This article was written by Luke Dean—the head creative force behind Michigan’s Vagabonds. Dean is the project’s sole member and he operates under an absolute DIY ethic. His debut album, I Don’t Know What To Do Know—which he recorded anywhere he could (bedrooms, kitchens, basements, coffee shops, etc.)—is available for purchase now through Blood & Ink Records.
Jumping into an old, rusty van on a quest to play songs for half-filled (or half-empty) rooms with little more than a bag of clothes, a box of self-printed T-shirts, and an instrument for weeks (or months) on end is probably a peculiar compulsion to many. For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been doing just that—and I had been dreaming of it for the prior decade. It didn’t make sense to the faculty of my high school, or my friend’s parents, as to why I didn’t want to use my GPA to get into a reputable university and spend a minimum of the next four years getting a traditional higher education. I’m sure I would have learned a lot about the way the world functions on paper; I would have a lot of concepts of culture drilled into my head, and I would have been able to study politics, both fiscal and social. And at the end of it all, I could use my shiny new degree to land a job, which would help pay off the immeasurable amount of interest that would have accrued on my loans over that time. “Normal life” would run it’s course, and there would be nothing wrong with that. A friend of mine once wrote a poem about choosing to commit his life to “do it yourself” (a.k.a. DIY) touring after getting a college degree, and how after five years the concept still didn’t make sense to anyone. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to many outside of the grander punk/DIY/alternative subculture, but it’s all that makes sense to a lot of us within it. My adventures have allowed me to experience the world firsthand, and gain something I seek much more than the type of knowledge that can be acquired in a classroom; I’ve learned about community, and how to function within one. I say these things not to downplay the value of a traditional education—it just wasn’t for me. At least, it hasn’t been yet. With this hefty paragraph as a preface, I write with this intent: to show what it really takes to sustain a life as DIY artist and hopefully unveil a little of what make makes me and my fellow DIY friends tick along the way.
I recently had a conversation with my friend Dave, the vocalist of an old Grand Rapids DIY touring band called The Skies Revolt, which had an ebb and flow of local and widespread underground popularity. We talked about the nature of the beast that is DIY touring and how when he was touring frequently, he would end up playing to crowds of over 4,000 and crowds of under 15 people in different regions of the country on the same tour. That’s the thing about touring this way: It’s not the most consistent form of making a living. I’ll e the first to admit that I remember a year or so ago playing a show in Louisiana to no more than 30 people with a band called Pinegrove, who were growing a notable following (and continue to do so). Even the bigger bands have smaller shows sometimes. I suppose that’s the way with most things in life work, but even on nights like that when we played a small show, lost the only key to the van and sat discouraged in a bar parking lot in the mugginess of Louisiana, we gained something. We gained a sense of camaraderie in the adventure of it—especially when we eventually found the key hiding under a pile of clothes after tearing the van apart. We rejoiced and wept. For me, the underlying camaraderie behind a life of involvement in DIY is what draws a lot of people into it and what keeps us there.
When I was 18 years old, I hopped in my friend’s parents’ vehicle that they let us borrow for our first tour, and drove across the Midwest into parts of the East Coast for about two weeks. We played less shows than what would justify a two-week tour for me now. In the months leading up to the tour, we sent countless blind emails and Facebook messages to people we had never met in places where we knew would have little-to-no crowd pull. For some reason, a handful of strangers and slight acquaintances took us under their wing and gave us shows in their town halls, community centers, houses, churches, and art school closets. Between the T-shirts we sold and door cuts, we made just enough to break even. Some nights we didn’t have places to stay. One evening in New Jersey, we ended up sleeping in a freezing car after realizing that we had forgotten to bring pillows and blankets with us. I put on two pairs of pants, covered myself with a towel, laid my head on a plastic bag full of my dirty clothes and got far less than a decent night’s sleep. The next day we explored New Jersey and I saw an ocean for the first time in my life. I had barely made it out of the Midwest in my life up to that point. I was overjoyed, and I ran straight into the freezing water. It was nearly November, and as you might imagine, I got hypothermia. That night we played in a coffee shop in a small town that I had never heard of with Walter Mitty & His Makeshift Orchestra (now simply called Walter Etc.). I played drums (pretty poorly, might I add) for my friend’s songs, and then put everything I had left into every song we played for the Vagabonds set. In between songs, I would run to the bathroom and feel like I was going to die, but I made it through. I wouldn’t trade the hypothermia and exhaustion for anything. It gave me a story, and made me appreciate the good times on tour that much more.
I spent as much of the next couple years on the road. The hardships you face when you essentially live on the road get a lot more intense than a momentary case of hypothermia, and they can take you down if you let them. The road can get you down. I’ve played strings of bar shows to almost no one. I’ve spent an astronomical number of hours on the computer trying to confirm shows in hopes that people show up and I make enough money to keep going. Sometimes your new single doesn’t get as many plays as you had hoped, and that one door that you thought was your key to “making it” closes without warning. Sometimes you see seemingly everyone else get the opportunity you’ve fought tooth and nail to earn. Sometimes you want to give up. I’ve wanted to, but I haven’t. I still think there is value in doing this.
It’s easy to think no one is listening. I still feel like that half the time, to be honest. But all of that self doubt melts away during the moments after a set when a kid in a different city comes up to me, tears in their eyes, and tells me that what I do gives them courage to not commit suicide. It makes it worth it when someone I’ve never met before comes up to me at a show and tells me that my songs got them through rehab. It’s fulfilling when I get messages saying that I’m doing for others what my favorite bands have done for me.
I do this because there’s something inside of me that needs to get out. Something in my soul longs to help create something beautiful, and to break down barriers by living a humble lifestyle of playing floor shows to twenty people a night; the feeling in my spirit that pushes me forward helps me to move past all of the uncertainty and disapproval in order to do what I do. If you’re thinking about touring, get used to living below your means. You might get sick, you might get exhausted, and you might want to quit more than once. Take care of yourself the best you can, and know that the struggle is worth it. If it doesn’t feel like it yet, I think it will be one day.
A few nights ago I sat on a porch with my friend Derek who plays music under the name The Homeless Gospel Choir. We discussed a lot of things, but namely the drive that we have inside for community, and the fact that sometimes you go through years of getting paid $30 a night at an empty house show because the journey is worth it. We have a chance to build something beautiful together. For an hour or two a night we can put aside differences, and our souls can sing a song together. Along the way, you make the best friendships and memories of your life. Within the last year, I’ve played a tour of bar shows to no one, but I’ve also played packed out rooms to hundreds of people with so many of our voices raised in unison to sing songs of hope.
I self recorded and mixed an entire full-length album with almost no budget last year, and it was one of the most frustrating projects of my life. I spent hours upon hours alone with cheap headphones trying to make the recordings of an $80 USB microphone sound like something people would want to listen to. I put my heart and soul and honesty into a record that, for a while, I wondered would ever be finished. It was finally released last week, though, and kids across the country already know some of the words. It was difficult, and weird at time, but it was worth it. I think that sentence encapsulates most of my sentiments about the life I chose. Or maybe a line from one my favorite Ruiner songs, “The Lives We Fear,” says it best: “I have it all, I never needed more than a bag full of clothes and a fucked up van.”
You can listen to the debut Vagabonds album, I Don’t Know What To Do Now, in full below: