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Learning to Live Together

Age of Van: The Revivalists' Rob Ingraham Talks Co-Habitation in this Week's Column

Rob Ingraham of the Revivalists discusses the downsides of living in close quarters. The saxophonist dispels myths of overnight success, stressing the highs and lows of living together along the way. 


“Either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.”

-Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday


There can be a certain romance to the idea of a band:  A group of artistic purists united by a common vision who immerse themselves in creative outpourings and let everything else take care of itself.  Oddly enough, this image only holds true at the extreme ends of the spectrum.  When you're just getting started, you can usually show up to a gig in separate cars twenty minutes before the downbeat and write “Jam in E” on the setlist, because the friend-of-a-friend who's hosting the party is only paying you in beer anyway.  Fifteen years down the road, if you did everything right and you're making Billy Joel money, your organization will be large enough to effectively insulate you from all of the messy little day-to-day concerns, like a drug kingpin who spends his time managing various money-laundering fronts and waiting to get shot by a competitor.


Man, The Wire was awesome.


But there are a lot of miles between point A and point B (B for Billy Joel), and you have to drive all of them in a pre-owned utility vehicle.  The “overnight success story” is a myth.  Successful artists, even those who seem to come out of nowhere, usually spend years toiling in obscurity and growing inch wise before reaching critical mass.  It's just that nobody knows about the band during this stage, because that's what “obscurity” means.



“Get rich or die alone.”

-Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (slightly paraphrased)


As they gradually claw their way towards relevance, bands become bigger and bigger businesses.   Sort of.  Responsibilities multiply quickly, but the cashflow will take years to catch up.  You have to book everything yourself until you can convince an agency that you’re worth their time.  You have to drive yourself everywhere until you can pay someone to do it for you (never trust anyone who offers to drive your van for free).  Until you can afford a tour manager, you have to advance all of your shows by yourself (which involves the not-so-simple task of getting club promoters to return phone calls) and you're responsible for making sure your band is physically present at the next gig (which involves the even-not-so-simpler task of corralling musicians).


And there are lots of little things that can dig at your morale.  Two of the guys are sick, one threw his back out hauling gear last night, and one is sulking because he has to spend his girlfriend’s birthday driving through central Pennsylvania.  None of you got enough sleep last night, you haven’t had a moment to yourself since Wednesday, and everyone’s on edge, and somehow, throughout all of this, you just have to keep it together.


Because the truth is that the most important thing about being in a band is just coexisting.


“We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.”

-Billy Bragg, “The Internationale” (and later Matthew Fox in an episode of Lost)


Sure, you have to make good music, but most bands know pretty early on if that’s something they can do.  After that, it’s really just a matter of maintaining harmony.  When a band breaks up, it’s never because one of them looked around one day and said “well guys, we’ve been doing this for a while now, and nobody really seems to like us, so let’s go home and sell office supplies.”  Musicians rank among the most passionate, tenacious, and deluded individuals on the planet, and anybody who can live the van life for a week can live it for a decade.  The question is not of your commitment to music, but rather your commitment to each other.


The highway is littered with the remains of bands who succumbed to infighting, or who lost perspective and let the little things become big things, or who simply didn’t have the right mix of personalities in the first place.  You’re going to have to get used to life in a compact, shared world.  You’ll wait your turn to take a shower in the morning and you’ll argue about where to eat dinner at night.  You’ll fight about things that matter.  You’ll fight about things that don't matter.  There are hundreds of costs, thousands of responsibilities, and about half a million crooks between you and the Billy Joel StratosphereTM.  Fortune disfavors young musicians, and the truly successful bands are those who can hold onto that initial sense of family and love and weather life’s turbulence together.  As a team.


Keep that in mind the next time your drummer’s chewing with his mouth open.

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