I Want To Be… A Rock Star!

I Want To Be... A Rock Star!

Hello, I am a bassist in a band called Los Campesinos! who are currently on tour in the good old america, we recently sold out two nights at The Williamsburg Hall of Music and I think my job is pretty cool and interesting, letting me tour all over the world, play a instrument and meet lots of interesting people. Plus i once got a free xbox
Ellen x

When I received this email, I knew I had to interview Ellen! Hers is the story of a British bass player made good. Along with the rest of her band, she tours all around the world, living the grunge/glamour life & documenting everything as best she can!

Tell us about what you do.
I am the bass player in an eight piece band called Los Campesinos! who originally hail from the UK, my job involves playing a four stringed instrument to the best of my abilities in various venues around the world.

What does an average day at work look like for you?
It varies depending on whether we are touring, recording or have time off. Sometimes I wake up at my home in Cardiff, sometimes in a Super 8 in Albuquerque and once I woke up 6am with jet lag in Hong Kong (doesn’t happen a lot).

If we are not on tour I can normally be found in front of my mac eating porridge and editing video footage of us from the previous tour to go on our bloggy blog.

My routine at the moment involves waking up on our tour bus (we are half way through a three week jaunt across the US) in a tiny womb like bunk feeling confused and hoping that people haven’t gone to the hotel room to shower without me (biggest fear, you’re unwashed and alone!). After the traditional race to shower event I tend to scope around the town we are in for a hipster coffee shop (one in every American college town), some culture, an omelet or a zoo until sound check. Then it’s dinner and gig preparation which involves make up, a glass of red wine and a bit of a costume change if I haven’t already put my special gig clothes on that morning. My stage outfits tend to be a bit racier then my normal day wear, so it can be essential to not tart up too early in the day to avoid bizarre looks from locals.

Then we have the gig itself where we play our little hearts out for an hour and maybe do an encore depending on whether anyone wants one. What happens afterwards depends on the mood of everyone, what time bus call is and if we have friends in the area, but normally we will hang around the venue talking to people who came to the show before heading back on the bus before long talking rubbish (sometimes drunken rubbish) before bed. If it’s a special night we might go to a bar, do karaoke or play football in the car park.

Do you work alone or with other people?
I spend 80% of my time with my band mates and crew, rehearsing, touring or recording. There are 8 of us in the band in total and we have lived in each other pockets in various extreme situations over the past four years, and have probably had more face time with each other then our closest family members and loved ones.

Is this what you wanted to do as a child? Did you end up in this job by “accident” or was it a planned career choice?
It was a complete and lovely fluke! I went to Cardiff University to study Journalism and had only been playing bass for a couple of years by that point and had two awful gigs to my name. One involved performing the Kelly Osbourne version of “Papa don’t Preach” for a charity event and the other involved the appalling band name “The Blossom Pockets.” Needless to say, we sucked. I did however bring my bass to University with the sole aim of joining a band/impressing potential lovers and just happened to meet some people who wanted to put our collective sloppy music skills together as something to do on lecture free Wednesdays (the alternative was sport.) We were in our last year of university when we got signed and could only tour around holidays and on our “reading weeks,” but once we graduated we did it full time and have done ever since.

How long ago did you start on this path?
The band formed about five years ago, but I started playing bass when I was 17 as I wanted to learn an instrument easier then guitar but cooler then recorder. I used to play the bass parts from Green Day and Blink 182 songs to my mum in a bid to convince her it was a worthwhile Christmas present and she needed to invest in a bigger amp. I guess I started getting into music around the same time I picked up bass, I discovered bands that struck a chord with me (awful sentence I know) which differed slightly to that of my friends and I was made fun of quite a bit for it at school which was why it was amazing to meet people who shared a similar taste as me at University. My band mates and I all have varying music preferences, but we are all grouped together in a general love for the nice emotional response it invokes, and I am continuously learning about bands old and new from them so it’s a nice way of being re-educated.

How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?
We were quite lucky when we got signed as it was on the cusp of the music industry going a bit recession shaped, so we started out with the advantage of having a solid record deal and some money to tour and record with. We do find it is a bit of a struggle to make ends meet now as there are quite a few of us and illegal downloading has increased, but we are lucky enough to get by, however I don’t think I will be buying anything too sparkly or expensive any time soon.

Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?
We started out with a gig at our University union in front of some of our friends with no aspirations for pop careers or anything beyond a fun university band. We did a few more gigs in the local area of Cardiff and recorded some demos we put up on the internet, and to our complete bewilderment they started getting a very good response and before we knew it we were meeting managers, record labels, bookers and lawyers. There was a summer where we got romanced by the industry and got many a free soup, salad and gin and tonic out of it, but we tried to be smart and were wary of the labels who wanted us to leave University before we had even finished our degrees and capitalize on the internet hype. We did slow and steady. We also had quite a few lucky breaks, we managed to wrangle our way on to the support for a Broken Social Scene gig in Cardiff and through that managed to get a record deal with the Canadian based company Arts and Crafts, and our first American gig was at Lollapalooza. I saw Perry Farrell backstage in skin tight silver jeans and braces. It was awesome.

What kind of education do you have?
I was a bit of a perfectionist at school and lacked confidence in myself, I have dyslexia and I found I struggled quite a lot (and still do) with things which seemed easier to my peers. I went to quite a competitive academic school outside of London and I got frustrated and angry with myself about the simplest things, and it’s only now I realize that I did pretty well despite everything and that I am more the creative sort then the academic sort (and that’s perfectly fine). I did an art foundation course before university, then decided I wanted to be a writer and now I am a musician. I think that sense of continually trying to prove myself as a youngster helped me become more determined to succeed.

Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?
A degree in music would be an obvious benefit, I wish I had more theory to back up what I do, but you do pick things up (slowly in my case) along the way. No one in our band had any kind of formal training, just a near-obsessive love of music, but I think education or qualifications are a important thing to fall back on. I think with the music industry, especially the performing side, it’s a case of picking a lot of things up on the way.

If you went to school, did you enjoy studying? Could you see where it might lead you at the time? What advice would you give to someone else who might be studying to get into your industry?
I think someone who goes to a music school is probably going to end up in a less shambolic band then the one we are, our less rigid style of classical training happens to be something on stage which works for us. I did however learn that the best thing to do in school and in life is to try everything, fail and then realise that’s not what you’re meant to be doing anyway, its a narrowing down process, and If I had not done that then I would never have ended up at the University I was in and met the people I now work with. I hate feeling regret more then failure.

I Want To Be... A Rock Star!

What do you think is the best thing about what you do?
The traveling is amazing, I have been to more countries then possible if left to my own devices, and I have experienced some amazing “remember for the rest of your life moments” i.e watching shooting stars in Marfa, drinking tequila on a rooftop bar in Mexico, playing in a baseball stadium in Japan and I have met some incredibly fascinating people and involved myself ever so briefly in some interesting cultural experiences. Plus performing is an incredibly cathartic activity, and nothing beats the adrenaline rush of performing in front of a responsive crowd. It can be like therapy. Oh and I got a free xbox, I hold it responsible for getting me through a difficult break up.

What’s the worst thing?
Homesickness, jet lag, a tendency to destroy your body, an inability to hold down a relationship, not having space to be alone when you really need it, performing when you are just not in the mood. It’s a bit of a strange job because it’s 100% full on when you’re “working” but when there is down time you have little concrete routine.

Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?
I dont think I am a workaholic, but I can get very obsessive, especially when I feel a bit fixated by something. When I am putting together a video piece for us I can spend hours and days on end in front of a camera editing footage until I think it is absolutely perfect. It is the same with writing a blog entry, or recording a bass part, I have a tendency not to know when to step away and be happy with something. I like pushing myself into reaching my limit and I think it is important to be completely consumed by something until you forget how to make conversation with people every one in a while.

It is the same with making an album, you spend all your time with each other and you get a little bit isolated, but it’s the only way to get it done sometimes… You have to shut everything else out. Tom writes all our music, and you can see him getting completely absorbed by it all, especially when we are recording, and I find that really inspiring.

I used to have a tendency to overanalyze my playing on stage as well, if I had made a mistake I would fret and worry about it during the rest of the gig wondering if I would mess up again, and I realize now that it a sure fire way to ruin your enjoyment of playing. Accepting that you will make mistakes, as will everyone, and it doesn’t mean you suck in general is a good thing to come to terms with.

I think being a workaholic in terms of how much time you can spent doing band stuff is inevitable, if you’re not touring you are normally recording or rehearsing. We were in America for six months last year working and it was very bizarre to reacclimatize yourself to normal life when you came back home, but it’s easier when you have good friends (and for me) no significant other. I find touring and dating pretty hard…. I am still trying to find the right mix as I can’t quite focus on love life and career, it has to be one or the other for me.

