The veteran Chicago punk favorites The Lawrence Arms just released their first new music in 8 years, with the album Metropole on Epitaph. In his decades in the business, bassist and vocalist Brendan Kelly has seen just about everything there is to see in terms of being in a band, for both good, and bad. Really, really bad. He recently decided to share some of that hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to stick it out for that long as a musician. Read more from Kelly on his blog, and check out their video for “Seventeener (17th and 37th)” below.
I’ve seen a ton of articles recently about how to be in a band. These articles tend to come across my desk via Facebook and generally, I find them to be about 80% right on and 20% capricious. Really, I think the ‘secrets’ to being in a band are probably like the secrets to being anything else: be nice to people, work hard, try to have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously, but I love a good list as much as the next girl, so I thought I’d throw one together too, since this is something I know slightly more than nothing about.
Now, for those of you who don’t know me, hi, I’m Brendan. I’ve been in bands of varying degrees of quasi-success since 1993 and a bunch of shitty, go nowhere bands before that stretching back to my first (total garbage) band in ‘88. Now, I’m not saying I’ve always followed all these rules perfectly—not by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a regular human fuckup just like you. BUT, I have seen some shit in my day, and as such, I’m somewhat informed. So, you want to know how to be in a band? Sheeit son (or daughter)! Here’s what you need to know:
Being in a band:
-Write some decent songs. If you think your songs suck, so does everyone. Don’t expect to ever do shit with bad songs. You need to write every day, and not worry about the fact that you’re just churning out dogshit, because your first songs are gonna be shitty and you’ll keep writing shitty songs as long as you’re alive. That’s okay, though. You need to burn through the shit to get to the good stuff lurking underneath. So get moving, because you’re gonna need to write a lot of garbage to finally come up with a set worth of semi decent songs. But that being said…
-Get out there and play as soon and as often as possible, because you’ll never be good until you start figuring out what you really sound like, and the only way to do that is to watch strangers, who don’t give a fuck about your feelings, get bored and walk away during your long, meticulous intro or guitar solo. Comedians talk a lot about how the only way to get good at standup is to bomb, and the same goes for playing rock and roll. Until you’ve tried ‘em out on other people, chances are, you THINK your ideas are way cooler than they are. Playing in front of people will slap your blinders off fast. The best crash course in songwriting is to watch the crowd when your band still sucks. That being said…
-Don’t write songs to pander to other people. The only thing you have going for you as a creative voice is that you have a wholly unique life experience. Draw on that and do things that take chances, lyrically and musically. If you think you can sub virtuosity in for perspective, I submit to you Steve Vai and any number of dudes in their moms’ basements blasting through scales in record time. No one cares about that shit but other nerds in other basements.
Okay, so you’ve got some songs. Good deal. Up next:
-Your band is your team, so act like it. If you’re gonna fight, fight off stage. On stage, you guys are stoked to be there and that’s it. No one cares about your petty arguments or deep-seated grudges. And that shit’s gonna happen. When you sign up to be in a band, you sign up for petty arguments and grudges and all sorts of interpersonal headaches, because being in a band is like being in a long term relationship with someone you work with and live with. It’s a ton of together time. Bickering is inevitable. Just leave that shit off the stage. Speaking of…
-Know when to stay the fuck out of each others’ way. Are you in a bad mood? Go for a walk. Is the drummer? Give him some space. Fuck, man, people get grumpy. Don’t worry about it, and don’t force interaction if someone just wants to brood or be left alone. You and your band are doing something cool (making music is fun, remember?) and eventually, most problems are solved by just chilling the fuck out, being respectful and not taking things too personally. It can be hard. But hey, what the fuck isn’t hard that’s worth doing?
-Load the gear. Don’t be a dick. I’ve been very, very guilty of shirking this one many times in the past and it’s just straight up shameful. All it does is bum out the other people in your band. It’s lame and lazy and makes you look like an asshole. Loading gear sucks. Someone has to do it. Help.
