Partway to the Middle: The Apache Relay
With album sales plummeting into an apparent bottomless crevasse (except for Taylor Swift), sites like Spotify changing the way many are getting their recommended daily supply of music (unless you are Taylor Swift), and whole albums showing up in our iTunes accounts for free (like, never, not ever for Taylor Swift), the consumption of music is in the midst of its greatest overhaul since the widespread distribution of the radio.
At the heart of this revolution and growing “free music” debate seems to be this: individuals for the first time in history can almost completely control when and how they listen to and buy (or not buy) an almost endless supply of music from all over the world. At the same time, the very musicians who provide that supply are losing at an ever greater rate, the ability to get by.
Arguably, the big name groups, just like always, are going to be just fine (Taylor Swift disagrees while drinking her Diet Coke and putting on her Revlon lipstick), but what about music artists with a good size following (20,000 Facebook followers; 5,300 Twitter followers) but no huge national name recognition? How do these artists navigate the changes and measure success in a new era? As always, it has to be about the quality of the music first. Put the horse blinders on, forget the problems of modern music, and simply produce the best music you can possibly create. But then what? Maybe with the help of word of mouth, a business team, a bit of luck and sincere excitement for those around you, then maybe, just maybe, a band can create a living with artistic integrity. Maybe.
Enter The Apache Relay. Michael Ford Jr, Mike Harris, Ben Ford, Brett Moore, Kellen Wenrich, and Steve Smith, the members of the Nashville band who are finding their way in this brave new landscape with talent, intellect, and most of all, a reverent respect for the industry they choose to call home.
Timing is everything in music. I first met the members of The Apache Relay almost four years ago after choosing to support their Kickstarter campaign to fund a west coast tour of the United States, Mumford and Sons had mentioned them during an interview, and I was curious. I’m not sure who was more surprised when we met; the members of the band because they were amazed random people from San Diego would support their campaign or my husband and I when they played their first song for the 20 people in a small on campus college bar with the fervor and intensity of a band playing in a arena with 20,000 people.
The Apache Relay began at Belmont University around 2009 (Ben Ford and Steve Smith joined later) and have made three albums, with the latest self titled effort released in April 2014. Although not publicly identifying with any sort of genre, Spotify describes them as, an “indie folk band..with a pastoral, roots-pop sound,” yet a Rolling Stone article that states the newest record “push[es] past the [folk rock] label with inspiration from Phil Spector and Philly sound.”
It’s hard to describe where a band like Apache is in their journey but it feels like they are partway to the middle of where they want to be. They’re not headlining the 3,000 seat venues where they are found as the supporting act, but they certainly aren’t just getting started. Their second album, American Nomad, generated momentum. They have played some of the most famous stages in America from the Ryman Auditorium to The Hollywood Bowl (supporting their friends Mumford and Sons) and have landed spots at Bonnaroo and Newport Folk Festival. Because of their quality as people and musicians, they have committed fans across the country and solid ties to culturally influential brands (Billy Reid) and respected household named musicians. And, as some measure of the lyrical quality of their songwriting, had a song featured prominently (in its entirety) to carry the climactic finish of a well regarded Steve Carell indie movie “The Way, Way Back.”
I sat down with the band on October 28th, before their show at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, to try and understand why with their various accomplishments, they are not a more recognizable name. Michael Ford Jr says it has more to do with the environment and region and not necessarily popularity, “It’s interesting. What people don't really understand when they come to a show and see us in different environments. We’ll play a show, for instance an opening slot for Mumford and Sons, and we play for a ton of people…7,000, 10,000 whatever it was, then the night before we played to 2 people in Memphis. It can be so polarized in the States.” And it’s not just The Apache Relay feeling the polarization. Bands with their size following can experience huge shifts in audience size depending upon where they play. He continues, “A band can be gigantic in New York and then have no one at the show somewhere else and it all depends on where the person saw them ..that’s what they take away.”
Because of this regional phenomenon it can be tough for any band in their shoes to measure the change from album to album. When you are a band without radio hits, growth can appear to be small and slow. Kellen Wenrich says the process is gradual and can be difficult to notice in a progression day to day. He compares it to losing weight, “Where you look in the mirror every day and you don’t see any difference, but then in 6 months or a year later, and it’s “Oh these pants don’t fit anymore.” They all seem to agree it would have been easier 15 years ago when the industry was controlled by large record labels with huge A&R departments, but Kellen adds that might only have been true, “If you could get in the door back then. I think it’s a mixed bag because there are countless bands that would have never worked in the nineties…but they all still played music.” On the flip side, it has to be encouraging that these days bands like The Avett Brothers who also have no real radio hits, can sell out Red Rocks for three nights in a row, every single year. Kellen says, “I think that’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t have worked 15 years ago…if you didn’t have radio hits. There are different ways of doing things now…but I think it is refreshing, because we don’t have a radio hit.”
