swimming in the music ecosystem- an interview with Scott Reitherman of Throw Me The Statue 1

Scott Reitherman is the singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and main guy behind Throw Me The Statue, an indie-pop band based in Seattle. They have two albums out on Secretly Canadian, an independent label based out of Bloomington, Indiana, and are currently in the studio recording a third one. Their 2007 debut Moonbeams got a warm reception in indie-music blogs and end-of-year lists, and since then they’ve managed to maintain decent if not vast interest in various North American cities where college kids and 20-somethings are into music like the kind made by the Shins et al.

I first met Scott at Vassar College, where he was a student in my Intro to Sociology class in the spring of 2001. Let the record show that Scott got an A- in the class; he did nicely in the sections on Marx and Weber, although he could have done a little better on Durkheim. (Actually, so could a lot of American sociologists.) After he declared Sociology as his major, I became his adviser. There were several meetings in my office where conversations drifted in and out of college issues, and soon we discovered a common obsession with music. I told him about various bands I played in after college, and he revealed that he played guitar and wrote songs. I imagine I signed off on the Electronic Music Production class he mentions below, but I never suspected that music would be his post-graduate pursuit.

In the spring of 2004, I got rid of all my old cassettes that I had been lugging around for twenty years. At the time I was living right off campus, so I put a crate of tapes out on the street and shot an e-mail to a few music-minded students. The tapes were gone in an hour, and years later Scott told me he scooped up most of them. If anyone detects the influence of the Fuzztone’s 1985 album Lysergic Emanations in the music of Throw Me The Statue, I’ll take the credit for that, thank you very much. Scott graduated from Vassar College that May, and we lost direct contact for awhile.

Fast forward to 2008, and I found a message on my office phone from Scott, too late: he was in Poughkeepsie, playing with his band, and could I make the show? This was probably the first I learned of his musical career; another student informed me that Scott’s band was called Throw Me The Statue, and they were actually pretty good. I downloaded the albums—yes, they were pretty good, quite accomplished even. We got back in touch, although I’m still waiting to see the band play.

Making no aesthetic judgements about their music, Throw Me The Statue are clearly a ‘real’ indie-rock band. They’re fortunate enough to have a label that distributes their music and sufficient attention to get them covered in Stereogum and other niche media. However, like so many other bands buzzed about by discerning young listeners, Throw Me The Statue has yet to reach to the next stage of success whereby their momentum becomes self-sustaining in even the medium term. The band can continue as long as they keep recording and playing to audiences, but any pause in this activity quickly renders their livelihoods precarious.

Knowing about my interest in the economics of musical creativity, Scott wanted to share his view on the subject. “More and more, it’s harder to keep four people afloat with a band,” he said in a phone conversation last July. He pointed me toward a Pitchfork interview with David Berman, who broke down in clear numbers the imbalance between expenses and revenues that characterized the Silver Jews (an apt comparison to Throw Me The Statue, insofar as both are similarly ambiguous as one-man projects fronting as bands). “One way for a band to support as a functioning ecosystem is to only support one person, the principal songwriter,” he told me. “You need to take a significant leap in how successful you are before you can support four people.”

Very intrigued, I proposed that Scott write an essay for the blog, but eventually the format evolved into this e-mail exchange, which began in earnest in January 2012 while Throw Me The Statue were entering the recording studio. As will become quickly clear, I’m no music journalist. With these questions I wanted to draw out the basics of Scott’s situation, including many that go unasked in typical music-press interviews, in as much detail as necessary, much like I would approach any extended informant interview. Scott politely indulged me as I elaborated some of the more esoteric sociological and geographical implications of his responses, none of which is out of line with the recent scholarship highlighting the networking and organizational recycling that make musical scenes cohere. If Scott’s experience in the Seattle scene isn’t necessarily a unique one, his responses nonetheless illustrate how a musician can shift in and out of this musical ecology at different stages of their creative activity and personal life. (When we began discussing this interview, Scott was living in Los Angeles; by the end, he had moved to his hometown San Francisco before returning to Seattle.) He betrays a note of worry that he may soon be reaching the ends of how much more personal and geographical flexibility he wants to give to his music.

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To begin, tell me about how Throw Me The Statue got started. Was it originally a band, or just you plus whomever you could find, or what? And where did Throw Me The Statue finally get off the ground?

