Just Fucking Do it.
A couple a few years back I did an interview with with KnowTheMusicBiz.com with the unfortunate title of "What I know now I wish I knew when I was getting started in the music business". (Not my idea). I went back and re-read it recently. Even though I say things I sometimes don't mean, I still stand by this. So I'm posting it here. Plus I refreshed the thing with a new title "Just Fucking Do it". Enjoy, C
What I know now I wish I'd known when I was getting started. Advice for musicians.
I wished I'd have guzzled lots less alcohol less and fucked lots more. I sort of wish I hadn't bitch-slapped a promoter who cheated me. It seemed so important at the time. But what good would any crystal ball have done me?
Maybe try not to take yourself too seriously. Try not to be terribly precious —but it doesn't hurt to be obsessive and dogged. To have some inner drive to get it right.
"Take the time to get things right." Ike Turner taught me that.
I was always an Ike Turner fan. Especially his obscure solo records from the 70's. In 1990, I saw an Ike Turner Soul Revue gig in San Francisco at the Last Day Saloon. There couldn't have been more than 20 people there. It was gloriously unorganized. Ike and his band played Proud Mary like five times and then left the stage. Ike came out for the encore by himself and sang Alice Cooper's Only Women Bleed at the Fender Rhodes. It was perverse, but oddly moving.
Odd. Moving. Cool.
We chatted him up, told him we were fans, musicians ourselves. Ike autographed a record for my friend Stephen Yerkey; he wrote: "Dear Steve, Always take the time to get the right people. Comeback next time, it will be much better. Sincerely, Ike."
Seriously, it's hard to say what I wished I'd known then... One thing that occurs to me is that I feel sorry for kids today with crappy MP3's. When I was a kid I really had to seek things out. To seek out the music and find a culture weird enough for me to identify with. And most of that came from listening to records. It really opened up my world. And the literature and films and all that came with it...
It was the records that pointed me in those directions. From Ry Cooder to Wim Winders to the German Expressionist filmmakers... and Dylan to Woody Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt to Robert Johnson... The Clash led me to Joe Ely and the Sugarhill Gang back through the looking glass and inside myself.
I come from a fairly conservative, non-musical family. I begged for guitar lessons, got golf lessons instead. I just don't think there's much of anything dangerous about dropping out and joining a band these days. But if it's fun, then I suppose it's as relevant as ever.
What to look for / watch out for in managers, attorneys, band members
You mean like, ask for five references and call the last one first? Heck, I don't know anything. You can hire lawyers and managers and all manner of sleazy ten per-centers/experts to help you navigate these decisions, but ultimate nobody else knows anything either. Some of the best guys are still one third bullshit....
It's true. The best thing might be to just find someone you trust. If you have someone who's a true believer in your corner, that's worth more than an army of so called experts. You have to have blind belief in what you're doing. Making a decent record is a lot like coaching high school football. You've got to be smart enough to do it and dumb enough to think it matters. It does matter. And it's the music that fuels the business, if there's any business at all to be had. But the buzz of doing it should be enough to get you off. If you're out to make a quick buck steal car stereos for chrisakes.
As daft as that sounds, I really believe it's true. Try not to be an asshole. But it doesn't hurt to have an asshole friend or two who's willing to shake it up for you. When people around me begin a statement or request or whatever with "In the future," my guts churn. I guess the best advice I can give is to listen to from within. Shit, that's what the Quakers do and they won the Nobel Peace Prize. If it doesn't feel right, it's probably not.
No man is an eyelid, and as much as everyone would like to cut out the middle man, there's nothing like the power of a gang; in guys that have your back. So surround yourself with cool people. Work with the label. Don't be afraid to take suggestions. You're all in it together. There's the writing, and the recording and the live show to worry about. And that's a lot. Fact is, you'll end up getting in bed with some good people and you'll ending up getting in bed with some people you'll come to find you don't want to wake up next to. And really, it's hard to tell until you're in the heat of battle who's got your back and who doesn't. So, in order to get your music out there, just fucking do it.
I've done both, woken up in both of those beds. But ultimately it's about the music. Every great musician has some bad decisions in his past. Don't get too tangled up in the business side of things. Who wants to be in a band to listen to a cash register? Wait: don't answer that one.
You need much more than a good lawyer. You'll need luck. You'll need lightning. Then you can pay a lawyer to give you his opinion if it makes you feel better. If you can stay awake.
Just pay attention to the lightning.
And listen for the thunder.
The advantages or negative impact of technology on the business
MP3's are crappy sounding. That's a fact. Vinyl has always sounded better. But I try not to get too hung up on how the music is delivered into my psyche. It's easy to forget that it's all about the song, the mystery, the magic in the grooves.
