Many classical musicians say that they would like to learn what works well for other genres and apply those lessons to getting their own music seen and heard. This continues our series of interviews with bands outside of the classical music industry, written by Hannah Sternberg.
Last month, I interviewed The Kickback, a Chicago band whose on-the-road antics and personable social media presence inspired me to quiz them about how to connect with fans.
This month, I’m talking to someone a little closer to home: Washington, DC band Fellowcraft.
Fellowcraft plays zeitgeisty hard-boiled Southern rock. If their catchy tunes weren’t enough to make you remember them (listen here), you’d definitely remember meeting them at The Black Cat, Rock and Roll Hotel, or Velvet Lounge, supporting other local acts.
JR, Brandon, and Brian are everywhere — it came as no surprise that their key advice is “be kind and be professional.”
Long before I saw any of these guys perform, it was their kindness that stuck with me, as I hung out with them while cheering on our mutual friends’ bands.
It gets to the heart of the message I try to share in many of my writing classes and blog posts (like this one about the 3-for-1 method of self-promotion): whatever you do to get your work out there, do it with kindness.
I truly believe kindness will help your career advance, but even if it doesn’t (or doesn’t to the extent you’d hoped), kindness is also its own reward. In other words, it can’t hurt to be nice. But now, let’s hear some of Fellowcraft’s words!
1. Fellowcraft stands out to me as a DC band that takes community and networking very seriously. Is that something you set out to do, or did it just happen naturally because you’re very social fellows?
We try not to take anything too seriously! That said — there’s no question all three of us are social guys. We try to get out there because we all agree it’s important to be part of something bigger than just our 9 to 5 jobs.
The band serves as an important outlet for engaging and encouraging camaraderie in the DC music community. When we’re at a Ménage À Garage or Drive TFC show, we feel like more than fans — we feel like part of the team.
In addition to playing music, we love connecting with others in the community outside of the Fellowcraft context; Brandon is an active member of the William & Mary Alumni board, Brian instructs fitness classes and is starting a radio show, DC Music Rocks, and JR frequently collaborates with other musicians for fun.
2. How has the DC music scene shaped your music itself?
First of all, we go out to appreciate what other musicians are doing with their craft. We also think it’s natural for musicians to watch each other and study what could possibly make their own performances even better.
Every time we watch original music from someone like Jonny Grave, or talented cover bands like Mr. Blonde or White Ford Bronco, we walk away with new inspirations.
Speaking specifically to original music — JR’s writing has gotten more socially conscious over the years. When he was young he wrote about very limited experiences like work, relationships, old homes, and hangovers. As JR and Fellowcraft continue to live and thrive in the DC music scene, we are exposed to charity, social work, community engagement, and different schools of opinion and thought.
This has led to a deep introspection that is reflected in song lyrics and their meaning. Today JR’s songs speak to the plight of homelessness, political partisanship, human solidarity, and ultimately revival.
3. Do you have any role models or heroes when it comes to building community — musicians or other artists whose ability to build a community you look up to?
I’d say we all agree that Maryjo Mattea is the most versatile musician we’ve followed over the years. Fun fact: MJ is also the reason Brandon found Fellowcraft in July of 2015; he initially met her while trying to scratch his musical theater itch by participating in DC’s original competitive karaoke league, District Karaoke.
Other influences include John “JB” Nolt (of Ménage À Garage), a local hero for his catchy melodies and authenticity. We also look up to Cody Valentine (of All the Best Kids) for his passion and stage presence, similarly to how we all are constantly in awe of Jonny Grave’s showmanship and blisteringly good guitar skill. Never a White Ford Bronco or Mr. Blonde show goes by without us dancing our faces off; their loyal fan bases and ability to mobilize a crowd is truly inspirational.
4. It seems I rarely go to a show in DC without running into one of the members of Fellowcraft, supporting other local musicians. What do you learn about music, and your audience, by attending other bands’ shows? (On a musical or even just a personal level?)
Morale is an action, not a state of mind — the morale in the DC music scene is strong. We go to a lot of shows because we love music and seeing other musicians perform.
For example, the first time JR saw Jonny Grave, he took note of his moves, his presence, and how he communicated with the crowd. That led JR to work to get better at those things, because Jonny is just so damn good at it and it’s led to him being fixture in the DC scene.
