Jesus Angel Garcia explains the joys and struggles that go into turning a local favorite band into a worldwide sensation.
There’s some beautiful truth in Jon Pareles’ NYTIMES profile of the Lumineers’ five-year slog to “overnight success.” All the basics are here: hard work, perseverance, being part of a community, steadily building an audience, and honing your craft. Clearly, this method for success applies to any type of art-making, so when asked by the Good Men Project to reflect on what it all means to me in my own work, I thought I’d give it a shot.
Background: I’ve been working for about a year with a San Francisco-based “dirty American roots” string trio, Three Times Bad, which was spun off from the soundtrack to my debut novel badbadbad, an unusual literary work in that I approached it as a transmedia project: an old-school narrative on the page, a soundtrack of songs derived from stories in the book, and a documentary film based on the novel’s themes. After New Pulp Press published the book (I self-produced the CD and DVD), I took off for two months on a cross-country DIY “book tour.” This was in the summer of 2011. Fueled by the rush of presenting live lit, music, and film in so many different venues (from bookshops and galleries to house parties and even a couple of infamous nightclubs like Dante’s in Portland), I wanted to keep this 3xbad thing going, but not as a soloist; I wanted to develop the songs with a legit acoustic band. After I got back to San Francisco, I was lucky enough to find some great musicians sympathetic to the cause, and so now I guess we’re on our way (whatever that means).
Work: In my experience, success (no matter how you define it) comes from hard work. I feel like you have to get off (almost perversely, maybe) from working hard to achieve whatever it is you’re going for, whether that’s learning a new flat-picking technique on guitar by running the same lines over and over and over again or spending those rare days off from your day jobs to research opportunities for the band, make the requisite pitches, and vigilantly follow-up. I’ve spent entire days (eleven, twelve hours straight) working on music or writing or band business or book stuff or editing video… for no immediate payoff other than moving in a direction that feels right. Most of the time, that’s enough.
Perseverance: Which doesn’t mean I don’t often think about quitting. I remember listening to a recent interview with Cooper McBean of the Devil Makes Three, an inspiring contemporary band that after ten years of plowing forward finally just played to a capacity crowd at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco, and he said something about how the experience of being a professional musician is often humiliating and disheartening. But if it’s what you want to do—what you need to do—then you don’t give up. You suffer through the gigs where the hipsters in the back of the venue talk throughout your set or the drunks up front knock over your monitors or the club staffers disrespect you or the P.A.’s a mess so you can’t hear your vocals or you break string after string on your guitar or you travel hundreds of miles to play to an empty house… you suffer to get to those ecstatic moments when the musicians and the music and the audience all come together. I guess you try to do whatever you can to help facilitate that experience as often as possible—and you find a way to stay positive even when there’s little sunshine to be found.
Community: A huge factor in enjoying this Three Times Bad ride and bringing our music to the widest range of potential fans has been partnering with multidisciplinary artists in various creative communities and also trying to bring those communities together. Given the band’s literary origins and my connection to the Bay Area lit scene, we’re pretty tight with the local writing community. We like to play lit gigs, where audiences tend to pay attention to the lyrics(!!!). Songwriter Dawn Oberg, an acquaintance from the lit scene, gave Three Times Bad its first gig. We’ve also been teaming up with well-established, world-class musicians like Renegade Stringband, the Jugtown Pirates, and the Pine Box Boys, who have been incredibly supportive by letting us open for them. Collaborating with burlesque dancers was a crazy fantasy from the earliest badbadbad shows, and now we’re doing that as well. This past fall, we also composed and performed an instrumental soundtrack for a series of sold-out modern dance performances at University of San Francisco. We hope to eventually produce maybe a monthly music-lit-film showcase. I feel like if we’re all working artists, then we’re all in this together, so let’s support each other by co-creating events that are far more memorable than just another gig.
Audience: We play whenever and wherever we can, from street performances to those mega music-and-burlesque shows. We also do what we can on social media to try to nurture an authentic relationship with fans. But it’s tough staying on even the most loyal friend’s radar. You know how there are fifty million distractions screaming for our attention at any given moment, and in a city like San Francisco, there’s always something to do. If we see familiar faces at our gigs, then I guess we’re doing alright. The Lumineers piece reminded me that we should seriously hustle a weekly gig for ourselves in SF or Oakland. Over time, that’s gonna be an audience-builder.
Craft: Honing songcraft is a fun challenge. I like how Pareles describes the Lumineers’ singer and guitarist Wesley Schultz as having “changed from being a wordy singer-songwriter to prizing melody first.” That’s something I’m still working on. The original idea of Three Times Bad was to play tunes derived from stories in the book. So in the band’s early days, the narrative in the lyrics was primary, or at least as important as the music. And while there’s still that badbadbad foundation to a lot of the songs—sex and God themes, especially—the songwriting and arrangements are constantly developing as the band continues to evolve, so for my part, I’m now thinking about how to better say what the song needs to say in the fewest number of words. This brings me full circle back to poetry, which is where I started as a “serious writer” a half-dozen lifetimes ago. Since we’re also mining the bluegrass and folk traditions, we’re going way back to learn old-time spirituals and mountain songs. It’s an ass-kicking music-history lesson to say the least.
Also from Jesus Angel Garcia’s: A BadBadBad Love Story