Hitting it Big: Trials and Triumphs of Underground Musicians
By Mike Kasarda, Staff Writer
A distinct energy surges through the cold night in Athens, home to students, thinkers, dreamers, intellectual elite, blue collar folk, "townies" and vagabonds. Like any Saturday evening uptown, shady 20-somethings lean on rickety stools and cram into flooded bars, weary with the weight of pint glasses. Others inhale smoke from American Spirits and scarf down slices of cheap, greasy pizza on the sidewalk. A magnetic pull from the bricks draws Athenians together, hellbent on drinking, making merry and forgetting the maddening monotony of life in this small college town.
On Union Street, a substantial throng of people has gathered outside two neighboring bars, the Union and Jackie O’s. Squealing guitars, booming bass drums, and stretched voices combine in a triumphant, unrefined din that mingles with shouts and jeers outside.
From far away the music is simply a roar of sound. From feet away it’s not much easier to manage. The problem isn’t that the music sucks. In fact, the musicians are quite talented. The problem is the music is coming from two separate bands playing just feet from each other. The proximity forces them to compete for ears, a competition that only partly embodies the near-impossible struggle of young, underground musicians everywhere.
Conor Standish and Jim DeCapua share an array of similarities. Both are from Northeast Ohio, received an education in Ohio and base their musical endeavors in Ohio. Each has an affinity for The Beatles, impressive facial hair and a Fender guitar. They adore catering to energetic crowds, imparting emotional messages through their songs and improvising on stage with a technique based on feeling and passion. Conor, however, gravitates toward a breezy, reggae style similar to Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews, while Jim combines elements of jazz, dance, folk and jam rock into what he likes to call “groove.” Guitar entered their lives during early adolescence, and each plays lead and sings in an alternative rock band.
Conor and Jim share the fact that they started bands with great friends, they love what they do and, most importantly, they haven’t looked back, even though the temptation has sometimes been strong to pursue safer careers. They are chasing down a life on the road, playing their songs for people they’ve never met and spending cash like wild teens with their weekly allowance.
Conor and Jim don’t know each other. They have never heard of each other’s band. They also have no idea they’re tuning up, preparing to perform just a stone’s throw apart in the adjoining bars.
For Conor, the surroundings are familiar. He is a senior at Ohio University and plays in the Athens-based Burning River Ramblers. Jim, on the other hand, has journeyed from Youngstown with the other members of Jones For Revival.
The members of the Burning River Ramblers are handed a round of PBRs as Conor touches up the tuning of his acoustic guitar and begins to strum a smooth, melodious tune. The instrument is Conor’s “baby,” and he treats it as such. The already sizeable crowd of friends, family, fans and boozers huddle around the stage, fascinated and moved by the Taylor’s purr like they’re witnessing the first cry of a newborn infant. Simultaneously, Chris Rush, Dave Young and brothers Zach and Jesse Catania join Conor, erupting in an exultant tune reminiscent of warm breezes and summer days. The song is “See Ya Soon” and everyone either knows the words or pretends they do.
The melody spreads a contagious sway that starts with a bobbing of the knees, dispersing throughout the body until a debilitating frenzy takes control. In a moment, everyone is infected. Arms flail, voices strain, beer is spilt--even smugly reticent hipsters go bat-shit crazy.
These are the moments Conor--or any musician--lives for.
“I can’t imagine a world without music. I think it’s one of the most amazing aspects of the human race. Music fills the gaps of life--even if it’s just background music or a jingle on the elevator--and it always has some kind of effect on people. When I meet someone who says they don’t really listen to music, I honestly feel bad for them,” Conor says.
Conor’s world has always had background music. Now 23 years old, he remembers its constant presence at home during his youth. He can recall his parents' deep appreciation for classic rock and his brother’s tendency to blare Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews since he could barely utter a word, let alone write a verse. When his uncle gave him his first acoustic guitar in eighth grade, music was immediately propelled to the forefront. During his senior year at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Standish frequently met his friends Chris Rush and Chris Walling at their dingy apartment above the family-owned Pets General Store on Madison Avenue. Rush and Walling each had a few years of experience on bass and harmonica, respectively, and amidst the dripping ceilings and hookah-stained walls, the three founded The Trip C’s.“
From the moment I met up with those guys I knew we had something special. It was after our first show together that I was positive I wanted to pursue a career in music."
