Thursday, September 2, 2004
For every great and famous musician who's ever won a Grammy, had a hit single or packed stadiums with lighter-toting superfans, there's no doubt a lowly day-job story to be told.
As legend has it, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne wrote much of the band's early material while slinging hush puppies at a Long John Silvers; Johnny Cash spent three years going door-to-door selling appliances before walking into Sun Studios; Alex Van Halen nearly lost his finger working as a machine operator -- the list is long and frequently hilarious.
For Lawrence's elite crop of working-class guitar slingers, day jobs aren't a footnote in some VH1 documentary but rather a way of life. Day jobs grease stomachs with Burrito King when gigs go sour; they offer parents and relatives the illusion of responsibility; they help build useful music-industry skills like showing up on time, not mouthing off to arrogant superiors and maintaining relative sobriety for extended periods of time.
Most importantly, day jobs create long and lasting memories to take the place of the real-life experiences musicians miss out on while they're busy getting high and playing Nickelback covers for their eight friends at the local VFW hall.
To give props those fine and upstanding time-card punchers who grease our local music scene with hard-earned rocking, Lawrence.com has distilled a scientific sample of local day jobs into five easy-to-digest categories.
To those about to punch in, we salute you.
Day Job Type #1
When Dan Billen signed on to substitute teach in Topeka, he figured he'd scored the perfect day job.
Billen, a bassist and songwriter for local indie-pop band The Billions, had accumulated just enough college credit hours to qualify for the gig. A couple years of hard-luck touring had made him accustomed to stretching paychecks, but the band's label (Northern Records) was getting choosy with handouts and the time had come to bite the bullet and get a job.
"We talked with a band in Nashville - they said they all substitute teach and that all the kids just love 'em 'cause they're younger and cool and they just go in and tell band stories," Billen said. "That must be Nashville Schools. I was in working in Topeka USD 501 - basically like Little Compton."
Hyped for his new gig, Billen picked out a choice selection of polyester suits and clip-on ties and prepared to woo his new audience with hip. He quickly realized, however, that the experience was going to be a lot more "Kindergarten Cop" than "School of Rock."
"They thought I was the biggest nerd," Billen recalls. "One day I wrote my name on the board, I turn around, I look back, it says 'is gay.'"
"... I'd try to tell them band stories - they would freaking snicker, dude."
Billen's three-month experience - divided equally amongst high school, middle school and elementary - included flash-bulb memories like calling a police officer to calm down a 200-person band class, fending off flying (full) Coke bottles, and wiping off his puke-slathered face after a fateful encounter with a queasy second grader.
Morale amongst teachers was at an all-time low, he recalls, and even the detention halls were like all-day Chucky Cheese parties. As Billen tells it, though, his first day of Kindergarten may have taken the cake.
"This kid pooped his pull-ups and I had to change his diaper," Billen said. "I went in there with this kid into a tiny little bathroom with no ventilation at all ... dude, it was everywhere. I couldn't even fathom that I had to do this. I had never changed a diaper ... The stuff smeared down his legs all the way to his ankles. And this little kid was looking at me, like so scared."
After three months, Billen was spared any more Kodak moments by the fortuitous end of the school year. He hasn't yet signed on for the fall, but he may have to return if he can't find work elsewhere.
"It's no fair to take someone like me and drop me in the middle of your hellhole without even throwing me a bone," he said. "Just don't do it. Don't substitute."
Day Job Type #2
As the guitarist in a sleaze-rock band named after a slang word for a used condom, it stands to reason that Filthy Jim's Seth Cole would have some dirty stories from his stint driving a cab in Lawrence.
Predictably, Cole delivers.
"I got a call to pick up a fare at Harbour Lights downtown, and I got there and I recognized this girl ... she was missing her two front teeth - real skank-looking, you know, real bar trash," he said.
"She told me that she didn't have any fare money, but we could work something out because it was a long drive across town ... I turned on that north street by the park and just basically went around the block and dropped her back off at Harbour Lights."
"... I always hoped to find a hot sorority girl to do that, but that never happened."
For Cole, the job was hit-and-miss, but mostly miss. One minute he'd be taking strippers to work and the next he'd be picking up SRS Moms and their troubled teens. The gig also came with the requisite celebrity encounters - Ben Folds Five, Sunny Day Real Estate, DJ Shadow and a center for the Detroit Lions.
But the one encounter that sticks out most in Cole's mind, is rapper Kool Keith, who asked Cole to take him and his crew to White Castle (Cole improvised and went to Burger King).
"He was a real dick," Cole remembered. "Didn't tip me a f*ckin' cent."
One of Cole's most memorable experiences happened not on the job but when he came into work early one morning and found the dispatcher and a driver cutting up lines of cocaine.
"Start a 12-hour day of work with a big line, I guess," he said. "I just went with coffee ... I thought Folgers crystals was gonna do it good enough."
Day Job Type #3
When Ultimate Fakebook signed on with 550 Music (a division of major label Sony/Epic) in 2002, the band seemed poised to break out of Kansas and make a run at the big time.
Two years later, drummer Eric Melin was slinging bags of Kibbles and Bits off a conveyor belt.
"You're on your feet the whole time, you can't hear anything, you've got ear plugs in, it's louder than shit, it stinks and everyone there is like the living dead," said Melin of his stint at Lawrence's Del Monte Plant.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Ultimate Fakebook was supposed to be Lawrence's latest breakout band. With catchier-than-hell power pop sensibilities and full intention of burning down the stage every time they took it, UFB should have been the one band in Lawrence that didn't have day jobs.
