It’s hard enough to create meaningful art, but even harder to do so when you have a day job.
The portrayals of Brooklyn as “indie rock ground zero” are ubiquitous. Go to any source for new music – blogs, magazines, overly opinionated concertgoers – and you’re going to hear about the same “great” 30 Brooklyn bands. But despite the prominence of the borough as a music hub, there’s a snag. With record sales down and apartment prices up, even touring and recording acts are finding themselves having to take a day job and collect a regular paycheck. It’s a tough balance for anyone trying to create art.
Talk Normal and EULA, two of Brooklyn’s most exciting indie rock groups, spoke with The GROUND about balancing their work with their art in order to make ends meet – without losing one’s sanity.
New York is expensive. The city tops of the list of “Most Expensive Cities to Live In” year after year. If you live in New York, then you go home to family vacations where suburban relatives will ask how much your rent is, because they can’t wait to be shocked by it. They also make fun of the way you dress, and they do this in clothing from Pacific Sunwear. They are in their late ’20s.
But never mind your cousins. Baggy shorts aside, they’re right to be shocked. NYC is not cheap and has not been for a very long time. There is a cultural memory of course, of New York of the ’70s, the one that film and music would have you believe was filled exclusively with junkies, Woody Allen, and the Ramones. It’s the one Ford told to drop dead. Manhattan housed the No Wave artist James Chance in an apartment on 2nd and A for $105 a month. Adjusting for inflation from 1978 to now only brings that up to $357. This, in Alphabet City. You don’t know anyone paying that rent anywhere in the city now. Not even in Bushwick.
So, yes, that New York is gone, and anyone under 40 complaining about it has never been mugged. A young musician today does not get to live in Alphabet City for three digits a month. Today’s rockers have long since relocated to Brooklyn, which is now frequently cited as the locus for indie music. This has its own problems. In September 2012, the three highest rent increases in Brooklyn occurred in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Greenpoint; precisely the hottest places for young aspiring artists (they won’t even dream of Williamsburg anymore).
This leads to the other dilemma: Musicians aren’t making money. Historically, of course, most musicians have never been among the 1 percent. But now, even relatively successful groups are being squeezed as record sale revenue is almost nonexistent. In a recent New York magazine profile of Grizzly Bear, author Nitsuh Abebe noted that the group has recently performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, played Radio City Music Hall, and released an album, Shields, debuting at No. 7 on the Billboard album chart. They’ve had songs licensed for Twilight movies and the Super Bowl. At a 2009 concert in Williamsburg, Jay-Z and Beyonce showed up. By anybody’s standards, they’re about as successful as possible for an indie band. But some members are nevertheless unable to afford healthcare.
Where does that leave all the other musicians living in the most expensive city in the country? The ones who can’t license a song out to cover a few months’ rent? It leaves them with jobs. The kind that pay rent. It’s true that there are those who claim that working day jobs leave no time for artistic development, but you won’t find too many of them in New York.
Noise rock band Talk Normal is one of the most dynamic acts in the city. Guitarist Sarah Register and drummer Andrya Ambro utilize a basic musical combo to create gales of rhythmic noise and drone that manage just enough melody to stick in your head. They’ve received attention online and in print from magazines such as Vice, favorable reviews in the usual indie outlets such as Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes, and tour dates alongside the post punk icons Wire. They have an upcoming album, “Sunshine,” whose singles “Bad Date” and “Cover” suggest a band expanding in every way from their already bracing debut LP, “Sugarland.” They’re not becoming more pop, or more (or less) noise. They’re becoming more Talk Normal, which is a good thing.
But the group might not exist were it not for their occupations. The two met as students at NYU, during a work study program with the Music Technology Department. Ambro recalls that Register was briefly her supervisor during this time. They were fast friends, and after the demise of their original group, Antonius Block, they decided to continue working.
Keeping Talk Normal going has required tremendous effort. Both Register and Ambro work as part-time audio engineers. Ambro has also worked sound at Bowery Ballroom, Tonic, and Mercury Lounge, and continues to occasionally do so for the Kitchen. On top of this, she works part time at Greenpoint Kitchen and Café Troost. She said: “I like this job, but I’m just getting by.”