The three played local venues around Cleveland, scrounging up whatever money remained after rent and numerous late-night excursions to Taco Bell. Like most upstart musicians, they relied on whatever friends and family they could convince to attend their shows. With a mob of loyal friends and a drop or two of luck, The Trip C’s quickly established a solid base of support from Lakewood. Standish enrolled at Ohio University following high school, and the remaining ‘C’s’ followed shortly after. What happened next could only be described as a true stroke of fate.
“We were sitting at my apartment in Athens,” Conor says, “and Rush ordered a pizza. Jesse [Catania] was driving that night for Domino’s and delivered to our place. When he looked inside he saw a drum kit and asked who played. We told him we were actually looking for a drummer and he invited us over his place later that week. Jesse’s one of the best drummers I’ve heard and it wasn’t long before we asked him to play with us. Then, his brother Zach filled in one night on guitar. He learned all the songs just hours before the show and killed it so we kept him on. Dave [Young] played with Jesse in another band. He joined us on the keys not much later. It really is astonishing how we all came together.”
By 2011 the band was well on its way.
From the Union, Standish’s rich voice permeates the concrete walls and diluted conversations at Jackie O’s patio next door, causing some to shout and others to pause in appreciation of this melodious echo. Inside, Jim DeCapua is humbly hoping for a similar attention. He eases out a mellow, resonant chord from his $7,000 PRS Hollowbody guitar that reverberates off the mahogany walls and freshly polished growler mugs. Diving into the beautiful intro to Phish’s “Farmhouse,” Jim’s bandmates join in one by one. A soft, inviting blue light casts an inviting atmosphere over the pub. Yet, only a handful of people stand near the stage. Jim, a 30-year-old seasoned musician, begins to sing a few well-tailored stanzas, but few seem to notice.
Some Athenians trickle in and take their seats at the bar, barely glancing in the band’s direction. To them, Jones For Revival is just another bar-backed jam band--just another excuse for a cover charge.
As Jim launches into a guitar solo, he closes his eyes, bites his bottom lip, fully experiencing his creation. Meanwhile, a couple steps through the entrance, scoffs at the measly three dollar cover charge, and meanders next door to the free show where the Burning River Ramblers have packed the house.
Jim isn’t fazed or discouraged and plays the song through as if he were offering up a prayer, then transitions into one of his originals. He has been around the underground music scene for almost a decade and has played for far more and far fewer people before. He believes reaching one or two people with his music is just as rewarding as reaching two hundred.
“I just want to impart some emotion--some feeling through my music,” Jim says. “If one person gets something out of one of my songs then I’ve done my job and I consider it a good day. Even if it just offers people a chance to escape for a little bit from the everyday bullshit, that’s good enough for me. Music found me and I’m really lucky it did. Now I want to help bring music to others.”
Since music found him, Jim has considered it his best and only option. He determinedly progressed through grunge, to jazz and blues, to classical, and finally to his own take on improvisational guitar, constantly fueled by the desire to play better. This same drive projected him through various odd jobs after high school and eventually into Kent State University’s music program in 2003. However, this structured way of learning music wasn’t enough for Jim.
“Always in the back of my mind I felt I could do better. I never wanted to limit myself or my music so I decided to just go around and book myself at different venues. I didn’t have a résumé. I didn’t even have a name for the band so I just made one up. I got seven gigs right away and I didn’t even have a band!”
Jim strung together a hodgepodge of musician friends and without a name, a drummer, any original songs, or really any practice, the three-piece band performed its first show at a local pub in Youngstown.
