“Take off your glasses,” the production assistant says.
“You’ll look better when they start the photography in a few minutes.”
“No,” says Evan Sult, the drummer for Harvey Danger, a band which sold 500,000 copies of its first album, “I wear glasses.”
Within minutes Evan's phone rings. “Hey Evan, I understand you're being difficult on the set,” says the band's manager. The roadies check in. “Evan, are you all right?”
Soon enough, the story gets around that the band is throwing tantrums and that this is jeopardizing their future.
Nearly ten years later, I meet him for the first time. Evan Sult presents himself with shoulder-length hair, a closely trimmed beard and black-rimmed glasses. He jumps up to greet me with an outstretched hand and a firm handshake, and preempts my questions about his musical career with questions about past adventures in my own life. He frames sentences quickly, with precise choice of evocative words, and his queries are sophisticated. The intensity of his interest is engaging, but also, I realize, so engaging that I might spend the evening talking about my life, instead of his. As I think back on the initial meeting, one of my most prominent recollections is his smile, occurring at the perfect moments, usually after a self-deprecating comment, and from the heart rather than contrived in his head. A full smile showing white, even teeth, framed by the beard. His eyes sparkle when he smiles, and they, holding mine, draw me into the laughter.
But when I look over several dozen pictures taken during the interview, not a single one shows the smile. They show intensity, and maybe a kind of sadness. The recollection from the close-up face-to-face interview is that of youthful creativity and enthusiasm. The pictures show a slightly worn thirty-something and, maybe, a sense of...defeat? Doubt? Maybe it’s just the old refusal to pose his best for pictures.
Stardom struck Harvey Danger in 1998, fueled by their song “Flagpole Sitta.” Played at the end of a local Seattle DJ’s program, then picked up by the sister station in Portland, OR, then by KROQ in LA, the song swept suddenly over the country's radio waves. The band was flooded with phone calls from friends in Atlanta, in Vermont, in New York, saying, “Hey! I just heard your song on the radio! Not only that, the DJ played it three times in a row!” All at once they found themselves fielding phone calls from Universal, A&M, DGC and other major labels.At the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, TX, they participated in the peculiar musical chairs process in which a few favored bands circulate between food-laden tables, receiving sequential bids from aggressive music publishers.They'd playedSouth by Southwest before, but that time they'd had to carry their own equipment, provide their own food, and navigate the massive festival alone. And no one had been paying them any attention at all.
Harvey Danger were friends before they were musicians.Making music reinforced their friendship. They were babes in the woods. “I had to ask, early on,” Evan laughs, “what do you mean ‘verse’ when you talk about the form of a song? I joined Harvey Danger when their drummer quit. They were my friends and my roommates. My dream at the time was to publish a magazine about comics and music. But I had played around on an abandoned drumset in the house I lived in, just spending time hitting each piece of the drumset. I discovered that I could do something different at the same time with my right hand, my left hand, and my feet. I didn’t realize at first how the ability to do this set me apart from most would-be drummers. Anyway, they didn’t have a drummer. So I said, ‘I don’t really know how to play drums, but I’ll fill in until you find someone who knows how to play.’”
When, a couple months later, Evan recruited his friend Sean Nelson as the vocalist, they conveniently forgot to recruit a permanent drummer.
But these were friends, not rock stars. Suddenly in the limelight, no one but guitarist Jeff Lin wanted to think about money. They just wanted to make music. As their status as rock stars became undeniable, they also wanted to “behave morally.”Should they let their music be used to promote a crappy TV show? Should they insist on their judgment of artistic integrity? Should they turn down invitations to play charity benefits in order to maximize the revenue from live performances?
Evan wrestled with these questions as much as anyone in the band. He insisted on wearing his own clothes, rather than the designer clothes provided, on photo shoots and in videos. And he insisted on wearing his glasses, despite the accusation by one Parisian journalist that “You make such beautiful music; why do you insist on being ugly?”
