Years ago, I watched a highly respected indie character tell a kid that this record, this one record, was the last. It was after a show in Berlin, behind a dirty merch table in an old dentist office turned venue. She paid and walked away. He immediately reached under the table, into a ratty suitcase and dropped another in its place. Salesmanship, it’s something I think about a lot. I also wish it didn’t come so easy.
Sometime in 2013, I met a Basque drummer whose band looked like so many others: old friends, young men. That year, I stayed in his house, overlooking the countryside outside Donostia. We were recording with his brother, in the shed out back, where the band rehearsed for the past decade. Like clockwork, they would all appear. It usually started with coffee and ended with dinner or a glass of wine around the fireplace in the kitchen. Some lived in the house, some drove away. It was the closest thing to a family that I could fathom at that point. Even then, I couldn’t imagine hanging so thoroughly with any of my old bands. I always needed space. Or secrets. Or time away to think and scheme. In effect, never be in the moment. Sober.
It’s always been hard for me to separate music from the people who make it. Now, I found myself reconciling the people with the music they make. As I learned, this particular bunch was a support group that picked up momentum wherever they went. It was stunning to see, honestly. As an American, it’s easy to dismiss those popular regional acts in Europe. But name one popular regional band from your town that’s older than thirty and NOT playing covers.
Years later, I went back with the Danes to open a few shows. We returned the favor by inviting our friends for a run of dates to Berlin. It was a financial disaster. But they knew what to expect and never complained. That fall, we played giant halls and large collectives around the Basque region, where towns and villages bleed together, connected by tolls and the occasional border guard. I watched huge crowds sing in unison and congregate afterwards. It was all so communal. And they always traveled with a crew of friends, techs and a lone documentarian, keeping the circle small even as it grew. They even had a manager-type who didn’t need to be so welcoming. And still, for all the late-night revelry, the bill never really made sense: big rock riffs and regional politics paired with flamboyant garage rock. No one seemed to notice.
I’ve carried this thesis around for a long time: that the type of music you play is informed by where you’re from. Watching too many guitar faces and outsized pedal boards at small shows around the world, I often think music is nothing but translation anyway—from a high-minded “feeling” in cosmopolitan circles to a basic lifestyle in the sticks. It all starts with mimicry and out of experience we tend to find ourselves. Recently, there was the story of an unknown LA rocker who booked a full UK tour on the promise of pre-sales. The internet went nuts. It was ridiculous for so many reasons, least of all the lazy promoters who believed it—and the ease of communication that made it all possible. At times, I’ve thought about doing the same thing—how I would quietly post a run of “sold out” dates and let the mystique build. It’s not like anyone outside my city would care, or confirm for that matter. If a band plays to no one, does the band even exist?
Willis Drummond is not this band. Willis Drummond exists in a reality of their own making, where it’s entirely plausible to sell out of merchandise and reach for an empty box. It’s possible to press a bunch of DVDs and photo books and make enough money to live as a professional musician by printing flyers—and filling rooms with a beautiful, endangered dialect. Entire legacies have been built on this idea that a band is bigger than they say. Willis Drummond is bigger than you ever knew. Like Literally is proud to present Zugzwang, out now and available everywhere.