The Apache Relay have gained respect for their cover of Springsteen’s “State Trooper,” but with longer sets and a growing library of choices, it is the chance to play new songs before an album release that helps the band stay fresh and moving forward. Michael Ford Jr claims it can seem selfish for the band (which it isn’t) to play songs no one knows, “We did a month and a half tour of the new songs leading up to the record release…we were tired of playing the American Nomad stuff.” But as the 6 months have passed since the release of their self titled album, more and more people are responding to the new songs, “There are definitely people that know the new songs we are playing now,” Michael adds, “so in a way it's a relief.”
A relief to see audiences connect to something you create can be all the reward a band needs to keep going. This is not an LCD Soundsystem “Shut Up and Play the Hits” scenario, especially when most audiences don’t know the music to begin with, but it is a jump start for the band. That elusive, hard to quantify connection to an audience is something the band pursues, without focussing too much on what it means to win. Brett Moore shares he has learned to cherish the little things day to day, “I think what I am realizing continually, you have to take small victories. You can set up a black and white checklist ‘if I do this, this and this, I’ll be happy and we’ll be successful,’ but you’re ultimately setting yourself up for disappointment. So instead it’s definitely a day by day type thing.” The band members agree with Brett’s assessment, “The other night we played in Seattle and it was a packed out show-little intimate venue-and people were really excited, so that to me is success.”
Brett adds,“Success can’t really be quantified in music anymore because it’s such a free for all and so many things come and the climate of it changes daily. So instead to me maybe this is even a deeper path to nirvana or peace, but I’m finding, that if you are just content with the present day in your career in music and just try look for the little victories in the day — I mean heck, when we have an off day- ‘we had a good drive’- silly, silly stuff like that…but it makes the rest of the process- the stuff that really does matter- a lot more enjoyable and a lot less doom and gloom…like hey man we showed up and there were only 200 people there- what the heck- there we’re 200 people there!”
Making it in a measurable way in a business that no longer has delineated markers is more of a process and not an end goal. The band has spent a few years close to the white hot light, mega explosion of Mumford and they are not afraid to say that they want to be playing all the big festivals and rooms across America, but as Mike Harris points out, there are only so many slots each year and trying to set those as markers isn’t realistic, “I don’t think it’s really practical to set goals in that way because this business is not like any other business. I think being set on playing every show, it can -I don’t know- probably only disappoint you because there are only so any slots and you can’t be asked to play all of them. Yeah the whole band always wants to play, better and better shows and that’s how we try to go about it.”
Being from Nashville where every bouncer and bartender plays the guitar, it would make sense for them to have at least a bit of bitterness towards other bands that have had an easier time, but instead they all agree the comparison game is very dangerous. Kellen explains, “It gets really dark if you focus on it.” But maybe it is actually because they come from that historic, music mecca that they have an obvious love and reverence for the musicians around them. When I asked what they were into, they excitedly served up a list. Jonathan Wilson and Tweedy were group favorites, but their tastes are eclectic. Michael mentioned the new Spoon album, Mike a country artist Sturgill Simpson; Steve added Angel Olson, and Ben finished with a rock band called Milktooth who he says should be bigger because they play “really well written rock music.” These guys are artists who love other artists and are unthreatened by those around them.
A few days after I sat down with The Apache Relay in LA, I saw Willy Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show) open for Shovels and Rope at The Fillmore in San Francisco. Both talented, well respect musicians and yet, both largely unknown. In fact, although they played to a sold out crowd in San Francisco, two days earlier they couldn’t sell out The Belly Up in San Diego. Add these two groups to the list of artists mentioned by Apache and the hard truth becomes clear: there is a lot of amazing music in the world and now more than ever you can hear it whenever, however, and wherever you want. And Apache is living in that balance with their eyes wide open.
Which brings us back to the free music debate. How does a band get from opening to headlining at the Roxy (yes they played there) or Monterey Fairground (where Jimmie Hendricks burned his guitar; yes they played there too)? How do you get to play those better shows and bigger rooms (even if they don’t sell out)? The music has to be heard by as many people as possible, so sites like Spotify and Pandora are actually helpful and do not pose a threat to the band. Harris offers the insight he received from a well known artist, Ben Sollee, “[He] told me one time that libraries and bookstores have existed in perfect harmony for hundreds or years…so why can’t Spotify and record stores”? Michael agrees and says he’s fine with it, “It’s open. The music industry is never going to go back to people buying records, that’s just not how its going to go down. If some kid goes and listens to our record and really connects with it and loves it and comes to our show….and is excited and they wanna buy a t shirt or hang out…tells their friend about it…that’s a win now in the music industry.”
And The Apache Relay really do WANT to hang out and meet their fans. Maybe it’s their southern charm (4/6 of them are from the south) or maybe it’s the way they were raised (more likely the reason), but these guys can be seen hanging out with fans before and after their performance. They are THAT band that genuinely wants to get to know you and your thoughts on music and life. They are open and honest and it translates in their music. There is something beautiful about being small enough to hang out and big enough to make it a treat for fans (although these guys would never see themselves that way).
The Apache Relay ’s performance did not disappoint that October night. In a surprise move, they brought out a three person string accompaniment for nearly three quarters of the show, creating a depth and lavish effect to the songs found on the last two albums. It’s something they never mentioned in the interview as a sign of success. It made me laugh because it is just like them to forget to mention something like that.
Horse blinders on for sure.