Derek Webb is a singer, songwriter, producer, remixer, and one of the founders of Noisetrade. Webb started his music career over 20 years ago as a founding member of the Texas-based folk rock band, Caedmon’s Call. After 10 years, he left to pursue a solo career that quickly garnered him a reputation for being a provocative singer-songwriter who isn’t afraid to challenge the political and spiritual status quo. Derek made his most controversial move yet with the release of Stockholm Syndrome, an album about race and sexuality that left Webb’s acoustic folk rock roots behind for an "intentionally inorganic” sound. Derek continues to innovate with his latest release of the instrumental electronic album, Feedback. Derek lives in Nashville, TN with his wife—who is also a musician—and their two kids.
What can we say about a guy like Derek Webb? There’s no doubt that he lives up to his reputation as an agitator and disturber of the status quo—heck, that’s partly why we like him! But wait, Derek’s more than just a rabble-rouser. He’s intelligent; he knows how to get business done; he’s energetic and passionate; he’s… talkative? Yes, he is talkative, but we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our conversation with Derek. The wisdom he shared with us about making it in today’s music business was damn impressive—especially the story of how Noisetrade came about in a time when nobody was giving away music for free. Derek also got personal—he shared about quitting college to join a band, how marriage was a disruption for him (in a good way), how his definition of success has changed, and why he’s not defining the legacy he wants to leave. We hope you’ll read on and be inspired to go out and make a little ruckus of your own about the things that really matter to you.
Interview date: January 19, 2012
Describe your path to becoming a full-time musician.
I am not good at very many things. From a really young age, I was drawn to music because it seemed like something I could do. I wasn’t good in school; I wasn’t good at sports; I wasn’t tall or handsome; but I could play guitar. I started playing when I was about six or seven. My mom was a great pianist and she never taught me piano per se, but was keen on me learning an instrument, I suppose.
When I was about six, I took one guitar lesson at a local music store in Memphis, TN, which is where I grew up. I got a book that had all these chords and pictures in it. I never learned the chord names, but I studied that book. I didn’t go back for another lesson because I thought, “If I have this book, then I don’t need this guy.” I learned all the chords in the book and started listening to records and trying to pick out chords by ear. I still can’t read a lick of music, which is not uncommon.
Since I was really young, I always wanted to be in a band. I remember being really frustrated in the second, third, fourth grades. All these kids were awful. They would say they played drums and I would go to their house with my amp and guitar and they would be hitting pots and pans—they were kids. It drove me crazy. I have an older brother—he’s four years older—who wasn’t really a musician, but was a singer in a band for a while. He would let me come to the band rehearsals and sit in the corner with my guitar and play along. That satisfied me until 8th grade when I had this revelation.
I was living in Texas by then because my dad’s job had moved us there and I met a guy in my careers class. I had to do a presentation about something I was interested in and I talked about guitar playing. This guy—he’s one of those people who connects and is friends with everyone—reached out to me when he found out I was a guitar player. Because of that, I finally ended up in a real band and went into high school playing music and being in bands, which really helped socially. I was a mess. I didn’t have any friends. I made terrible grades. I was a real discipline case and was always in trouble, so having something work for me—that was the first time anything worked out.
Music took me through high school and then I met up with the guys from Caedmon’s Call right out of high school. I didn’t have any real plans to go to college—I was just so thrilled to be out of high school. I mean, I would’ve gotten a GED three years earlier if somebody had let me, but that was kinda frowned upon in the suburb of Houston where I grew up. So I stuck it out. Once I graduated, I did a semester of community college to satisfy my parents. During that semester, I met one of the guys from Caedmon’s and then the band was formed. That was 1992 and I quit school immediately and we started touring. I was in that band for 10 years. We got signed, put out a bunch of records, and spent a lot of time on the road playing shows—it was a great job for a decade. I’ve been doing my own thing for about 10 years since I left the band. That about brings us up to speed.
You mentioned that you’ve always been drawn to music. Did you have any “aha” moments along the way when you knew it was something that you could maybe do for a living?
You know what’s funny is that, even as a kid, I remember having this—and it’s probably because I grew up in an upper middle class family—I had this understanding that music was not really an option as a profession in my house. My dad was an executive; my parents both started and ran their own businesses. The advice I would always get is, “That’s fine. Clearly, you’re good at music, but you’ll be a lawyer or doctor who plays music on the weekends.” I remember growing up and being very aware of how improbable it was that I was going to make a living playing music, but I figured I’d give it a try—it was the only thing I knew how to do and I really loved it.
This is a totally random story, but this is when I knew; it answers your question. When I met that friend from my careers class in 8th grade—Ali was his name—he told me that he also played guitar and wanted to play together. He came over and afterwards was like, “I need to call some friends. Can we come back over tomorrow?” I thought, great, am I going to have two friends now? This is unbelievable. He came back over the next day and brought this guy, Rodney, who was the coolest guy in school.
Rodney was a total athlete, his family was wealthy, he was handsome, and super outgoing—I was the opposite of all those things. Rodney and his friend used to sit behind me on the bus and incessantly ridicule me all the way to and from school every day. He hated me because he was athletic and I was a skateboarder punk. All of a sudden he was in my house—I had the coolest guy in school in my house.
Rodney was also a singer and performer and his dad owned a PA so everybody wanted to be in a band with him. He was a great singer and full of charisma like David Lee Roth—that’s who we were all looking at at the time. My friend made me play guitar for Rodney who immediately said, “Two things: One, you have to be in my band. I’m gonna kick out my other guitar player. And two, you have to stop skateboarding and wearing all these crazy clothes. You have to give all that up.” I did it in a heartbeat. I was in button-ups and had my hair cut the next day because all I ever wanted was to be in a band. For the rest of high school, I was in a band with Rodney and it was the biggest thing that ever happened to me.
There was something about that moment. I realized that I had been looking my whole life for something I was really good at, something I could do like I saw other guys doing sports, school, and social stuff. I suddenly realized, “Oh, I am good at something. I’m good at this.” I just didn’t know I was good at it until Rodney told me. Apparently, I was good enough to have the guy who hated me more than anybody in the world want to be my best friend. I think that was the moment when I knew this was the thing I could and was going to do.
“I remember growing up and being very aware of how improbable it was that I was going to make a living playing music, but I figured I’d give it a try—it was the only thing I knew how to do and I really loved it.”
Did you have any musical mentors growing up?
Not any that I knew personally, but a ton of folks whose records I loved. I spent the first 10 years learning how to play rock riffs and being in rock cover bands and wanting to be Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai. Right as I was getting out of high school, I started to get into singer-songwriters because I had some friends that were a few years older than me that got me listening to the Indigo Girls, Bob Dylan, and a handful of others.
Rock music was fun and I liked the energy of it, but this singer-songwriter music seemed important and had an urgency about it. It appealed to me and I went head over heels into it—I wanted to be Amy Ray from Indigo Girls and learned to sing by singing along with her. I wasn’t much of a singer before that and had only done backup vocals. For the first time, this music made me want to learn and study and infuse some kind of intellectual property into the songs rather than just playing songs full of great riffs.
That was a really important moment for me. It was right out of high school and just before I met up with the guys from Caedmon’s. What Caedmon’s was doing at the time was very intellectual with incredible literary references, which is what drew me to them. I met them through Aaron Tate, who was writing songs for Caedmon’s although he wasn’t in the band. I went to high school with Aaron and he was a couple years older than me. We were both into the Indigo Girls and had hung out a couple of times, but I didn’t know he wrote songs.
In college, Aaron met Cliff Young. Aaron didn’t want to be in a band, but he was writing songs that Cliff loved and wanted to play. When Cliff got friends together to play Aaron’s songs, they needed a guitar player, so Aaron called me and asked if I wanted to be in an acoustic folk rock band. Aaron was such an unbelievable songwriter and I wanted to play those songs because that was as close as I heard in original music around me that could in any way compare to the stuff that I was listening to and loving. So I met up with Cliff, Caedmon’s Call formed, and for the first two years, we played Aaron’s songs.
Was your family supportive of your choice to leave college and be part of Caedmon’s full-time?
My family didn’t know because I was supposed to be in college… (all laughing)
Let me say this. Another thing I learned really early on—other than that I can play guitar—is that I am a really tremendous liar. I’m being serious. I can craft a detailed lie and sell it with a straight face on command.