Throw Me The Statue was born out of the Electronic Music Production class at Vassar that I took as a senior. It was a year long course, and halfway through it I decided to focus on songwriting and used the last couple projects in that class as the “debut” recordings under that new alias of mine. After graduating I moved to Seattle with some Vassar friends and Sam Beebe and I started a record label called Baskerville Hill with the intention of releasing our own music. Sam made music as Black Bear and I as Throw Me The Statue, and pretty soon we met people in Seattle with whom we collaborated and began to promote their music as well. It was really fun, equal parts elaborate art project and pseudo-company. Sam and I both released our first records on Baskerville along with a compilation of music by us and our friends. Sam moved to Germany, and about a year later I got Throw Me The Statue signed to Secretly Canadian Records, at which point I let Baskerville Hill gently fall to sleep and focused entirely on my new opportunity with Throw Me The Statue. I got some musical friends together to help me pull off some shows and touring, and the first year or so of promoting the Secretly Canadian debut was this familial version of a band.

What was your original vision of how much Throw Me The Statue would be a recording project versus a touring entity?

At first it was only about making recordings. Live shows were intimidating to me, I needed to work up both the nerve to sing in front of people and assemble a group. So at the beginning I was completely content just making recordings and demos. But once I got a taste of pulling off a good show I was on to that thing. How do we do this more? And linking up with a real label put us in touch with a booker, and from there it felt much more real and financially viable to be able to do both recordings and tours.

swimming in the music ecosystem- an interview with Scott Reitherman of Throw Me The Statue 2

Why Seattle? Was this a place where you recognized like-minded musicians and receptive audiences?

Really dug the Northwest music of The Microphones, Modest Mouse, Bobby Birdman, Little Wings, Built To Spill, and record labels like K, States Rights and Marriage. We knew when we graduated that we wanted to start our own label so we plopped ourselves down there in the hopes of I don’t know what, just proximity to what we though was cool I suppose. In hindsight it was a great city to stake our claim in, but a bad city to try and do tours out of. The East Coast is far denser and easier to tour within.

You left Seattle for Los Angeles recently. What happened to Throw Me The Statue along the way — did any musicians move with you? Did the concept of the band evolve at this point?

My girlfriend and I moved to LA by ourselves in order to see something new. At the same time Aaron Goldman, one of our original members and a friend of mine from high school, finished his Microbiology PhD at UW (which he’d been working on throughout his Throw Me The Statue tenure, including everyday in the van on tour!?!!) and took a job at Princeton. The other two remaining members of the band — Charlie Smith and Jarred Grimes — stayed in Seattle. Those two are still in the group, yet in some ways the identity of Throw Me The Statue has shifted back a bit towards its solo project origins. It’s clear that after doing this for 5 years now, it can only reliably sustain my livelihood. The other guys have jobs and other pursuits, for me Throw Me The Statue is basically all I do. In LA I started tutoring high schoolers on the side, but mostly I focus on TMTS and can draw a living wage from it most months of the year. The move was basically a life change that Jess and I wanted and the band was both at the end of a promotion cycle and not lucrative enough to stay planted indefinitely in Seattle.

As for the concept of the band, yes it has changed a bit. Without going into all the details of how we divide our money and royalty percentages, I write the songs and then bring them to the group, and in that dynamic it can be a very large commitment that you ask of your bandmates without enough financial return for everyone. If you’re in your early 20s and/or making oodles of dough then perhaps it is easier for the folks involved to drop everything whenever it’s time to get back in that van, but for us we’re getting a little older and we’ve started to move on from that model.

If I recall correctly, you’re a native of San Francisco — by birthright, a sworn enemy of Los Angeles! But seriously, how amenable has LA been to your relocation of Throw Me The Statue? Have you played many shows there yet, or found studios to rehearse and record in? Or at this stage are you still mostly writing songs in your bedroom, the way we think how Joni Mitchell used to do in Laurel Canyon? How much do you need to interact with other people in LA to do your music?

In LA we rented a small one bedroom apartment in Echo Park and were there for 15 months. I needed additional space to set up my studio, so after looking around unsuccessfully for unique spots I had to get your basic band practice space at a rehearsal facility. In Seattle I had paid $450 a month to live in a house with my bandmates, and the basement of that house was our musical playground. In LA, Jess and I were renting our apartment for $1550 a month and then my music studio cost a little over $400 a month. So the cost of doing my thing was significantly higher in LA. My system was go to the rehearsal space in the morning and write songs. The bands wouldn’t be there then, most of them showed up after work hours around 6 pm and onwards. So if I was out of there by then I could usually avoid the ungodly, soul-crushing din of umpteen bands all practicing around your room. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. The rooms range from somewhat soundproofed to not all, which is why I actually had to move my studio three times before I found the best space at a decent price.