That's the dope that you want. It's the dope that's important. It's not the needle. If you got to have it, you just got to have it. On cassette, vinyl, CD or whatever. If you need to hear Dusty Springfield singing The Look of Love ,you'll seek it out.
And it'll echo forever.
Advice you would give your favorite independent artist or band
I think I'd be more likely to seek advice from them. How'd they get to be my favorite. They must be doing something I can learn from.
Which reminds me, that it helps to be a fan. Learn other songs. Learn them, then unlearn them. Substitute your own life, your own absurd observations, your own point of view or lunacy into the frame.
Everyone needs to work to get by. Try to get a job where you have some isolation to think. Thebest job I ever had was parking cars. I once had a job parking cars at KMEL radio station in San Francisco, "America's Most Hip Hop" radio station. After I'd climb in behind the wheel, out of boredom more than anything else, I'd routinely root around the cars' contents. Don't know what I was looking for. I swear I never took anything more than an Altoid mint (or two). But I loved that job, it afforded me: I had a lot of time to think about songs and scheming and plotting new records. It was actually a very happy time for me. And the structure was healthy. Or so I think.
Step away from the computer. If you're to inspire people, you'll need inspiration. Inspiration is in everything, in everyone. Take the time out to visit the odd Hunting Lodge. The more taxidermied animals on the walls, the better. Also, find a guitar that stays in tune. If you can't, find a guitar you love and play it every day. You'll get to know it. And you'll get it to behave and do things for you after a while. Get intimate with its personality.
I still play the same 1984 Fender Squire Telecaster that Green On Red bought me when I joined them. Yeah, yeah, yeah: I know there's some kind of irrational attachment going on. I own others, but I've never played any other guitar than the Squire on a gig. Not sure why, maybe because it knows all the songs and I don't. Like Excalibur's Sword, it gives me power; or like that lucky pen—when I play it everything just flows through me. If just everybody had one of these things, I'd probably still be folding underwear at Nordstrom's. But really, I can't stress this enough: Seek out your own culture and your own music.
Seek things out.
Once, in a studio in Scottsdale, I ran into Lee Hazlewood. He was working in an adjacent room producing demo's for a local New Country singer and he'd assembled a group of housewife vocalists out of the union book to sing a background part imitating a train whistle ("Whoo whoo"). One woman turned to me and asked, "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Is this guy for real?"
Yeah, he was. Lee seemed to enjoy holding court for us, he gushed enthusiastic over Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy (a big hit at the time) and told us "Gram Parsons would have shot watermelon seeds it he thought it'd get him high."
Years later, Nancy and Lee did a reunion tour and Lee refused to give any interviews. But, man he spilled it that day around the water cooler. I still have the business card he gave me in the top drawer of my desk.
I'm a fan first. For me, every time I make a new record, it's the same process. I assemble of group of talented, intense, difficult people. Many of whom I've work with before and a few I'll probably never work with again and I pray to the gods we can capture more than just the music. Maybe a little spirit. But you need luck.
Never quit being a fan. I don't really have any advice for my favorite artists. They're more like teachers to me. And never quit learning even if you have to unlearn everything first.
The value of music and musicians
Oscar Wilde wrote "All art is useless." And Oscar Wilde was a fine artist. It's okay to believe both. Music's art. After all, Andy Warhol said it: You're getting people to spend money on something they don't need. Chew on that concept.
I mean, if you can entertain yourself then there's value. And if you're having fun doing it, that's something too. I'm not totally behind the everything should be free theory. I mean, if I really wanted to put that to the test I'd move into Chris Anderson's house. There's really no value. There's a point between every other point, isn't that what they teach you in school? Infinite. But does that mean you can't walk home from school?
I know that in recent years there's a been an increase in well-adjusted musicians out there. Fuck, even I might have become one of them. But I'm not sure that returning every e-mail or MySpace message makes anyone more interesting. And as much as I love the freedom the internet provides, I do miss mono-analog-vinyl culture. I like it when records bring people together. And I do agree with Robert Christgau when he says that people generally do a better job if they're getting paid. These days, I see journalism really taking a rabbit punch and that's sad.
I never really thought of music as a vocation. In fact, I don't have a job. I'm not sure I'm actually making a living. You think you're in control? Are you sure that computer doesn't have YOU by the balls?
Just listen to what your guitar is telling you. Unlearn your songs. Then learn them again.
And watch for the lightning. It'll come.
Come back next time, it'll be much better. Sincerely, Chuck.
Autumn 2009, on the road
Somewhere in England