When Sharon Van Etten decided that she wanted to be a full-time touring musician in 2006, she didn’t wait around for someone to show up with a band and a bus and a booking agent. She talked to Andrew Seward, a co-worker at a Murfreesboro, Tennessee coffee shop – and who would later go on to take a gig playing bass in Against Me! – and he pointed her in the direction of resources like the website BYOFL.org (Book Your Own Fucking Life), which includes listings of independent venues. Sweard also passed along names and contact info for people he knew who booked shows in various cities. Using these things as a starting point, Van Etten booked her first tour in early 2007. As a matter of fact, the first time I saw her play, she was in the living room at a venue in Austin, Texas called Jesse’s Bed & Breakfast, which was really just my friend Michael’s house.
Van Etten’s latest album, last year’s epic, is a collection of haunting, full-band tunes from Brooklyn’s Bada Bing! Records. At the show at Michael’s house, though, she was touring behind a collection of six songs called Me And My Guitar, a CD-R that she hand wrote the tracklisting and title for on a brown cardboard sleeve. It was good enough for the two weeks worth of shows she was playing in living rooms that January. “It was the first time I ever booked my own tour,” Van Etten says now. “Everyone was so hospitable – just people sitting on the living room floor and watching. It was the first sense of community I felt in a really long time, across the country. It was so awesome – just people who wanted to have shows and go to shows.”
Today, of course, you’d better have a pretty big living room if you want Van Etten to be able to play it – epic has been steadily blowing up since its release, she’s just recorded a collaboration with the National, and after some dates this spring opening for Iron & Wine, she’ll resurface in the summer at Bonnaroo. But Van Etten isn’t the only performer to come out of this circuit of living room shows in recent years to end up on iPods nationwide; Early Deer Tick shows at Michael’s house were legendary, for example. But how does this even happen?
To book a tour of living rooms, community spaces, backyards, DIY art galleries and basements, a musician starts by compiling names. Websites like BYOFL.org, which link independent musicians and independent venues, are a good jumping off point. Finding a house in a town that will book musicians (keep an eye out for homemade fliers), and then asking the touring acts for tips on where to play in other cities – that helps, too. So does reaching out to artists, or the makeshift venues listed on their tour dates, via social networking sites like Facebook. It’s a decentralized process, to say the least. But with enough motivation, it works.
One band that took advantage of all of these resources is Real Live Tigers of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who have worked to prove that this sort of tour is possible throughout their career. The band’s primary songwriter, Tony Presley, has toured constantly for much of the past six years, often taking Real Live Tigers on the road as a one-piece, all of which was possible because of the people who’d open their homes to a musician with a guitar.
“Discovering I could tour on my own was a really exciting time in my life. I had been playing guitar for a few years, but I had never committed to writing songs or playing shows,” Presley says. “That thought was terrifying to me, just playing a show in front of anyone. So it was really comforting finding out that people would let you play in their homes, that you wouldn’t have to convince some bar that you could draw 40 people. Realizing you could play in someone’s house without any real instrumentation, without a bunch of money changing hands – it was really exciting to figure out.” That simple appeal holds true for artists even as their careers develop; Witness the Holiday Surprise Tour that the Elephant 6 Collective embarked on last winter, which saw the assembled indie rock legends drop by fans’ houses to play, in addition to their regular club gigs.
Now a four-piece, Real Live Tigers hit their Spring 2011 tour prepared for living rooms, basements and backyards once more. While Presley remains on the circuit of houses that he used to share with acts like Deer Tick and Sharon Van Etten, who’ve moved on to larger capacity venues, there’s no jealousy at work. “The last time I saw Deer Tick was in Fayetteville, at a sold-out show when they were opening for Dr. Dog,” Presley says. “A roomful of people were singing along to songs that I heard in my living room a few years ago. It was awesome to hear.” Not everyone who plays these living room shows, no matter how tenaciously, ends up at Bonnaroo or gracing the stage on Letterman. But for bands like Real Live Tigers, that was never the point. The point was to be heard in the first place.
If the DIY house show circuit has a pied piper, his name is Brendon Massei. Massei, who plays music under the name Viking Moses, has been recording and touring independently as a full-time job since he was 14, and he’s spent more than half of his life paving trails for other musicians to follow. Artists Massei took on his first tour include Deer Tick, Scout Niblett and Nat Baldwyn of the Dirty Projectors.
“My attitude and approach toward music came from him,” John McCauley of Deer Tick says of Massei. “Just do what you want to do. You’re doing this, ultimately, for you, so you go at your own pace. That sense of independence and freewheeling, I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude – that’s where I got it from.” McCauley first saw Viking Moses play in Providence, Rhode Island, which, as a college town (Brown, Rhode Island School of Design), featured a number of thriving living room venues. Massei invited McCauley on tour because of an important ingredient he brought to the mix: He owned a car.
After nearly two decades of playing music, Massei has flirted with the kind of success that some of his proteges have seen. In the UK he was briefly signed to former Oasis and Libertines manager Alan McGee’s now-defunct Poptones label; McGee wrote in The Guardian that Massei was “the most uniquely talented American musician since Kurt Cobain;” Werewolves Across America, a documentary feature film about his music, influence and lifestyle is currently on the festival circuit, playing at the Duluth and Seattle Film Festivals in the summer. But mostly, he says, that sort of success was never anything he expected. “Music was never anything I felt I could outgrow,” he says. “It’s just who I am. I’d make more money working at McDonald’s. But if I did, I’d have less time to keep making music.”
The time Massei spends playing music is valuable for reasons that don’t have much to do with money. There may have been no Deer Tick without Viking Moses. And without Real Live Tigers playing hundreds of shows a year and convincing people to open their houses to music, there may not have been opportunities for Sharon Van Etten. While all of those artists are still out and playing music, there’s an even more exciting question to ask about the living room circuit: Which artist that we’ve never heard of is going to be the next one to emerge and blow us away?