Working part time while touring is hard especially while recording an album. Whereas their fist LP “Sugarland” was signed onto Rare Book Room before it even existed, “Sunshine” was done without any outside support.
“We don’t have a label behind us, we don’t have a steady income from our albums, so we have to balance.”
“This time,” Register explained, “we were looking around for what was going to happen for the second album, and ultimately decided to just make the thing ourselves.”
Recording and working often conflicted with each other. “There where months,” said Register, “where I could not really work, or where if I could work, it was like, running off at the end or whatever, saying like, ‘I’m sorry guys, I can’t be there till 5.’”
Despite these difficulties, neither member seems upset about their position. Actually, they seem grateful to have produced the album without any outside support. “Even despite all the trials that went into Sunshine, it’s killing!” enthused Ambro. “Like, we protected it, and it’s really cool that we were able to do that. There was a lot of bullshit that went on technically and money wise, and I think, when you’re stressed like that, it’s really hard to keep sight of what you’re really doing, but we protected that and came out with a very good product.”
Register added: “I think we protected that more that we protected our own individual sanities. I think I very nearly lost my mind. But, I’m better now … and the record is pretty good.” They’re also happy with their new label, Joyful Noise, which has picked up “Sunshine.”
Hard work and a lack of complaints also typifies another rising group: EULA, a group that’s post punk the way your uncle who lived in London for a spell remembers it (they do a terrific cover of Gang of Four’s wonderfully titled “To Hell With Poverty”). The three piece’s music is angular, syncopated, and just slightly abrasive, while still being enjoyable enough to dance to.
Like Talk Normal, they met at music school (though in New Haven instead of New York), they’ve opened for a seminal post punk group, and they’ve received critical praise for their first LP, 2011’s “Maurice Narcisse.” Also like Talk Normal, all three members have jobs to support their group.
“We didn’t really have any help whatsoever as a band,” singer and guitarist Alyse Lamb explained. “We did everything ourselves. We recorded, we paid for it ourselves, we promoted ourselves, we put on our own shows. We needed those full-time jobs to pay for all that we did.”
Since moving to Brooklyn a year ago, EULA’s drummer Nathan Rose has worked at a furniture store. “My manager is also a drummer in a band,” he noted. Lamb has worked several jobs in Brooklyn. Currently, she works
at a record store and waitresses, and she has also worked as a maid. “You know you’re in Brooklyn, when you open for Mission of Burma one night, and you’re, like, cleaning a fucking toilet the next,” she jokes. “We don’t have a label behind us, we don’t have a steady income from our albums, so we have to balance.”
No one knows this balance more than bassist Jeff Maleri, the only member of the group who opted to stay in Connecticut and work at the cafe of a retirement home. “I was really hesitant at first on how it was going to work,” he said. “Now that it’s been over a year, I’ve become accustomed to the role of just driving.” Despite the stream of all-nighters caused by staying, Maleri, like the other members of EULA and Talk Normal, never gives any impression of frustration or discontent. He’s enthusiastic when asked if he gains any satisfaction from his work.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a grin. “A lot actually, because I’m helping out people. I’m constantly with these residents that are well into their 80s, some 90s, some 100s, talking to them and hearing what they have to say, and how different it was back in the day. The funny thing is that I’ve actually done performances where I work. I’ve done drum and bass, on my own, nobody else. People there are just great.”
Aside from jobs and shows, EULA is busy with another release – a four song, “probably” self-released EP that’s current being recorded. While they seem uninterested in label support, what they do want is a booking agent. “We really want to tour. We want to get out there so bad,” Lamb said. The band’s hunger and drive are palpable.
It’s so common to hear people complain about the jobs they have and wish for something else. Equally common is the lament of those using their jobs to excuse their lack of output in whatever area they (claim to be) truly passionate about.
“If only I had more free time, then I’d write that novel, build that house,” they all cry. When interviewing EULA and Talk Normal, that feeling never emerged. Whatever troubles they all share, be it monetary pressure, album creation stresses, or a god damn midnight Connecticut commute on a school night; everyone constantly conveyed the sense of pride in their work, and the satisfaction of being able to do it. That, and a healthy dose of pragmatism for dealing all those difficulties. Self-released albums, touring between day jobs, and optional label support – this is Brooklyn (and Connecticut).
The GROUND Issue #03