A Nerd’s Guide to Building a Band

A Nerd’s Guide to Building a Band

This interview was originally published on the site in April, 2010.

 

Some of you may not know who the Nerds are but if you were like me and grew up in the New York / New Jersey Tri-State area and ever opened up a weekly gig guide – you have seen an advertisement for one of their shows if not been at one of their shows.  The Nerds are a New Jersey based cover band who have been together for 25 years and have played between 200-230 dates every year for the last twenty-two years.  I was lucky enough to get some phone time with Jim “Spaz” Garcia the bass player and lead singer for The Nerds.

 

The Nerds – (Jim @ bottom right)

 

 

Music Consultant:

 

Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.  I was hoping you could share some wisdom about what it’s like to be a band that plays that regularly. Tell me how this all started for you guys?

 

Spaz:

 

The first year was kind of getting our feet wet, but we weren’t planning on doing it very seriously or for any length of time. And then when things started building up, we thought, “Let’s keep trying to do this until it runs its course.” The longer we did it, the more we learned about business, the more we came to appreciate the lifestyle it afforded. By that I mean, not so much money, but having days and having the day to spend with our kids and stuff like that. Before we knew it, it’s 25 years later.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Was this ever something you did to support your original music, or was it just that you guys got together and played covers for kicks?

 

Spaz:

 

We actually started as an original band doing originals. Then, we started The Nerds as a breakout from that to get out and play in front of more people and become more comfortable playing with each other as a unit and as a band. And pretty soon we abandoned that original project and just kept it as The Nerds. Then after doing The Nerds for a number of years, we decided to do some originals and record them. So we did a CD back in 1994 that was mostly originals but a bunch of live covers that we did. At that point we kind of tried to pursue the whole A&R route, but before long we decided maybe this wasn’t what we were cut out for and maybe we should just keep doing what we’re doing and have been doing successful. We kind of abandoned the originals thing and tried to create an entertainment product and keep that going for as long as we could. Never did we expect it to go on for this long, because historically no one has ever done that. There might be one of two acts still around in Jersey that have been around for that long, but at the scale and presence that we’ve been doing it at not really. We’re kind of on our own, so it’s pretty cool.

 

Music Consultant:

 

There are bands that have good runs, but 25 years is something else. Tell me what it is you think you did right that so many others have done wrong.

 

Spaz:

 

I think a lot of it was that we didn’t start when we were 20. We started when we were in our late 20s. By that time I think there was a little bit more of a reality check situation happening, and we just wanted to play together with the same exuberance that a 15-year old just wants to play, but without all the baggage and hang-ups. Starting in our late 20s was like, “I like this kind of music, you like that kind of music. Let’s respect it all and try it all and let’s just try to be really good musicians and let it not be about the party or the drinking or the girls or all the other trappings. Let’s really just try to be a really good band.” Since we kind of went into it with that attitude, we were very laid back about it. We had really good management that helped push us through. Then we started talking about formalizing the business of it. Then we started learning – especially me – about the mechanics of marketing a band. I would say probably if you had to point to the one thing, it would probably be that we quickly got really comfortable with the idea that this could also be a business and not be afraid of the business side of it. I remember when I was about 18, and I wanted to be in a band, the last thing in the world I wanted to worry about was business. It was almost like the ugly side of what you want to do. Not until later and to this day did I really embrace that and say, “This could really be a means by which we can just rock.” Once everybody felt really comfortable with the idea and started to say, “Let’s just really run this as a good of a business as you can and think more like business men and get all that done by 6:00 so we can just rock and be the band we wanted to be when we were 16 or 17.” That and really having respect for each other. I think the mistake that a lot of bands make is expecting the guitarist to be much more than a guitarist.  If you really start using people and simply exploit their strengths – and I don’t mean in a bad way – but really just let that shine and expect the very best of that thing they do really well, and they do the same for you, that makes all the difference in the world.

 

Music Consultant:

 

What does the division of labor look like for you guys? I’m going to guess after 25 years that it isn’t just one guy doing everything.

