Bazan (DB), Andrews (BA) and I (JW) speak over dinner in the bar at Desthil, a restaurant a few blocks down from Undertow headquarters. Comfortable and willing to engage, Andrews and Bazan elicit conversation. “So, what would you like to know from us?”
Last night, you said, “When I’m playing these shows, I’m not cynical at all.” You had mentioned how you feel lucky that you never got stuck with that personality type that is all about self-promotion. You summed your feelings up by saying, “I feel like I found my own frequency.” Can you go into a little more detail of what you mean by that?
DB: Sure. House shows are nothing new. Molina [the late Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co, who tragically passed away back in March] played a lot of house shows. Simon Joyner from Omaha used to play a bunch, too. They’ve gone on for hundreds of years. I know this couple that go into towns and play a house, and they do the “pass the hat” thing. They meet people, ask if anyone wants to host, and move on to the next house.
That model is much less reliable than what you guys are doing?
DB: Oh yeah. Well, the immediate reason these shows became an option was because the label wanted me to lay low until Branches [Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, his first full-length album under his own name in the wake of Pedro the Lion] came out in late 2009. This would have been around Thanksgiving or so in 2008. I was putting Branches out with Barsuk, but they didn’t want me tour until the album was ready to come out. I had just played a string of a few college shows, so I brought up the option of playing more college shows. Trey (Trey Many, Bazan’s former Pedro the Lion band mate and long-time booking agent) looked at me and said, “These kids don’t know who you are. You’ve had nothing out in four years, and most of them don’t know Pedro the Lion.”
BA: The basic fact at the root of all of it is you want to be able to publicize. You want to get the word out as widely as possible, and you especially want to do it when you have name recognition. When you don’t have that, you’re very limited in your options, which is why Barsuk didn’t want him to play.
DB: After the college shows didn’t work out, I said, “Okay, what do I need to do to play songs and have people pay me money?” That’s what it comes down to. I genuinely love playing my music. I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. How can I do it to make the money to provide for my family and have it make sense? I said, “House shows. If I can’t play anywhere else, I’ll play living room shows. That’s really how it all started.”
I know last night you said it’s ideal for you, because you’re neither an act on the rise nor a going concern.
DB: Yeah, exactly. Back before we started doing this in ’09, we were trying to figure out how we could really make it work. I had a friend who mentioned that there used to be a house show database with lists of addresses you could order out of the back of a zine like Maximum Rocknroll. There was a legend that it had tons of addresses and contact information for people who had held house shows in the past. Then, I heard it again from Voith [Adam Voith of The Billions Corporation] as an internet thing in the early- to mid-2000s. By the time we got around to it, it was just a remnant and not all that useful for our purposes.
BA: We started off by saying, “We want 100 shows. How can we do it? It has to be very reliable and logistical. Let’s do fans: How much? How many? Ticket prices: $20. Is that too much? Will they pay that? Who will host it? Can we trust that they’ll follow through as they say? For that matter, how do they know to trust us?
DB: I was never worried about my fans causing any problems. I figured my fans would be cool and respectful and that they would be okay. The system we have now is pretty much the same, we haven’t changed it much.
BA: It has become a little bit more automated on our end over the years, but it’s still fully hands-on. As a matter of fact, Adam (one of the Undertow staffers who greeted me in the office) is the guy that holds it all together. From the second we announce dates and cities, Adam is the one who runs everything, from answering the phone calls and questions to mailing out the tickets and handling any kind of concern that arises.
That sounds like excellent customer service with human interaction. What’s Adam’s title?
BA: We don’t have any titles. We’re all in it together, and it’s a system that works for us. I don’t think there’s ever been a real problem that hasn’t worked out. [Earlier, Bazan and Andrews were discussing how crucial it is for everything in this model to come off without a hitch, because something as seemingly trivial as displacing one digit of the host’s address on the ticket confirmation could derail the whole thing. Bazan, in particular, took a moment to realize the amazing fact that such a glitch has never happened, and his pride in the small operation’s sustained excellence was obvious.]
DB: We only canceled one show, back in ’09. I was touring through Washington, and I had an ear infection. I was set to play a show the next day, but I would have traveled through a mountain pass. The doctor told me the pressure at that altitude had the possibility of rupturing and doing permanent damage. I still wanted to play the show, but Trey told me, “There’s no way in hell you’re playing that show.” I hated to do that, but that’s the only one that we never played.
Could you have done this before the rise of social media to its current state?
DB: No way. Well, without Internet it couldn’t exist. Initially, it was just an e-mail list.
BA: Our e-mail list has always been a pretty big size. In 2009, it was big, and we asked for 40 or 50 hosts. We got 300 replies back in the first four or five days. That’s when we knew this could work. Still, that first week he was on the road, I was really freaking out. It all came together well though, and it became a really viable avenue for us.