As far as meeting other musicians LA was pretty ok. I met lots of people in groups, but I was in a writing phase while I was down there. Throw Me The Statue had just finished a round of touring and supporting our last record before we moved to LA, so at that point I was really only focused on writing new material.

While LA is a very big city, the indie music ecosystem seems pretty contained to the Silverlake / Echo Park area around where we lived. All the venues are for the most part around the Eastside as well. But now that it’s time to finish our next record and play live again it makes the most sense to go back to Seattle, where the band is from.

I realize I haven’t explained the last 6 months or so. I am actually in Half Moon Bay now, where I grew up. I left LA in May, to move home. My parents got divorced early this year and I had the flexibility and felt the need to come home and be around, spending time with both of them, etc. Then in the early fall I went back to Seattle to begin recording on our next album, and I am moving back there for the year in a few weeks. So LA is effectively a closed chapter for Jess and I now.

Awhile back you sent me that interview with Dave Berman, who really broke it down in terms of how economically difficult it is to keep Silver Jews happening. He of course has some unique circumstances to deal with (grad school, rehab), so let me ask your perspective on the economics of being an indie-rock band today. First, tell me what a “living wage” (your words) means at this stage in your life. What are your living expenses like? (BTW, is LA more or less costly to live in than Seattle?) Do you have health insurance, school loans car payments, other long-term expenses? Remember, I’m a sociologist, so by asking all these questions, I don’t assume your personal situation is all that unique; I suspect a lot of other people of your age doing all kinds ofcreative pursuits face similar situations.

A living wage for me is probably around $25,000-30,000 a year. Over the last five years of my music career there have probably been a couple years I didn’t earn that much. I pay auto insurance on two vehicles, my own car plus the band’s tour van, about $120/month. I pay for basic health insurance, at about $130/month. Good music equipment is expensive. I don’t go out to bars that much anymore. LA was more expensive than Seattle, but not as pricy as San Fran or NYC would be in my opinion. In Seattle you can rent a small house for about $1000 a month and that affords you the space to have a home studio. In LA those places are harder to find at that price. And as I said, down there I had to find a separate space to have my studio, at significant extra cost. Had we have not lived in a fun part of town we could have found a small house I think for about what you can in Seattle, but we chose not to make that sacrifice. In LA I took a job tutoring high school students to bring in a little extra money while Throw Me The Statue was inactive and not earning much except the occasional royalty check.

One of the most interesting challenges to making the finances of indie rock work out is the money schedule. You can go a while without receiving a check, and then one day a company will finally decide to pay you for a license agreement you made with them months or a year ago. Or perhaps a new licensing offer will fall from the sky and land in your inbox. This feast and famine cycle is not very different from other forms of freelancing. Being on a legitimate record label certainly helps in instances where you need someone to go ask nicely “hey by the way, where is Scott’s check?”

Basically when you make the transition from regular job and regular paychecks to pursuing music full time because you have the opportunity to have a real audience for your work, it can be a tricky financial adjustment. It is always tough when you’re in the famine part of the cycle, but I am also very fortunate that I have a partner and a family that really support what I do. Probably that more than anything is the most important element in one’s ability to stick around in the business of making independent music. If you summon the guts to go follow your passion you just need to be dead set on it. And it helps to have a good support network. But if you work hard at it and you’re kind and you have some talent then you’ll probably convince some people along the way. If you want to make the best loot travel back in time to the late 90s and become an internationally renowned house or trance DJ. Ride that wave into the sunset, that is my advice.

You talked about getting a little older. What, are you 30 years old by now? How far ahead are you able to envision your life into the future, in terms of, gosh I don’t know, marriage kids house the whole nine yards?

I turn 30 in a couple months, thank you for that reminder. Yesterday Jess teased me that I was 30 and I said “Hey I’m in still in my twenties!” She said, “Scott, you’re in your twenty-nines.” Yes I want kids and the whole deal. If I can pay for that future with my music career I would be a very happy person. I don’t know if I can realistically afford my share of the pricetag of a family in my home-state of California. Sometimes I think about where we could live that we could both pursue our careers (Jess is a freelance graphic designer) and be happy at a lower cost of living. Go live in Austin, Nashville, probably a lot of parts of the South and Midwest. Maybe upstate New York. But I don’t know. My family is here on the west coast, this is where I’m from, so I feel that magnetism and someday in the next few years I may really have to move music to the side of my life and get a better paying career so that I can afford that future. Which by the way, I am totally fine with, it’s just not Plan A.