 

Spaz:

 

I pretty much administrate everything, as far as the business end of things goes, and by the business end I mean the way payroll is done, health insurance, pension plan, all the classic trappings of the business. And then I work with our agency hand in hand with all the promotion and marketing that has to be done. On the job, I’m also the guy that deals with the club guys or the company that hired us to play their event as well as the radio stations and any kind of mass marketing that’s being done by radio print. I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve done with the New York Times and other big periodicals. I’m the guy that does all that stuff, plus I’m the lead singer and bass player. Then what we have is a guitarist who is very shy and introverted but is an amazing guitarist. That’s what he does the best. He’s also somebody who’s a devil’s advocate. Whenever we’re talking about, “We’re going to do this song or play this place or we have the opportunity to do this,” he’s the guy who will always step in and look at the downside of it. That helps things out a lot to work things through the system. We have a drummer who is a precision clock. He’s the best drummer I’ve ever worked with. You can just lean on that and know night after night, he’s not going to be a little bit slower or a little bit faster.

 

Music Consultant:

 

As a bass player I know first hand how you’re only as good as your drummer…

 

Spaz:

 

Our keyboard player is all about sounds but he’s also very good at picking material. And that’s the thing, everybody in the band is very aware of the material that we do and the effect that it has and the demographic we may be playing for on that particular day. When you put us all together in the dressing room, there is a big analysis of everything that’s going on. Nobody’s pulling out graphs or sketching everything out, but we have a good sense of feel with everything. And the other thing generally with everyone in the band is that everybody really listens more than any other group of players I’ve ever played with. It almost becomes a single pulse going through the whole band. That makes things really solid and enjoyable.

 

Music Consultant:

 

How did you guys go from, “Hey, we’re going to go play a couple covers to be a better band” to playing as much as you do and being a guy that has been on the phone with the Times and being in touch with radio stations. What was it that started you out?

 

Spaz:

 

It was very grass roots. We started up in North Jersey because most of us lived up in that area at the time. We were playing a regular Wednesday at a regular joint, and we were starting to build a following because we weren’t playing what everybody else was playing at the time. It was a following that really liked the eclectic nature of what we were doing. Of course we dressed like nerds and stuff, but we didn’t play the “Urkel” nerds. We were more generic about it and just playing off the freedom that that allowed us. If you dress like a clown, you don’t have to worry so much about how seriously you come across. So with us, we were dressing like nerds, and it just allowed us to be musicians who could play whether we were playing a song by the Rolling Stones or Steely Dan. It didn’t make a difference, because it just kind of helped blur all those walls in between that stuff. We started developing this following, and before I knew it, I remember calling my manager one night and saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but we got 300 people in this little tiny club that holds 200. Things are going well.” And then we got a raise at the club and it was little things like that. Next thing you know, we made the jump to play the Jersey Shore. Our first show at the Shore was not great and nothing really great, but suddenly people started calling us a Jersey Shore band. Next thing you know, a summer later we were a Jersey Shore band and everyone was hiring us. It was just a good coordinated effort between management, booking and ourselves and everyone just looking out for each other and keeping each other in check. And then we just steamrollered it. Then we were doing colleges and playing down in Delaware. Then we were becoming a big college town kind of band. It just went and kept going and going. At that time the club and band business was a lot better. There were a lot more big venues than there are now. It has seriously tapered off. Even national acts that were doing big stadiums are now doing club tours.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I really wonder how any of the arena rock will ever sustain itself. We aren’t building artists of that caliber either.

 

Spaz:

 

It was really a grassroots kind of a thing, and we’ve built from there and it really has changed over the years. We’ve gone from being a barroom darling kind of band to being the big show band at the Shore in bigger places to now doing all these exclusive kind of parties here and there in one town or another town. We’re drawing people in their 20s, 30s and 40s and they are having the time of their life. Some of the older people are discovering that if you want to go out and have a good time, it’s not like it used to be where there is a band at every other court. We’re carving a niche market even now for ourselves after 25 years. It has always changed.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Talk to me about the strategic partners. What did you do as kids to get a good manager and a good agent?

 

Spaz:

 

It’s almost a fairytale story. He was having a barbecue at his house 25 years ago around Memorial Day. I was in another band that was rehearsing at a rehearsal studio that he owned up in Fairfield. Long story short, I was at his barbecue, and he said, “I really like the way you play. Why don’t you put a band together and call yourselves ‘The Nerds’ and play soulful music. The irony of it will be fantastic. I’ll talk to Sammy Boy and we’ll book you guys and do this, that and the other.” And I said, “Sure, okay.” It was that simple and benign an approach. I spoke to the guys I was working with at the time, and said, “Let’s go out and do this. If nothing else, it will hype up the band.

