Getting It Together with David Combs (Spoonboy, Max Levine Ensemble)
Everyone is a true weirdo, and no one has any idea what they’re doing.
That’s what I try to remind myself whenever I meet someone I admire or who I perceive to have more success on paper than I do. Everyone, at some point, has had to wing it.
A lot of my shop talk with friends revolves around how we piece it all together and “figuring it out” is something I think about entirely too much. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting interviews with some people I consider to be true powerhouses about their process, creative work, and how they’ve sewn things into a bigger picture. I ask each person pretty similar questions and so far everyone has had very different answers. I get excited about demystifying how and why artists make things happen, so here you go.
First up is my friend David Combs, who you might also know as Spoonboy, from the bands The Max Levine Ensemble and Bad Moves. They also regularly team up with their friend and bandmate, Bepstein, under the moniker Baby Pony Food, to produce some stellar music videos for folks like Jeff Rosenstock, Radiator Hospital, Martha, and more. They’re a fellow punk lifer, a schemer, and a wonderful songwriter. We’ve both started writing pop songs actually, which David mentions later on, but I’ll get into that another time! Below is our conversation about bringing weird ideas to life, sustainability in DIY, and a giant foot in the sky that goes around kicking people.
(Above: David and the resident cat at a coffee shop)
When you get up in the morning and think about making something, do you have a ‘why’ behind it? What is it about your work that motivates you?
Why do I make art? That’s a great question [laughs]. I have to say that I rarely think about why I do it. I do think of it, the creative impulse, as a neurosis, you know? I think of myself as a freak for always wanting to be working on bigger projects, usually music or writing or producing videos. I used to think of it more in a results-oriented way, like it being worth it for when you put out a song or a record or video or whatever the thing is, that people pay attention to you and recognize that you’ve done something cool. I feel that way a lot less so in the past many years of working on music. It’s even just the process of putting the puzzle together, coming up with an idea that I’m excited about going from the spark of an idea, that is maybe even a stupid idea, and a thing that nobody would ever think to take more seriously than just in passing, be like “oh we should do this!” but then actually put the work in and doing it, and have it hopefully be presentable and something I’m proud of. The process of going from this is just a spark of an idea in my head or something I dreamed sometimes, to be like, “And then I took that and went as far with it as I could.” That’s how I would spend my time if I could.
I think that’s a good point. The concept of making those funny things happen that you just joke about. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did this”, but then you actually do it. There’s a very DIY work ethic behind it. These projects happen not because someone told you that you could, or because someone gave you the resources, it’s just because you thought “this would be funny” and then it actually happens.
I think that’s what’s empowering about making art is nobody tells you that you can just make whatever you want. Or to the contrary, we live in a world that tells you that you shouldn’t be trying to make things unless they’re practical or profitable. And then when you’re able to say I came up with an idea and made it happen, and maybe even a bunch of people paid attention to it, it’s a little bit of a way of sticking it to the world that tries to force people down that normative life path. I could say that part of the “why” is obviously, to the degrees that I embody marginalized identities, it feels worthwhile to put art out there from that perspective. But even just more inherently, it’s a thing that would never exist and no one would ever necessarily say has any value and you’re able to say, “I’m going to prove you wrong”.
When earning money from it starts to come into play, whether that’s with the band or making music videos, does that change your relationship to what you’re making?Definitely, I think the most vivid experience I’ve had with that is a period when I was touring with Spoonboy stuff full-time and touring solo a lot and not having the time to work because I was doing music. When I shifted into thinking about tour in that it has to support me, it made it a lot less fun. You start to evaluate shows in a way that is a lot different from the DIY, “doing it just to do it” attitude that I come from in my motivation to make music since I was a teenager. But I feel like it’s pretty common that if you’re a person who’s a creative lifer, even if you spend your whole 20’s like “I don’t give a fuck if it makes me a dime”, you get into your 30’s and start to say, “Well, how can I do this in a way that’s gonna…how can I stop working the shitty job that I hate?”
Right, how can you make that a sustainable, or at least partly a sustainable way of life?
You do art for the sake of art, and while that’s a beautiful concept that I do still subscribe to, it also has been co-opted by a capitalist devaluation of art. And makes it so that being an artist is unsustainable and plays into a narrative of being a thing that you can fuck around with when you’re younger, but if you want to do the thing that fulfills you for your entire life, you’re a wingnut.
But I haven’t figured out a way to live off of my creative work at this point and when I do make money, it supplements the income I have from other work that helps me spend more time on it. I try to structure my life in a way where I live cheaply and can work part-time and remotely and all that kind of stuff so that I can put all of my extra energy into doing creative work. So I end up having the job that pays me and having two or three other creative jobs that don’t pay me, but it’s as much or more work than I do that makes me any money. So that’s again a sustainability issue.
Especially coming from a DIY/punk perspective, you’re taught from the start that you should just be doing it because you love it, and it shouldn’t be about the money. So when you start speaking about the money side, you’re seen to only be in it for that. I’m a big advocate for starting that conversation. It’s not about asking to roll around in a pile of cash, it’s about trying to create an economic system for you and your friends so that you can just keep doing it. Not even making a lot of money off of it, just literally being sustainable, because a lot of people don’t have the ability to have the well-paying job that lets them make whatever they want all the time.
I think there’s a super double standard there, especially around the idea of musicians selling out, or that you’re not supposed to take money as a consideration at all. I completely reject that. I think that’s aligned with the same idea that talking about how much you get paid is supposed to be tacky or impolite, when what that actually does is make people afraid to talk about it. There are entrenched power structures that rely on silence around these things so that people don’t realize how undervalued they are. And art is extremely undervalued.
It’s just as much a part of that system as anything else.