Why are other people doing it? Do you see it as maybe they fear they’d be putting a cap on your potential, whereas you’ve been around long enough to know what does and doesn’t work for you?
DB: From the outset, we did get a lot of whispering about making bad career moves. The thing is, though, people undersell how these shows connect with the fans. There’s no hype, no promotion, no gimmick. If I wanted to tour 100 to 150 days a year and put out a record every two years, I could do that. People tend to forget that what goes up must come down. You have to get in a groove, you have to work day in and day out, and you have to find a way to make it sustainable. That’s what I mean about finding my frequency; these 50-person living shows feel way more meaningful, even more meaningful than 300-person club shows.
With promoters at the club shows, you’re on the bottom rung when you’re at my level. You’re just in this orbit. If you have a tendency to compare yourself to others, then the indignities of touring 300-person rooms can really get to you. You know, maybe you play one night and sell out the club, but these promoters are typically working with several venues and are looking for the hottest acts. You can feel good about your set and see that they’ve got My Morning Jacket playing the next night at this much bigger venue. You realize you’re in the orbit at the bottom. And once you’ve played there, you’ve saturated the market for the time being. If you come back through in the next nine months, none of the weeklies are going to cover it. They’ll say, “We just wrote about you a few months ago.” On that note, fans will also say, “I just saw Bazan six months ago. I’ll wait until he comes back through next time around.”
That’s why I will keep playing these house shows: because I genuinely love it. I love walking in and playing songs on my guitar and connecting with people.
I actually came across a realization last night after your show that I’d never thought of the other times I’d seen you. I got this sense that these living room shows have an effect that’s more about a direct communication than any performance. Of course, you are performing, because you wrote the songs, practiced, fine-tuned your craft, and it’s not off the cuff, but your songs and presence in these environments do seem like direct communication between you and the audience, from your mouth to their ears and vice versa.
[Bazan nods his head steadily, takes it in and starts formulating a response.]
BA: You know, I just realized something. That’s it! I remember going to see Elvis Costello in ’98 or ’99. Towards the end of the show, he came out past the stage without a mic and sang “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, and it was totally just his voice hitting my ears. I never forgot it, and it gave me chills.
Finally, at what point didn’t you know this model could be financially sustainable for you? A mutual friend has this go-to saying, whether it’s regarding inventory at her store or in reference to your house show tours: “All I see are dollar signs.” I texted her when I was covering Bunbury a few months back, because I was floored that they had 13 people touring in the band. She said, “Oh my gosh. All I see are dollar signs!” In reference to you, she always says, “Well, of course these tours work for him. All that money is going right back to him.”
BA: When you’re playing club venues, there’s the bundle of money but it gets eaten up in expenses quickly; venue costs, staff, sound, lights, advertising, opening bands, promoter %, etc… everything comes off the top before the artist gets paid. Once all the show expenses are covered, there’s probably 30% profit for the artist to keep, but playing living rooms it ends up being closer to 70% profit for the artist. Either way, Dave still has to cover travel costs out of the show profit. I knew this would work the second we sold out the first tour.
DB: Originally back in ‘09, I thought doing the house shows could be a good supplement to club shows. 2011 was really the first time that I realized I was doing house shows to supplement the cost of living and the club shows, because I have to pay for the hotels, the travel, and all the other expenses. In 2011, I decided I’d have to do house shows, because the club shows were hemorrhaging money. Before then, I did two club show tours and two house show tours a year. After 2011, I realized it needs to be more like three house tours to 1 club tour.
When the band is on tour, I have a responsibility to those guys not to have them sleeping on floors. At this point, it’s kind of like fuck touring with a band for right now. I hate saying that, because those guys are great and we have chemistry, but they’ll find chemistry with somebody and I get people when the time is right. I love my kids, and I need to provide for my family. That touring is not making money.
BA: The Control tour made money. [In the fall of 2012, Bazan and Undertow celebrated the vinyl re-issues of the Pedro The Lion back-catalog and the 10th anniversary of Control, with Bazan, Andy Fitts (bass), and Alex Westcoat (drums) playing the album in its entirety at each stop.]
DB: The Control tour did make money, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. We can’t do that again. Matter of fact, I don’t think I’d want to. It was on the Control tour that I realized that. For now, we’ll do the living room shows, and we’ll probably do a round of traditional touring on the new album cycle and see how it goes.
Less than an hour later, David Bazan was performing a living room set to a capacity crowd of captivated fans in the Undertow office, where tour posters bearing his name, albums imprinted with his songs, and a computer housing the tentative list of his next flurry of living room shows across America all provided quiet context to the exceptional value of his efforts.