 

By August the 15th of that summer we were gigging. We just threw it together in the most haphazard throw-all-your-stuff-in-the-car-and-let’s-go-to-Florida kind of way with no planning. We threw together some posters that looked like a bunch of yearbook pictures – the worst yearbook pictures you’ve ever seen. And we made up names. That all happened in about 45 minutes over the phone. Next thing you know we had two bookings a week starting on August 15th. Within three months of doing that, that agent bailed and didn’t want to do it anymore, and a different friend of mine that was an agency picked up the ball and ran with it for about two years. And when that ran its course, Steve was just managing us at the time and putting up money for production and PA and stuff, and he decided to be an agent. He went and got his booking license, and that became S.T.A.R.S. Production the agency. From Steve came the idea, from the idea came The Nerds and from the Nerds, three years later came the agency.

 

Music Consultant:

 

So he’s the fifth Nerd.

 

Spaz:

 

Exactly. That’s been the deal all along. He’s as strange a character as anybody you’d want to meet in A&R and anything like that. He’s very creative and crazy. That’s how a lot of things happen. We played Carnegie Hall in 1992, and that was like, “What do you think of this? We’ll play Carnegie Hall, and we’ll sell out.” So, next thing you know, we booked Carnegie Hall and sold it out – 2800 seats. There we were at Carnegie Hall.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Did the majors ever knock on your door and ask you to do an original record?

 

Spaz:

 

You know what? Some people did, and honestly it was a lot of smaller labels. But nothing really ever came from it. I don’t know that we were too willing to jump into that game anyway. It was kind of hard to tell at the time because everyone was getting married and having kids, and we were getting nice and settled into the stay-at-home, play a gig, drive three hours to get back home kind of thing. It would’ve been a tough sell even for our crazy manager for us to do something like that. If somebody said to me at the time, “Would you like to be the house band on this TV show?” I would’ve said, “Sure, no problem.”

 

Music Consultant:

 

It’s just amazing that you guys have made your living at this without much outside help. There is a movement now with DIY because there are now so many digital tools available but you guys have been DIY for a really long time.  I don’t want to pry but is the live how and merch the bread and butter of your business?

 

Spaz:

 

Not even merchandise. That kind of dried up after a few years as soon as CD sales dried up. By the time they closed Tower Records in the Village, no one was really buying anything we were putting down. People just wanted free whatever they could get. It’s really just been the live shows, which is not just clubs, but a long time ago, someone would say, “Would you play a wedding?’ Now we do maybe 20 weddings a year.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I’m getting the idea you guys didn’t say no to much.

 

Spaz:

 

Not much. That’s the thing. We’re just open to a lot of seemingly stupid things. A couple years ago we did the Yankees Fan Fest, a big thing set up at Lincoln Center. A big Yankee fan, merchandising, opening day kind of thing. It was like, “We’ll do that.” We had made enough at a corporate gig in Mexico and said, “Why not?”

 

Music Consultant:

 

And you think this has all generated because you just found a way to always play?

 

Spaz:

 

Yeah. We were just always there. The thing is, the longer you’re around and the branding sells itself at some point. Its’ phenomenal if you can persevere and stick around long enough, just the sheer number of people that have seen you. We’ve played corporate for just about everybody who is now gone on Wall Street. We probably got the last couple bucks out of Lehman Brothers before they went under. We played for all those guys and for companies all over the place. We’ve played everywhere from Whistler, Canada to the Bahamas and everything in between. We’d fly overnight to do a corporate thing and get back the next day to play some local bar. That’s the kind of availability we’ve always had, even though everybody is married with kids. I don’t even have to ask anymore. I just say, “Listen, next February we’re going to Cancun to a wedding for the weekend.” They trust me, and everybody figures for all the right reasons and for the right kind of money. That happens after 25 years. With us it happened after 10 years, where everybody was just comfortable enough with any decisions that were being made and would just go along with it with their hearts on their sleeve and play their asses off. That’s a lot of business as well as just a lot of musicianship and passion.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Was there a distinct strategy as to how you and the band rolled out into different markets, or was it just, “Okay, we’ll play?” Do you have any advice about burning out markets by playing them?