“About 200 people showed up at this last-minute gig at Irish Bobb’s, and we all were wondering how the hell we could keep doing this for the rest of our lives! For me, it was what I loved to do and I figured I could make a decent living off it. So there was no doubt in my mind it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I never once questioned it in the beginning and I haven’t since,” Jim says.
After three years at Kent State, Jim decided to drop out in 2006 to pursue a musical career on his own terms. Soon afterward, he formed Jones For Revival with Dave Lynn on bass, Gino West on drums and Ryan Mitiska on keyboard.
As the Burning River Ramblers triumphantly embark on a unanimously requested encore, Jim DeCapua strums the intro to a near-perfect cover of Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”--usually a crowd favorite--to overwhelming indifference. The rest of the band does not seem as enthused as Jim. They drove three hours, spent $60 on gas and it’s looking like they won’t be making that money back.
Immediately after the performance, they have to drive four hours to Kent without any knowledge of what type of reception awaits them there. Although they’ve also seen smaller crowds before and probably will in the future, the financial strain is just one of many burdens. They realize each show could theoretically be their last. This is their career, and each performance counts.
But the members of Jones For Revival have also experienced shows like the Ramblers’ that night. They too have witnessed success in their years on the road and in the studio. Jim and his cohorts recently released a five-song EP and will release their sophomore album before Christmas. They have been on three tours throughout the United States and are planning a fourth this coming summer to promote their new album.
Jim currently works with the Youngstown-based non-profit organization VexFest, which promotes local bands and artists in the Youngstown area and culminates into a day of local music each summer. Most notably, the band has regularly hosted its own music festival, Jonesfest, which takes place every year in Garrettsville, Ohio at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park and attracts hundreds every year. This year will mark the sixth JonesFest, and the group is already planning its seventh festival.
Similarly, the Burning River Ramblers are no strangers to empty bars and thinning wallets. Each of the musicians makes daily sacrifices and they are willing to make more. Their greatest commonality, however, is their drive and enthusiasm for the music they love and the paths they have chosen.
“We’re all ready to make sacrifices and be poor for a while,” Conor says. “All of us wouldn’t be in the same band if we thought otherwise or if we didn’t have the same common goal.”
The Burning River Ramblers are not embarking on this musically-inclined lifestyle without a strong résumé, either. Even though the group is relatively new to the music scene, the members display a musical maturity that usually takes years to develop. The band has accrued a respectable repertoire of personal achievements and ever-growing success, producing one full-length album, and is currently in the midst of recording a second.
The group has established a wide fan base in both Athens and Cleveland and frequently play at venues throughout Ohio. In 2011 Standish won the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, a nationally recognized songwriting contest, for “Stranger on the Street.” This summer the band played in front of a crowd of hundreds--its largest audience ever--at Wade Oval Wednesday in University Circle on the eastside of Cleveland, a concert that Standish describes as “a real victory for the band.”
Finally, the members of the Burning River Ramblers are preparing a nationwide tour following their graduation from Ohio University in May. It will be the first time the band has been on the road for an extended period of time and will be a true testament to its mettle.“I think it would be a serious understatement to say we’re excited about the tour,” Conor says. “We’re all ready to leave today if we could.”
Conor and Jim know hard times and sacrifice are part of the job description. These sacrifices, like time spent with family, a more concerted focus on education, chances at a high paying career and personal relationships, are major concerns. Chris Walling, who played harmonica for the Ramblers and was a founding member, made the difficult decision to leave the band in early 2012 to focus on his education and secure more reliable opportunities for himself.
“I thought my future held greater possibilities if I focused on my college education. Those guys are some of my best friends and I loved making music with them. I still go to all the shows, but my dream is to be a teacher and I decided to pursue that dream instead,” says Walling, a specialized studies major at Ohio University.
Conor stresses that without the encouragement and backing from his friends and family, none of the Ramblers’ feats would have been attainable. Family alone is the sacrifice Conor will not make for his musical dream. For him, they go hand in hand. Others, like Chris Rush, a communications major and the Ramblers’ bassist, have experienced some criticism from family.
