The prospect of being frontman for a band that you built from the ground-up on a shoe-string and a vision is either a pipe-dream or a nightmare for most, but for Jeff Hill, playing and managing Machinist! is his chief dedication. He also books shows for his hometown punk scene, fights back against bigots and still finds time to promote his friends’ bands on Facebook and send out merch to fans across the States. In an attempt to understand exactly what it means to be ‘DIY’ in the modern musical world, we got Jeff to tell us.
For thousands of DIY musicians the world over, manning the mucky front-line of the musical ecosystem is as much a part of the job as picking up a knackered, sweat-covered Fender for a dimly-lit basement show in an unknown town. It’s a world where being able to use TweetDeck is as important as remembering your songs, and where anonymous Facebook fans can turn from unfamiliar avatars to willing hosts in the blink of a broken-down van. These bands and artists are the collective flag printers, the scrambling booking agents, the MailChimp press officers, the heavy lifters, the tape recorders and — buried beneath a buckling outbox — the creative forces.
Yet, resisting the magnetic sway of wanting to romanticise all such endeavour under the ‘penniless artist’ umbrella, and refusing to set aside actual musical merit (there are plenty of dogshit DIY bands out there), wearing this many hats is not always born out of financial necessity, lack of contacts or mere misguided idealism, but rather it is a path deliberately chosen to control integrity and output on a terrifyingly granular level. I admit, I wouldn’t want to be in a band where the number of Tumblr reblogs is a deciding factor on whether anyone turns up to my gigs or not, but there’s something to be said for the brute-force creation of work against all common sense and modern theory of time.
So, what toll does the DIY route take? For Jeff Hill, lead vocalist and human Swiss Army knife for Georgian hardcore punk outfit Machinist!, the answer is black and white. “The truth is, it can be unbelievably exhausting”, he begins. “While I organise and manage almost all aspects of the band, I also ask for help from band members on a regular basis. If a band is going to be “DIY”, all members need to have a common understanding of what that means and what is needed to make the band work in any real professional sense.” It’s clear that, for Hill at least, there’s a real drive to be an organised, sustainable entity, despite the oft misguided view that DIY bands choose to be broke and that their musical output is intended to be low-grade.
“It works because we want it to — I think that that is the biggest reality of any band. If you have a group of committed individuals who come together for a common goal, there is almost no way to not make it work. Lazy doesn’t work in DIY”, he continues. But there are plenty of bands with managers, roadies and assistants who work hard too, right, so what’s so special about DIY? It turns out that it’s probably not the part about doing it all yourself. “I started booking shows here when I moved here in 2007. I booked shows in the town I lived in before here also. I basically just wanted there to be a place for my band to play and there wasn’t anybody worth a shit booking at that point. The best way to predict the future is to create it”, Hill explains, and it makes perfect sense. It’s about creating a support network for yourself and others, born out of hard work and reliant on nobody but those who share that view.
“Responding to everything makes me feel like I’m giving everyone a fair shake. Be it a band inquiring about a tour with us or a show in our area, a fan asking when we’re coming back to their part of the world, or a machinist who is legitimately pissed that our band is called Machinist!.”
But what exactly is that view? “We try to push the idea of shows being a safe place for anyone and everyone. That means no underage drinking, no drug use. We want parents to see that these house shows are not parties. We also go out of our way to not book racist, sexist, or homophobic bands. I know it seems like that should go without saying, but bands like that still exist and still somehow get booked. If there was anything that I’d like the Valdosta scene to reflect, it’s the idea that people are people.” It’s a noble undertaking, of course, and it’s easy to forget that Hill also fronts his band and tours extensively — there’s shit loads of work that goes into that alone — so how exactly does he do it?
“The internet and mainly social media is completely integral to everything Machinist! does. From selling merch and music, to booking tours, to getting merch made, to bringing touring bands into our town. I think that the amount of information available is amazing”, he begins, before delving into the micro-management side of the operation. “Sending booking emails, Facebook messages, texts, voicemails, Instagram DMs and whatever other new social media contact platform there is to anyone and everyone anywhere near the places my band is trying to go”, he recounts, but that’s just the basics. “After all responses are sent, I check for any online orders that need to be packaged, addressed and sent out. I live near the Post Office so I make a trip whenever there’s something to ship.”
Looking even further beyond the high-level ideologies that bands like Machinist! live and breathe, even more grunt work reveals itself beneath a stack of creased merch, and it’s the accessibility of digital technology that creates demands of its own. “It’s a double edged sword, because [whilst] I can get so much more done now, I also am [also] never separate from the work. So, at dinner I get Emails. In the middle of washing Beebz (his Dog) I get messages. On vacation I send Facebook requests to join DIY Utah or Dark Underground DIY Collective. In response to how much of my life is devoted to music, I’d say half of every second of every minute of every day. Even if I’m not directly discussing the band or an aspect of it, I’m always waiting on responses concerning something to do with Machinist!, and I have a full time life partner.”
Indeed, it’s a minor miracle that Hill can retain enough of his mental energy to still create music with his comrades scattered across different towns and states, but like a lot of small, homespun bands, it’s not the money that threatens the future — it’s a lack of tolerance. “Something that Ashley Scanlon (our former guitarist) has experienced a lot of is sexism. Everything from doormen assuming that Ashley was the merch girl or a girlfriend of one of the other members, to catcalling from the crowd, to unwanted advances. It was mind-blowing how hard it was for people to just go “Ok, it’s a girl in a band, cool.” It’s a prevalent issue that has received plenty of attention recently — not least from this post by Tigers Jaw singer Brianna Collins — and it’s one where Hill’s stance is sacrosanct: “The intentional harming of anyone is unacceptable. It’s like this super basic idea of dominating people or scaring people. And that doesn’t fly at shows in our town.”
Another familiar criticism of DIY bands is that they’re somehow holier-than-thou, or worse, patronised or given backhanded compliments, but Hill doesn’t see it. “I don’t think [being labelled DIY] is patronising at all. Maybe someone, somewhere uses the term [in a way that is] derogatory, but if so they obviously have a fucking absurd way of looking at the world and so their opinion is marginalised. I think that bands that achieve any amount of success on their own, be that touring, recording a record, getting merch or vinyl made are more fulfilled personally than a band that was built by a label or handed everything.” It’s potentially an aggressive rhetoric because rarely are the two extremes comparable within the same context, but there’s a final twist to Machinist!’s story.
“Take care of touring bands because they’re far away from their loved ones and their homes and maybe when your band gets out to their neck of the woods they’ll take care of you.”
They just signed to Eulogy Recordings. Yep, those show-booking, equality-pushing, sticker-printing sons of bitches totally sold out to the man for a box of smokes, a fresh suit and the promise of a full-length. Or rather, their hard work and musical quality has attracted the backing of a well-regarded third-party partner to help extend the ethos that Hill and his friends have built in Valdosta. But what does this mean for Hill’s day-to-day workload? Not much, he doesn’t expect. “I think that if anything, it’s going to increase it. [Eulogy] will be handling distribution, [but] we’re still going to be completely DIY in the aspects of touring and managing the band. Basically this deal gives us an ability to reach people we’d never get at on our own, which is what I look for in any sort of partnership for the band — the other partner has to be able to provide something that we cant do on our own”.
And if that ain’t the decades-old punk DIY spirit in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
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