Work Hard. Be Nice. Hustle with Integrity.
That’s the modus operandi of Undertow Music Collective, and if there’s a more admirable mission statement for anyone discontent with the state of today’s music industry, I don’t know it.
Undertow is the long-running Champaign, Illinois-based outfit whose roster touts acclaimed veterans like David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones, Overseas), Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, Overseas), Bottle Rockets, Cotton Jones, John Vanderslice, Joan of Arc, Rocky Votolato, as well as newcomers like Stagnant Pools and Shadows on a River. The hard work is written in the artists’ songs and it’s transparent in their dedication to bringing music to fans into a relationship built on trust. The amenity is evident in any interaction you have with the artists or the label, from welcomed conversations after sets to thoughtful, direct customer service with any ticket or album purchase straight from their quaint Champaign headquarters. The hustle and the integrity are inherently wired into every fiber of the art and the commerce.
I already had a ticket for David Bazan’s living room show in Indianapolis, what would be my third such Bazan show to date, when Undertow allowed me to cover the living room show aesthetic in detail and invited me to visit their office the following day for an interview and performance set at the headquarters. It was a sort of annual homecoming in the middle of the great American expanse for a tireless artist who has routinely been logging upwards of 150 live performances each year.
When I walked into Undertow, I was warmly greeted by Bazan, Bob Andrews (Bazan’s manager and the chief string-puller of Undertow), and three instantly likable staffers. Even though it was minutes before 5:00 p.m. in the office and mere hours before they would open their door to 50-plus fans and friends for a Bazan performance in the work space, all of them were chipping away at various facets of the business, from editing an artist’s video in iMovie to reorganizing the furniture for maximum capacity to investigating cheapest rental car outlets for Bazan’s soon-to-be-announced living room show tour in the fall. They did it all with equal measures of diligence and easygoing, conversational demeanor.
Bazan was sitting beside me on the office couch with his iMac in tow. Tabs were displayed for Google Maps and a spreadsheet for previous living room show dates throughout America. Andrews (the same man speaking on your Twitter feed when you see #bob at the end of tweets from the @undertowmusic and @davidbazan accounts) and Bazan are spit-balling options for cities with the most affordable rental car rates that would also be the most cost-effective options for airline fares and potential living room stops in the most efficient manner.
Moments later, while explaining how the host towns (from Denton, TX to NYC to Goshen, IN) are chosen and why some are deferred to a later date (potential market saturation), Bazan types cities into the Google Maps grid and says, “I think I’ll start off with nine in a row.”
Now, you get a taste of how the Undertow living room tours are planned and how Bazan functions as a musician and a professional. The decisions are all hands-on, the atmosphere is fully collaborative, and ethics, passion, and financial sustainability factor into each equation. There can be no doubt of Bazan’s understanding that the music and the commerce are not mutually exclusive, as seen in his unfettered opinions on the suffocating effects of Spotify.
Bazan is saying this while he’s just three hours away from playing his seventh show in seven nights in seven different cities, with a Chicago date set for the following night. In that stretch, Bazan has played Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He’s also in the final stretch of a 29-date summer tour after playing a 36-date spring tour that he tore through in 41 days. He has done it all solo – no band, no roadies, no driver, no opening acts, no traveling companions. Later, we’ll get into the financial and personal reasons behind each of those decisions and why this model of touring works so well for him, but suffice it to say he does it all because he genuinely wants to play his songs for his fans, he has a lifelong career in mind, and he needs to pay the bills and support his family.
Let me stop and reverse before I get too ahead of myself.
