The barbecue-plate and yard-sale fundraisers, and their work with local-music coalition 782, which could easily be labeled “community outreach,” may make them seem more like a three-person church youth ministry, but Pop Pistol is looking a lot like the rock band of the future. Sure, their plan of action — piling into a van, traveling from town to town, hoping to make enough money off each show’s door take and merch sales to get them to the next one — predates the term “rock ’n’ roll,” but what’s new is the idea that this will be the system that supports the band for its entire lifespan.
“We’re already self-sustaining as a band,” says guitarist and vocalist Alex Scheel. “Now it’s just a point of taking it as far as we can. … There is no plan B.”
Drummer Jorge Gonzalez adds that for the moment, “Rent’s a different matter.”
Post-bittorrent, paying the bills playing music might just be the new multi-million-dollar record deal. The DIY aesthetic of bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat (married strongly to their purposely confrontational, non-commercial music) practically dictated the sleep-in-the-van approach, but time was a band like Pop Pistol, who plays accessible guitar-centered rock built on a rhythmic groove, would’ve been working toward a major-label payday, hoping to catch the attention of an A&R exec in search of the next big thing. As the industry continues imploding, however, that possibility seems increasingly less likely, especially since Pop Pistol, less interested in verse-chorus-verse hook-setting than achieving a more cinematic progression of musical ideas, doesn’t sound like anything that Top 40 rock radio is currently promoting.
Their sound is the product of laptop-programmed compositions played on traditional power-trio instruments with an underlying sensibility developed, Scheel says, over nights spent taking “some experimental things in the woods,” and their live show follows suit. The modern computer-calculated rhythms Gonzalez pounds out on a real live drum kit give Scheel’s guitar theatrics an ass-shaking appeal that counteracts the tendency toward glass-eyed space-jam swaying. In this light, the sense of classic-rock grandeur Scheel invokes with extended solos, extensive effects pedal-mashing, and agile feedback-surfing maintains a futuristic glow, and bassist George Garza finds the right groove to meld man and machine.
So far, though, Pop Pistol’s been making more money selling hamburgers than playing music.
“We buy food at Costco,” explains Gonzalez. “Memberships are cheap there. We’ll sell 100 plates at $5 each and make like three- or four-hundred dollars.”
A garage sale can be even more lucrative, manager Ernesto Olivo adds.
“We made $1,000 in a day that way,” he says. “You don’t usually make that kind of money playing music.”
After several months of such fundraisers, Pop Pistol earned enough to buy Girl in a Coma’s old touring van, and a couple of barbecue-plate sales earlier this month provided them with the funds to replace the tires before they headed out of town.
The band has embarked on a few shorter excursions in their four-year career, but the current tour — planned around attending Detroit’s Allied Media Conference and playing at a Chicago rally for repealing Arizona’s Proposition 1070, and culminating in a June 26 homecoming appearance — is the first chance to really road-test their business model, which takes the concept of self-sustaining beyond gas money and guitar strings. Scheel, a former architecture student, creates the band’s artwork, for example, and Garza acts as the band’s press agent, a skill-set he’s acquired from the internet (“All the information is out there,” he says) then shared and honed through his involvement with 782, which provides a forum for local musicians to network and hosts events like press-release-writing workshops. Recent 782 gatherings at Café Latino and C4 Workspace have been standing-room-only events, and Pop Pistol’s Garza plays a visible leadership role — scheduling meetings, writing press releases, arranging guest speakers, etc. It takes time he could be spending promoting Pop Pistol, but Garza says 782 operates on the idea that a stronger more unified music scene would benefit everyone.
“It’s a give-and-take,” Garza says. “Everyone makes an energy and time investment to really learn this thing.”
Scheel compares the exchange of ideas and experiences to a “peer-to-peer file-sharing” program. The idea that other local bands are competition to be crushed bows to the necessity of networking in an era when self-promotion is more important to an artist’s survival than talent.
“There’s this belief that if you’re good enough, you’re going to make it,” he says, “and that’s not true. … We all believe `success is` achievable, but it’s not gonna be possible on your own.”
Pop Pistol’s plan for world domination (or at least making rent) seems pretty practical: Keep their day jobs for now, and stay in San Antonio indefinitely.
“We’re going to be here,” Gonzalez says, “but as we’re able to tour more, we’re not going to be here as long.”
If nothing else, the lower cost of living is enough to keep them from emigrating.
“We can’t afford to live anywhere else,” Scheel says. “We don’t make enough money to live in these big cities.”
Saving money is key when your goals include financing your own European tour, maybe more so than the extra exposure living in New York, LA, or even Austin might give you, considering booking a road gig is just an email away, no matter where you’re at. And there are worse places to commute from than San Antonio.
“At least we’re not in El Paso,” Scheel says. “It’s so far away from everything. You might as well go on to the west coast when you head out there.”
Location seems increasingly unimportant as the odds that any city will become “the next Seattle” — where executives hoping to replicate Nirvana’s big break once famously signed practically every scruffy looking band in town — diminish with every illegal download, and maybe that’s for the best. The internet may be responsible for the major-label system’s continuing collapse but it also means modern bands have a greater opportunity to determine their own success. To-the-penny budgeting and measured incremental improvement might seem unsexy compared to rock’s history of unbridled, label-financed excess, but, if it helps, Scheel describes the approach with an alluring sci-fi simile.
“It’s like we’re buying parts for a machine,” he says. “We keeping adding to it, and eventually we’ll be a full robot.” •
8pm Sat, Jun 26
1035 S. Presa