 

Spaz:

 

The only markets you could burn out by overplaying would be like a club scene. A long time ago we realized we shouldn’t just limit ourselves to the club scene. There are so many clubs that we started taking ourselves out of a monthly rotation and realizing that some places you can play once a month, some once every four months, some places twice a year. And you try to build on that strategy of trying to be at the right place at the right time. We won’t play Killington Ski Resort in July. We’ll play on President’s Weekend, because we know it’s going to be packed. And then the phenomenon builds on itself. Really good strategy has always been there. With strategy comes everyone’s willingness to play.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Were there mistakes along the way? You must have so much you would tell yourself of 20 years ago. What were the biggest potholes in the road that you’d like to cal out attention to for other people?

 

Spaz:

 

Early on it was the agency situation. At one point we were just part of a roster, and once we started building up, the agent would kind of use us as a negotiating wedge if they wanted to put in one of their older acts for $5,000. They’d say, “You can have The Nerds for $500,” and we were already doing $2,000 at the door. There was a little bit of that. As far as mistakes, the mind is a forgetful thing when it comes to things like that. We have definitely made some mistakes along the way. Even little ones. There haven’t been a tremendous amount of them because we’ve always put our focus on the main thing, which is to make sure we always look good and played really well and that the billing was right. Our manager Steve has been in the business forever. He was playing since 16 with Tony Bennett, Manhattan Transfer. He’d been around the block many times before we came around, so he helped us skirt around a lot of that kind of stuff. If it looked like there was going to be a problem, he’d tell me. One thing we learned really harshly was that we were playing a place and next thing we knew was we got a call from a lawyer because somebody wanted to sue us because someone claimed we had hurt their hearing at one of our shows. I will never forget the guy’s name. What did we learn from that? Insure yourself to the teeth with liability insurance. Unfortunately things like that happen.  We learned a lot of lessons along the way. You’re at your best when you’re at your most natural. When you can be Howard Stern about things, it’s almost better than being Jay Leno about them. It’s going to have a better bite, have more lasting power and matter more.

 

Music Consultant:

 

How important was an aspect of community? Did you have friends in other bands that helped you out, or do you have friends whose bands you like that you have helped out? Did that play into your story?

 

Spaz:

 

That helps. It’s funny because I brought up Jay Leno, and that’s where you learn some things from Jay Leno. You be nice to everybody, and you be supportive to everybody and try to help out people as much as possible. That’s always come back in a very positive way. There have been one or two people that we’ve given a leg up to who have come back and bitten us in the ass, but that’s going to happen. We’ve always tried to keep that sense of community. When we were coming up in the 1970s and early 80s, there was a vast community of musicians all over the place that would get together and jam. One band would show up at another band’s gig, etc. And then it became very narcissistic and people were not doing that. We came along and tried to pull that back into it. So when anybody shows up, we get them up on stage to play a song with us. We’ve had some pretty funny things like that. Not just musicians, but pro football guys from the Giants we’d drag up on stage. I took them through a whole choreographed version of “My Girl.” You want to see something funny, you see 7-foot tall guys do a dance like the Temptations. We’ve had all sorts of celebrities, sports guys, Bon Jovi’s gotten up and sang with us. It’s that kind of thing that keeps the mystique and the magic of the live performance and that whole community thing goes a long way.

 

Music Consultant:

 

How has the game changed for you guys in the Digital Age?

 

Spaz:

 

Right now it’s all about the social networking. They’ve created a division at our agency of people that are just doing that. Talk about having to learn a whole bunch of stuff in a hurry.  We creatively bounce ideas back and forth about our website and what we want there. The website has been great, but everything else – the Myspace, the Facebook, the Twitter – is suddenly at the forefront of everything we do. We try to stay on top of that and keep people informed about every place we’re playing. It’s been quite a run so far.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Do you have any other parting words of advice?

 

Spaz:

 

Everybody has always said — and you’ve heard it time and time again — we really love doing this. We’re so fortunate. That’s the thing. You have to love and at the very least appreciate what you’re doing. And in this economy, if you’re doing anything, that’s a good thing all by itself. We found out a long time ago that we could do what we love and make a pretty good living at it. That’s all we’ve done for the last 23 of the 25 years. This is our one and only full-time job. What’s involved in the job? Staying healthy. That’s the biggest challenge of this job through all the smoky clubs and hands you shake and diseases to get out there.  Being of healthy body and mind and indulge yourself in this passion you have. To be able to walk home with a paycheck is fantastic.

 

Learn more about Jim and The Nerds.  You won’t be sorry.