4 Lessons I Learned From My 7 Years as a Rocker

Joining a band can do more for you than you might imagine

Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

For seven years — between 2000 and 2007 — I was a rock star.

OK, really, it was more like I played bass in a Chicago rock band that played some big shows but never quite hit the big time or allowed us to quit our day jobs.

The band — we were called Brother Lowdown — was a huge part of my life and continues to linger as part of my identity, even though it ended years ago. I find myself applying what I learned from that experience to my present self. Here are four lessons I took away that might be helpful for you, too:

A photo of the author recording the bass line for a Brother Lowdown album.

Tenacity, patience, repeat. Have you ever tried to book a show in the backroom of a burrito place? What about the most famous rock club in Chicago? I’ve done both and learned you really have to learn to book the burrito place (and we rocked that gig) in order to book the most famous rock club in Chicago. And in both cases, you have to email and call a booking person who works two hours a day, talks to a million people, possibly drinks on the job, doesn’t take notes or messages, puts you on stage at midnight and says you really need to draw at least 100 people to get paid.

As humans, we face these situations every day — with the cable company, with a difficult co-worker, with some weirdo from our hometown who posted an inexplicably mean political comment on our Facebook post about kittens. (To quote Churchill, “Never never never give in.” Especially to the cable company.)

When you find something that you love and feel passionately about doing, ride that wave for as long as you can. I started playing in Brother Lowdown in my mid-20s. Although jobs and boyfriends and apartments came and went, for seven years, I always had the band — friends to meet once or twice a week and drink a beer or three while playing the guitar, writing and trying out new songs. In addition to being a blast, playing in the band was one of the first things I did that made me feel like I was no longer a flaky kid because it meant really showing up and being willing to put myself out there, musically and personally.

Find your people. Take a chance. When I moved to Chicago from Washington, D.C., I didn’t think there was any chance of finding the kinds of friendships that I was leaving behind back East. It took me a few months, but one night after a Steve Earle concert in fall of 1999, I saw a guy I knew from work who was excited to see we shared a taste in music. The co-worker turned out to be Mike, my future drummer, and he introduced me to Matt, my future guitarist, and Nate, our future lead singer. Turned out they’d been jamming on the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and Son Volt songs and writing pieces of their own, and they were looking for a bassist. I’d only been playing for two months at that point and had never played bass in a band, but decided to show up to their practice anyway. We went on to write lots of songs (here’s one), make three albums, play dozens of shows around the Midwest and tour the East coast together. They also became my best friends.

I’ve found it is always worth it to get out of the house, take a chance and meet someone — especially if you have a hunch that you might share interests. This isn’t always about music (though it could be). It is about finding people you like and doing something you enjoy.

Worst case, you won’t like the new people and you’ll go home and try again later with someone else.

Best case, you will marry the guitar player. That’s what I did about six and a half years after meeting him at that show.

Move on when it makes sense. Related to the previous point, I got a big academia job in Minneapolis, which happened to be the city where my guitarist-husband’s family lived and one where we knew he could find work in finance. The stars had aligned. But disbanding wasn’t just because 50 percent of the band was moving out of state. Our band still loved playing together, writing music and playing live. It was just becoming disheartening to never quite make it to the next level — like getting signed to a label or playing SXSW — and it was growing harder to convince our then-30-something friends to come see us play at a club at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday.

So, we scheduled an epic “Last Waltz” style farewell show on July 20, 2007. It was more joyous than sad, and we had a blast. Same as the previous seven years of playing together.

Even though we’re all still close friends (and I’m still in love with the guitarist) and we see each other when we can, we haven’t played together as a band since then. Writing about it today makes me feel a little nostalgic and sad, but at least we had this amazing experience in the first place. None of us would trade it.

I can’t help but think it might be time for a Brother Lowdown reunion gig, though. I just need to convince them that there’s another burrito joint/rock club show that will be worth all of our time.

By Shayla Thiel Stern
Shayla is the former Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS.@shayla_stern

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