For anyone who hasn’t attended an Undertow artist’s living room show, it’s a singular music experience unlike any other live setting. Here’s how it works: Undertow announces an upcoming living room show tour for the artist (Bazan, Bottle Rockets, and Califone are all currently in the midst of such tours, and The Appleseed Cast are booking hosts this very moment) and presents a list of cities where hosts are needed. The official announcement seeking hosts looks like this:
You have a house or loft space that can comfortably and safely host 40-50 people. A place with a big living room, finished basement or other large indoor residential space would be ideal. There needs to be enough parking nearby and your neighbors should be cool. It would be a huge bummer if someone called the cops because of all the extra cars and loud music. You probably shouldn’t do this if you live in a small apartment with a bunch of uptight neighbors or a cranky landlord… Be realistic on how many people your place can hold. We need to know how many tickets we can sell in advance.
From that point on, as Andrews says, “It’s a relationship built entirely on trust. There is a lot of trust in every direction. It’s pretty much the same system we have now as when we started in 2009, but now it’s a little more automatic on our end. We trust that you can adequately house as many people as you say you can. We trust that there aren’t squatters in this place. We trust that you can provide safety for anybody coming to the show, and you’re not going to put the artist or people attending in any sort of jeopardy. On your end, you trust that artist is actually going to show up. You trust that nobody is going to come into your house and wreck anything. It’s a fine-tuned system with all of that in place, and without all of that trust, it wouldn’t work.”
Bazan’s show in Indianapolis sold out, and 50 people show up for the performance. It takes place in a small and worn, lower-income house on the near-south side of the city. The décor merely consists of a hardwood floor, a piano on the entryway wall at the rear of the 20-foot-long performance space, a dormant fireplace built into the left wall, and an unlit, three-bulb overhead lamp hanging from the bare ceiling. The only furniture are two lamps, which will sit to Bazan’s side like lit pillars as he stands centered before a large, blinded window. To put it best, the space has no frills and no furniture, and it ends up being the ideal layout for an intimate 75-minute performance for Bazan; just his voice and his guitar.
Bazan arrives and parks in front of the house – a recently vacated house on an unassuming, slightly tattered neighborhood of lower-middle-class housing. (Minutes prior, the host mentions three of the houses in the immediate surroundings are vacant, boarded up or both.) As usual, Bazan is prompt (five minutes prior to the listed 8:00 p.m. show time). As he pulls his guitar from the Washington-plated rental car, two friends of the host hop down the front stairs to greet him and offer assistance.
“This is all I’ve got,” Bazan says, “but thanks.”
He walks past the overgrown brush and up the steps to the suspended front porch and asks for the host. An affable, smiling twenty-something named Landon speaks up. Bazan says, “Thanks so much for having us.”
If you’ve ever spoken with David Bazan or been to one of his house shows, this personable, gracious demeanor is nothing new. Before Bazan arrives, the host and a handful of gathered friends and attendees wonder aloud whether to call him Mr. Bazan or David. A few of us quickly dispel any need to use the Mr. title from past experience, citing how laid-back Bazan is in any interaction. “Yeah,” says one of the friends who attended Bazan’s living room set in Indianapolis last year, “He says dope a lot. That was a surprise. I think I said something like ‘Thanks. I really love your music,’ and he said, ‘Thank you. That’s really dope.’”
Living room shows can break down myths and barriers one curiously chosen word at a time. The effect would be different, of course, if there was a hint of any sense that it’s a put-on, but that is never the case with Bazan. The singer’s far from the only act with such a storied career doing house show tours. The majority of acts affiliated with Undertow embark on such tours year after year; Bazan, Damien Jurado, Will Johnson, Califone, The Appleseed Cast, John Vanderslice, and Bottle Rockets. Being acquainted with the music of these artists and vicariously feeling the sense of family and camaraderie at heart, it’s not tough to picture every one of them relating to fans and friends at such shows with equal sincerity.
The small room is both at capacity and comfortable. Topping out at 50 people, they’re uniformly between their early-twenties and late-thirties, and they’re all respectful and eager for something unique and memorable. One couple sits cross-legged on the wooden floor with a bottle of wine. Most others have a can of beer, a six-pack of craft bottles or Sun King Brewery growlers at their sides. Others line the base of the street-side wall sitting on pillows brought from home. One couple shares a padded drum bench personally hauled in, while a few others sit off to the side in unfolded camping chairs.
