Music: An Interview with Rebel Few

Rebel Few band, Barry Martin, Chris Raposo, Jordan Malcolm, Mark Johnston

If music personified could show up to your house on the back of a motorcycle, kick down your door, burn your TOP-40 radio collection on your front lawn, and then flip you the bird as it left you jaw-dropped in the wake of its sonic existence… that music would be the music of Rebel Few.

Not quite 100% rock and roll, not quite 100% heavy metal – this underdog outlaw band of brothers hailing out of Cambridge, Ontario (Canada) IS 100% attitude… and you’ll feel that in your bones within the first seconds after you press play.

I had a chance to catch up with the entire band for an interview to see how things are going in the Rebel Few camp. We got to talking about the band and their name change from West Memphis Suicide and life in the ever-changing music business. We also went over how through it all, the band’s renegade attitude still remains the core for a group and fanbase that continuously say “no thanks” to following the trends so many others seek approval from.

This interview comes with a warning: the band and I have an extensive history of friendship and performing together… so in catching up, throughout this interview… there is laughter and lots of it.

Me: So we have a history between us – I already have a reasonably good idea of what you guys are all about. We’ve shared the stage many times in the past, and you guys were always one of my favorite bands not only to play with but also to stand in the audience and watch as well. However… let’s pretend that whoever reading this right now has never met you before or heard of Rebel Few. What’s Rebel Few all about? How did you guys get started? How long have you been doing this?

Barry: There’s probably a hundred answers to that one. I just found some old photos today of Chris (Raposo – vocals, lead guitar), and I starting out from 2005. That band was The Hang. Then West Memphis Suicide came along – probably in 2008. I think Adam (Shortreed – bass) joined West Memphis in 2013. Jordan, who we like to call “Young Buck Thunder” (Malcolm – drums), just joined us in Rebel Few recently.

Present lineup pictured above (Left to Right): Chris Raposo (Vocals, Guitars), Adam Shortreed (Bass), Jordan Malcolm (Drums), Barry Martin (Guitars)

Adam: Actually, I remember my first show with the band when we were West Memphis Suicide… and we changed our band name to Rebel Few mid-way through the show. We booked it as one band and ended it as another. I remember going into it being my first show and all, and Barry had made bets with all the guys in another band (Slik Toxik) that I was going to choke… so they were all up in the front row watching and waiting for me to do so *laughs*

Barry: If that’s not support, I don’t know what is *laughing*

*Laughing* That sounds like something Barry would do.

But actually, let’s talk a little bit about that. When I first met you guys, you were West Memphis Suicide, and you guys had a fairly decent following established already under that name, so what prompted the switch to Rebel Few?

Barry: Well, I know that you know how West Memphis Suicide went – a constant rotation of drummers. We had probably 9 different drummers in 8 years.

That’s right. Very much a Spinal Tap kind of thing happening *laughing*

Barry: Exactly. So when Paul (Oliver – former bass player) left the band Adam came in on bass, and Chris Spiers (former drummer) had become a regular member, we decided to change the name because we wanted a fresh start with something they could be a part of from the beginning. And then, you know, things took another left turn with members… so Spiers was out – Adam left for a while too, but now he’s back in, and we have YOUNG BUCK THUNDER here on drums now.

That makes sense. I always kind of wondered about that, because, going through a brand change essentially… it comes with fresh challenges, and fans don’t always like it too much.

I mean, I know you’re still playing the songs you wrote with West Memphis Suicide fairly regularly these days… at least the last time I was at one of your shows, it was a fairly even split between those songs and Rebel Few songs.

Barry: Yeah, we still play the old stuff.

Well, now I have to ask because I’m curious: I haven’t talked to a band yet that’s still active that’s gone through a massive change like that – you guys managed to change your “business name.” Most bands would cringe at the thought of having to get a new logo, website, merch, etc…. but also that as a band you need to get the message across to your fans that “okay, we’re a new band, but we’re still the same band” … so what’s that like? How did you guys deal with that?

Barry: Well, the name of the band doesn’t really matter as much as long as the heart of the band is the same. With us, Raposo writes the bulk of the music and 100% of the lyrics, so wherever he goes, that music is going to sound the same.

I get that for sure. But how about the other end of things – the business side? I can just imagine the scenario of where you’ve got this passionate fanbase, but then maybe some of your fans who weren’t as connected to you for whatever reason only know who West Memphis Suicide are. Then all of a sudden, that band is now Rebel Few, and some of those fans might need some time to realize that its the same band. Even with the same core members… you’ve got a brand switch that sometimes just doesn’t connect the same way with some fans because of pre-existing attachments to the old one. A different name can really change things – for better or worse.

