Being a local rock star may be harder than you think.
The Temple News interviewed members of Philly-based bands The Teeth, The A-Sides and Man Man for stories of the prudence and prestige that define the lives of professional musicians here in the land of cheesesteaks. Below are seven rules to live by if you want your band to explode – or at least survive.
A band must be one’s top priority if he or she wants to taste moderate success. That means having a commitment to rehearsing, recording, playing shows and touring is key. The one member who wants to be both a dentist and a musician will not make it with a band like The Teeth, said the band’s bassist Peter MoDavis.
“[Our guitarist] Brian used to skip finals for s—– shows. You have to give your all and give up everything else,” MoDavis said. “One of the biggest problems with starting a band is that there is always one member that can’t make it to shows and always has something else to do. That’s why you are always broke.”
Most bands in Philadelphia, even the bigger ones like Man Man, are unable to support themselves on their music alone. Unfortunately, the full-time commitment that comes with being a professional musician rules out any other long-term career possibilities. However, part-time work can be found in the service sector, so learning how to cook or bartend sometimes helps.
MoDavis works as a cook at a pizza shop. Chris Doyle of The A-Sides bartends at the Barbary Saloon on Frankford Avenue on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
A resourceful musician will find a day job that complements his or her strengths. Philadelphia is an artistic hub. Certain businesses can and will accommodate the aspiring rock star.
Jonas Oesterle, drummer of The Teeth, works as a part-time bartender at The Fire on West Girard Avenue. He may only work one or two nights a week, Oesterle said, but there has always been a mutual understanding that there will be work for him when he returns from a tour, and he and his band mates use the venue as a rehearsal space during off-hours.
Mike Flemming, bassist for The A-Sides, studied photojournalism at Drexel University and currently works for Jeffrey Totaro, a well-known architectural photographer in the Philadelphia area. Flemming said the job is convenient because it pays well but only requires his services once or twice a month, and each photo shoot is a new adventure because no two locations are the same.
Ryan “Honus” Kattner of Man Man has juggled several jobs over the past few years, his longest stint being at the Last Drop Café in South Center City. His commitment to Man Man is so intense that his role in the band has became a full-time job in and of itself. Now, with Man Man on the brink of mainstream stardom, Honus said he is too busy for even a part-time job.
2. Take a vow of poverty.
“Get used to being broke all the time,” MoDavis said. “After a while, it will seem normal.”
One misconception about bands in Philadelphia is that more exposure equals more money, Honus said.
Man Man has toured with Modest Mouse and spent more than six months on the road in 2007. Their music has been featured on Showtime’s show Weeds and even in a Nike commercial for women’s soccer apparel. They recently signed with Anti- Records, joining the ranks of Tom Waits, Elliott Smith and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Yet when Honus was contacted via phone for an interview, he was crashing at his father’s house in Austin, Texas.
“All my stuff is in a storage unit at the moment,” Honus said. “Right now, I’m just kind of floating around.”
It took Man Man three separate recording sessions to complete their new album because they kept running out of money and had to go on tour to create income. Honus will have to wait until the album hits stores in April for the checks to roll in.
A professional musician must seriously reevaluate his or her lifestyle in terms of what they enjoy and what they absolutely need to survive.
Flemming excels at being frugal. He has a minimalist style of dress and buys his clothes used. He eschews wasting money on junk food and also does not drink.
“Playing in a band makes you realize how much money people spend on alcohol every night,” Flemming said.
But suffering now will pay off later.
“Tobey from [popular Philly band] Dr. Dog just bought a house,” MoDavis said.
3. Don’t play hard if you can’t work hard.
In a city filled with enthusiastic hipsters always looking to get down, there are bound to be a lot of good times for a local band.
“Since [moving here in] 2001, my whole Philly experience has been filled with top-notch, typically crazy stories,” Doyle said. “I probably overdo it more than I should, but I think it is almost the same as 90 percent of the kids here.”
Described by his band mates in The A-Sides as a professional character and by himself as a social butterfly, “The Doyle,” at 31 years old, is practically a dinosaur compared to some of Philadelphia’s music aficionados, many of whom are fresh out of high school.
With his age comes experience. Doyle has played with bands since 1994, and has lived in South Carolina, New York and London prior to settling down in Philadelphia and joining The A-Sides to play keyboard, percussion and guitar. A musician’s life is perfect for Doyle, who said he loves touring, interacting with new faces and meeting up with old friends along the way. But he also maintains his commitment to music.
“My stories are kind of recounted the next morning . . . A lot of times, it gets you into trouble later on,” he said.
4. Expect the unexpected.
Murphy’s Law states that what can go wrong will go wrong. However, that which does not kill a band only makes it stronger. A legion of horrors waits on the road for a band on tour, but many of the tragedies that beset these musicians make for wildly entertaining stories later.
Honus’ trademark stage persona – white on white with bare feet – was developed after a run-in with a freight train in Tuscon, Ariz., while the band was on tour. The venue that Man Man played at that night was parallel to a set of railroad tracks. A screech in the night alerted Honus to a Cadillac Escalade that was racing down the tracks and had blown out a tire.
“Either he was wasted or stole a car,” Honus said. “We go tearing into the gravel, yelling ‘Get out of the car.’ The guy must have been wasted because he tried to outrun the train with a flat tire.” The train was moving so fast that they didn’t hear the impact or see any debris, Honus said. He lost a boot in the chaos and performed the rest of the tour in his bare feet.
The A-Sides, during recent a tour of the East Coast, crashed at a country home that belonged to Flemming’s grandparents in Media, Pa. The sheriff called during the night and left a message on the answering machine.
“[The sheriff said] these crazy guys have escaped from jail and were on the loose, and that we should lock our doors and be on the lookout,” Flemming said. “Personally, I went back to sleep. But the rest of the guys were freaked out.”
Doyle offered a different recollection.
“Once Mike was asleep, me and Patrick and Collin were out posing with [Flemming’s grandmother’s rifle]. Then a cop drove by,” Doyle said. “We’re lucky that no one saw us – six dudes that do not live there posing with a rifle outside while crazies are on the loose.”
5. KNOW DOWN TIME FROM LOUNGE TIME.
Being a professional musician is a hectic way of life. It might be tempting to vegetate on a couch when not working, rehearsing or playing shows, but there is almost always a small band-related job that needs to be done.
Flemming loves traveling in his spare time, and even left The A-Sides temporarily to journey across East Asia one summer.
This might seem like a drastic and greedy move on his part, but tension between bandmates is inevitable. Everybody needs a vacation sometimes, as long as he or she will be ready to get back to work when it is over.
“During our worst fight, I almost got in a fist fight with [brother and guitarist-singer] Aaron because he called me a litterbug,” MoDavis said. “I think that the better bands don’t need as much down time because they can be constantly working with each other, like Dr. Dog.”
Jimmy Viola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.