But they were undeniably rock stars, the dream of most of tens of thousands of twenty-something rock bands at the time. And no one looking at them or their pictures would have thought any of them “ugly.” Indeed, they had a considerable following who thought they were cute. Away from the context of their friends and community, the expectations of their handlers made it easier for the band to yield to the idea that, as Evan explains, “you make it easier for everyone if you behave selfishly.” Evan was disoriented. There was no clear route between commercialism and using his capacity as a quasi-public artist to promote the public good.
Worse, his personal relationship with his partner suffered from the same schism. In retrospect,he says, “having had the license to feel proud would have been nice.”Instead, he found himself alternately defending and dismissing his band's accomplishments. Success went by in a blur, like a shooting star seen through a bad hangover.
Harvey Danger’s second record,King James Version, encountered a different kind ofluck. A major promotion campaign had been built around MTV's promise to play the video for the album's first single, "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo." Evan proudly brought his partner and a multitude of friends to the corner bar to watch the video's debut on "120 Minutes"—and instead watched in shock when an old Harvey Danger video played instead. A simple mistake by an MTV production assistant had foiled the entire marketing plan: now MTV would mindlessly report that there had been a poor response to the "Sad Sweetheart" video and remove it from their rotation, despite the fact that they'd never actually played the right video in the first place. Without MTV, the rest of the expensive campaign would collapse. Their record's life as a product was over almost before it had begun.
This was not what music was supposed to be.
“Growing up in and around my parents’ Mountain Music instrument store, and their ‘Friends of Mountain Music’ magazine,” Evan recalls, “has informed everything I've done since.” His father is an accomplished banjo player, and also builds marimbas from raw planks of wood. His mother has been a teacher, grant writer, and professional problem solver his whole life. As youngsters, his parents took time off from the usual routine to teach together in Medellin, Columbia. His parents were not sources of pressure, but role models and inspirations. “Larry—my dad—and his brother, Joe, were in bands together in the 1960s,” Evan says. They, like Evan now, did not chase fame or money; they created a haven in which they could express and share their art.
Music for Evan was embedded always in friendship. “There were six of us," he says of his high school days. "We weren’t rebels, we didn't drink, we didn't smoke and we did not date. We played Dungeons & Dragons." One year, one of the guys insisted that they all learn to play instruments and form a band, which they named Guru. He assigned each of the guys an instrument—Evan got guitar, and began taking lessons. But even with such an important role in Evan's life, that friend is remembered for something even more central: "Dave Eastman will always be my Dungeon Master—as he was then." Music, at the beginning, was just an extension of Dungeons & Dragons, in which the Dungeon Master invents a story script and characters and governs the other players. Another friend from those games is Brad Scutvick, who still acts as Evan's critical touchstone. "I still send Brad all of my music—before it's finished,” he says. Guru, while fun, was pre-conscious. “It’s like the part-time job at the local Pay & Save [supermarket chain]. It never occurs to you to put it on your resume.” Dave Eastman, yes, and Brad Scutvick, but not Guru.
Evan’s ambition for the real world then was to be a comic-book artist, and/or illustrate science fiction and fantasy books. But his first year at the University of Washington, in 1991, “opened up a new world,” he says. At the beginning of his freshman year, he decided on a rule for himself: do at least one new thing each day.It could be as simple as taking a different route to school or meeting a new person. “Sometimes, I'd be getting into bed when I realized I hadn't done something unique that day. So I'd have to put my clothes back on and go out and find something new.”
As if college wasn't enough of a change, Evan's freshman year was, in 1991, in Seattle, WA, ground zero for a whole new force in popular music. Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and other local bands were becoming world famous; Evan was mesmerized by them as much as by all the other college rock staples he was just discovering, like the Pixies, REM, and Pavement. Evan was moved to his core by music, but, at first, he had no aspiration to “be like them.” His first forays as a listener of popular music had been in glam rock. He still remembers his father’s friend, a musician of 30 years, asking Evan when he was a kid, “What’s the big deal these days?” “Guns N' Roses are bigger than the Beatles,” Evan responded without hesitation, worrying later that he had been cheeky. But he believed what he said.