But when 550 Music dissolved just months after releasing its UFB album, the band was back to square one. Though they did escape with a tour van and enough money to make another record, the band would play its final show last March.
To add insult to injury, each member owed approximately $6,000 in back taxes as a result of not paying any in 2000 or 2001. Melin, who dropped out of K-State in 1991, did what any hard-up musician would do for a quick fix - he went to Manpower.
"They were really nice to me," Melin said. "They'd call me and be like, 'We got a shift for you Monday night down at the dog food plant ... I'd be like, 'Ok, I guess I'll take it but if you get anything else, always call me about that.'"
The Del Monte gig turned out to be the most profitable of the Manpower-assigned gigs and also the most mind-numbing.
"I was down on my hands and knees cleaning all this crap, all this dog-food dust and horrible caked-on-ness," he said, adding that he'd frequently come home reeking of dog food. "I only had like three pairs of jeans and I ruined two of 'em."
Working long hours at a boring-ass job did have one upside - daydreaming.
"I'd just try to keep my mind off of it as much as possible and put it somewhere else, which basically involved listening to records in my head, working on new songs in my head, trying to figure out new arrangements and things like that," said Melin, who now drums for Lawrence's Dead Girls Ruin Everything.
"Most of the time by the end of the shift I'd just be so dead that I'd forget everything that I was supposed to try to remember."
Day Job Type #4
For a couple months, Jordan Geiger was hooked up.
As a cashier for the Kwik Shop at 9th and Mississippi, Geiger - singer and songwriter of Lawrence's The Minus Story - reaped the benefits of flexible hours, a band-sympathetic boss and a low-key job that allowed him read and mull over song lyrics.
That all changed when The Kroger Company - which owns Kwik Shop and Dillons - put the clampdown on the gas station's day-to-day operations.
"It became so increasingly corporate that it was ridiculous," Geiger said. "They sent us probably 50 to 100 giant Big Gulp cups that had 'K-State' on them ... and the Kwik Shop that I work at is literally two blocks from the football stadium."
"... I hate Kroger. I hate them to the very depths of my soul."
According to Geiger, the downhill trend culminated in the institution of an 'Everything's-A-Dollar' section. When Geiger received a huge shipment of generic feminine deodorant spray, he knew the glory days were over.
"I sold a couple bottles of that and that really mystified me," he said. "I don't know what kind of feminine smells would be that bad that you'd be like, 'I need to spray an aerosol spray on it.' And second of all, it's a dollar at the Kwik Shop. At least you should go to the grocery store and buy the fancy kind or something."
When his new boss declined to give him time off to record an album, Geiger hit the road. He's currently seeking employment but is considering taking a job at Vermont Street BBQ.
"The position is making coleslaw for like four hours a day at $5.50 an hour," he said. "I'm basically going to tell them, 'I'll take this job as long as the next time another position opens up you consider me for it.' I mean, dishwashing is above making coleslaw."
Day Job Type #5
Of course, for all of the coleslaw-cutting, dog-food-dusting, taxi-cab-driving, substitute-teaching rockers out there, there is another option.
"Even a suck gig is better than a great work day," says Billy Ebeling, local musician-for-hire and self-described whore of the KC-metro bar circuit. "At least I'm doing what I want and when I drive home from the gig I feel pretty good about it."
Ebeling, 44, quit his job as a concrete finisher in 1985 and has been a full-time musician ever since. A skilled interpreter of blues, zydeco, Tex-Mex, folk, surf, rock and countless other hybrid styles, Ebeling plays four to five gigs a week and hawks CDs from his eight-album catalog.
Unlike many full-time musicians, Ebeling sticks largely to originals.
"I'm really greedy," said Ebeling, who is married but has no kids. "I only play the songs I like, and if I don't like 'em I don't have to learn 'em."
Ebeling's street-busking skills have financed trips to Europe and Australia, the latter of which treated him so well that he decided to stick around for seven years and become a citizen.
Ebeling's Australian citizenship card also comes with a perk - free health insurance.
"What's health insurance?" he said. "I'll just take my sick ass back to Australia."
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to make a buck as a self-whoring musician. As local songwriter Mike Roberts has discovered, commercial work can be clutch for greasing otherwise thin pockets.
Lately, Roberts has been submitting his original songs to Premier Studios in Lenexa, which produces commercial spots for clients like John Deere.
"They're looking for kind of a positive, go-buy-a-tractor type of music," said Roberts, who hosts Wednesday's open mic at Stu's Midtown Tavern under the alias "headshandsfeet" and plays guitar for local band Shake. "I just give them the song and tell them what it's about."
As Roberts discovered while recording a John Deere jingle based on Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy," commercial work requires a certain amount of discipline and open-mindedness.
"They were telling us, 'Well, you gotta change one chord or you'll be in violation of copyright laws,'" Roberts said. "So we did it and still it became so close that they ended up having to write Paul McCartney a check for $15,000 because he owns Buddy Holly's catalog."
Roberts worked construction to raise his son and put his wife through college. Now that his wife teaches full-time, the pressure's off and he can reap the rewards of his labors.
"I'm kind of a Mr. Mom during the day," he said. "When the real moneymaker comes home it's off to play somewhere."