You said that Throw Me The Statue can “reliably sustain” your livelihood, but only yours. How does that happen? What have the records and the tours brought in?

The tours last about a month each and bring in about $2,000-8,000 grand usually. It depends if you’re headlining the tour or on as a support slot. So we’ve always split that evenly amongst the band. Best case scenario we’re looking at coming home with one or maybe two months of rent for each of us. The records have earned between $10,000 to about $30,000 in profit. We split that with our label 50/50. ASCAP Royalties are something but they’re also hardly much. Maybe at best a few grand in a year. Licensing agreements are really the way that I’ve been able to stay afloat, and those at times have been a $10,000 dollar bump in a year’s earnings to about $30,000 in a good year.

I’m getting the picture of how these revenue streams let you avoid getting a steady wage-paying job and get on with the business of making music full-time. To be awkwardly sociological, I would say your musical career is sustained by mobile assets (the profits/royalties/licensing/merchandising checks that find you, the supportive partner who lives with you, maybe support from your parents) and then geographically fixed assets (the money from gigs and the merchandise you sell there). Does that sound about right?


Just as a parenthetical, I recently read in Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania about Tim Warren, who runs Crypt Records and releases these Back From the Grave compilations of ultra-obscure garage punk. He put in a ridiculous amount of work trying to track down the members of these no-hit wonder bands from the 60s, digging through Library of Congress file cards that match his vintage singles then searching through archived Yellow Pages directories for matching names, just so he could cut these guys some royalty checks. It really highlighted how in a pre-Internet world, bands could lose their economic renumeration once the members drifted apart and moved away from the town listed in their pubishing. Never mind the professional mindset that a DIY career like yours requires; the technology that lets you be contacted at any time no matter where you are seems to be the invisible link in this contemporary music system.

Let me ask you about Throw Me The Statue’s profile as a band. Last year I noticed that a lot of my favorite indie-rock albums — by artists like Kurt Vile, EMA, Marissa Nadler, Cass McCombs, Luke Roberts — consisted of a style that some might call folk-rock, at least insofar as (a) they were essentially solo artists and (b) their music was clearly composed on acoustic guitar or other instruments they could accompany themselves with. And many of them took it further to a Laurel Canyon vibe, i.e., an intimate conversation with the listener, via first-person confessional or visionary revelation. Obviously these artists might go out on tours backed by a group of musicians, but it seemed interesting that several of them used to be members of formal bands (the War on Drugs, Gowns), and now they’re not — they’re going out solo. Initially I thought that was kind of a cultural zeitgeist thing for this moment in music, but your responses make me wonder if this is also a reflection of the new business model for DIY music.

Well yes there is absolutely a vibrant trend of folk-based confessional music out there now. And I think that you see some bands do quite well when they participate in a nostalgic, yesteryear aesthetic. Part of this is an artistic community reacting to widespread hipsterdom, where identities are purchased from Urban Outfitters and all of that, and songwriters retreat from that and attempt to poetically mine their unique experiences. Also, a big part of this is due to baby boomers, who — god bless em — still pay for music. I don’t know how many people in this demographic are buying Kurt Vile and Cass McCombs, but you bet they’re buying big numbers of records from the more well-known and well-polished acts like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. And don’t forget Adele, that billboard juggernaut who eclipsed 6 million sales on her latest record at last count! [Make that 20 million records sold worldwide as of April 2012 – ed.]

But to your point, yes I think artists like some that you mention who have a similar aesthetic (confessional, with a classic folk-y core) absolutely find their way to that sound in part because of the finances involved. Many-membered bands like Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, or maybe a Polyphonic Spree, these are the successful exceptions, and they really have to know the size of their audience before they trot out on tour with an entourage of that size. I believe the Bon Iver tour these days is close to ten musicians on stage as well. So you see that organic model at work, guys like Sufjan or Bon Iver start as solo artists, and then bloom out on stage and subsequent records as there becomes an audience that can support that. That’s a romantic and classic arc for a songwriter to take — start small on the debut, and then as an audience embraces your music you show them what you can do with a bigger canvas on your follow-up effort. But it’s often inherently tied to an economic event that opens the door to that opportunity, and the guys that tour around solo now would probably more often that not flip the switch on the backing band as soon as they could afford to.