What bad-boy rock hadn't satisfied, the garage-rock movement answered. Music began to implant the thought, “Anyone can do this—if you work really hard.”
The University of Washington school paper, The Daily, initially rejected Evan’s efforts to join the staff, but then accepted him as a member of the art section. Before long he was the arts editor. Anyone who worked with him learned that he was a very good editor. And he was hooked. From then on, he marginalized the academic side of college, spending every day at the newspaper and pulling all-nighters at least once a week. It pushed him toward graphic design and editing and away from illustration. It also changed his attitude toward music. “I had the privileged position to watch all the bands. It was my job. As I went to see them, I would go back home with the sense, 'Wow! They made that—themselves.'”
By now, the dream had morphed into publishing a magazine about comics and music. Evan moved out of the dorm, and “I made sure the apartments I looked at had adequate practice space.” That’s when Evan first tried out that old, abandoned drumset.
And, before long, came Harvey Danger.
After Harvey Danger's rise came its fall—their label has been acquired in the music-industry merger mania, and was missing in action for months, and the band couldn't pull itself together well enough to write a new album. A year of no music followed. Finally, Evan sought refuge in Chicago, following his sweetheart’s professional educational opportunities. (Later the other members of Harvey Danger sniffed fame once again, and asked Evan to help them reconstitute the band. He declined. They went ahead without him.)
He wasn’t sure what role, if any, music would play in his future in Chicago. But just in case, he began to check ads on Craigslist and in the Chicago Reader. He realized that if he responded, “ex-Harvey Danger drummer available for gigs,” it would turn heads. Harvey Danger had been famous. Evan knew it. He would be besieged with opportunities. But he wanted to be selective.
Then, he was intrigued by one ad, placed by a few kids from the Chicago suburb of Naperville, who were enthusiastic, but who seemed to be neophytes about music. They were in awe of Evan, while teasing him about his “advanced” age. He saw them as protégés and potential friends who might replace those he left behind.
Their approach to art was encouraging. “If I had ever said to the guys in Harvey Danger, 'Let’s change the time to 7/4 here, and then to 5/4 and then back to 3/4,' they would have said, ‘You’re crazy; what are you talking about? we can’t do that.’ These guys, on the other hand, said, ‘Hey! That sounds neat! How do we do that?’”
So Bound Stems was a garden in which Evan’s art could flourish with others. It did bother him initially that he had put himself in a position in which he was absolutely starting over. He had been famous—or his band had been famous—and now he was helping to start a new band from scratch. It seemed so unlikely that it would work again...but the people he was working with were enthusiastic, and creative, and very different than the members of his last band. So he decided to jump in with both feet.
Bound Stems practiced intensively, focusing on the complexities of the songwriting process rather than playing in clubs. They started to develop their own style by listening closely to each other, and they slowly gained confidence in what they were doing. When they did finally play their first show, at Chicago's Big Horse Lounge, it felt good. Soon they were playing all over the city. Their audiences were small, but their songs kept getting more interesting, so they didn't mind not being a major part of any of the local scenes. Eventually, even though no one was asking for it, they decided it was time to record an album. They didn't know what they wanted to make, only that they wanted all the songs to be written specifically for the record, a goal Evan had maintained since Harvey Danger. They decided to go ahead and make record even though they didn't know how they'd pay for it. "We'll get a label to pay for it when we're done," he claimed.
They spent half a year recording an album they called "Appreciation Night," working with Tim Sandusky at Studio Ballistico in Chicago, then sent it out to all the independent record labels they admired. The label that emailed back was Flameshovel Records, also located in Chicago. Flameshovel suggested they go back in the studio to record an EP to have until they could tour in the summer—a necessity given singer Bobby Gallivan's job as a high school history teacher. "The Logic of Building the Body Plan" came out in November of 2005, and the band started their first real touring. Response was fast and positive. For a band that had started from zero, a write-up in the New York Times was a coup. As they prepared to release "Appreciation Night," Bound Stems decided to take the plunge: they all quit their jobs so they could continue touring to support their labor of love.
