Last May a buddy of mine came down from Austin to check out Hatebreed’s 25th anniversary tour. Opening the show were relative newcomers Skeletal Remains, Prong, who made their mark with the 1994 tune “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck,” hardcore/thrash pioneers Agnostic Front, and one of the original death metal bands, Obituary.
We knew of most of the openers from back in the day (he and I created one-half of a wire sculpture band in high school: he made the guitarist, and I did a drum-set ala 1988 Charlie Benante of Anthrax), and I’m a huge Hatebreed fan, purveyors of the most inspirational lyrics in metal.
On this night however, I left beaten into submission by Obituary.
I promptly immersed myself in their world, buying five of their albums and learning to play three of their songs on bass. I’d stay up late on weekends to watch their videos and concert clips. I couldn’t help but notice how much fun it appeared they were having, particularly lead guitarist Kenny Andrews, who seems to always have a smile on his face. Ironically enough, that led my thoughts to my daughters and my classes.
Their mother and I have laid many toys, books, gadgets, etc. before them to see what might snag their interest. We’ve encouraged them in hobbies, projects, extracurricular activities about which they might be keen. Now, with two in high school, we’re starting to chitchat about possible career paths.
They have proven to be high-achievers, setting a great example for their two younger sisters. We hasten to let them know that they have more choices than simply heading straight for a university.
They know that joining the military is a viable option. They also know they could support themselves, even if temporarily, with something less than a bachelor’s degree. One key to making that work that I remind them of ad nauseum is to spurn debt and live within your means, traits that can’t be lost on a metal musician.
My preferred sub-genre is thrash, bands like Slayer, Exodus, Metallica et al. While death metal music can be impressively intricate and complex, pulled off with awesome speed, the vocals are sometimes difficult to digest. That could be the reason for the ceiling on its commercial success, not to mention the often gruesome lyrical content. This explains why my buddy and I were both blown away by Obituary.
“This doesn’t sound so death-y as it does thrashy, doomy, and a little groovy,” we said to each other. Moreover, John Tardy’s vocals lacked the clichéd “Cookie Monster” nature of many death metal vocalists, but are filled with all the rage, fire and full-throatedness that have made Death Angel’s Mark Osegueda and Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna a couple of my favorites.
It occurred to me only recently how modest are their lifestyles. When you see a band take control on stage, and you’re surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of other fans, it’s easy to think otherwise.
“I worked for almost my entire career, and it wasn’t until recently that the band has been so busy that this is all I do,” Obituary vocalist John Tardy recently told me via email.
He’s not the only one who does well to make ends meet.
A couple years ago, Cannibal Corpse vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher took the website Metal Injection along with him on one of his trips to Target to show them how he bargain shops. When his lead guitarist Patrick O’Brien’s house caught fire last year, the news coverage showed a middle-class neighborhood that struck me as similar to the one in which my sister and I were raised.
Fortunately for these two, their band is based in Tampa, FL., where the cost of living is almost half what it is in the Bay Area, where former Testament bassist Greg Christian helped form that band.
Christian has raised a stink more than once about his most recent departure in early 2014, calling the conditions “disgusting,” in which he was treated like little more than a “stage prop.” Oddly lost on him is the fact that vocalist Chuck Billy and rhythm guitarist Eric Peterson “own the band,” having stuck it out during metal’s dog days of the 1990s. They kept the enterprise afloat when bands like Exodus, Death Angel and Obituary temporarily bowed out.
They earned the right to set the terms to which Christian once agreed.
Alas, in this industry, ownership might provide only marginal benefits. As Death Angel lead guitarist Rob Cavestany, who given his tenure presumably also has an ownership stake with Osegueda, told Billboard earlier this year that it’s not a breeze for his wife when he goes on tour, because she has to “be a single parent” while working “full-time.”
Being in a metal band is not a path to riches, particularly if your band name doesn’t include “Sabbath” or “’Knot.” Tardy is cognizant of this reality.
Though he, brother/drummer John and rhythm guitarist Trevor Peres “are the owners” of the band and “make decisions together,” they understand incentives, and likely value continuity.
“We all (including bassist Terry Butler) come home from tour with the same amount of money. I’ve seen what happens to bands too many times when things aren’t equal.”
Some keep busy when their main gig is between recording and/or tours.
Similarly situated as a returning original member of Testament is lead guitarist Alex Skolnick. After leaving the band in the early 1990s, he played with various other acts before diving full-time into jazz. He returned to the band, along with Christian, in the mid-2000s.