For example, I sometimes wonder how a band like Black Sabbath would have faired with a name change from the era when they were with Ozzy Osbourne and then the era after with Ronnie James Dio. When Sabbath split from Ozzy and brought in Dio, they probably could have just called the band “Heaven & Hell” from the start (an eventual name they gave that lineup), and fans maybe wouldn’t have constantly compared them so aggressively. It was the same band with a different singer– but the band and their sound changed a lot – enough to sound like two completely different ones.

Rebel Few band live on stage - Chris Raposo, Barry Martin, Adam Shortreed

In their case, they changed a sound and a singer but not a name… and in your case, you changed a name, but your music and lineup remain largely the same. I’m just curious to know how your fanbase reacted to the whole thing.

Barry: If there was any gripe with our fans, we didn’t really hear about it. It was never really a big problem for us to be honest.

Well that’s great, glad to hear it.

Jordan:  I think people become emotionally attached to “that band” the way it is they hear them when they become a fan. A case of “they know it that way, and they like it that way.” I think we’ve all been there. But this band – everything about it is actually pretty much the same as it was before – so maybe that’s why fans were so quick to accept the switch.

I mean, I did *laughs*.

So with the band essentially being the same – West Memphis Suicide is now Rebel Few – the name has changed, but the music’s the same, the attitude and everything else is still the same… how would you guys describe your music then? Your style and your niche? I know how I would personally describe it, but I want to hear how you do.

Barry: Well now I want to hear how you would describe it *laughing*

Let’s start with yours first and we’ll get to my description after.

Barry: Well, for me, I’ve always said that we were too heavy for the rock crowd, too rock for the metal crowd, and too old for the cool crowd… but it’s still decent music, and I think people grab onto it.

Honestly, I think you should take what you just said and put it on a t-shirt… I think it would sell *laughing*

Barry: Maybe when I get into the t-shirt game *laughs*

So you’d say you’re kind of like a rock-metal hybrid band then. I would agree. I personally know you guys are big Pantera fans: but you don’t sound like Pantera.  When I describe your music, to me, its got a very bluesy southern rock vibe stacked onto a heavy metal sound… but not in the way you usually hear heavy bands approach that type of genre-mash up. Going back to Pantera as a comparison, you guys don’t have Phil Anselmo’s harsh vocal stylings. Chris’ are much cleaner, and the lyrical content is different as well, which is actually, in my opinion, a significant part of your sound. I think I’ve always considered Rebel Few as a group of rock and roll underdogs with some heavy metal beefiness.

Barry: Absolutely. Like, Raposo, he can play anything, and he’s obviously a huge Dimebag Darrell fan, but if he came out just ripping off Dime’s riffs all the time, then we’d just be a Pantera knock-off band. I myself love Lynrd Skynrd and ZZ Top, and Adam, well, he clearly loves Taylor Swift and all the lighter stuff… and Jordan, well, he’s 25, so we don’t even know what kind of stuff he’s into.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about your full range of influences then. Who do you guys bring as influences to the table when you’re all working together and writing music? How does the process work for Rebel Few?

Chris: I think it’s a mix of everybody’s influences we bring to the table. Mine, since I was 12 years old, is Pantera. I mean, I’ve always been a guy that can like this song or that song by any artist, but I could listen to Pantera albums all day long and all night long. Barry’s got a broad spectrum – if you ever saw his house, he’s got an enormous wall of CDs… tonnes of them. He’s always bringing something different depending on what he’s been listening to at the time.

Barry: That’s kind of how it goes. Whatever seems to be driving us at the time. Not necessarily one or two bands.

So you guys have been doing this for a while. What do you like most about doing this? For a living, I mean, as a paying gig –

Collectively: It’s paid?

Chris: Hold on, you’re saying it’s a paying gig? Who’s getting paid here *laughing*

*Laughing* Okay, well, SOMEBODY is getting paid in this business. Let me rephrase that: what do you guys like about it, money aside? Why do you do it?

Chris: In all honesty, for me, it’s about the connection you make with other people, many of whom you’ve never met before. The story I always bring up is being 2500 miles away from home, and Barry’s in the parking lot with his pants down around his ankles and a group of 20 people walk by, and they’re like “Oh my god – that’s Rebel Few” *laughing*

Barry: *Laughing* I was getting changed! I didn’t just have my pants down in the parking lot – I was getting ready to go on stage, and I was getting changed into my stage gear.

