Hello there. My name is Paul Maroon, and I’m a professional musician who’s played in bands for the past 30 years, most recently in a group called The Walkmen. In that time, I’ve picked up a fair amount of information, some of which is actually pretty useful: How to kill a week at a Toronto airport hotel. How to solve the puzzles at Cracker Barrel. What to do when your bandmate literally falls asleep onstage at a SXSW showcase. I’m now hoping to pass some of this experience on to you—the aspiring musician, as well as the listener who may be curious about music in general. So I’m offering my services in the form of this new advice column for The A.V. Club.
If you have any questions—about being in a band, about touring and recording, or really anything at all about music—please send them to me at this email address, and I’ll answer them here. Actually, if you have any questions about anything, send them on in: kids, politics, sports—whatever. Anything you’d like my advice on, I’ll be glad to offer it.
Do indie-rockers ever get indie-stalkers? It seems like the approachability of being in an indie band especially would invite a lot of people hanging around, trying to be your friends.
—Kevin in Austin
Yeah, it happens. Once we were opening for Broken Bells, and I had a long conversation with this nice guy in their crew. He was telling me how the night before they had played Chapel Hill outside in the pouring rain, and because of the rain they kept pushing the show back. Since there was a hard curfew, the band was saying, “We need to start,” but it wasn’t safe and the promoter wouldn’t budge. I was excited to find out what happened next in this guy’s story, but at that point, Broken Bells’ tour manager walked by, did an alarmed double-take, and within about one second he had the guy I was talking to in a chokehold in the hallway. I heard a “Get the fuck out of here!” and then the door slammed and it was quiet again. I looked it up later, and Broken Bells hadn’t even played Chapel Hill.
In the early days of the internet, we had some guy who kept emailing The Walkmen and saying he was going to kill us. He was going to be in New York at the Bowery Ballroom show—prepare to die, etc. He also said he was Lebanese, and since my family is as well, I would be spared. I remember thinking, “Are you sure Lebanese people don’t kill each other?” We tracked his URL and found out he was still posting from the same location on the day of the show, so we figured we were okay. At the time, it seemed sorta preposterous—maybe 10-percent scary. But sadly, I think you have to take these things more seriously nowadays. Your average Mortiis stalker might be scarier than his Minus The Bear counterpart, but it’s never cute. Don’t do it!
Is recording with a metronome or click track a must? How do you feel about editing on a computer?
—Avery in Los Angeles
I prefer recording with a click, actually. It sounds a little stiffer, but if you don’t get a good take the first or second time without a click, you kinda lose that magic anyway. (I think it was the Rolling Stones who always kept the first take that nobody made a significant mistake on, regardless of whether they thought it could be better.) Plus, when you come back the next day and the tempo is wrong, you can be scientific about changing it.
New music is pretty cleaned up these days. My friend engineers for one of the biggest bands in the world. Once I saw him spend an entire day editing the rhythm piano on a single song. It wasn’t even for an album; I think it was an iTunes session. All this perfection seeps into the way we hear things, and what would have been too slick 20 years ago doesn’t sound that way now.
There’s a hierarchy to how on or off the beat various instruments can be: The bass rarely gains from being off (unless it’s something super loose, like reggae). The drums have more flexibility; really great drummers are able to speed up and slow down around the click, provided they don’t leave it entirely. Percussion, keyboards, acoustic guitars—things that have a sharp, high-end attack—can start to drive you nuts if you don’t fix them. But editing electric guitars is dangerous territory. If you get too fussy with them, it can tip the balance, and when you sit back in triumph to listen to your final mix, you’ll realize your band sounds like Imagine Dragons. (No offense to Imagine Dragons, who suck.) Singing really needs to be on pitch, and nowadays that’s easily fixed. There’s no harm in fixing the pitch on every line, but if you do that—plus make sure the rhythm is perfect, and the voice never cracks, etc.—then you’ve probably taken the charm out of it as well.
I recently sampled The Soul Stirrers, who made some of my very favorite recordings. They’re often off pitch, but I had honestly never noticed until I was working with them on the computer. All of a sudden you start to hear—and see on the screen—all these flaws. I started to fix them, and lo and behold, it got worse. A band like that doesn’t need to be fixed. My dear 80-year-old mom could record them (with a little help, maybe). Plus, she’d make a mean Costco lasagna after the session. Because editing can really suck the life out of certain music.
What are the economics behind a middle-class band—i.e., one that’s built a following but hasn’t broken through to radio airplay or Grammys-level success? There seems to be a wide gulf between making millions and eating stale pizza crust on the floor of a van. I’m wondering how many bands exist in the space in between those extremes.
—Mike in Jersey City
That was us, basically, for about 15 years. The Walkmen were the shrinking middle class. I actually don’t think there were many bands operating at our level. We were lucky in that we had a van that ran for 300,000 miles. Matt and Ham, the practical members of the band, always made sure we got oil changes. It sounds like I’m trying to be funny, but those oil changes were very important. Once, in 2008, our van was genuinely stuck in the “drive-thru tree” in the California redwoods for half an hour. (It’s not as big as it looks.) If we’d never gotten out of that tree, that would have been the end of The Walkmen financially. It also would have been embarrassing.
We went through a few managers over the years who were at first confused by our business plan, then briefly amused, before giving way to pity and disgust. For a while, and pretty late in our career, Hamilton and Matt just managed the band themselves under the pseudonym “Doug Diehl.” Doug was great; I was sorry to see him go. We were always forgetting Doug existed, which led to funny conversations when we met people he’d emailed. Anyway, our “plan,” such as it was, was to be the cheapest people you ever met and just make records. At least, in the back of my mind, it felt like it would have jinxed the whole operation if we treated it like a real business. (In my defense, it sure didn’t feel like one.) I imagine there are a lot of “middle” bands who feel this way.
Some middle-class bands survive mostly through licensing. That’s a charmed existence. Once you get a reputation for being able to write music that works well in TV and film, it snowballs, and you get more and more calls. But The Walkmen mostly made our money on the road. You need to be quite careful with your contracts; getting an extra couple hundred bucks out of the band is meaningful to a promoter. And you need to avoid stupid things, like paying to have 60 cans of beer waiting for you backstage every night. After 15 years, that means you spent—lemme take a stab at the math here—$10 million on beer. Beyond that, there are a bunch of pretty obvious tricks to make sure you’re making money on tour: price-lining hotels, rental cars, and even flights. Advancing the shows yourself. Driving yourself. Avoiding days off. Play the same day you arrive in Europe. Buy your guitar a seat on Ryanair, because it’s cheaper than checking it, and that means it gets a carry-on guitar of its own.
Personally, I’m less sure how we survived for as long as we did while still remaining close. We were friends since we were kids. We had to agree on everything, which is insane—and if I remember correctly, destroyed the Polish nobility. We split all the chores, all the credits, and all the money. Things never really got too good or too bad. We never made enough money to get a tour bus, a luxury that makes it even harder to be alone, yet gives you another opportunity to drink. But we eventually graduated to single hotel rooms, and the thrill of that never really wore off.
Or perhaps what kept us together was our reluctance to engage in too much self-reflection. In Athens, Georgia—inside the exact Travelodge pictured here, where pastel Crown Vics idled out front with nobody in them—I spent a night in a bed that was nearly convex. It must have dipped two feet in the middle, so my feet and head were much higher than my middle. I kept falling in and out of sleep. Every time I dreamt, I was fleeing the rest of the band on one of those Harleys with high handlebars, like in Easy Rider. I asked the guys the next day if they thought it meant anything, but we all agreed it didn’t.