Making Art, Making Gnomes

By

Denevi calls out to John from the backseat of the Honda, “It’s in the process, John. It’s in the process. What you do is real. You are real. You are making art.” I look at Denevi through the rearview mirror. His beard is unruly. His aviators obscure about a third of his face. Denevi is a writer. John and I are musicians. Outside of the car, a grey veil of clouds holds firmly in the sky, threatens rain. My stomach turns slightly. I regret, briefly, the sausage, egg, and cheese bagel sandwich I decimated at three in the morning before going to sleep. We approach the New Jersey Turnpike, heading south towards Washington, D.C. All of us reel from the aftermath of aggressive drinking at the Brooklyn Inn the night before.

John, sitting shotgun, eventually rallies back at Denevi as we cruise through Jersey. “No, I am not real. I am like a dude who adjunct teaches at the local college and then, in his free time, makes little gnomes. My music is a hobby. I am making fucking gnomes.” It is partially true: John does adjunct teach (geography) at his local college, Colorado State in Fort Collins. He does not make gnome figurines in his free time, though. Instead he writes songs on his guitar. The gnome-making reference is simply a metaphor for adulthood hobbies. It is tacitly understood among us that the guy who makes gnomes is not making art. And that, I suppose, is the problem. We all want to be making art, which is shorthand for the idea that we want to be relevant. Denevi is off the hook by John’s reasoning, because the book he spent years writing while adjunct teaching at schools in Iowa and Maryland will soon reach the masses in print via a book deal with a major New York publisher.

By contrast, John and I are in a band that no one, relatively speaking, even knows about (not to suggest that we are good enough that anyone should know about us). Our Facebook page counts 289 likes. As a point of reference, Grizzly Bear has over 500,000 likes and Kendrick Lamar has over a million. I am 35 and John is 36. We have been playing as a band, The Lonelyhearts (a reference to Nathanael West, not the Beatles), for 10 years since we first got together in San Francisco post-college. Now I live in Iowa City, Iowa, and John lives in Fort Collins. We both have partners who are relentlessly patient with us.

For this particular band trip, I took time away from my job in Iowa and drove fifteen hours to Baltimore/Washington International Airport to pick up John, who had flown in from Denver. We drove to my parents’ house in Washington, D.C. and practiced music for a day in their basement before packing up and driving to New York on a Thursday afternoon to play two shows at small but wonderful clubs (Mercury Lounge, Union Hall) while crashing with our very grown-up friends in Cobble Hill. We don’t have a lot of money from our jobs back home, but we do have enough to take modest vacations to places near beaches if that’s what we wanted to do.

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Instead, we do this. “This” includes sleeping on couches when we can sleep on beds, playing shows in small clubs when we could be playing chess at home, recording songs in studios when we could be video-recording ourselves windsurfing on vacation, and telling our parents that we are not making money by investing so much time into our band when we could be telling our parents that we are reaping the returns of investing in Google stock. To everyone else around us, except for Denevi, it probably seems as if we are acting like children. We spin around, sprite-like, in the grips of an indie-rock Peter Pan complex… and we love it. Why spend your time on the beach when there’s another show to play to forty-five people in a club on the Lower East Side or even just five people in Louisville, Kentucky?

John’s existential posturing continues; he counters Denevi’s comments with the question of whether we’re actually making art or if we’re just two extremely bourgie gnome-makers. And if we are just hobbyists, can we justify our existence to society’s circumspect assessment of our middle-age accomplishments given our privileged background (anyone who can leave a job for a week to play non-revenue-driving shows a thousand miles away is, by default, privileged)? Perhaps, John implies, we would be justified if people actually knew who we were, if a fan base existed in the world that vocally asked for us to go on tour rather than simply enduring us.

The picture of a 24-year old kid kicking around with his friends playing music, packing up the van, and coming to New York for a few shows—that’s a picture we can all live with. It’s a concept we have come to terms with, even something we have come to expect. It’s one of our American rites of passage: play in a band, try to make it, don’t make it, grow up, and get a job. If you haven’t done it, someone you know—a sibling, a friend from college, the person who works at the cheese board at your local Whole Foods—has followed a version of this trajectory. John and I exited the parameters of this accepted framework roughly a decade ago. We have two albums on ant-sized, independent record labels and a third coming out in June, which will likely fly far beneath the radars of Pitchfork, Paste, Rolling Stone, and SPIN.

But we’re not special or unique in our absolute obscurity. We are the norm, and we sometimes forget that despite the critical noise generated around artists we listen to, from Adele to Vampire Weekend, there are thousands of bands that we have never heard of, and there are more of them emerging (as well as breaking up) every single day. Ultimately, the world is mostly filled with unknown bands making sounds that only a few people will ever hear, and yet the passion and necessity to make music persists.

The weekend we spent in New York featured concerts from Kurt Vile, Chick Corea, The Wailers, Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, The Flaming Lips, The Darkness, Sheila E., and !!!. Apart from those known entities, there were staggering numbers of bands playing all over the city, anonymous to everyone except those lucky fifty or so people plugged into the recesses of clubs and bars, enjoying their friends on stage or taking a chance on acts they’d never heard of. If our band wasn’t part of the critically acclaimed and highly attended shows from those bigger artists, we were most certainly a discernible cog in the army of musicians eagerly playing beneath the surface that weekend.

We zip between cars on the crowded southbound, two-lane avenue of the Turnpike. Denevi’s sunglasses are off now, and he talks quietly, slowly, and with purpose. “I got lucky,” he says. “My book sold, but it could have just as easily not sold. It could have been nothing. It could have disappeared. But the point is that I wrote it.” His words sink in. The process is what makes us. The hum of the cars on the Turnpike swells around us.

“Right,” John says. “Right.”

“My book,” Denevi concludes, “is just like your music.”

The car pushes south towards D.C. and its impenetrable beltway. Another show awaits us. Another intimate club and a small but dedicated audience of friends and fans.

***

Rumpus original art by Alexandra Lakin.


Andre Perry lives and works in Iowa City. More from this author →