Adam: That’s his story and he’s sticking to it *laughs

Rebel Few bass player Adam Shortreed performing on stage

Chris: But, yeah, that connection – it’s what drives it all. Just after that incident, we went to play the show, and just being up on that stage and having all of these people in the audience sing our songs – it blew our minds. We looked up, and we were almost in tears up there, seeing this massive crowd of people do that. And then, after the show, people would come up to us and say, “this song helped me through this,” or “this song got me through that.” That’s what’s it all about – for me anyways.

The power of music.

Barry: Yeah. And for me, I’m also all about seeing the gig get put together and seeing it turn out well with people in the crowd. If I wasn’t playing guitar, I’d probably be a roadie of some sort– I just love the whole package of live music – I love gigs.

Adam: My favorite part of it all is when girls come up to me after the show and tell me I was awesome on drums.

Collectively: *laughter*

That’s a bass player comment if I’ve ever heard one *laughing*

So, as you might guess, this COVID 19 virus has been brought up in every interview I’ve done so far for the Creative Wealth Project because I started it after it forced everyone into lockdown – so I know things have been limited. That being said – what projects are you guys working on these days? What’s coming out?

Barry: Well, we’ve got a new album that seems like its been 20 years in the making.

Chinese Democracy part 2?

Barry: Something like that, yeah *laughs*

But we’ve got an album in the works, and we’re working on something today which I can’t divulge to you yet what that is.

Confidential? Consider me intrigued.

Barry: Well, the deal for me is, and I think these guys agree, is that with this whole COVID situation, if we record an album now, we might have to sit on it for a year before we can play any of it for the people. Between now and then, we might come up with other songs that are better than the ones on the album… so, we’re likely going to write, but wait to actually record.

That’s actually an interesting point. There’s been all this talk in the music industry right now about what bands should be doing with all of this forced downtime, given that nobody can go out on tour or perform live. As an industry in which most musicians make most of their income by performing (if they’re successful enough to do it today) – that’s a crappy problem to have. But the talk is that if you can’t go out and play, you should be writing some songs and recording an album.

Rebel few guitarist Barry Martin on stage in front of Rebel Few banner

Now on the surface that makes sense, but as you said, if you’re writing all these songs and you do just rush off to record an album, by the time you release it you might be sitting on two or three albums or just better stuff you could have recorded instead. Having extra songs ready is never a problem – but recording and releasing albums isn’t cheap – especially for an industry that is without a primary income for the foreseeable future.

Personally, I’ve been writing a lot of music during this lockdown, and I’ve got over 20 songs now that I’m sitting on… but I write new ones each week. But by the time I actually get to record any of them – who knows which ones will even make the cut? Something I wrote yesterday could be wholly cast aside in favor of something I write tomorrow.

Barry: Absolutely – you get the idea then.

Chris: We’ve done that with probably all of our songs right now – we keep writing new ones we like better.

So concerning that idea – do you guys have a song bank then that you draw from? A collection of songs written you choose from when you’re finally ready to put something out? I ask because I know you guys used to play new songs on stage frequently – shows that wouldn’t necessarily be marketed as a single release party or whatnot – but if you happened to be in the crowd that day you’d get a taste of what’s been going on in the Rebel Few camp.

Chris: We still do that – when we get the chance.

Barry: We once played the song “Said and Done” live before we even had any lyrics – we played it as an instrumental. Just because we were excited to play it – I think we announced it along the lines of “sorry guys to drag you through this, but this song is called Whatever You Name It.”

You know, now that I think of it… I might have been in the crowd for that one.

Rebel Few singer guitar player Chris Raposo silhouette on stage with hair flying

You guys mentioned that Chris does most of the writing primarily – so how does your creative process work? How much of the songs are done before you bring them to the rest of the guys?

Chris: Honestly, it varies. Sometimes I’ll have a full idea to work with, and a lot of times, Barry will hit a riff, and we’ll jam on it for 10 minutes or so and start forming some different parts around that. Other times Jordan might drop a beat, and I’ll start playing a riff over top of that – when the group gets a good vibe going, things just take off from there sometimes. There’s no one way – one recipe – for the most part.

Barry: I just steal riffs from Lynryd Skynrd and try to change them, so they don’t sound like Skynrd… *laughs*.

*Laughing* I was recently watching a documentary on rock and metal music in the ’80s, and they were asking Ozzy Osbourne what they thought of people trying to rip off his music. His answer was, “oh, we’re all f#*^ing thieves, man. Don’t even say we’re not – we’ve been stealing each other’s music for a long time now.”

Chris: I remember seeing that interview!

Yeah – so that’s funny you said that.

