Punk and Domesticity: The Swellers’ Jonathan Diener on Adjusting To Life Off The Road
Posted on September 29, 2014
September 29, 2014
by Jonathan Diener
One week after I graduated high school, I was on my first U.S. tour with the Swellers. We made sure to take a ton of pictures at every national landmark in every major city. We made the “Cleveland Rocks!” joke in Cleveland. You name the travel cliché, we lived it. It was the craziest feeling to be so free and have playing music pay for our gas between destinations. As things for my band progressed we began doing this huge trek more often, and eventually it reached a point where I was only home two months out of the year. Over time, we made just enough to pay our bills and started playing with bigger bands, getting cooler opportunities, traveling overseas and it all began to blur together. One crazy, amazing blur. When things began to plateau and people began developing real lives at home with jobs, loved ones, etc. we started to slow down. Finally it got to the point where we would leave twice a year tops. Then we decided to end the band. For the first time in my life, I actually had to acknowledge the questions my parents had asked on a monthly basis for years: “What if something happens? Do you have a Plan B?”
When we took our first ever seven month break to write an album, I had to get my first job. I’ve been working at Guitar Center for almost two years now. It was alright because I knew I had my band to fall back on and tour every few months. I could still pay my rent and play music around the world. But I felt the tide begin to shift when I was at a house party and someone yelled that they recognized me. I’m never weird to someone if they like my band and I’m always down to talk, so I approached him. He then drunkenly yelled, “You sold my stepdad a cowbell!” I laughed it off and told my friends. It was hilarious at first, but the second we announced the upcoming end of our band, I felt like I may have that quote playing through my head forever. I was no longer that guy from the Swellers; I was the guy in the drum section of Guitar Center.
Now let me start this paragraph by saying I know that I’ve had a privileged life. My parents supported and spoiled Nick and me growing up, and obviously thanks to them I wouldn’t be where I am and our band would have never gotten to the level it did. The thing that is the most bizarre to me, though, is doing things backwards. I got the crazy stuff out of the way first and now I’m working a retail job. I’d told myself it’ll be a few months and I’ll just jump into some other band and life will be fine and dandy. Let me be the first to tell you that that is NOT how this industry works. The people I’ve hit up were already talking to someone else or out of my league. LinkedIn isn’t exactly helping either. I’m excited for my band’s final shows, but part of me is counting the days until it’s all over so I don’t feel like I’m just waiting for it to end. It’s a real conundrum. Things are so different now, but we have so many people we still need to say goodbye to for it all to feel OK. I have this naive notion that the calls will start coming in the second we’re finally done for good. Then I have to realize that for the first time I wouldn’t be writing the music, I’d just be playing along. There were so many things I’d have to consider before finally making a grand decision.
Aside from being the one playing music, there are plenty of touring jobs out there. You could be a tour manager, tech, sound engineer, driver, merch person or even an auxiliary musician. These crew members usually get paid more than I ever have from being in the band. It would be great to use something like that as a stepping stone to ease my way into a band again, as my main objective is to make a living playing music. I also have the option of being a studio drummer. I’d get paid to learn songs, track them efficiently in the studio and adapt to someone else’s style while adding my own touch if required. I could get paid to save artists money on recording. That’s a pretty cool option. The next big life decisions arise when I have to decide if I’d want to be on tour on a regular basis again or potentially move out of state to a city with more studio work. There are a lot of questions constantly going through my mind and I’m still trying to decipher my own confusing and sometimes delusional answers. The coolest thing is being able to have the options thanks to the years of touring and all of the amazing people I’ve met along the way. The thing I’m trying not to do is annoy those people to death with all of the favors I’m about to ask.
Going from constantly being on the go to being planted in one place was one of the biggest obstacles I had to face when adjusting to reality. I was able to feel productive by sitting in a van for hours each day because it was on the way to the next show and thus was an achievement in its own right. I’d unload my gear, set up, play, load again, then head to a friend’s house to stay the night and do it all over again the following day. Between that I was planning all the ways to help the band grow whether it be promoting through social media, talks with the label, etc. Being home full-time, I’ve had to set new routines and fill my days with simple objectives like working on new songs or writing articles like these to stay focused and have purpose until the next big thing comes along. I don’t get one hundred emails each day about merch designs or upcoming tours or planning a new album, I just get pictures of my parents’ dogs sent to me. I started a new band called BRAIDEDVEINS over a year before the Swellers broke up; it helps kill a lot of time, we practice a ton and are working on our first full-length. Unfortunately there’s no way we could do full-length tours. Another fun project that I’m hoping doesn’t get too stifled by touring restrictions.
I feel like I’m in limbo. On a daily basis I’ll watch my friends or acquaintances’ bands get obscenely big and remember the days they used to open for us. Or even better, young kids who just started playing and are already bigger than my band was in our entire career. Sure, there’s some jealousy, but now I can watch from the outside and root for the good guys out there. I’ve been balancing on this confusing line between being jaded and disconnected, and now I’m just ready to move on and learn to relax. Working hard to achieve your goals is what everyone should do, but these days I think for my mental health, it’d be best to just focus on what’s around me and if something happens, it happens. I’m not giving up, I’m just adjusting to normalcy and I’m starting to like it.
Jonathan Diener plays drums in Braidedveins and The Swellers, the latter of whom will be touring the northeast for the final time this November.