this narrative seems to be lacking in specifics, that’s because, as I noted earlier, the specifics aren’t entirely interesting. And I should be clear that I’m not speaking for anyone in the band other than myself. If you want their perspective, corner them in a bar and ask them. Like the leprechaun, if you capture one of us, we have to give up our gold. But in this case, the gold is a list we keep in our back pocket of everyone in the industry who ever lied to us. But, hell, I imagine even those monsters have their point of view. It couldn’t have been easy to deal with five rapidly aging problem drinkers who were watching themselves become the butt of jokes in the Brooklyn Vegan comment section. I’m also studiously trying to avoid blaming anyone because, honestly, it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Or it was everyone’s and mostly ours and I’m not quite ready to admit that we weren’t as great I thought (and still think) we were. Like 99.999% of bands, we just never caught on. The only advice I can give anyone, the only specific thing I learned, possibly in my entire life, is the following: if someone, particularly an ex-manager of various famous bands, tells you that you’re playing the Siren Fest, get it in writing.
So now, after countless two-and-a-half star/six-point eat-a-dick ratings for albums we spent two years writing and recording, I’m in the biz that never before did me a damn bit of good. I am… writing about music. It works out OK, though it’s hard to let go of the notion that all my new peers are my eternal blood oath enemies. As I only went to college for a few years and was a terrible student, the chip on my shoulder extends to those better educated too, so it’s easy enough to slip from being jealous of more successful musicians to seething at 24-year-old editors who use urban slang not commensurate with their actual upbringing. And I’m glad I got my gig as “that guy who’s been around a long time” rather than through an MFA. Fuck writing school. I firmly believe that one should honestly and earnestly fail at everything else first before one becomes a writer. Am I happy? I dunno. Who cares? The only people on earth who think they were put here for the sole purpose of being happy are imbeciles and Americans. Would I do it again? Totally and without reservation. The Big Boys told everyone to start a band. It would have been rude not to.
I still plan on making music and I enjoy taking cheap shots at popular artists on Twitter and I really, really adore my girlfriend, and I love my family and whatnot, so it would be churlish to complain. I also will be the first to admit that one’s band not fulfilling one’s entirely unreasonable expectations is maybe not a tragedy on par with, well, any real human suffering. And I’m not entirely solipsistic. I skim The Economist from time to time and therefore, especially by person-in-band standards, know what’s up. I wish there was less pain in the world, I wish my taxes didn’t support widespread torture and wedding bombings. I wish Assad was gone and that Northern and Southern Mali would come to a peaceable solution that granted all its peoples dignity and desired agency. I wish that women’s reproductive rights weren’t under constant attack and that racism was a thing of the past. I wish for world peace and an end to inequality. But more than all of that — and believe me when I say I want all that badly — more than I wish for health and happiness for myself, more than I wish to achieve any sort of gnosis in an unfathomable void of a universe, more than I wish to no longer fear death, awful, awful death, at all times, constantly without recess, what I really wish, I mean really, is that you had liked my band.