Now, lyrically, I would describe your music as songs for the downtrodden. As a band, you guys have always been about the little guy standing up against oppression of all kinds. Your D.I.R.T.BAG motto… let’s talk about that because that is something that I think people should know about – it’s your attitude and your values – and that is a huge part of what makes your band who you are. So, what does “D.I.R.T.BAG” mean to you guys?

Chris: The D.I.R.T.BAG thing kind of stems from my childhood. I used to get “seconds” and hand-me-downs from where my Mom used to work. I never had a pair of jeans – I was always in track pants – you know, the kind where one leg would be shorter than the other sort of thing. And so I used to get picked on a lot. There was a lot of bullying going around, and kids used to say about me, “here comes the dirtbag.”

So later on in life, I wanted to take that thing that kind of hurt me that whole time, and flip it around and make it something that I’d become comfortable with and that people would want to be a part of. So that’s where that whole thing stemmed from. We took each of the letters and put something that really meant something to us into them – being driven, having integrity, being respectful, and having trust – just that whole brotherhood vibe, that community family vibe. And once we put it out there, everybody kind of identified with it and latched onto it. It was awesome actually – to see it all.

Rebel Few singer guitarist Chris Raposo playing a guitar solo with head back

I think that’s huge. And you know, even though we played I don’t know how many times together, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you that before. I knew what the letters stood for – but the fact that there’s a meaning behind them all, and it’s a big part of what you guys do – that’s really cool.

Leading in from that, and I can name some myself, but any favorite stories from the journey? Any fun stuff – I know we’ve already talked about pants down – but any highlights from the road?

Adam: I can specifically remember a time waking up in San Antonio with everybody on the phone trying to order… well, let’s just say… well, I’m not gonna say *laughs*

Barry: Say what, Adam? What happened in San Antonio? *laughing*

Adam: It was pizza. Just. Pizza. *laughing*

Barry: Seriously, though, I think that anybody who’s paid attention to the band, the Texas experience was a highlight. For me, anyways. But that’s a long story.

I know some of that one – you guys went down there and got to work with some of the Pantera folks – Sterling Winfield, who produced some of their work, and you guys met Vinnie Paul at his house – that had to be huge for you guys being the fans that you are.

Chris: It was off the charts.

Barry: Absolutely. It was surreal. You know, seeing all of the home videos that they used to feature… and then seeing the guys who were in those home videos and becoming friends with some of those guys. Even after having maybe too much to drink in their kitchen – and having those guys still friendly with you afterward… it was awesome.*laughs*

See, that’s really cool – getting to meet some of the guys that inspired you. And from what I’ve heard you say before, it sounds like they were down to earth – the same kind of guys as you probably thought they would be. They say don’t meet your heroes… but sometimes it just works out, so that’s pretty awesome.

Barry: Definitely. But I guess that also depends who your heroes are too.

Adam: I can say from personal experience that nobody wants to meet me *laughs*

You’re right Adam. I never did *laughs*

Collectively: *laughter*

So this last question can be related to either starting a band musically or the business side of the industry. I say that because I’m sure you guys know as well as anybody else that there’s a lot of BS that comes with the music industry if you’re not careful about it. There are a lot of times artists with some hindsight wish they did things a little differently to save themselves some problems – so any advice for anyone getting started in the music industry?

Barry: Quit being lazy. Play as many shows as you can, but work hard at getting people out to those shows. Don’t just think you are going to show up, and there will be thousands of people there just eager to buy your stuff. That doesn’t happen.

Jordan: If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t make you better.

Barry: Also – never listen to drummers.

Adam: Try to join a band that’s already doing okay.

*Collective laughter*

Rebel Few members on stage at Hard Luck Bar - Barry Martin, Chris Raposo, Adam Shortreed

Chris: Do it for the right reasons. I think if you do that, then you’re always going to be successful no matter what level you reach. If you’re doing it because you love it and to vibe with it and share in having people dig what you’re doing – you’re on the right path.

Barry: Actually, lending to Chris’ points of doing it for the right reasons and doing it because you love it – Chris drove for about 4 and a half hours to be here today to jam. Even though there are no shows or anything specific on the immediate horizon. That’s dedication.

All excellent points. Now I have to bring this up because when we used to play gigs together, you guys used to do something that my band and I started to notice you did really well. Whenever you guys seemed to do new shows in the same areas, you’d always have new merch available – a new t-shirt design or whatever, and even though a lot of people in the audience were the same people who came to your last show… you always seemed to clean up at the merch table.

I know YOU didn’t say it… but I definitely wish my band did that back in the Creekwater Junkies days.

Barry: Well, we’re not stupid you know *laughs*.

