2002 Evan Sult’s girlfriend was moving to Chicago to work on her MFA at the Art Institute, and he saw it as an opportunity to start anew. Seattle was old. Twelve years of going at it: a student, a graphic designer, a writer, and a musician. There was no way he could reinvent himself in that town, again. His band was done, like a broken marriage, everyone tired and willing to sign the divorce papers. Funny thing, he didn’t even consider himself that much of a drummer in the first place. He fashioned himself as an editor, the one who put the pieces together, made things happen from behind the scenes. Ask him and he’ll tell you: I like to do the structural shoring, the invisible things that make something work. So he took his things and moved to the Midwest. Arrived in Chicago, his drums stacked in the kitchen of his girlfriend’s apartment. Scruffy and tall, looking like a graduate student, thick-framed glasses posing around his eyes. An artist without a project, 29-years-old and broke. Life already seeming a little long.
1994 Those were the days when you could see Mudhoney at the Crocodile. Living in Seattle, working at the University of Washington newspaper with his friends: It was a special time. Music was the heart of the city. Sult’s roommate was a drummer who had a band, so Sult played around on the kit when he was gone. Reluctantly, he joined the band when his roommate quit, even suggested, I’m just starting so why don’t you find a real drummer? They settled on a name, Harvey Danger, and taught themselves how to write songs. Sult waited outside of clubs, too young to actually go inside until it was time to take the stage. They cut a record for a small label and one of their songs, “Flagpole Sitta”, suddenly hit the radio. It played in Portland, then in Los Angeles, and then across to New York. There were 800 copies of our record out, and it was getting airplay that bands spend their whole career looking for. It never happens the way it happened with us. Never.
The industry, like a slumbering beast, awakened. Record labels called; management companies followed suit. The band signed to a major label, got a van, and booked a tour. The next tour, they were on a bus. It seemed impossible, so much success so quickly. They recorded a second album, but the critics weren’t interested and the hype had moved on. It was as if a weather pattern had reversed itself. Quickly reduced to an afterthought in a fickle industry, Harvey Danger followed suit and became tired; they avoided the studio, too exhausted to tackle a new record. Sult remembers the sentiment: This just isn’t working. You know, we had something good but it just isn’t working anymore. Sult let go of music and returned to his other passions: graphic design and editing. It was a pretty crushing blow at the time.
Playing in a rock band is a double-edged sword: It both fatigues you and allows you to live. Many American rock musicians piece together a living through various jobs as they strive to create art, which may never find an audience. They dedicate themselves to a passion that conflicts with the standard American trajectory: work this job, marry this person, pay these bills, and raise these kids—drinks on Friday. But musicians will mark time at a day job and then work hard at night or in other wee hours sculpting their sound, committing ideas to tape, driving around the country in shambolic vans to play music to six or 600 or 6,000 people. Few will get any fanfare, and when they do, they’ll receive reviews that reduce their lifework to a 6.5 rating or two and a half stars. The process is taxing, leaving musicians wondering, how much longer can I keep this up before I settle down? Am I just too old to be in a rock band? Maybe my parents were right.
But what’s more astonishing is that so many people do it, lead “normal” American lives and play in indie bands. Rockers work as waiters, investment bankers, in thrift stores, teaching elementary school, studying as grad students, or a thousand other things and then knock out serious artistic statements with three or four other people who are also working other jobs. Perhaps in an artist’s utopia, you would spend time doing little else than your art, but in this real world many folks manage to find ways to pay the rent and keep creative. It gives them a reason to ‘be’. The process of creation keeps them alive.
In Chicago Sult considered his drums, collecting dust in the kitchen. One more chance, he thought. Answer a couple of want ads in the Chicago weeklies, you know, see what’s out there. He had always been younger than his friends in Seattle and all of a sudden everyone he met was 22 or 23 years old. It shocked him a bit, put him on his toes. Urgency. He met some people who wanted to play. They were young, thriving on punk energy, and he was worn out, his outlook built on the wisdom of having been there, having done that. But they got him excited. In a bar across from the practice space, they settled on the name Bound Stems.
I had always thought of myself as a supercrummy drummer who kind of just slid by. I decided to not be a crummy drummer. I started practicing a lot. Bound Stems spent years in practice spaces—not playing the clubs so much, gathering instead in apartments having listening parties, searching for something to call a sound. Picked up a PJ Harvey cover. Embraced Les Savy Fav. Discovered odd time signatures. They cut EPs, released them on their own, but nothing that they felt spoke to who they were. Day jobs tugged at the seams. Sult remained a designer and an occasional writer. I like the process of shaping something, from the assignment through the writing process and the editing process, the design, to getting it out there. Not so much the way it interacts with the subjects—it’s not necessarily the chance to be the one who writes the best article about Guided By Voices. I don’t even know why I do it. I like publications because I like working with well-made rhetorical inquiries. It’s not like a Rolling Stone review or an article in Spin. It’s an extremely slow process for me so I’m glad I’m not leaning on it. I wrote an article about a Hamlet movie that was 800 words long. I probably wrote 25,000 words trying to get it there—I was happy with the result but I just about killed myself for something I made $60 on.
