So You Want to Be in a Band — What Else Are We Going to Do?

The author, Tom Reardon, in his natural habitat.
The author, Tom Reardon, in his natural habitat. S. Craig Haynes
If music is what you want to do with your life, or even your spare time, there is a lot to consider.

I’ve been dispensing a lot of advice to my son, Liam, over the past few months about being in a band and playing music with other people. He’s 15 years old, a seemingly gifted guitar player, and way ahead of where I was at his age. As I once did (and probably still do), Liam wants to be in a band. I’m glad I have the benefit of experience to help him, and hopefully you, dear reader, along the way.

Sometimes, though, I really want to ask him, “Do you really want to be in a band?” He’s grown up seeing me go through a ton of strange and sometimes uncomfortable circumstances because of my other side gig. I’m a teacher by day, a writer by afternoons, and for a long, long time, a musician at night. Sometimes those hats even get to cross streams and one gig blends into another.

Considering that I’ve been in a baker's dozen worth of bands since 1987 and done the band “thing” for well over the 10,000-hour threshold, I am technically an expert. But it still often feels like some sort of cosmic joke under the misnomer: learning experience. This is my attempt, however vain, autobiographical, and with the help of some of my musical friends and acquaintances (I hope), to shed some light on how to be in a band and keep your sanity.

During my decade as a freelance writer, for example, I’ve often asked musicians how they got started or why they play music. This question wasn’t always for the story I was writing, though, but for some sort of insight into why I’ve made this decision, too. It feels nice to know you are not the only one, you know? It’s good to know you’re not alone.

The answer often comes back to some semblance of “What else was I going to do?” One of my all-time favorite answers to this question came from the late Steve Davis, who played bass in The Glass Heroes here in Phoenix (as well as a bunch of other projects, including the U.S. Bombs), when we were talking about his first book of haiku and short stories.

“I liked going to shows and seeing bands, you know? I figured, ‘Why not? I can do that,’” Davis said while we had coffee at a small shop on Seventh Street about a year before he died in 2021.

Even if you are a lifer, like me or my friend Steve Davis, you really should ask yourself why you are playing music or being in a band occasionally. I ask myself this all the time, and you might be surprised that my answer changes a lot. Being in a band is hard work, even under the very best of circumstances. So have an honest conversation with yourself about why you want to take or continue taking this leap.

Initially, I wanted to be in a band because I fell in love with live music as a kid. I had a few opportunities to see bands play, both big and small, and I just loved it. Watching bands play on TV, too, was always a little mesmerizing for me as far back as I remember, and the idea of making music just seemed right.

When I saw my friends making music at an early age, it inspired such strong feelings of jealousy and longing that I had to get my fix. It was all consuming, and even though I thought I was playing it cool most of the time, I’m sure I was a bit overbearing. I hope I wasn’t too big of a dork about it.

These are the types of things you must consider when thinking of joining or starting a band:

1. Will it make me a dork, asshole, incompetent, incontinent, broke, insufferable, a gigantic ego-driven assclown (pay no attention to the picture above), or a well-rounded individual striving to build confidence? (Hopefully the latter, but probably not in your first year of being in a band.)
2. See No. 1 but answer honestly this time.
3. Do I need to do this because it’s who I am? If so, this is good, mostly, but sometimes bad, too.
4. Do I need to do this because I want attention? This is bad and will probably mean that if you’re bandmates were your friends prior to forming the band, they may not be afterward.
5. Can I afford to do this? This is purely financial.
6. Can I afford not to do this? This is more of an emotional stability kind of question.

Another thing you must take into consideration is: What do you offer your potential bandmates? If you are just a singer (and yes, I know, no one is just a singer), what else can you do to be helpful? There are a lot of jobs to be done in a band, even one that hasn’t even considered the idea of booking shows yet or making a recording.

Will you:
1. Make phone calls to help collect band room rent or get people to practice?
2. Help carry gear even though you did buy the PA system that never moves from the practice room?
3. Be on time?
4. Share honest thoughts about the music?
5. Never touch the other people’s gear without asking first?
6. Practice your parts?

It’s amazing how many of these simple things are often too difficult for singers and non-singers (i.e., the other peeps) alike. I should probably address the band room rent thing while it’s out in the open.

No one wants to be a bill collector. If your band rents a room, take responsibility for your share and have it at the designated collection time. The first of the month is always at the same fucking time, asshole, and it should not be a surprise. If you are reading this and you are offended by it, you are the asshole I am talking about.

This is a small part of being in a band, but an important one. Band rooms cost money. If you’re in a band and have a free place to practice, you better be kicking down some beer or something cool to the person or people letting you practice for free. For a lot of us, we have to rent a room to play in, and that rent is often a nice little chunk of change.

When my old band, Hillbilly Devilspeak, started out, our first room that we rented was $225 per month. I’m guessing that room is over twice that now. We were a three piece, so do the math, but that was a good chunk for me each month in the early '90s. If it is too much for you to carry your weight and pay your share on time, you’re not ready to be in a band.

And that’s OK.

When you get your shit together, start or join a band, but have the respect for everyone in the group to pay your own way before you do. In a couple of bands I’ve been in with people who I thought were even slightly responsible adults, I’ve had to chase them down at rent time to get their share and it sucked. I’ve even had a few bandmates over the years who literally seemed surprised there was a first day of every month.

These were not dumb people, but they seemed to think they could play dumb with me. If you don’t want to pay, then don’t agree to rent a room. Find a band with someone who will let you practice for free. Currently, there are a few places that let you practice hourly, but even those cost a little money. If you can’t afford it, talk to your bandmates about it, and maybe they’ll carry you for a bit. Eventually, though, they will get sick of you, and you will be out of a band.

You will also have a hard time finding a new band. So, first lesson, understand why you are forming or joining a band, and be prepared to be a bill collector.

Welcome to “What Else Are We Going to Do?” It will appear on a semiregular basis.

See you soon.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon