The day jobs come first for these rockers. Band members aren’t slinging beers or doing temp gigs they can quit at a moment’s notice. They have bona-fide careers.
IT’S A SOGGY Saturday night and a small crowd gathers inside Cairo, an independent clothing store on Capitol Hill that sells artisanal leather wallets and handmade brass jewelry. But the 50 or so people aren’t here to buy clothes. They’re squished into a small backroom behind the store this winter evening to watch Posse, one of several local bands playing.
More house party than concert, it feels like a secret show. The humidity steams up the room, which is awash in a purple glow. Lanky, bearded guys swill from brown-bagged beers bought from the deli down the street, and girls wearing dresses and Converse sneakers squeeze up to the front to get a better glimpse. There is no stage — just a few inches of space separate the band from the audience, which includes pimply-faced teens and men with graying hair.
Paul Wittmann-Todd, one of the band’s singers and guitarists, asks Sacha Maxim, who also plays guitar, bass and sings, “Are you ready, Sach?” Still tuning her guitar, she shakes her head. After a few minutes, she gives the go-ahead. They launch into their first song, “Afraid.”
Coming soon …
April 24: Posse will play with Mr. Gnome and Wind Burial at the Columbia City Theater, 4916 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 advance at strangertickets.com; $12 at the door.
May 27: Posse will open for Wire at Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., Seattle. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.
The crowd sways to the soaring guitar solos, the rumbling, hook-driven bass lines and simple, straightforward vocals. The show lasts only about 40 minutes, but many in the audience seem to know the songs, and they applaud appreciatively.
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When Posse self-released its second record, “Soft Opening,” in March 2014, the band received attention that most groups, toiling in obscurity, can only hope for.
Pitchfork, the indie rock bible, gave it 7.9 out of 10 stars. Respected sports/entertainment website Grantland named “Shut Up” as one of its Songs of the Week. Revered British music magazine NME named Posse one of “31 New Bands to Discover” and included “Shut Up” in its “20 Tracks You Need to Hear This Week,” calling Wittmann-Todd’s guitar solo “one of the most affective … in recent memory.”
Not bad for a three-piece with no PR team working behind the scenes, a band that had printed only 250 vinyl records on its label, using Maxim’s money.
Agents and managers, and small but venerable record labels, came sniffing around, hoping to represent Posse. Maybe they’d take the band to the next level of what could be a promising music career, with a little luck and a heck of a lot of touring.
Posse said thanks, but no. In 1995, perhaps, the band might have thought differently, but it is 2015, and in this digital age the music industry is a much different place: record sales are at their lowest since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991.
THE MEMBERS of Posse have taken the advice “don’t quit your day job” to heart. Maxim, Wittmann-Todd and drummer Jon Salzman aren’t slinging beers or doing temp gigs they can quit at a moment’s notice. They have bona-fide careers.
Maxim, 29, is a graphic designer at Microsoft. Wittmann-Todd, 31, is an electrical engineer at Fluke Corp., which makes industrial testing equipment. Salzman, 29, works with children affected by autism. They like their jobs as much as they like making music, and their music is better for it.
“I can do my career and do music at the same time,” Wittmann-Todd says. “Even if music was to be something where somebody was like, ‘I’ll cut you a check, it’ll be the same as your current job,’ it wouldn’t be like some no-brainer decision for me. I think for the place that we’re at as a band, this is the way that it’s sustainable for us. This is the way it remains creatively interesting.”
Wittmann-Todd is tall and slender with a trim, dark beard and a fastidious nature, favoring cardigan sweaters and brown leather loafers. Newly married, he lives with his wife in a small, neatly decorated Capitol Hill apartment with a deer head and ornate crosses on the walls, and an array of analog synthesizers in the living room. Some evenings he’ll have what he dubs semi-jokingly “abstract jam” sessions with friends.
Wittmann-Todd had played in a few bands before forming Posse with Maxim in 2010. He learned to play guitar more than 10 years ago, taking advantage of cheap guitar and voice classes at Seattle University, where he earned an English/Creative Writing degree.
He was 26 when Posse started and bored with his job at an Apple store. He decided to pursue a career in electrical engineering because he had toyed with robotics at Franklin High School and geeked out on it; he graduated from the University of Washington in 2013.
Everyone in Maxim’s South American family played music. She started on violin and later, at Mercer Island High School, took classical guitar lessons and played in the jazz ensemble. Like her idol, Kim Deal of the Breeders (a band Posse often is compared to), Maxim is a tomboy, sporting long, dark, wavy hair, usually wearing no-fuss jeans and a T-shirt. Maxim, also a Seattle U. graduate, studied sociology and women’s studies. She made show posters for friends’ bands. She dabbled in photography, learning Photoshop and design.
“That’s what I always wanted to do,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’d love to be a graphic designer.’ But I didn’t think I was good enough.”
Her design work led to internships that she parlayed into gigs at design agencies before landing at Microsoft, where she has worked the past two years. She lives with her girlfriend in a small two-bedroom house in the Central District decorated with her girlfriend’s finger puppets. Her cat, a temperamental 12-year-old named Lucy, stalks the premises. Maxim commutes to Microsoft’s campus every day, taking the city’s buses (“for the commoners,” she jokes).
Salzman struggled the most of the three with the idea of letting go of a musical career. After Shorecrest High School, he studied music production at Seattle Pacific University. He is formally trained and plays trombone, guitar, bass and piano, in addition to drums. His father, Timothy Salzman, is a UW professor of music and director of concert bands.
He says he thought about going to an East Coast conservatory setting to study trombone and play in an orchestra. That changed in his early 20s, when he got a gig working at Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville.
“When I was young, I aspired to be a rock star,” he says. “I actually saw, when I worked at that studio, what that lifestyle meant. I saw a lot of successful bands come through that were really living pretty meager lives.”