In addition to still shredding with Testament, Skolnick still plays jazz on the side, and has also hooked up with founding Megadeth bassist David Ellefson, from whom Christian could probably learn something.
When he returned to Megadeth eight years after a fallout with frontman Dave Mustaine, he did so as a salaried employee. One of the most grounded players in the genre, he recently said the key to his longevity is “know(ing) my place.”
One benefit is freedom “in doing music with … other people.” In addition to his Altitudes + Attitude project with Anthrax bassist Frank Bello, he also plays in Metal Allegiance, a group in which he has made two albums with an assortment of metal vocalists, bassist Mark Menghi, former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, and the aforementioned Skolnick.
It’s no wonder so-called supergroups fill in the gaps of activity of primary bands, and not just for “salaried members.” Killer Be Killed counts Sepultura (former), Soulfy and Cavalera Conspiracy founder Max Cavalera among its ranks, alongside founding Mastodon bassist Troy Sanders. Peterson has recorded three albums with his own Dragonlord.
Some branch out beyond making other music, like Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta’s podcast, Billy’s management company or Benante’s line of coffee.
Unknown is whether or not Christian had/has any side-gigs.
I have heard however, interviewers put forth the theory of whether or not the presence of a fall back plan might possibly dull an urgency of going all-in to make it in the business. Does it inhibit artists from producing the best possible product?
Tardy disabuses any such notion.
“I would tell anyone that wanted to play in a band, or create any art for that matter, to have a backup plan. It’s a hard, unfair, unpredictable business.”
Another key is frugality.
Jason Newsted played bass for Metallica, one of the biggest bands in the world, but was famously caught on video “making sandwiches” backstage “because he’s too cheap to order room service.”
“You’re absolutely right I’m a cheapskate,” he responded. “I’ve got plans for those millions (we’re going to make).”
It allowed him to leave one of the most plum gigs in the business when it became untenable, and subsequently pursue other endeavors for which he previously lacked the time and freedom.
Granted, that is an outsized example, but it can also be achieved by eating in, performing your own household and auto maintenance, regularly socking away a chunk of income, etc. In this case, it also means setting up and tuning your own gear before a show, which I watched Obituary do in September.
These are the types of habits that provide people with maximum flexibility and control over the course of their life. They’re ready when opportunity arises, or if they want to return to school, or attempt to turn a hobby into a career, etc. It’s also what prevents them from being stuck in an undesirable job they hold down merely to service debt incurred chasing short-term satisfaction.
Since I’ve reconnected with him twenty-five years after high school, I’ve learned that my buddy checks off a few of these boxes: he earned an associate’s degree; he lived in a camper he built while saving for a house; he takes on a second job occasionally; and, he sublets to a roommate from time to time. The only debt he carries is a mortgage, and for his truck (itself a replacement for a car that he drove for seventeen years).
All the while he’s been gigging around Austin in various bands. Though he’s written and recorded songs, he’s realistic about the odds of “hitting it big.” Nonetheless, he’s set himself up to devote most of his free time and resources doing what he loves, keeping his chops up.
When I ask Tardy if he has any regrets knowing what he knows now, he confirms “I’m glad I stuck with what we did. We have been really, really fortunate and have gotten to see so much of the world, made so many friends and gotten to share the stage with so many cool bands.”
One of the very first things we talk about in my macro classes is specialization; finding what you have a knack for and focusing on it. Incorporate some training and (continuing) education, and you develop a comparative advantage, where few people can match what you do, and the value of it necessarily rises.
When I extend this lesson to my daughters, I tell them that sometimes there is some overlap between that and doing what you really enjoy. If there isn’t, or your tastes change, capitalizing on your comparative advantage and good habits can free you up to make a change.
All too often we hear about or feel bad morale at work. Power-hungry politicians like to point the finger of blame at “the Man/boss” as the source of our problems or animosity, when most times that person is the reason that job is even there to be had. Very rarely do these politicos prescribe the correct medicine; holding up a mirror. Newsflash: that doesn’t get votes. For the most part, where we are in life is a function of choices we’ve made, or our failure to break vicious cycles.
I told my two oldest daughters recently that between high school and their early thirties is their opportunity to make their mark, pave their path. Once children (John Tardy, Peres and Butler are fathers) come along, our priorities necessarily change, so “don’t tie yourself down with bad habits until they do.”
They and their sisters will probably roll their eyes when they read this, assuming they read it at all. Then again, they hear me preach these principles all the time. My parents on the other hand, who gave me weird, sometimes mildly terrified looks when they heard this loud, abrasive music coming from my room, will be a harder sell trying to convince them that metal is an example of good, happy living.