So should we believe anything you’ve said so far?
All of this is untrue. Everything I said. I made up all these names. I didn’t even grow up in Texas (laughing).
So, my parents. I didn’t think they’d be supportive. I didn’t think they’d want me out of college or that they were ready for that. Don’t get me wrong—they had been unbelievably supportive of my interest in music growing up and had bought me all kinds of gear that I wanted, etc. But they didn’t really imagine music as a full-time career for me and maybe I didn’t either. At the time, I was living with my brother, who was an incredible student—really smart, ambitious, and driven. He’s a doctor now and has a practice in Nebraska. Our parents never compared us, so my brother and I have an incredible relationship.
Actually, he’s probably the reason I wound up playing guitar. I remember when I was a little, little kid—probably four or five—and my brother came into the kitchen and told my mom he wanted to play the bass. My mom said he should learn guitar first, but that’s not what he wanted to do so he left the kitchen and I told my mom, “I’ll take guitar lessons.” I thought that if it was cool enough for my brother, it was cool enough for me.
After high school, my brother and I moved into an apartment together. He was going to med school in Houston and I just wanted to move out and explore. So in order to keep the deceit going, there was a little pageantry involved. I had to get up every day and pack a bag and leave. My brother would go off to med school and then I would come back to the apartment. He thought I was going off to college. He would return in the afternoon so I would leave before he got back and then return and say, “Oh, long day at school. It sucked.” But really, I was out at coffee shops all day or out practicing with the band.
By the time Caedmon’s got signed, I was writing songs for the band, which meant that I started to get publishing checks for being a songwriter. I had never made a dime; I didn’t have a bank account. All of a sudden, I started getting serious checks in the mail. I remember the day I got my first check; it was a five figure check and I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t know what to do with it so I went and showed it to my parents and they were so thrilled that I was making money doing something. I said to them, “Oh, by the way, I haven’t been in school in a year and a half, but I have a job.” So they simultaneously forgave me and supported me.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
I felt like the whole Caedmon’s experience came pretty easy. We were really young and what we were doing was resonating at that moment. It just kind of happened and it was really great for a while. The success that came out of it wasn’t a result of risk-taking on our parts. I think that really started when I left to do my own thing. That felt like a huge risk. I was leaving a job that was very comfortable and that I had been doing for 10 years with people that were like my family. I had just gotten married and was 26 or 27 when I was rounding my decade being in Caedmon’s.
There was something about getting married—I mean, marriage will cause you to redefine every relationship you’re in. Being in Caedmon’s was a great job; it was really fun and I got to hang out with my friends. But at that point, Caedmon’s wasn’t really taking risks anymore. We had been at the beginning, but we didn’t know we were taking risks. We were young and naive and didn’t know that the world didn’t work in all the ways that our idealism told us it did. Then, when we didn’t start to take intentional risks, we realized we were caught in a cycle. We had learned where the buttons and levers were and how to manipulate the machine in such a way that we could perpetuate what we had started, but it wasn’t really satisfying in the same way it was when we had started.
We were looking to change the world at first. We wanted to be a disruption and push people. We wanted to say the things that nobody was saying. We did that for a little while, but when a lot of people’s jobs begin to be staked on what you’ve built and people are employed by it, there’s pressure—even if no one says a word to you about it—there’s so much pressure you impose on yourself to keep that going.
By the end of my time in Caedmon’s, I had met my wife and she was a real disruption for me. Marriage had me asking, “What am I spending all my time doing?” I didn’t get married to spend all my time away from this woman; I want to spend time with her. Now, I am able and she is willing for me to spend time away if I’m doing something that we feel matters. It’s not that Caedmon’s didn’t matter; I just didn’t feel like I had both hands and both feet in it. I felt like I was giving it the minimum amount of attention necessary to keep it going and it started to feel easy and not as artistically satisfying for me.
My wife really awakened something in me. She’s also an artist—she’s a singer-songwriter—and her art was so challenging and interesting and she’s so fiercely independent about the way she makes records and writes music. I really envied that and thought, “I can’t imagine what that would feel like.” That caused me to immediately address different subject matter. After we got married, the next time around that I began writing songs for the band, the songs coming out had me asking different questions because of this newfound support of my wife.