He realized that even though he was surrounded by music, he had stopped creating it. He asked himself: “Am I really going to drop my actual passion just so I can have this music career job?” He says now, “It seemed really weird.”
After that, he worked at a music store on Microsoft’s campus. When it closed, a friend hooked him up with a job at a summer camp for developmentally challenged adults. He was surprised how much he enjoyed it.
The work led to his current position as a therapy assistant, working one-on-one with autistic children using applied behavior analysis. He teaches them simple tasks such as going grocery shopping and expands their leisure activities, where he has, not surprisingly, found a way to incorporate music.
“As someone who’s been told that over the years, ‘You’re kind of weird, you know?’ it’s really fun to be around people who are just as interesting and unique,” he says.
He got the job in fall 2013, just before two of his close friends died suddenly of cancer within six months of each other.
“This job saved me in that time,” he said, his pale blue eyes watering. “Honestly.”
POSSE’S SONGS on “Soft Opening” are contemplative, meditative slow burns that build to a crescendo of reverb and sorrow. With plaintive lyrics weaving mini-narratives, the record is an exercise in controlled minimalism. It seems airlifted right out of alternative rock’s early ’90s heyday, summoning the ghosts of Galaxie 500 and the Pixies.
Posse is compelling enough to stand out among the seemingly endless streams of music coming from every part of the globe on digital avenues like SoundCloud, Rdio, iTunes and Spotify. The band has a fan who flew from Japan to watch a show and has been told it is big in Europe (specifically Portugal).
But Posse probably will never be the next big thing, even if it aspired to be. The band’s stage presence is limited to Wittmann-Todd’s witty banter. Maxim isn’t going to wear a bikini and strut around on stage, ala Lady Gaga. Salzman, a petite man who fits into kids-sized Seahawks jerseys, has stage fright. For several reasons, this is probably as far as it will go for Posse.
“I’ve raised this question before,” said Bill Werde, former editorial director of Billboard magazine. “Today, where everything is about appearance and image … you have to wonder if Patti Smith would get signed, or be a star.”
The music industry is a lot like society. There is the 1 percent, and then there is everyone else. The middle class has shrunk. According to Billboard magazine, in 1994, 38 albums had gone platinum (selling 1 million copies) by Sept. 4. In 2014, four albums reached that level all year.
The math of the music industry has always been fraught. Steve Albini, the former Big Black frontman who produced records by Nirvana and PJ Harvey, published a bitter screed in The Baffler in 1993, titled “The Problem With Music.” He estimated that with a $250,000 advance, after lawyers, agents, managers and expenses, a band member might expect to make $4,000 and change.
And that was back when it seemed like record labels were printing money.
TODAY, THERE is so much music that a band must act as its own publicity firm — tweeting, creating a Facebook page, building a website. And, without touring, its music still might not be heard through the din.
“The perfect artists for us are single people without relationships,” says Rich Bengloff, the president of the American Association of Independent Music, a trade organization.
“I was with an artist on a train, and we ended up talking for about three hours,” he says. “I said, ‘At least you can make a living touring,’ and the artist looked at me and said, ‘I have a 16-year-old son. I don’t like touring anymore. I want to be home.’
“But to make a living they have to tour.”
And with real jobs, Posse can’t tour. The band doesn’t really mind.
“We’ve had boutique agencies look us up, and some of them were pretty big,” says Wittmann-Todd. “Usually when they hear that we don’t really tour or anything, we’re not really the right people.”
Members of Posse might describe what they do as a hobby, but they take it seriously, practicing twice a week, three hours each night. They have jobs not because they failed at music, but because they like their work.
“When I talk to folks about being a musician and having a ‘real’ job, there is occasionally an unspoken implication that by having a job and being a musician, I am somehow compromising myself and that a successful (as in $$$) musician would only record and write all day,” writes Wittmann-Todd in an email. “But I like my job and I really like engineering. In fact, I like it just as much as I like music.”
And music careers — even moderately successful ones — don’t come with retirement plans, benefits, stability, which the band acknowledges with a wink. Maxim’s LinkedIn page refers to the band’s own imprint, Beat a Dead Horse Records, as a “tiny label with a lousy business model,” and calls herself a designer “with music as a fallback plan.”
“My guess is this is more of an aberration than it is a trend,” Werde says of Posse’s choices. “I think I that for most people, the lure of potentially being rock stars is still pretty strong. … I think for most people, presented with the opportunity to chase that dream, they are going to wind up chasing that.”
THE COVER of “Soft Opening” — intentionally drawn like a New Yorker cartoon — is a black-and-white collaboration by Maxim and illustrator Kevin Yang. It was inspired by a “Simpsons” episode that Wittman-Todd showed Maxim. In the clip, Homer is stuck in a tar pit, sinking. Rather than reach for help, he tries to save himself, sticks both hands in the pit and, comically, disappears.
“It just seemed really appropriate,” says Maxim. “For us, it was very symbolic, where we are in life — maybe that’s taking it a little too far — but moments where you encounter where you are sinking and you are like, ‘Oh, I am going to try to pull myself out of this.’ ”
It is the combination of a career and extracurricular creativity that pulled Salzman out of his sinking tar pit, and continues to inspire Maxim and Wittmann-Todd. Free of the constraints of commercialism, what they create musically is worth far more to them than any six-figure advance.
“Everyone defines that pot of gold differently,” says Maxim. “Really, for me the payoff is at the end of recording a song that you spent all day on, with all the different pieces of the song, and listening back and being like ‘Wow, how did we do that? How did we manage to, the three of us, come together, organize our thoughts, our parts, our ideas and create this end product?’ That, to me, is the pot of gold.”