“My parents definitely support the band and what we do. They’ve wanted me to have some kind of involvement in music since I was a kid. But they think I should do the band while I’m still young, and if it doesn’t work out they’ll want me to get a real job. Music will always be incorporated in my life in some way, though, no doubt about that,” Rush says.
Of course, money is a major factor for any profession, including one centered on music, and it is absolutely essential for the future of a small-time underground band. Jim contends that while money surely “isn’t everything,” it is the only thing that funds tours, studio time, equipment management, travelling and “pretty much anything else that makes the musical world go ‘round.” He admits one of his most trying experiences and personal failures was during Jones For Revival’s 2009 tour when the band exhausted its funds while on the road.
“In the middle of our second tour, the van broke down outside St. Louis. We ended up having to walk miles along the highway before we could find help and spent the rest of our money getting the van towed and fixed. The worst part was that we had to cancel the show that night and the rest of the tour. We were all humiliated and disappointed, and the experience really showed me the dark side of touring and playing music.”
Touring is undoubtedly the most debilitating, strenuous, intimidating and rewarding experience for a band. Jones For Revival has embarked on three tours in the past five years throughout the western U.S. The amount of national recognition the band gained as a result is exponential with more fans joining its community and attending Jonesfest every year. The cost, however, has at times been daunting. Canceled shows, sleepless nights, empty bank accounts and steaming engines are all known risks and likely results for a band on the road.“
Our first tour out west, we did 16 shows from Florida to Portland. That was without a doubt the most trying experience of my life. It was also the best learning experience for me,” Jim says. “Looking back, it was the greatest time of my life so far and it really forced me to grow up.”
Jim and the other members of Jones For Revival were also surprised and dismayed by the expense of and time taken to record and produce their new album. This undertaking, the band’s second full-length effort, took twice as long to record and cost nearly three times as much as anticipated. Additionally, the recording process distinctly affects the musician personally, Conor says.
“When you’re in the studio and you have to go over the same song over and over and you end up doing over 20 takes, you realize how much you suck as a musician--or at least how much you can improve. It really starts to fuck with your head and make you question your own ability. You start asking yourself, ‘Why am I even doing this in the first place?’ That’s the hardest thing to get over for me.”
Ironically, both Jim and Conor claim that when these problems seem to persist, they do what they normally do when they are stressed, anxious, or have a buildup of emotion--write and play music. They, like many other musicians, consider music therapeutic. It is with this perspective that Jim and Conor approach each performance with renewed passion, whether they play in front of a sea of swaying bodies or not. They are playing as much for themselves as they are their audience.
“An ideal show for me doesn’t necessarily mean playing in front of the most people. I’m happiest when I’m playing for people that appreciate the music, any friends or family or random people that can feel what I felt when I wrote the song,” explains Conor. “When one person will come up to me and say, ‘Wow! Awesome job! Keep doing what you’re doing!’ that’s when I feel it’s all totally worth it. That’s when I have a lot of hope for our future.”
By the time Jim and the other members of Jones For Revival begin tearing down and loading the van, the Burning River Ramblers are well into their jubilant gallivant throughout the city in celebration. Rounds of drinks and requests for personal encores are doled out abundantly. Conor treats his friends and family to a few personal serenades back at his apartment, a short walk from the Union, while Jim finishes a Budweiser before last call.
Despite the two groups’ very different experiences tonight, they hold the same optimistic views. Whatever trials and hesitant tendencies they sometimes feel from an unresponsive crowd, the 20-odd takes in the studio, a flat tire, or the last dollar in their bank accounts, their resolute enthusiasm for their dream overcomes it all.
“Other than family, I don’t care what it takes. It doesn’t matter. I love music that much,” Conor says.
It’s impossible to be sure how far these musicians will go in the music world. It’s vague when, if ever, they will make it big. But for right now, one thing is undeniable: These musicians feel they have a duty to uphold. They provide a service in the form of an escape from the mundane, offering emotional relief and trips back to innocence. Jim, Conor and their bandmates have an obligation to themselves to chase this dream with every ounce of devotion they can muster.