“I cannot overstate my love for my band," Evan says. "I'm as proud of the members of Bound Stems as I am any people on Earth. When we started, we had done nothing. Since then we made 'The Logic of Building the Body Plan EP’ and ‘Appreciation Night.’ I consider ‘Appreciation Night’ the high-water mark of my artistic output so far, collaborative or solo, in any medium. I still can't believe I helped make a thing so variegated, so detailed, and so perfectly expressive of our lives and our friends and our city at that time. The constantly renewed acts of faith that Radz and Bobby and Fleury, and later Janie, poured into the project are unparalleled in my experience. Working with them, I'm aware of what we give each other—whether or not we're friends. Maybe that's the surprise: recognizing that we actually are friends, leading lives as friends, and also we're a collection of musicians, creating self-willed compositions with as much life and depth as we can bring to them. I respect them, and we do each other proud."
But unlike Evan's previous band experience, Bound Stems didn't leap straight onto the radio. They worked hard, touring both coasts and all over the country. It was rewarding, but difficult on everyone. After months of making less money from shows than they spent on gas and expensive van repairs, the band had to pull over and reconsider their decisions. A period of reflection brought them to the conclusion: they could keep making music, but not like this. It was time to go back to the day jobs. Evan is 34, and indie music is a game for youngsters. He is not immune from the doubts that many in his position feel. Maybe he is, to use his word, "marooned": halfway through 30 in a culture in which most of the excitement is over twenty-year olds. Twenty years ago, the problem would be that friends would begin to suspect that the thirtyish single was gay. Now friends do not care whether you are gay—Evan is not, anyway. But he is not immune from loneliness and from hurt of isolation. People in his position often find younger band members fretting about the need to get married and settle down before they get too old. A whisper breathes, “are you already too old and neither married nor settled down?”
“I’m in my thirties, and I’m as poor as I have ever been," Evan says. "I chose to be where I am. My future life does not include a scenario without the band. Maybe that’s wise; maybe it’s stupid. But it’s who I am." He realizes that six months' touring is not enough. Music has to be at the center of a musician's life, not a hobby or a lottery ticket, casually bought at the 7-11. It has to be the center of life.Harvey Danger had won the fame lottery, but hadn't been willing to put music first, and that killed the band. Bound Stems had worked much harder, pushing full steam ahead—but they still hadn't reached the station.
“Of course there are frustrations," he says. "But even then, frustration is born from respect. Harvey Danger started as friends making music, and ended as former friends failing to make music. Whatever else Bound Stems has or lacks, each member has become a musician in this band—present company included.” This is a huge difference between the two experiences, and it keeps Evan going.
“My bandhas its painful bits but is still the maypole of my life,” he says. “I may be the oldest member of the band, but we are all caught at one of many forks in the road which once again tests our faith in our own decisions—and our art. Sometimes even the purest and boldest of intentions are the wrong ones, and I bet you've smelled that smell, like the sudden scent of rain, that makes you wonder whether you should've already taken cover.”
But Evan has not taken cover, and he doesn't want his band to—even when the financial side is difficult or even seems impossible. In the band, his is the voice that argues against letting lack of money define the band's goals and commitments. Of his own life, he says, “Theoretically I could make $50-60K a year easily as a full time graphic designer. But I don’t want to do that; I want to create music—new kinds of music. So I try to figure out ways to get by on the $16K a year I can make as a freelancer and go into debt with Bound Stems as we make and perform our music. People in the band love it, but it’s not obvious yet how we can clear the $150-200K per year it would take to support five of us, even at the meager level of $20K year for each of us."
While they work on their next record for Flameshovel, each member of the band has to balance their attention to music with the ongoing details of the rest of their lives. No matter what the commitment level of the band, each member of Bound Stems has other interests and relationships in their lives. So does Evan.
Evan has internalized his own college rule: do at least one new thing each day. His compliance with this rule makes him a delight to talk to, a powerhouse of creativity, and a charismatic person. The problem for Evan Sult is not figuring out who he is. He knows who he is. And anyone who knows him, even for a little while, realizes he is something special. The problem is finding a sustainable business model.