-That shit that the headlining band has in the green room? They bought that shit themselves. You played with band X and they got pissed when you drank a few beers? What dicks! Listen, sonny, the way backstage hospitality at a club usually works, (once you start getting more than one drink ticket per band member) is this: the band tells the club what they want in advance (on a rider, you’ve seen these online, right?) and the club goes out and buys it using money built into the budget. Do you know where that budget comes from? If you guessed the money that the band is getting paid, you’d be right. For example, the band I’m in could request a bottle of Cristal and lobster tails every night, and we could get them, but the money to buy the lobster and Cristal comes out of our guarantee. Young bands often get very territorial about shit in the green rooms, because they just don’t realize the way the shit in the green room gets bought. Here’s a rule of thumb: if someone specifically says it’s for you, cool. If someone specifically tells you you’re welcome to something, go for it. If not, you’re literally doing the equivalent of walking up to a random family in the park and rooting through their cooler. I understand. I’ve been an outraged member of an opening band a zillion times. Once you see how the business of hospitality works, however, you’ll see. That shit just straight up ain’t yours. Buy a case of beer and sneak it in just to be safe. If it turns out someone got you some beer. Boom! You’re stoked, drink your case in your practice space later, but regardless…
-Put yourself to bed when you’re too hammered. I’m not saying don’t have as much fun as possible. I’m, in fact, saying the opposite. Have AS MUCH FUN AS POSSIBLE but don’t let your fun ruin someone else’s fun. If you’re going to bone, let your people know where you’re going, and for gods’ sake get back to where you need to be before it’s time to leave for the next show. If you’re getting shithoused, pass out in a bed or in the van or in your house or whatever. Making people carry you is for lame drunk chicks at bars who got a sitter and are out with their husbands. If that doesn’t apply to you, get it together enough to stagger to a zone where you’re not bumming anyone out. Your van is RIGHT OUTSIDE!
-To reiterate, have as much fun as possible because uh, you aren’t gonna be in a band forever. Figure out what makes you happy about being in a band and excel at that. You like playing live? Be great up there. You like free beer? Drink it. You like attention from fans? Go stand by the merch table and be gracious and nice to everyone. You like seeing places you’ve never been? Get some coffee and some greasy food, and get your hungover ass in a cab and go get some culture. You like making money (heheheheh, nice choice of job, dummy), do the books and figure out how to make the most money you can. There is no shortage of ways to have the time of your life being in a band. Try to strike a balance between having as much fun (whatever that means for you) as you can, and not bumming out your people. But, when you inevitably DO bum out your people…
-Apologize, mean it, and quit fucking up. This is key. People make mistakes and you’re a people, so, chances are, you’re gonna fuck something up and bum out the folks in your band at some point. Just apologize and be sincere and don’t let your fuckups become a chronic source of their misery. People tend to be forgiving when you acknowledge that you fucked up, and take active steps to avoid bumming them out in the future.
-Don’t get uptight about your friends beating off on tour. Everyone has to do it. Sure, having the fifth shower in the hotel room is gonna be a bummer, but you know what? We’ve got very few prime biological directives in our life. Don’t look at or stand near the drain and don’t shame people for taking care of business.
-Get your shit on and off the stage as fast as possible. DO NOT PUT THE CYMBALS ON, OR TAKE THE CYMBALS OFF THEIR STANDS ON STAGE! EVER! EVER! EVER!
-Be nice to the local crew. They don’t care about your band, but they’ll be a lot more helpful if you’re not a total piece of shit to them.
-The acceptability of taking off your shirt on stage (only if it’s insanely hot, by the way!) is inversely proportional to how good your body is. If you’re fat or generally out of shape, it’s much less offensive than if you’re ripped. Ripped dudes with their shirts off may as well bring a mirror on stage with them.
-However, this all goes out the window if you’ve got rad tattoos or pierced nipples or anything. In these cases, you’re just gonna look like a dipshit, regardless of how crappy your body is. When in doubt, err on the side of keeping your shirt on.