I’m usually interested in a maximalist approach to songmaking, using a lot of instruments in the mix. So on stage it becomes “how can we pull off these tunes with as few people as possible so that they still sound as full as they do on record?” Sometimes you just cut certain parts out, but sometimes we rely on laptops and samplers to fill in the musical elements that we don’t have enough hands to perform. And that’s not always ideal, but when you can eliminate the need for paid musician on tour you can make your bottom line balance out more sustainably.

To be explicit about my interests behind earlier questions, I’m always curious about the many ways being in a city is important to a musical project like Throw Me The Statue at this stage. Now you’re back in Seattle making the new record with Charlie and Jarred. Has anyone else joined you in the studio?

Yes we’ve hired some Seattle drummers to come and play on the record. We’ve had James McAlister (Sufjan Stevens), Michael Lerner (Telekinesis), and Tyler Swan (Truckasauras) in.

And these are other Seattle musicians? How did you come across these folks?

We’ve known each other via other Seattle musical friends or shows we’ve played together over the years.

So does that make you the migrant in the band, so to speak? Have these guys played in other Seattle bands while you’ve been gone?

I suppose it does make me the migrant as far as returning to Seattle, although these guys also tour and play with different people in different configurations and bands all the time too.

What studio are you recording in? Are you working with someone you know behind the boards? Are you hoping they’ll help you acheive a certain “Seattle sound”?

We have done some tracking at Avast and some at Robert Lang. We did exclusively drums at those two spots, and we were working with Cameron Nicklaus who we had known from before when he was one of the house engineers at Avast. Then we have been doing the bulk of the recording at Charlie’s Studio Nels/Bart Radio. By day they work on commercials and by night or their off-days we sneak in and overdub vocals, guitars, keyboards, etc. It has become the homebase of the record making, and it’s a huge plus for us to get to work freely there. Charlie has been there for a few years now and this is really the first time we’ve spent a serious chunk of time there, but it has been really wonderful. Charlie has been doing a ton of the producer work on this record and he really understands his own studio, so we’ve been getting a lot of good results from the extended time we spend down there.

L-R: Cameron Nicklaus, Charlie Smith, Scott Reitherman. Photo by Tae Rhee

L-R: Cameron Nicklaus, Charlie Smith, Scott Reitherman. Photo by Tae Rhee

I don’t try to attain a Seattle sound, and I honestly don’t think that one really exists. Or if it does, I think it might define other genres of music better than the kind of thing I’m working on. But that may be for residents of other places to judge. I do hope that people in Seattle dig it though!

The Seattle scene has been witness to so many disparate sounds and success stories over the past five years. There’s a legitimate movement in hip hop here, there’s the folk revival thing, there’s still always going to be pop rock bands and hard rocking bands. The people here are into a lot of different kinds of things, it is a musically enlightened and receptive population. And 90.3 KEXP is a fantastic resource for the city and keeps people up to speed with a lot of different sounds. It’s one of the only places I know about where the radio station still plays a vibrant role in the community.

This may seem like an odd angle, but another way I think about the whole flexible/solo nature of music today is in the way musicians go about naming their projects. Not to date myself too much, but I came of musical age in the mid 80s when people talked about “forming bands” — and they usually meant just that, bands whose musical identity would somehow be tied up with the specific combination of musicians and integrity of the line-up. They didn’t necessarily pick a name that followed the “plural noun” format (most recently revived in the early 00s: The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, etc.), but it always seemed understood that this was a collective undertaking. You could see this in the music press of the time, I think, where a common angle for an article about a band might be how this member chafes under the dominance of another member, or how an obvious bandleader expresses their commitment to the band process (an example being Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders).

I’m interested in why so many solo projects in indie rock today adopt what could be interpreted as a “band name.” Throw Me The Statue is as good an example as any. You talked earlier about choosing this name as an “alias.” Have you thought about this larger trend in music today? I asked some friends of my age about examples from the 80s, and we couldn’t really think of many (The The and the various Foetus projects being two better-known exceptions).

I think young people and the people in new bands of this decade are hyper aware of their image and conscious of how important (unfortunately) it is to their reception. When we’re able to spray our thoughts across the internet, whether it’s to build ideas up or to tear ideas down, we see how powerfully important it is to craft our message. So I think when solo acts attach themselves to aliases it’s to both protect themselves and to engage in myth-making. You remove yourself one small step from negativity and judgement when you make art under an alias. Maybe you can temporarily forget about your worry that nothing getting made today is truly as interesting as things that came before you. You can make it bigger than you. You can dress it up and make it more interesting. It’s almost like an imaginary friend. And in that self-made myth you can slink into a place where you take risks you might not have otherwise been brave enough take.