The first song out of the shoot for what I thought was the next Caedmon’s record was “Wedding Dress” and that was a real disruption to where Caedmon’s was at that moment—so much so that they didn’t even want me to play it on stage. For me, it was a really important song and it’s become a defining song for me as far as my ethos or what you can expect from me as far as being a disruption to the status quo.
The songs that followed were similar and all of a sudden, I was biting the hand that was feeding Caedmon’s because I was writing songs about church culture where we lived and made our living. It was a danger. They didn’t know what to do with that. I think they also did sense that there was something important about it and that I should record those songs, but I think they were rightly protective of their stage for me to do that. They had built something for 10 years too and they had a vision for what they were trying to do and it had nothing to do with that disruption—not at that point.
Caedmon’s was too demanding of a schedule to do anything else well, but I felt like I needed to do this and I wasn’t going to do it on the side. I went to them and we talked it through. We all agreed that I should go make my own record and put these songs on it. We actually went to a lot of trouble to orchestrate a smooth transition. I stayed on another year after we had made the choice that I was going to leave. We didn’t tell anybody. We made another record, which I didn’t write any songs for so that they didn’t need me to tour it. We were simultaneously making my last record with them, Back Home, and my first solo record—literally in two studios, on two sides of town, at the same time.
My first solo record, She Must and Shall Go Free, was all these things that had been bottlenecked and were waiting to come out after a decade of playing in churches and being in church subculture. I had a lot of questions at the end of that; I was confused. Making that record was the start of me processing all of that and asking what is the church as an institution, what is my role in it, what is its role in culture, and what does it all mean? That was the jumping off point for me.
I had never imagined being a solo artist. If anything, all these random stories I’ve been telling you show that I’ve never felt comfortable on my own. I’ve always felt like I wanted to be part of a group. I’ve always wanted to collaborate. I thought I’d be in a band for the rest of my life. That was a real shock. I didn’t know past my first record. That was a huge risk for me, but it was the right choice.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself through your music?
I think I used to have some sort of intention about what I was hoping to accomplish or facilitate, but I haven’t felt that way in probably a good five years. When I make records, I’m just trying to make good records. I swear I’m not trying to say anything to anybody. I mean that in a good way. Music, I think, is not at its best use when being used as a tool with which to do something else. In the last few years, I’ve been much more focused on just trying to make great music and let the content be a consideration, but be secondary. I don’t think I’m trying to infuse any message in it like I used to do. That’s not to say that I hope something’s not communicated. I hope people resonate with the songs. I guess that I want to be as surprised to see what the songs and record as a whole say as everyone else is. I think the intentions you have are very rarely communicated as clear as you think and what is communicated is something unintentional and it can come out overly forceful or like you’re proselytizing and I don’t want to do it that way anymore.
My process has changed. It used to be, “What do I want to say, what is the record I want to make, what do I want it to be about, and what are the series of creative choices I can make to get there?” Now, I make no agenda or plans about what I’m going to make. All my intention is about the process by which I’m going to make something. The last thing I put out was a boutique record called Feedback, which was an instrumental, electronic album. I had asked myself what I wanted to do next, who I wanted to work with, what I wanted my life to be like for the next six months, and what tools I wanted to use to make the music. Not for a second did I think about who is this for, who is going to buy it, will it be commercial enough? I feel like if I make the right choices on the process side, what’s going to happen is going to be interesting. It used to be all about the product—now, it’s all about the process.
“That’s the secret of the new music business—if your ego can bear it, there’s a great blue-collar living to be made as a professional musician.”
You’ve been making music for a long time. Has your definition of what it means to be a successful musician changed over the course of your career?
Yeah, for sure. All those early days in Caedmon’s, as shocking as it was to us, we had all this success. People came to our shows, we were selling records, we were even on the radio. All of that was in a sub-genre, a little ghetto, but it still was a big success for us. Whenever a new record came out, we would be watching the Billboard to see where we came in. Those numbers don’t mean anything to me anymore.