-If the sound totally sucks, it sucks and you’re stuck with it. You’re not gonna be able to fix it with words during your show. That’s what soundchecks are for. You didn’t fix it then? It ain’t getting fixed now. You’re bumming out the crowd. Didn’t get a soundcheck? Yeeeeah, then they REALLY don’t care if you’ve got too much bass in the monitor. That said, you DO generally get about two comments about the monitors per show. If you can’t get shit up to speed after two requests for more vocals, suck it up and play through.
-Your tour manager SHOULD be your friend, ally and captain. He or she is not trying to bum you out. They are trying to make sure shit runs smoothly. Be nice and thankful to them and anyone else who works with your band who’s not standing on stage. They work just as hard as (or way harder than) you. Be nice.
-Try to talk to other bands, but recognize that everyone in other bands is not always outgoing. Some days I like to meet strangers and talk all day. Some days that’s the last thing I want to do. It all depends. Don’t assume a quiet person is a dick. They could be shy, they could be having troubles at home, they could be preoccupied, or they could just be preparing for the show. OR, you could just be obnoxious. That’s a big one that often applies to me.
-Be nice to your fans. They’re the fucking reason you get to do this, asshole. That said, some fans are the fucking worst. We call them punishers. When you encounter a punisher, and you will, be nice, be respectful and then hustle off to take care of business backstage or in your van. You’ve definitely got strings to change, or maps to look at or an interview to do. If you see that one of your dudes is being punished, go up and tell him that his mom just called your cell and wants him to call her right away or something. Look out for each other. Getting stuck, face down in the muck, surrounded by punishers is a quick train to lamesville.
-Don’t talk shit. This one is hard, but let me tell you from first hand experience, this one will bite you in the dick. If you’ve got a band worth a shit, you probably think your band is cooler than most other bands out there. That’s fine. But if you run your mouth about someone, it’s a goddamn guarantee that you’re gonna meet them at some point and they’re either gonna A) be super nice and you’ll feel like shit or B) totally clown you and you’ll deserve it. Also, talking shit about a band is equivalent to talking shit about their agent, their friends, their manager and their fans. Is your band so good that you can afford to have that many people hating you? Trust me. Don’t talk shit unless you’re VERY sure that you mean what you’re saying.
-If it’s your turn to drive, don’t get too hammered to drive. I remember we were on tour in the late 90’s and it was the guitarist of this other band’s turn to drive. The singer had driven all night the night before and was getting food after the show before passing out in the van for another all night drive. The guitarist, who was supposed to drive, ran to the liquor store while the singer was eating, got a sixer, chugged it, and was passed out in the van by the time the singer came out. He had to drive all night again, and very nearly crashed their van when he nodded off at the wheel. Funny story now. Super shitty at the time.
-To get back to hospitality for a sec, if you’re a headlining band, hook up your touring openers. They’re out there not making much money or getting much in terms of hospitality, you should be nice and let them share your beer and deli trays and shit. If you’re out with just one band, every once in a while, get ’em a room at your hotel so you guys can hang without them having to sell blood for gas. There were a couple of bands who hooked us up when we were babies and as a result, we always try to (forgive the phrase) pay it forward. It’s a good way to keep tour fun, and keep everyone on the same team. Being a touring opener is hard. If you’re a local opener and you can afford it, bring some beer from home. Share it with the touring opener. It’s a great way to make friends and connections.
Okay, that’s a good start. I’m leaving off a ton of shit, like try and not eat like a total asshole, don’t steal from anyone ever, if you sing and your voice starts to go, don’t fucking stay up talking and smoking and drinking til 3AM, and for fucks sake, play at least a few of your popular songs every night. Nothing sucks worse than going to see a band you love and not knowing a single song. That’s enough for me, personally, to never go see them again.
There’s way more, but I’m ending this here. Like I said at the beginning, this can all be distilled to: be nice to people, work hard, try to have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. Also, this is a diversion, not a career, so unless you’re Wade McNeil, don’t tattoo your face. He looks pretty cool. You probably won’t.