On Following Dreams, OR: Wisdom(?) from Pig Destroyer
There’s this headline from The Onion that I love because it is un-comedy: “Find what you love: do it on nights and weekends.” People need to do what they love; that is not to say that everyone will make a living with what they love. Do what you have to in order to pay your bills, but don’t let that stop you from sharing your talent with the world. Should people full-time, full-throttle pursue their passions? In particular, should your friend fully focus on the drums and pass on other studies?
Well, I don’t know.
I have some questions.
First of all, if you’ll pardon my being blunt, how good is he? There’s “my friends are very impressed,” and then there’s “my band teacher says I’m good,” but let’s face it: if you’re talking about pursuing a career in music performance, neither of those will necessarily cut it. “I worked up to section leader my senior year” is different from “I made all-state band for three years running.” What level of skill has he obtained?
Second, what does he want out of life? It’s entirely possible that literally the only thing he wants is to drum. That makes it easy. But when contemplating a career in a field that’s a tough nut to crack, requiring skill and effort and luck, it’s important to be honest with oneself. How important is it to your friend to have a nice new car? Own a home? Have kids in the next ten years? None of those make a career as a drummer impossible, of course; getting stuck in either-or thinking is logical failing. But work in a creative field is not necessarily the easiest path to creature comforts or stability, and I don’t use those terms mockingly: there are several reasons I became a teacher rather than pursuing creative writing my whole life, and I’d be lying if I said a stable job with good insurance wasn’t one of them. I have no regrets. Before anything else, I wanted a home with a family I could support, and I have those things. Sharing a studio apartment with a roommate and hoping I could sell a story to make rent? I wasn’t interested.
Maybe your friend is. Maybe splitting an apartment with roommates/bandmates through his 20s, maybe spending a lot of time on the road, sounds fantastic: there’s a romance to that life. Maybe if he gets to play gigs a couple nights a week he’s totally cool with waiting tables, because those gigs make life worth living. Lady Gaga has a tattoo of a Rilke quote that translates to, “Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” Is that how your friend feels about playing the drums?
Playing the drums would not be forbidden, of course: not if he majored in something else, not if he got a 9-5 office job, not if he waits tables… he can always play the drums, and regardless of his life path, I hope he does. What if he pursued music education, and teaching the drums to kids was part of his life? What if drumming is a side gig? On the other side of things, will he always wonder if he could have “made it” if he hadn’t gotten bogged down with X, Y, and Z?
One of my favorite essays I’ve ever read is called “Into the Darkness” by David Rowell, which The Washington Post published in 2009: the author spends a week with a grindcore band called Pig Destroyer before they play Maryland Death Fest. It’s a wonderful read about what metal means to people, and what Pig Destroyer means to the people who play in it. I’ll throw in a few excerpts…
They are also quite successful, considering the band's part-time status. Pig Destroyer has sold nearly 100,000 albums, and it earns about $20,000 each year from merchandising, album sales and live appearances, which, when the band isn't playing a festival, are generally in front of crowds of 300 to 800. Though the band has, over its 12 years together, performed in such far-flung countries as Japan, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Mexico and the United Kingdom, it plays only a handful of shows a year because its members are fiercely protective of their lives outside the band. Hull, for example, is the devoted father of two small boys and a frequent volunteer at his older son's school. He had been working on his PhD in physics at Boston College before eventually abandoning it. Now he works for the Department of Defense, though that's all he can tell me for security reasons…
While in Boston, he joined a metal band with a name that can't be printed here, and recorded a CD with them, but he stayed for only a couple of months. "I couldn't take off and do all the touring that they wanted to do," he said. But that wasn't the only problem. He began to realize: "'Hmmm, I'm the only one with a credit card. I'm the only one with the ability to rent a car. I'm the only one with any sort of education.' A lot of things were starting to come into focus. And I thought, 'I'm not sure I want to follow this path...This is fun, but I'm eventually going to want to have a family. I eventually want to be comfortable. I want to have a future.' "
He got tired of life as a teaching assistant making $12,000 a year, he said, relocated to Washington and started up his career. He was working at Lockheed Martin in the IT department, which, he said, put to use his skills as an analytical thinker, when Pig Destroyer started up in 1997. From the beginning, Hull saw the band as something on the side to a fuller life. His main interest was writing and recording, rather than performing on the road…
Hull enjoys the careful balance he has set for himself. "I like being in my own house, and I like having my family around. On the road it's like: 'Where are we going to find ourselves tonight? Oh, no hotel? Okay, we'll just get back on the road. Who's going to drive?' It's just an endless array of problems you have to solve."
When Pig Destroyer does play a show, the preference is for weekends, which lets Hull save as much vacation time as he can for his family.
"Ultimately, this is not a career," Hull said of Pig Destroyer. "Bands typically fall apart after a while. And then your ability to want to continue to do this sort of wanes, and then all of a sudden you're stuck in a position where you've professionally chosen to do this for your livelihood, and all of a sudden you have to do this, and it's a job. That's why we choose to keep a lot of the pressure off. That's why we don't tour so much. All of that just tears people apart."
I don’t know your friend the drummer any more than I know the guys in Pig Destroyer. I don’t know what sort of drumming he wants to do, or what other interests he has, or anything. I don’t know what his life goals are, or if he even knows for sure what they are yet. What I am certain of, is that figuring out one’s life goals, and finding one’s way toward those things that truly matter – whatever they are – is an essential condition for happiness. There’s an opportunity cost for everything. Go in with your eyes open. Talk to people in your prospective field. Think: what life do I want, and what am I willing to sacrifice for it? Figure out what is most essential for your happiness, pursue it, and remember there is more than one way to skin a cat. Or destroy a pig. Whatever.