Several other crucial differences compared to typical club shows become immediately apparent. Nobody shoves inward or elbows their way in for the closest vantage point. Everyone in the crowd is focused, quietly suppressing obvious excitement, respectful and at ease. Once Bazan starts singing, not a single word is spoken. Not a single cell phone is in hand. It doesn’t feel like church or a prayer circle (a contentious point for Bazan and many of his fans), but the captivated, near-reverent aura isn’t far off.
Bazan starts with a new song, tentatively titled “Impermanent Record”, and it will appear on his next album, one likely to see a release date in early 2014. A lyric stands out: “I drive around with my high beams on ‘cause I never watch the road.” It seems fitting Bazan would open a living room show set with a song containing this kind of lyric. Cleveland the previous night, Indianapolis this night, Champaign the following. Traveling in a rented car that gets 38mpg (as he shares later in the hour) with an acoustic guitar and endless, quality NPR programming and podcasts to keep him company and stimulate his striving mind during the hundreds of solitary miles from one town to the next.
That Bazan can get out of his car, say a few greetings, go over the logistical details of the performance in the adjacent room, grab a plastic cup powered by Jim Beam, open his guitar case, and proceed to throw his stirring voice and overflowing heart right into some of the most affecting, poignant and incisive tunes written in the past few decades in no more than 15 minutes is nothing short of a marvel. It’s a testament to his consummate professionalism in the least professional setting: a bare-floored living room with no furniture and dozens of fans sitting and standing in around-the-campfire positions. There’s no fashion, no gimmicks, no conceit, and no barriers. Bazan, of course, is wearing his unofficial uniform of a plain black t-shirt, jeans (not skinny or designer), black Chucks, and a carabiner keychain hooked around a belt loop.
The night’s more of an intimate, earnest communication than a performance. Sure, he’s playing songs he wrote with a command of music theory (learned from his father and The Beatles), and he’s bringing them to immediate life with a guitar in hand and vocal chords that have experienced years of training, acceptance, and subsequent trial and error. But there’s a keen sense of direct communication at the root of it all, within the verses of every Pedro and Bazan song; from his mouth to his listeners’ ears (and vice versa during the frequent Q&A interludes).
His living room shows are cozy affairs rooted in an urgent, bare-bones acoustic performance of his songs, but they’re also extremely conversational, punctuated by laughs, wisdom, and unguarded sincerity. His sets are scheduled for 75 minutes, and they result in roughly 45 minutes of song and 30 minutes of sprinkled interludes with “anything goes” scope. He’ll jump between newer songs like “Strange Negotiations”, “Wolves at the Door”, and “Virginia” just as readily as he’ll play classics like “Cold Beer and Cigarettes”, “Lost My Shape”, and “Transcontinental”. Every three or so songs, Bazan will ask something like, “Do you have any questions or concerns at this point in the show?” Questions at his Indianapolis set range from “What’s your favorite color?” to “What’s your favorite NPR program while you’re on the road?” to “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? You don’t have to answer, but how does your family feel about your music?” The joy of it all is that Bazan doesn’t scoff or blow off any questions. If you ask it, he answers it. With Bazan, you get the sense that no question is “off the record.” Sometimes, as in Indy, he answers three more unasked questions in the middle of the one that’s asked.
After the set finishes and he says his thanks, Bazan typically hangs around for at least half an hour and holds one-on-one conversations with any fan wanting to meet him. He signs records, accepts photo requests, tells stories, and provides even more in-depth answers to questions people were too modest to ask in the group setting.
It’s difficult to imagine such a model of touring working for too many other musicians night after night after night, but Bazan truly seems to cherish every facet of the experience. Having witnessed it firsthand several times was the impetus for my desire to speak to Bazan on the record and visit Undertow to gain an accurate sense of how the whole model works personally, logistically, and financially.