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.
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.