Yeah, you just have to have money to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head. The other thing that can be invisibilized is that some artists do come from rich families who can pay their bills. They don’t talk about that because nobody is supposed to talk about money. This artist that you might think, “They have so much integrity because they have never earned a dime from their artwork,” it’s because they didn’t have to, and they never had to worry about it. And then a different artist who is from a working-class background and maybe has family they need to support, considerations like that, speaks up about how they need to get paid and that person is considered a sell-out.
But I think the thing is that it can be both. You can be striving towards creating financial sustainability within your art without getting into that rut that I was talking about when I went on tour and didn’t have any other job, of being like “this isn’t as fun anymore because I’m worried how I’m gonna come back and pay my rent,” by still approaching your art with the attitude of if this hopefully gets to the point where it’s sustaining me, that’s the ideal, but until then I’m going to treat it like a thing that I just do because I love it and continue to figure out how to sustain myself otherwise, which is definitely where I’m at.
Same. It’s really about that balance. In that same notion of finding a way to create a life for yourself, I wonder if you ever think about the larger world that you create with your work. I love when you look at someone’s work as a whole, and you can see who they are as an artist more than any one part of it alone. Do you ever think about that when you’re working? Is there a thing you’ve always wanted to make as an extension of your practice that you haven’t gotten to yet?
I don’t know to what degree I think about all of my work as a single body. I think that sometimes I’m a little bit stoked to think that this one thing can stand on its own, and this other thing can stand on its own, and two people might not have any idea that they’re related. Certainly, there’s been people who come to Bad Moves shows who afterward are like “Holy shit, were you Spoonboy?” and there’s obviously people who have followed my music from one band to the other, but when somebody comes to see Bad Moves because they like Bad Moves and doesn’t even know it’s connected, that feels really gratifying. Or if someone says “Wait, you made that Jeff Rosenstock video? I’ve watched it a hundred times, I didn’t know that had anything to do with you and your bands,” that feels kinda nice.
But the thing that we’ve been talking about is I’m working on writing pop music. It would be cool to be working on pop music in a completely different sphere from people who would be paying attention to my punk band. I certainly have the idea that by the time I’m 50 I’ll write a novel, you know? When I was young, I was really into creative writing and I feel like I could go back to working on that sort of thing, but I sorta feel like whatever is in front of me is the next thing I’m excited about.
I think that approach is actually what made me think of the question. You don’t always see the entire footprint of someone’s art. When you track the things that you make, it all makes sense. All the things you make are related in this big family tree. I get really excited when I see something like that, but people don’t always think about that part of it.
I even feel that way in that I do various kind of administrative work for music, like booking at a venue. Before that I booked shows just for fun or for my bands and booked tours for other people. It’s kind of nice to be popping up in different parts of a similar music world but in different roles sometimes.
In a weird way, I feel like that’s what “support your scene” means, that it’s not just about being in a band or going to a show or even putting on a show. There are so many things that go into creating it. I appreciate you putting it that way. On a semi-unrelated note, is there anyone who’s a big influence in terms of their process or work ethic?
The first thing that’s popping into my mind is Bepstein, who is my bandmate in Max Levine Ensemble and we work on music videos together. We’ve been friends since we were children and when we were in high school, we would be like, “Let’s do this crazy thing!” We, as non-sports people, when we were in high school, we organized a football tournament without caring at all about football except that one of our best friends played football during lunch. Pickup football games. We said, “What if we made this entire football tournament that was totally rigged so that our friend Eric would be the total star of it?” We got people to sign up for it and picked teams and arranged the tournament bracket such that the teams were really lopsided and definitely Eric’s team would get into the final game and keep playing against the team that was worse than his team. This is a thing we were doing when we were 14 or something.
That was just a thing that was “What if we did this?” and then we did it. I feel like he’s been the person in my life who says “Well if we have to stay up all night to get it done, we’re gonna stay up all night to get it done.” Even if it’s something as stupid as that, or if it’s something that is a deeply felt album of songs that we worked really hard on, or a tour, or if you have to drive through a snowstorm to get to a show. He’s the person in my life who always had the attitude of no matter what the thing is, if it’s something that you want to do it’s worth doing to its full capacity. So, I would say Bepstein is my inspiration.
That must creep into the other things you do.
It creeps into me working hard at the job where I’m just serving tables. I’m here, I may as well put my all into it. I certainly haven’t given that to every shitty job I’ve ever had, but to some degree, I feel I’ve developed valuing a work ethic from a non-capitalist perspective. It’s fulfilling to do a thing and feel like you did a good job, even if it’s stupid.
I’m really proud of this music video for Martha, the last music video that we’ve done recently, for their song “Love Keeps Kicking”. We kept going back and forth being like “We can’t come up with a good idea for this!” and eventually Bepstein was like “Okay, what if it’s literally a foot that keeps kicking people?” And we made this video that was an old alien invasion movie where the alien is this giant foot that’s coming out of the sky and kicking people. That’s a stupid idea, but we then built props for it and got all our friends to act in it and Bepstein stayed up all night for a week editing a giant foot into every scene via green screen. It’s dumb, but I’m really proud of it!
I feel like this interview is making me seem like I only do stupid things, but I just mean if you put the same kind of effort into writing heartfelt music, then it’s a thing that feels worth doing.
If this was at all fascinating to you, I also recently talked about some similar things with Tom May from the Menzingers on his podcast Future Friday.
And ICYMI Worriers is a part of two big tours this spring that are variations on “acclaimed songwriters I love and then us for some reason.” You should come say hi!
Lastly, we talked about sustainability on this one and this newsletter is one thing that helps keep my projects sustainable. If you’d like to contribute to that, you can sign up for a paid subscription for $5/month. I’m psyched that you’re reading this either way!