*Laughing* Well I think that’s all I have for you guys today – by the looks of it you’ve got some jamming to do. Thanks again for taking the time for an interview, it was great to catch up, and I can’t wait to hear the new stuff once you’re able to get back on stage and in a studio!

Barry: Anytime Mitch, great talking with you.

Be sure to check out more from Rebel Few on Spotify, Youtube and Facebook (linked below)… give them a like and a share if you dig what they do – these guys wave the flag of supporting independent music – so go do it!

Don’t forget to also share and follow The Creative Wealth Project for more interviews and tips on how you can grow in your creative field!

Music: An Interview With Hot Lips’ Keith Heppler

Hot Lips band photo shoot
Keith Heppler, Karli Forget, Alex Black

Whoever said you absolutely need guitars to make some noise in the rock n’ roll scene obviously hasn’t listened to Hot Lips before.

A power trio hailing from Toronto, Canada, the band brings a unique brand of electro-grunge rock that drips of a dark, mysterious sexiness with every brooding note.

Likening them to the type of synthesized thunder you’d expect to hear playing in seedy underground clubs (like the ones featured in films like XXX), I was ecstatic to sit down with Hot Lips’ drummer Keith Heppler and explore their music. We got to talking about many facets of the music business and, of course, the waves the band has been making across Canada and internationally with their aggressive industrial sound.

Me: Hi Keith, thanks for joining me today.

Keith: Hey Mitch, no problem, glad to tune in for a chat.

So let us just jump right in then. Pretending that anyone reading this article right now has never heard of you before, can you tell us about Hot Lips as a band? How you guys got started, how long have you guys been doing this together?

We founded in late 2016. I met Karli (Forgèt – vocals, synthesizers) through a Craig’s list ad. She had some demos that she posted online that I really liked, and I had already known Alex (Black – bass, vocals). Alex had previously tour managed for another band I was in, so when Karli and I started jamming, we were tossing out names, and I suggested we jam with Alex. When we did, we just kind of knew that that was the right line up. So the three of us have been going as this trio ever since.

So Hot Lips is based in Toronto, right? Everybody’s from Toronto?

Yeah, we’re all located right downtown Toronto.

Keith Heppler playing drums
Keith Heppler (Photo Credit: Dylan Weller)

When listening to Hot Lips, I found myself picking out many different notes of different things in your sound. The first thing I noticed was that Karli’s voice at times kind of has a little bit of a Pretty Reckless sort of thing going on –  just maybe tones in her voice that remind me of Taylor Momsen’s take on rock music – but I wouldn’t describe that as your band’s sound. I’m hearing notes of maybe a little bit of a tamer version of Rob Zombie, a little bit of Nine Inch Nails, and while I never really listened to their style of music as much as others, a little bit of Garbage too.

Garbage and Nine Inch Nails are significant influences on us. There’s also a band called IAMX, which is Chris Corner’s (of the Sneaker Pimps) solo project that we’re also really into. But really, each of us has our own different influences. Alex is really into stuff like Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails, whereas I’m really into stuff like Nirvana and Fugazi. I also really like bands like At the Drive-In. Karli is really influenced by stuff like Garbage and The Sneaker Pimps and even some trip-hop type of stuff. So when you throw all of that together, we’re what you get.

That’s cool because I was going to ask you how you actually describe your music to other people regarding your style or niche. For me, it’s got that grunginess to it but also an industrial kind of sound.

We call it electro-grunge. It’s really 90’s influenced but with a little bit of an industrial and electronic vibe sprinkled on top.

Electro-grunge… that works! It really makes sense, too, because one of the first things I noticed when I looked up your band was that you don’t have a guitar player. Especially in this type of music and the fact that you’re a trio – that’s exceptionally rare to see.

No, and that was one thing that we thought about when we started. We wanted to try to do something different. All of us had come from the traditional two guitars, a bass, and drums kind of band arrangement before this. Personally speaking, I’m always a massive fan of bands that don’t sound like anything else. A band like Primus is a good example – when I hear something like that, I just love it. So when we started Hot Lips, we really wanted to hold songwriting as our most important focus, but we wanted to try to do it a bit unconventionally.

So taking the guitar out was a purposeful decision. I find that particularly neat because it actually is just so different than what’s out there in any contemporary style of music that’s not directly on the pop or hip-hop charts.

Yeah! And the joke is whenever people ask us why don’t we have a guitar player, we ask them, “have you ever met a guitar player?”

*Laughs* As a guitar player myself, I find that quite funny.

*Laughs

So you touched on some primary influences to your band’s work – would you say that when you all came together, that it was a conscious decision to take those influences and make your sound? Or was that just kind of how it came out?

