The Secret Day Jobs of Indie Musicians 

Have guitar, will work

Thursday, Mar 17 2011

Before the White Stripes' colossally rich and famous Jack White was Jack White, he was John Anthony Gillis, a furniture upholsterer who ran Third Man Upholstery, while his girlfriend — later wife/sister — Meg(an) White was a bartender.

But it's a fact that plenty of indie musicians are neither independent nor musical when it comes to making ends meet, especially in an age where MP3s mean your music probably is going to be out there for free.

Here in Los Angeles, the stereotype of struggling artists working odd jobs until they "make it" is so dominant it even spawned its own cult TV series. Party Down's hapless caterers were actors and writers, but there are just as many musicians out there doing the same thing. Or doing very different things, too.

click to flip through (3) The New Fidelity’s Dan Perkins, strap maker
  • The New Fidelity’s Dan Perkins, strap maker

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In the spirit of celebrating self-reliance — and maybe inspiring a few people to quit their day jobs — we spoke to four real-life Party-Downers:

Johnny Bell, chimney sweep and bassist-singer in Crystal Antlers

"Sometimes we're out of the country for months and by the time we get back, the business is pretty much in shambles. My customers think I've fallen off the face of the Earth when that happens — probably why I've started four different chimney-sweeping companies in the last five years. But the work gives some structure to life outside of a van. A couple years back when I was building a chimney — which is almost like meditation in a way — I started thinking of this melody and it kept repeating in my head like some weird brick-and-mortar mantra. That melody later became a song called "Owl." I'm not sure my brain would have been led down that path if I hadn't been laying bricks. I don't think I'll ever stop working, even if it's not to support myself. The odd jobs may get odder, but there will always be a place in my life for this stuff."

Casey Trela, DVD quality-control technician and singer/guitarist in The Hi Ho Silver Ohs

"I watch DVDs, files and tape masters and look for technical mistakes in their creation. I spend eight hours watching movies and TV shows that other people have created. Those people get to create for a living, which is what I want to do, so when I leave work I'm all pumped up to create my own art. A few of us worked here at the same time and watched the Friday the 13th movies over and over again in different languages. You hit a new weird desperation when you're watching Friday the 13th Part III for the fourth time in Spanish. To cope, we started writing songs about what the characters were thinking, then created a band dedicated to playing those songs, with concerts every Friday the 13th. I think it's taken a toll on my emotions. After a day of watching Season 9 of 7th Heaven or Season 8 of 90210, you don't really know how feelings are supposed to work anymore."

Jessica Vohs, (former)manager at hipster taqueria and singer in Willow Willow

"The day we moved to L.A. from San Francisco, we [Vohs and bandmate Miranda Zeiger] went out to dinner [at Malo in Silver Lake] after we unloaded the U-Haul. Our server recognized us from playing shows in San Francisco. We struck up a conversation and I asked if they were hiring and she said yes. But managing a restaurant and focusing on music don't mix. That's why I quit! I'll probably pick up serving shifts and make ends meet doing that and selling the comics I draw and other artwork. Winning! Playing music is what makes life fun for me. It helps me get through the mundanity of the 9-to-5 life. Or, in the restaurant business, that would be the 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. life."

Dan Perkins, vegan guitar strap maker and singer/guitarist in The New Fidelity

"I started a company called Couch Guitar Straps that designs and manufactures vegan guitar straps, camera straps, wallets and belts out of automotive upholstery. I wanted Couch to complement music as best as possible — that includes not going into work till 10 in the morning because of late-night gigs and rehearsals, and having work five minutes from my home for a traffic-free L.A. life. We have a rehearsal space as part of the offices, too. It's almost a job requirement as a guitar-strap designer that I be playing guitar and be involved with music — it's what helps with the authenticity of our brand. Everyone who works at Couch is a musician. I was bartending for years and it was driving me crazy. Couch is slowly starting to get to where it doesn't rely solely on my being here to exist, and we have other musicians who work here, too — so if they can go on tour, why can't I?"

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