I also think some of the new music business will train you to focus more on a smaller, really committed, supportive group of people rather than trying to get everyone on the planet to know about what you’re doing. I’m a niche artist and that’s the bottom line. I don’t have the personality nor do I make the music to give me success in some big, broad market. I don’t make music for mass consumption. That’s not what I do—not if I’m happy. There was a point when I came to terms with and leaned into the fact that my music’s not for everybody.
That’s the secret of the new music business—if your ego can bear it, there’s a great blue-collar living to be made as a professional musician. The vast majority of people who are making it in music today are middle-class musicians. When I was really young, the only people you knew about were the ones having the huge success because of the way the commercial side of music worked. As I’ve been in the business and as it has changed, you realize that’s hardly anybody’s experience and everybody doesn’t have to know who you are in order to make a living.
The good news is that because all the tools have been democratized, because of technology and the internet, just about anybody—if they’re good, which is rule number one—can make a living with just a handful of people supporting you. If I sold a half million records next year, my career would be over. I would be miserable. My ability to stay off the radar and make just the records I want for my niche crowd would go away overnight. That is the last thing I want to happen. Luckily for me, with my personality and the role I feel like I play in terms of being a gifted agitator, I’m kind of caught in this cycle of self-sabotage where I feel like I’m going to keep myself from ever selling half a million records—so it’s perfect.
You mentioned the music business. We’re curious about Noisetrade and how that came about.
Survival, to tell you the truth. Five years ago, I put out an album called Mockingbird. Like I said, I don’t have a lot of commercial ambition, but I do have a lot of artistic ambition. My tribe had bought Mockingbird, but I felt like there were more people who might resonate with the album because it was a little more political and the marketing dollars that my label was spending weren’t finding those people. I had never cared before, but this was the first record I wanted more people to hear before I moved on. Six months after the album released, my label was talking to me about the next record. I wanted to spend another year on Mockingbird, but economically, it was time to move on.
Part of how you survive in the new music business is to make the connection to be able to apply the same creativity used in making music to the distribution and marketing of your music. We’re creative people; we should be able to be creative about the distributing and marketing of our art. So I sat down with my wife, my manager, and a few friends who think outside of the box and we tried to dream up a plan of how we could get this record further out in a way that didn’t piss off my label.
We had the idea of Noisetrade five years ago when it was insane to think about giving away music. Now it’s par for the course and everybody does it. But at that time, it was crazy because the music business hadn’t started to diversify the revenue streams yet. It was all still wrapped up in recorded music so you feel like you’re leaving yourself nowhere to go if you give your music away for free. Very few people yet understood the value of information.
I went to my label, whose parent company was Sony, and said, “Listen, let me give my album away for three months, but we’re going to get emails and zip codes and ask people to promote it to five friends to get it.” We were able to convince them to let us do this even though they were trying to console the retailers who were sitting on boxes of this record. We paid money to have a website built. I had about 4,000 on an email list at the time and we sent an email to everyone asking them to download it and share it with friends. Three months later, we turned those 4,000 emails into 90,000 people who had downloaded my album for free. I was sitting on this massive amount of information that was mine.
We immediately learned two things: that really worked and it doesn’t matter how you get 90,000 records into the marketplace. If there is any transaction—even an email address and zip code—there’s something that changes about what you can do. We started to look at the information, put it into Excel, and filter it by zip code and learned something fascinating: I had never played a show as a solo artist in two of the top five cities where the album was downloaded. The two cities were New York and LA and I had no idea I had fans there. I’m a folk singer. What business do I have going to NY or LA? Those are hard towns, but data doesn’t lie, so I took it out for a spin.
I called a friend who lived in LA and arranged to stay with him. Then I called the Knitting Factory on Hollywood Boulevard and said, “Give me any gig on any night.” They gave me their smallest room on a Wednesday night. I took the gig and promoted the show only to the people who had downloaded my album in that area. We promoted two weeks before the show and again two days before the show. We played the show and had to turn away twice the capacity of the room. The people at the Knitting Factory were like, “Who the hell are you?” I said, “I’m nobody and that’s why this means something.” That night, they immediately booked me for their next biggest room, which holds 250 people. I came back six months later and it was the same drill—we turned away the capacity of the room. It was the same thing in New York when I played at The Bitter End.