A little bit of both, I think. Without really speaking about it, I think we inherently wanted to do something a little bit on the heavier side. We’re all fans of loud, aggressive music. But I don’t know if we ever really talked about it. As we started writing and playing shows and touring, we got to know each other pretty well and discover each others’ influences. There’s a lot of down-time on the road, and so you have a lot of time to share music with each other. We’d often get caught playing Youtube roulette – like, “oh, have you seen this video?” “no, but have you seen this one?” – and that just kept going until eventually all of our influences rubbed off on each other.

Hot Lips Band
Keith Heppler, Alex Black, Karli Forget
From left to right: Keith Heppler, Alex Black, Karli Forgèt

So how does your creative process work then? Do you guys all write? Do you have one primary writer?

Karli’s our primary writer. It’s actually interesting because when I first met her, I knew her from around the scene – but she was another drummer. This is the first band she’s ever sang in or played anything but drums in. So when I first met her for this band, we were talking, and she told me, “I don’t even have a keyboard,” and I just remember saying, “it doesn’t matter, we’ll get one, we’ll figure it out.”

But from the start, Karli’s always been the primary songwriter. Alex and I just kind of help with the arrangements. We might suggest to make a chorus twice as long, or try different parts out in different places, or have an idea for a bridge… but usually, Karli will send us a pretty fully formed demo of a song with her playing bass, drums – the whole deal. But she’s pretty cool, she’ll have us put our own spin on it.

That’s cool. I’m always interested in, especially with the diverse style of music out there, how creative processes are so different all the time. Even myself in this isolation phase, I’m writing all sorts of new music, and I’m trying to do it differently than I ever have before. I’ve always been in metal or rock bands, but now I’m sitting down with an acoustic guitar and taking an attitude like “let’s just see what comes out this way.” When I hit the studio with the music eventually, I’m aware that it’s not just going to be me singing with an acoustic guitar, but by writing songs so bare, I’m really curious to see what other people come up with when they hear them so stripped.

Yeah absolutely.

So as a pre-emptive question to the next question, I want to ask: how long have you personally been doing the band thing?

I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14 years old. So… awhile *laughs*.

So what is it then about doing music or creative type of work that you like most?

Oh, man. Everything. I like it all. I love the challenge of trying to get better all the time, I like the camaraderie of being in a band, I like playing live, I like improving in the studio, I like traveling, I love meeting people. I’ve always kind of thought that making an album was like putting up a flyer for a show – I’ve always thought of it that way. Playing live is 100%, my favorite thing. I like everything about it.

Speaking of live performances, I saw in the press release you sent me that you guys had a tour that’s been postponed.

Yeah, just like everybody else right now.

So, pursuing creative work for a living then, and that right there is a good example, are there a lot of challenges you find that come with it?

Of course. I mean, it’s a gig economy, so there are always going to be challenges. Right now, in particular, is a tough time for everyone, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the industry adapts and reacts to it. I don’t want to get into COVID-19 too much, but it’s definitely an interesting time, and I’m just trying to look at it like another challenge to overcome. It would be easy to throw my hands up in the air and say, “we’re not going to play for another 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 months” and then just sit around and wait for it to pass… but instead, I like to think we can just figure out how to deal with it.

I’m sure you can relate to this – but the industry we grew up in has always been in a state of flux. I started playing in bands the year Napster launched… so I grew up watching Much Music and seeing the old model of business alive and well. However, when it came time for my own personal application of everything I’d been watching, my experience was completely different.

For example, at one time, success in the music industry used to be about iTunes and getting an iTunes exclusive. Then streaming came along. MTV was trying to hold on to the music video market, and then that went out the window because Youtube took over. Music videos used to have big budgets – now you’re shooting a video in your sister-in-law’s wine cellar.

My point is that it’s really still the industry I grew up dealing with – it’s always been in a state of flux. There are always challenges you need to pivot around and adapt with – this COVID virus is just a little more extreme one. It’s still a bummer though: I do not deny that. When I look at my phone, I see notifications of where I was supposed to be right now – last night I should have been playing in Cincinnati. I really should turn off those notifications *laughs*

Hot Lips Band Performing
Alex Black, Karli Forget, Keith Heppler

You make an excellent point – the music industry has definitely been in a state of constant change. Thinking back about it now, my own personal band experience was kind of similar in the sense that we were trying to do things in an old way when the music industry was already going somewhere else.

The model we grew up seeing.

Exactly. And not to mention the challenges that come from being in Canada – I’m sure when you guys tour the States, you quickly see the difference – you can play in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York twice and New Jersey and yet you haven’t traveled really at all. Then there’s trying to tour this giant landmass.