The band pushed forward and eventually conceived the beginnings of an album. The girlfriend left. New ones passed through, passed out, left him to his devices. You’re just not meant to have relationships this way. People can pull it off and I respect it when people make it happen. But man, it’s really hard. There’s nothing better than being with what you love.
They wrote the album in six-week batches. At the end of six weeks we’d go into the studio and start to record. While we started writing the next batch, normally about three songs, I’d be in the studio with our co-producer, and we’d be figuring out what we wanted to do with the songs. He was doing all the work on the computer and we’d just go over everything very carefully. For me that was a huge thrill. Back to the editing philosophy, it was the exact same skill applied in the exact same way in a new medium.
Roaming around Chicago, Sult carried a tape recorder and captured the sounds of the people and machines around him, and he brought them back to the studio and weaved them into the songs. We tried to get as weird as we could get without being alienating. We were never interested in creating something that wasn’t fun to listen to. We were figuring out how far we could push ourselves to the limits of what was a listenable song.
The results, Appreciation Night, perhaps Sult’s life accomplishment to date, arrived in 2006. An amazing album. Not many people heard it. A pastiche of sorts, it also works as ethnography: an aural picture of the band and their hometown. Songs and narratives twist into one another and a multitude of voices from the band as well as from the field recordings swell into each track. The music is relentlessly intelligent: Brilliant riffs that could be the basis for entire songs are left behind only after a few measures as the band moves onto something else they find more interesting. Sonic traces of the band that in its prime wrote The Lonesome Crowded West come to mind, but that’s only a reference point: Bound Stems have constructed their own sound, with a subtle and seductive architecture. The album came—this record is the thing I’m proudest of, of anything I’ve ever made—and no one listened.
It’s so ambient, the way you affect people until they actually get to a point that they’re going to be in the room when you’re playing: Maybe somebody saw your name listed in some paper, which reminded them of a thing they once read on a blog, which means nothing to us today but in two months, maybe somebody will mention our name to a friend….
We all quit our jobs for the most part, so we’re living really cheap. I quit my job two months earlier because I thought we were going on another tour, but it was cancelled. So I was actually eating into the little bit that I saved…. We’re just racking up bills on the credit card and paying it down with what we make on shows. And gas is really expensive right now. We’ll fill up our tank, and it’ll cost a $107. You make $50 at a lot of shows.
Sometimes they hate me and sometimes I’m sick of them and I couldn’t imagine an easier group of people to get along with. I couldn’t. And even so there are times when I can tell that they just want to kill me. I got my theories on why.
Shit, the van’s broken down. There’s nobody here to take care of that for us.
This club just didn’t pay us. What do we do about that? Sometimes you just slink away. . . sometimes you get in their faces.
People aren’t really meant to do this. It’s a really backwards way to work. Get in a van, go someplace, spend 24 hours a day spending money and time just in order to play 30 or 40 minutes a night. It’s such an inefficient ratio. And it’s so literal. You’re playing for just whoever’s in that room.
Really, it doesn’t take much to make us happy. If you’re showing up to see Bound Stems and you’ve never seen us before. . . If there’s five of you, cool. It’d be great if there were 55 of you, but we have a great time playing to people who are listening. But when you play a show where it’s you staring at the sound guy staring back at you, it’s really frustrating—which was our experience in Chico, California, and in Des Moines, Iowa: This is not a club, this is just a bar with sound and a few barflies. We have no business being here. But here we are. We’re booked. So we play.
Who keeps going after plunging their precious energy into such a large, engrossing, relationship-threatening project? Why do bands even exist? Perhaps it’s the alternative: Job, house, spouse, kids, red or blue; take your pick and repeat. For the bands that are defining success with criteria other than economic ones, it may come down to process. Bands may focus on the outcome of the final product—we need to get signed, we need to get a good blog buzz, hope we get into to SXSW—without ever realizing that they are maybe in it for the steps it takes to get there. Could making the product be more interesting and more compelling than the final product itself?
In a coffee shop in Iowa City, Sult and I talk for the fullest hour I’ve experienced in months. The coffee is good. His laptop is open as he speaks; a freelance design project he’s working on is displayed on the screen. The editor, the designer, the drummer—Sult’s always working from behind the curtain. He tells me: These are the goals when I wake up in the morning: First it’s just like, we got to survive this show, survive this drive, we got to survive each other. And then on the larger scale, it’s like, we’ve got to make it to the end of this tour, and then on the larger scale it’s like, I can’t wait to record the next record, and then on a larger scale it’s like, we’d love for audiences to actually hear us in larger and larger numbers. It feels good to try and earn that. I think this record is good enough for a lot of people to listen to it and like it. But they don’t know that. They’ve never heard it before. We’ve have to go out and tell them.