Everywhere I played, people asked if I was the next big thing. I wasn’t—I had just made a little discovery. I stopped playing in the wrong cities in the wrong rooms and started playing in the right cities in the right rooms. It’s not rocket science when you have information. As soon as the dust cleared, I knew I had so many friends that would be willing to give away music for free in exchange for information with which they could make a living.
My manager and I started to hatch a plan about how we could turn this into something that others could use to do the same thing I did. It took us two years. At the time, I couldn’t convince anyone to give me money. I couldn’t prove it as a business model and I didn’t know how or if we would make any money. I didn’t want to make money; I just wanted it to sustain itself. At first, we charged artists to sign up, and that was a great financial support as we were getting started. But we eventually figured out a way to make it free. We added a tip jar for fans to tip the artists and we took 20% of the tips, which wound up sustaining it financially.
We launched Noisetrade three years ago and started with a couple hundred artists who were friends of mine. We now have about 8,000 artists on the site and give away around a half million full albums a month.
“We are no longer in an age where you have the luxury of giving the excuse of, ‘But I’m just an artist and that business stuff is just for other people. Other people need to handle that for me.’ The way you make it now is to learn the tools of the trade, but you have to be willing to learn things that might not come naturally to you.”
Are you satisfied creatively?
Very. I love my career. I’ve never been happier creatively than I am now. I make exactly the records I want to make and nobody meddles in it. I’m on a major label and have been since Caedmon’s. I’ve worked with great people who are very supportive of me and I’ve had the great fortune of never having a big success that everyone is looking to me to recreate. I just get to do what I want. My label does not even hear the album until it is mastered and they give no input on the creative side. That’s the only way that relationship works. It’s all built on trust. I love it. I’m so grateful that I didn’t get wealthy or famous doing something I hate. And the album I’m going to make in 2012 will be a testament to how satisfied I am creatively. That’s all you’re going to get for now.
If you could give one piece of advice to another musician starting out, what would you say?
All things considered, I think it would probably be business advice. Maybe because my dad is a salesman and is amazing at it—I don’t know what it is—but I feel like I have more in common with my manager than with any other artist on his roster. When he and I get together, we talk about his artists. I also love being a stand-in faux manager for my friends who are indie artists and trying to make decisions about their careers. I feel like I’m wired that way.
I would encourage any artist starting out to think about playing music for a living as running a small business because that’s what it is. If you can make choices out of an ethic of being a small business owner, you will be so far ahead of the game. It will give you a great framework from which to make decisions about how to spend your money and what opportunities to take. There’s an investment season and a season when you reap the benefits. You need to keep your overhead low and control your costs.
The last record I made with Caedmon’s before I left 10 years ago was made for six figures, which was very, very common in the music business. For my first solo record, I paid out of pocket and it cost $35,000 to make. Immediately, I thought about all I was paying for: the studio, the musicians, the engineers, the gear. It didn’t make any sense. I had to figure how to bring the cost down. I made my second record for less than $15,000 because I decided I was going to learn how to make a record.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned the process: how to use the gear, produce the albums, how to play more instruments, program, use software, hear arrangements, do other things. The building I’m in now is a 600 square foot studio that we’ve built on our property behind our house. I produce my records; I produce Sandra’s records; I produce records for other bands; I do remix projects for other artists because I love programming. I can make a record for almost zero dollars now because I own the gear and the studio. Now that I can control my costs, it enables me to make more money and I’m able to be more engaged with the creative process.
We are no longer in an age where you have the luxury of giving the excuse of, “But I’m just an artist and that business stuff is just for other people. Other people need to handle that for me.” The way you make it now is to learn the tools of the trade, but you have to be willing to learn things that might not come naturally to you.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
We live in the city in Nashville in a really urban, diverse area near downtown. There’s a lot of energy and action and danger around that brings a spark to the creativity. When I drive past my neighbors and see their living conditions or go to the grocery store and see all this expired food that they’re selling to poor people in my neighborhood—when I get into the studio to make records, there is something about that process for me that is my protest against all that injustice. Environment is a huge influence on art, so living in the city probably has more of an impact on us than we realize it does.