*Laughing* Definitely. Have you ever done a tour that starts in Vancouver? You have to drive all the way out there with no shows on the way, and then you just work your way back. I’ve done a few of those. If you take the Lake Superior route, you’re driving 8-10 hours per day and still playing shows the same day with no days off.

But then you go down south into the States, and it’s great – you can tour California for like 3 weeks – just one state.

*Laughing* Yeah, there are definitely a few odds stacked against Canadian musicians at the start, but like you said, that’s just another challenge.

Then again, the world has changed, so now you don’t necessarily need a record deal and key to the jumbo jet to get your career going. You can put your music online and find fans first that way – so at least when you do tour, it won’t be to empty venues. You have to be a little more creative in how you find your audience, but you can do it.

Yeah, as a band you are more accessible than ever now, but I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, because so is everyone else. The new challenge is trying to find a way to speak through all the white noise and stand out for a second.

However, I will say that because there’s so much more music available, there’s so much more good music available. Everyone seems to like to focus on how there’s all this crap out there, but I’m constantly intimidated and inspired by what I hear. There are many bands we play with and other artists out there that just continue to blow my mind all the time. That’s really cool, I think – as a fan at least.

Absolutely. And you know, music has always been a reflection of culture, so who knows, maybe 50 years down the road people will look back at this time and see that it was the start of something that had never happened before – the accessibility of music. Not too long ago, you used to be able to go to a bar and see an excellent band all of the time – but you’d have never heard of them ever unless you were actually at that bar… and now…

Yeah, things have definitely evolved from that.

Jumping forward a bit, let’s talk a little bit about what you sent me: the music video for the song “Cry Wolf.”

We filmed the video in February – so before all this COVID outbreak hit North America and became as real to us as it has been. The song coincidentally deals with a lot of the themes that are relatable right now – being trapped and confined inside your own head with your thoughts, unable to escape them, being sort of forced into self-reflection.

We’re super proud of it. We got Steph Misayo Seki from a band called The Primitive Evolution to play cello on the track, and this is one of the first times we’ve ever incorporated a classical instrument into our music. That day in the studio was so much fun. Steph is so talented, and just watching her add to the song and hearing it get this new dimension from her cello was great. I really like that the part is not sampled – it was very organic – we mic’d up a cello, and Steph just came up with the most brilliant parts after having listened to the song demo. It was really cool.

That’s awesome. I really liked the tune (check it out below).

That being said, what other projects are you guys working on right now? Your tour has been postponed – so what else is coming down the pipeline? What else is on the go?

Well, we went into the studio before all this COVID stuff happened, and we did some work that kind of got put on the back burner because we were going to be on tour. But since the shutdown, we recorded a song and a video we shot ourselves in our practice room while social distancing.

How did you do that?

We took turns. I would go in one day, and the drums would be mic’ed up, and I’d record my drum part and film it. Then Alex would go in the next day and put down his bass part and film it, and then Karli the third day. Then we just mixed it remotely yesterday and put it all together. So that’s going to come out just probably, early summer, July maybe.

We also just booked some time in the studio because we found out studios are opening again during phase one – so we booked some time as quickly as we could. Karli’s been writing and sending us tonnes of demos, and so as long as things don’t get too crazy, I think we’ll try to get together and work on them.

There are definitely all sorts of red tape on how to do things right now – another challenge, I suppose. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping the music community completely. I have been recording the same way that I’m talking to you right now… with my phone. I’ll just sit and sing with my acoustic guitar, get a really rough demo recorded, and then send that track to another guy a few hours away. The mood seems to be one of “hey when we finally get to do this, this will be cool!”

It’s definitely cool that with the advent of software like Garageband or Logic, you don’t really need to know much to be able to share ideas back and forth with each other from all over the world.

It will do for the time being at least.

Absolutely. This virus actually let us take a bit of time off, too – which is something you need once in a while. We took a few weeks off because we’ve been going at this pretty full-time for a couple years now. We’ve seen each other pretty much every day for the last two years… so a little time off to clear our heads has been helpful.

Yet now I’m really excited to hear what kind of music we write with a fresh mindset. We had been in a cycle of “write, record, do shows – lather, rinse, repeat” for so long, so it’s going to be a nice change.

Time off is something that I think a lot of people forget how important it actually is.

Now, this next question is a bit off-script of what I usually put together to ask artists… but I noticed you guys have a lot of short EP releases – what’s the strategy there?

