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Ask an indie rock veteran: How important are drugs to a music scene?

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Illustration: Karl Gustafson
Illustration: Karl Gustafson

I’m a musician, and my greatest desire is to play in front of huge crowds at festivals. But at the same time, I have a pretty crippling fear of doing exactly that. Did you or anybody you encountered in the rock life have this problem?

I actually do know some people who are afraid of this. People have pretty unexpected problems onstage. I know a singer for a huge band who basically is thinking about peeing the whole time—where the bathroom is, why he has to pee so soon, why he can’t stop peeing and just enjoy himself (this kinda seems like the worst part). In terms of facing stage fright, apparently it never goes away entirely. If it’s at the level of an irrational fear (I’m going to get hit by a meteor), it can be muscled down to realistic fear level (I’ll probably get punched in the face on Friday night in Boston).

Let’s say you have a kid who is afraid of the dark. If you leave the light on all the time, the fear just grows. If you turn all the lights out, you traumatize them. So you have to wade on in, so to speak, with a nightlight and a few tantrums. Eventually they may not love the dark, but they’ll sleep in it every night. Now, let’s apply this miserable metaphor: Basically, you have to get up there. Maybe don’t start by opening for Kid Rock in Philly. But if you can convince Joan Baez to let you play a song or two before her in, say, Vermont, you might be able to start quietly realizing it’s not the end of the world.


How can a person develop their own individual style—in music, in fashion, in art, etc.?

This is such a hard question. I basically spent all my free time from 13 to 30 trying to develop a unique “style” of playing guitar and piano with, I think I can say this fairly, varying degrees of success. The most tangible result of this effort is that the five or so people standing in front of me every night are trying to send a text message while covering both their ears. Try it; it’s hard. One night I looked down, and my friend Hamilton [Leithauser]—who really sings as if his life depends on it every night—was screaming at the top of his lungs, and right at his feet there was a girl actually talking on the phone. Not texting, but talking, with her finger in her other ear. Staring blankly, right at him. I wonder how people get her attention.


Now, some folks are blessed right off with a unique perspective, which can help. But effortlessly original people are far and few between. And talent and originality don’t give you the discipline to write six hours a day for 70 years, like, say, Graham Greene. Though I know absolutely nothing about fashion, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Alexander McQueen, facing a deadline every few months, could remember how he solved almost every design problem he encountered, while perhaps not remembering where his original inspirations came from. Because at some point, your way of assembling and organizing your thoughts becomes your art, no matter how mundane your original ideas.

I just finished Meet Me In The Bathroom, and it sounds like all of those New York bands who were contemporaneous to Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Walkmen—The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.—were drinking and doing coke 24/7. Are drugs just inherent to a vibrant music scene?

I didn’t really see this scene firsthand. Drugs didn’t work for us with our first band, Jonathan Fire*Eater, so by the time The Walkmen rolled around, we kind of steered clear. My hunch is that no, you don’t need them, just because I’ve never seen anybody get anything done on hard drugs. (Although, I did overhear someone counting to 2,000 outside a tour bus once, which was impressive in its way.)

Sure, Bob Dylan was on speed when he wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”—which, if I did that, I’d still be waking up my wife in the middle of the night and reminding her, 50 years later. But “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was written before things got super druggy, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s actually better, so Dylan was great before the drugs. In the middle of these scenes, there’s usually only one or two extraordinary people, and they are why the whole thing exists. Did it drive and inspire them that everybody they met was on drugs? Probably not. It’s more likely that it just annoyed the shit out them.

What’s the most you ever got paid for anything music-related?

This isn’t really what you asked, but some time ago, The Walkmen received a bill from our English label for several thousand pounds to have the remaining copies of our CD “destroyed.” It wasn’t that great a feeling. Especially since it wasn’t, “Would you like to pay to have your CDs destroyed, and here’s why it’s a good idea.” Instead, it was, “Your CDs have been destroyed,” with a bill attached. So we split it, and it was about a thousand bucks each. Spotify has put all the CD-destroying plants out of business.


But luckily, around that time we also got a TV ad, and—generally speaking—that allows five people to live for about two months. Ads are the quickest way to make a buck. If you get to a certain level, like playing to 500 to 1,000 people a night, you also get offered the occasional private party, which is the next best thing. Selling records doesn’t make any money. Touring is reliable if you watch every penny, drive yourself, and plan it yourself. Unfortunately, if you’re in one of those cocaine-and-alcohol scenes mentioned above, you can’t drive yourself or plan anything.

If your kids decided they wanted to be musicians when they got older, what would you tell them?

I would love for my girls to be musicians. But what kind of musician are we talking about? The third violinist in the Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra is very, very good, even if that version of “Mo Money, Mo Problems” she’s being forced to play in front of City Hall on July 4th isn’t. The nice thing is, you’ll know by the time your kid is about 3 whether professional classical musician is a possibility. It’s a long shot.


For some reason, it’s hard to visualize my little girls growing up to be jazz musicians. When you’re feeling sentimental, you picture high school graduation, driving them to college, kids of their own—but not playing, say, a trombone solo. Or getting into an argument in her dorm room about Tower Of Power. (That said, I bet nobody expected their sweet boy to turn out to be an angry youth soccer instructor named “Coach Sweat,” but my girls have one.)

Then there are a bunch of genres, such as rock/rap/country where you have no real idea if it will work, you never really know why it does—although it always seems so clear why it doesn’t—and, if it does, you know it won’t for long. You’re supposed to be supportive as a parent, but it’s hard to get behind this one. Still, my mom forced me at emotional gunpoint to practice piano every day, and I’m very thankful. So in terms of doing it for a living, I think you just have to realize it’s plan B. You jinx the whole thing when you make it plan A.


Is there ever a time when it’s okay to just quit?

Sure! Years ago, my band played in Memphis at a place called the Hi-Lo Lounge. We arrived, set up, sat around for five hours. Nobody came. Finally, a young guy walked in and said hello. We started playing pool. At about 10 p.m. I asked the sound man if he expected anybody to show up. He said that he’d gotten two calls about the show. This was a little disappointing. After another half hour, it occurred to me to ask the kid if he had been one of the phone calls, and he said yes. After another half hour or so he said, “I have to tell you something… I called twice.” At that point, we should have left.


What questions do you have? Send them to me at marooned@theonion.com, and I’ll help where I can. In the meantime, come listen to my scoring work at Henderson-Maroon.com.