What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?
I guess in terms of forming a band its important to find the right people to make music with, you could play with the most talented virtuoso’s in the world but it might not feel quite right, or might not be very fun… It’s really important to get a mix of comfort and creativity, but I guess I was just very lucky with what happened to me.

…How about number two?
Don’t take anything for granted and treasure every single amazing moment. If you get in a position where you can tour wonderful places it’s easy to become complacent, but it could all go tomorrow.

What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
Like I said I used to (and still occasionally get) terrible stage-fright, especially when I have had a bad day or feel a bit emotionally fraught. It is only recently that I have come to realise that I need to “own” what I do on stage instead of feeling like a impostor who doesn’t deserve it… I have wasted a lot of time worrying. I also think it’s important to use negative thoughts as something to expel on stage rather then something to hold you back.

Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?
I tend to tell people it’s better and worse then they can imagine, there is far less money in it then they would think, and there is a lot of time spent in cold or dingy venues waiting around for sound checks. I also spend most of my time on one form of transport or another and it can be more tedious then you would think. Plus there are no hoards of groupies for the boys or the girls, our fans tend to be incredibly nice, but sleeping with them might be weird/awkward.

Do you ever have any ethical dilemmas with the work you do?
I don’t think I could date anyone who was an out and out fan of the band, and would probably make a point not to. I have friends who like the band, but it would be creepy if they reallllly liked us. We also had difficulty with the idea of selling our music to adverts to begin with, we felt it was a bit of a sell out thing to do, and turned quite a few offers down before realizing that sadly that is one of the few remaining ways that bands can make money to fund themselves… So we sold a song to Budweiser which alienated some fans but most understood it is a necessary evil. We need to eat/make records!

What is the best thing that’s happened to you as a consequence of the work you do?
I got to have dinner with Neil Gaiman, who is one of my favorite writers; I met his fiancé Amanda Palmer (a heroine of mine) at Coachella festival and told her I was a bit of a fan of them both. Anyway he said hello to me on twitter, and we started emailing each other and I sent him a copy of our album (which luckily he liked) and when he came to Cardiff to work on Doctor Who we had some dinner. It was incredibly awesome and surreal.

What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
Hearing new album demos our guitarist and main music composer Tom writes, being really happy with a piece of tour footage I have edited together, thinking of interesting things to write on our band blog, meeting incredibly nice and interesting fans who say lovely things or bring us vegan cupcakes (a common occurance) or just having a bit of a moment on stage. Mostly, it’s insane that anyone would turn up and give a fuck.

Who do you look up to within your industry & why?
Amanda Palmer, she keeps finding new ways to interact with fans and make them feel like they are part of her world, and that’s really inspiring, plus she seems very happy with in herself and she has the smarts. I admire people who seem to be creative in new and interesting ways but also seem to have a lot of fun with what they do. Also Linda Perry seems to have behind nearly all of my favorite girly pop songs, she knows how to write an amazing fist pumping tune.

Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.
Oh gawd, it varies so much, If I have played well during a gig and its has gone well then 80, if I have had a bit of a stage panic and think I sucked then 20 and if we are listening back to a newly recorded album track on amazing studio speakers and we are all really pleased with how it is sounding then 100, if I am feeling hormonal and we are in the middle of nowhere with no coffee and I am tired and sad then 5. I have varying mood swings.

Is there much career progression available to you? What would you like to do next?
The music industry is fairly unpredictable so fingers crossed that our luck doesn’t run out and we can keep touring and making albums for a bit. I guess the “dream” progression would be playing bigger venues, selling millions of albums, winning a Grammy, attending the Oscars on the arm of some hollywood hottie and having a holiday flat in New York…. sigh… but in terms of realism, it would be lovely to tour some places we have not touched on yet like Australia or South Africa, and I would like to keep on filming our various adventures but with more exciting and expensive equipment. I also would like to maybe one day write a book about all this madness that has been my life for the last 5 years. That would be cool.

Do you think you’ll continue doing this for the rest of your life?
I think as long as it keeps being fun and people keep wanting to see or hear us then we will persevere, but I can’t imagine being a 54 year old rocker…. maybe I will have moved onto product placement by then and bought out a range of novelty sex toys or salad creams.

P.S. If you want to be able to follow Ellen’s life more closely, you can stalk her on Twitter! She is @ellenstarbuck!