I’ve also been moving further into electronic, inorganic, programmed music and it’d be hard to be an electronic artist in the country—that seems incongruent to me (laughing). The city is good for the season I’m in.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Increasingly it is. I find that with the art I make, I’m better working alone. I’m happy as a mad scientist alone in the studio. It’s funny how NoiseTrade and some of the other local endeavors I’m involved in is where community has taken root for me. NoiseTrade has been the connection point for any sort of mentoring I would hope to do so far. I love helping my friends brainstorm their situations over coffee and talking to them about their careers.
Since your wife, Sandra, is also a musician, how do you balance the responsibilities of marriage, family, and music careers?
Well, we balance it on the top of a bottle of wine—it’s tricky. We have both always been fiercely independent and conscious of not wanting to meddle in each other’s careers, especially when we first got married. I didn’t want us to get married and have any of her tipping points correspond with our connection and for anyone to give that to me. I was worried about that because I didn’t want her to resent me for it. She had been working so long to build her career and I didn’t want anyone to think I had any part of it. For a long time, we played shows together and didn’t go out of our way to mention we were married. Since she goes by her maiden name, people were shocked to find out we were married.
We only have one studio so we’re intentional about how we divide our time. We take turns making records. We get on the calendar and just block out time. We give each other space and don’t write together a lot. It doesn’t come easy because our approaches are very different. I’m hyper literal and detailed and she is hyper abstract so we can get in each other’s way when we’re co-writing. It does work better when we’re co-writing with another artist, which we’ve done. It’s the same with touring. She might go out for a week and I’ll stay home with the kids and vice versa.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Most days the kids get us up around 7am. They are three and four and they just come and jump on us in bed. We have breakfast, hang out with the kids, and around 9 or 10am I’ll go out to the studio. When I’m not touring, there’s always stuff going on in the studio—writing, meetings, producing, working on NoiseTrade. We keep normal business hours. I’ll break to eat lunch with the kids and then it’s back to work till 5 or 6pm. Then we hang out with the kids until their bedtime around 8pm and we veg—no playing music or talking business.
Current album on repeat?
Almost all I listen to is hip-hop. I’m a hip-hop fanatic. My album of the year for 2011 is the Kanye/Jay-Z album, Watch the Throne. When I go to put a record on these days, it’s usually that one. I also like Yasiin Bay/Mos Def; Black Star; Lupe Fiasco; the lo-fi bands Washed Out and Phantogram. I’m getting more into dubstep too. There’s also the Bon Iver record from last year, which was beautiful as well, and last year’s My Brightest Diamond record.
Favorite movie or television shows?
We were huge into Friday Night Lights. We just finished the last season of West Wing, which was good. Now we’re way into Downton Abbey. We also love 30 Rock—so funny.
Any favorite books?
I’m reading the Steve Jobs biography, which is really fascinating. I’m a huge Apple fanatic; they make excellent products. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but apparently the genre of fiction I love is tech suspense like William Gibson or Cory Doctorow. Makers by Cory Doctorow was incredible. I also liked the books Daemon and Freedom™ by Daniel Suarez. Other than that, I read about how to run start-ups and anything Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell put out. And Wired magazine. Where culture and tech meet piques my interest.
It’s probably a toss-up between Mexican and Asian food. I love sushi, Thai food, Japanese, Chinese, curries—it’s just so weird that there’s so little cheese in it because I love cheese. A lot of my formative years were in Texas so Tex-mex and Mexican food are my comfort foods.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I don’t know. I almost feel like whatever legacy I might inevitably leave will be better if I don’t think about answering questions like that.
I don’t even want to think about it because it’s like making records. The thing you set out to do is never exactly the thing you did. If you try to make a record starting with the record you want to make—starting out with the product before you even know about the process—the record you’re going to make is not going to be a reflection of your initial intention. It’s going to be a testament to the set of compromises you made to get there.
I don’t want my legacy to be a collection of the compromises I made trying to get to the legacy I was trying to leave. I mean, I wish I had a great answer for that, but my having a bad answer for that question might make a better legacy in the long run.
“Part of how you survive in the new music business is to make the connection to be able to apply the same creativity used in making music to the distribution and marketing of your music. We’re creative people; we should be able to be creative about the distributing and marketing of our art.”