Brandon studies every Seth Spaulding performance (with bands Mr. Blonde, and Maryjo Mattea and The Pile of Dudes) for pointers on how to be a true rock star (and has yet to see him look at his finger placement on his bass).
Seeing these musicians do what they do so well is, as we’ve said, both fun and inspirational. When we leave great shows, all we want to do is pick up our instruments and jam out at home.
JR stayed up into the wee hours of the morning the first time he saw the Lucky So & Sos, because great bands also inspire us to be better.
We also learn a lot about being a fan, because we’re fans when we’re at their shows; we know what it’s like to be on the stage looking down. We remember what to do/what to NOT DO, and we like to encourage both so everyone has a great experience.
5. What’s the best advice you’d give to an indie musician hoping to build their artistic community?
First off, you need to meet everyone who comes to your shows to build a community around your music. It’s not about you — it’s about them; shake their hand, take photos with them (hell, take photos OF them), find out what they like, and remind them they’re special.
We go into every performance with two thoughts: be kind and be professional.
Secondly, go to as many live shows as you can in the area, both within and outside of your chosen genre.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, keep playing and writing music you like. If you’ve seen a lot of live music and like what you’ve written, the chances are strong that others will also enjoy it.
It all comes down to karma — support comes to those who support others.Support comes to those who support others. @FellowcraftBand Click To Tweet
6. Have you ever been let down or disappointed by your supporters or community? What happened and how did you respond?
There’s a lot of rejection in the music community in general, and even within the local scene. Let’s face it, we can’t all be Taylor Swift.
Never hearing back from bookers, venues, festivals, or other bands that you want to play with is standard. This will lead you to question your performance abilities, the music you cover or write, or even your own skill as a musician.
You have to see your outreach as more of a raffle — that way, if you win the lottery, you can get excited. If you don’t, you’re back on the grind because you know life isn’t about waiting to win the lottery the same way playing music isn’t about how big you get or how much money you can make doing it.
When you do get to play somewhere, negativity in the scene can hit you, and it can lead to self-doubt and angst. In fact, crippling self-doubt is something almost every musician can appreciate.
Someone told JR that he “lacked energy, sounded flat, had no personality and just didn’t do it;” this gentleman said to take it as constructive criticism, but it was hard. In those situations, despite who in the band takes the hit, it’s helpful to know that you’ll have the unconditional support of your band mates.
7. What is the most unexpected way that community has enhanced your band’s career and success? Was there ever a time that a fan or friend surprised you in a really cool way?
We recently had the opportunity to headline a show at Rock and Roll Hotel on H Street. It was a big deal for a lot of reasons, but the primary reason was that it was the first of the “bigger venues” that DC offered us to play.
We practiced hard for that show and took all the advice and criticism we’d received up to that point, and we thought we tailored a set to match expectations. The outcome was phenomenal, and far more than we could have expected, because Jonny Grave approached JR after the show and said “I mean this as non-condescending as I can… I’m really proud of you.”
Brian’s uncle was so taken with the song “The Last Great Scotsman” on our LP “Get Up Young Phoenix” that he started ranting and raving about it to his family and friends. It’s a deep cut that we almost never play live, but Brian’s uncle said, “Oh man, my favorite song is the Last Great Scotsman! I was head banging in my car.” He’s in his late 60s, so that one took Brian by surprise.
Brandon has been surprised a couple times both as the newest member of the band and as a bassist (who are usually asked to sit in the corner and try not to screw anything up). His proudest was when his father, who has been a guitarist all his life, asked who played keys/synth on the track “Glass Houses.” For the first time in his life Brandon was able to correct his dad on something musical by saying “that’s a bass solo, dad.”
Hannah and Fellowcraft would like to thank Roxplosion, a page documenting the DC music scene, for the pictures used in this blog post.
Hannah Sternberg is a novelist, creative writing instructor, and avid music fan. Her first novel, Queens of All the Earth, was praised by Kirkus as “modern and exuberant,” and her second novel, Bulfinch, was named a Notable Teen Book for 2014 by Shelf Unbound magazine. She teaches creative writing in Washington, DC and is the Events Manager of East City Bookshop. Learn more at HannahSternberg.com.