Do Whatever It Takes

Do Whatever It Takes

To those on the outside, drummers can appear to be classic underachievers who just want to bang on a drum all day. We’re only ever seen onstage — smiling, thrashing, sweating, spinning sticks. Casual observers don’t realize those peak moments are just tiny fractions of the time we spend working on our art.

Whether hobbyists or professionals, drummers spend a lifetime practicing, investing in equipment and education, studying in school and with private teachers, learning new styles and material, cultivating professional networks, and traveling long distances to advance our careers and skills.

We also must survive. For weekend warriors that means holding down full-time jobs to subsidize the occasional gig. To pros, though, it often requires big sacrifices. That’s easier said than done. Few drummers actually make a comfortable living by only playing drums. Most piece together a monthly paycheck from a number of sources, commonly by teaching lessons or working in drum shops on the side. If you surveyed every professional drummer, you’d discover many who’ve had to take temporary or part-time jobs at times to stay afloat.

I certainly have. Before cashing in my chips to go into music journalism, I spent time working in retail, shipping and receiving, furniture refinishing, janitorial work, construction, dishwashing, deliveries — the list goes on. I took jobs in which I had no emotional investment, so that if I was offered a plum tour, I didn’t mind quitting on a moment’s notice, even if I burned a bridge on my way out the door.

It was like living two very different lives at once. During the day I was an unskilled laborer, nearly invisible to the rest of the world. At night, I was on stage in front of a packed venue, watching from the drum riser while the audience went wild. Every once in a while, those two worlds would intersect, and the results could be surreal.

For instance, there was a period in the mid-’80s when my band, The Naughty Sweeties, was between record deals. Our mangers feverishly negotiated with labels while my bandmates and I were in a strange limbo. We worked on new material and developed demos, but weren’t playing many gigs, since we expected to go into the studio at any moment. Our cash flow finally dwindled down to almost nothing, so we all got day jobs.

I found a job in a warehouse in North Hollywood. For eight hours a day, a Filipino guy named Saul and I sat at a workbench facing a bare brick wall as we stuffed handfuls of cotton into decorative pillowcases shaped like geese and bunnies. It was kind of humiliating.

We blasted the radio over speakers that ringed the warehouse throughout the day, and every so often a local station would play one of my band’s songs. It’s hard to describe the dissonance I felt at those moments. Most people driving down the L.A. freeways blasting their car radios would never have pictured the drummer they were hearing stuck in a sweaty warehouse stuffing pillows for minimum wage.

But I did what I had to do and, in retrospect, am glad that I was willing to take a bullet for the band. Within a couple months, the Sweeties got a decent record deal, cut a new album, and began gigging in earnest, as if nothing had happened. So don’t feel mortified if you have to do a day job once in a while. Be proud you’re willing to do whatever it takes. You’re just acting like a responsible adult, and I salute you for it.

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