Initially, we just didn’t have money to do more, so we would just put out what we could afford to make *laughs*

But it goes back to what we spoke about earlier… it’s another experiment in being different. We thought about putting out singles or just 2 or 3 song EPs because we’re a relatively young band, and we weren’t sure we hadn’t totally found our sound. It was something different than the old way of putting out a full-length album. I feel like albums can get really easily buried and lost in the music scene today, but if you’re continually putting out singles, you’re always attracting new attention. We actually took a cue from a lot of rappers in that regard – we were just trying to think outside of the box. Because like I was saying, the industry is constantly in flux, and especially for an indie band, if you don’t have a full team behind you or a big budget, you’ve really got to find a way to make every dollar go as far as it can.

It’s definitely something I see happening more and more often these days – constant single releases in favor of a full-length album.

Absolutely, and it’s an efficient way for a band to stay relevant. For example, instead of having one CD release show in Toronto, we might do two or three single release shows. We still put together the same amount of promotion for them, and they’re still release parties. That’s important to note because it still gives those shows the kind of weight that makes them not just another gig – because there’s a purpose behind them.

Then, those release shows get followed up by a run of other shows in southern Ontario and northern USA to promote the release. With the money we make from those performances, we can reinvest into going back into the studio and recording another two songs – maybe with a new producer the next time. We would do all of that in a cycle – and it just keeps the band’s growth accelerating.

Keeping yourself busy all the time – there’s no lull – I like that. Instead of the “here’s the big buildup, here’s the CD release” and then silence for 6 months.

Yeah, it’s a low-key way of being on people’s radar and trying to stay in their faces. Because you know, I watch a lot of bands put out an album, and they have this massive build-up for it. They release the record and maybe do a short tour of 5 shows to promote it… but after that’s all done, I don’t hear about them for a while. What happens a lot after that, and maybe it’s just because their music didn’t get picked up on a playlist – I don’t know exactly what happens or why – but a lot of those bands just kind of fade away. So we’re trying to avoid that.

It’s definitely easy to miss an album release and keep the momentum going with so much continually coming out these days.

You see it all the time.

So another thing I wanted to talk about was travel.  You guys, from my understanding, head down south to the States a fair bit. Now, this isn’t something I’ve really talked about with another artist yet, but are there any challenges you face or advice you have related to playing out of your home country?

I mean crossing the border is never fun, but I don’t know, maybe we’ve just been lucky in that nothing too severe or stressful has happened to us concerning playing outside of Canada.

How about actually getting across the border?

I think a lot of bands get spooked about work visas. There’s a bit of a cost that comes with one at first, but it’s not really a big deal.

When we decided we wanted to start playing down south, we just kind of reached out to some people and went after it. Now, we have an agent and a manager, but before that and we put our team together, I just started asking people I knew had done it and people who managed artists “how did you do it?” and more often than not, they would just tell me. We were never afraid to ask.

Any advice to someone trying to do start playing down south?

Just do it. I can say that to expect for the first time you go down there, it’s like anything – you’ll be playing to about 5 people at first. But maybe you’ll talk to one of the guys in another band or a promoter, and then next time you end up playing another show or a CD release party and then you’re playing to 100 people.

There are a few learning curves at first with the visas and paperwork, but that’s something you just have to do if you want to go. Learn about it – it’s not hard, but it’s worth it.

What’s the whole States’ side experience like then?

People down there are great. The promoters are really reliable, there’s a lot of talent, and the fans at the gigs are fantastic.

Don’t get me wrong – I love playing in Canada, and I don’t prefer one country over the other, but the USA has bigger markets. We’ve been having a great time down there.

That’s great man, glad to hear it.

So we talked a little bit about the “new way” of doing things in the music industry. There seems to have been a shift where many artists are doing a lot of things independently. What are your thoughts on that?

It used to be people thought, and sometimes still people think this way, that getting that elusive record deal means you’re then home free – but that’s not true by any stretch of the imagination. You still have to do all of the work you would anyways, and I think people have started to realize this, and so more artists are going the independent route.

I’ve actually seen lots of artists become very successful doing everything themselves, and because of that, they owe nothing to no one, be it personally or financially. They own all their own music and their own masters too – and that can be huge.

That kind of speaks to the whole purpose of why I started the Creative Wealth Project. I personally think the independent route is very possible today, and so why not do things yourself and for yourself? There are a lot of other creative people out there who want to work with you, and you can form long-lasting relationships and get repeat business transactions from each other. I mean, I would love one day for this thing to snowball to the point that a band looking for an artist could come here and find someone who ends up doing their artwork. Or a new band or artist looking for tips on their profession could come here to read an interview like this one and learn some mistakes to avoid or take away other advice.

Absolutely. I have learned a lot of different things from a lot of different people in different roles to get where I am today.

Close up shot of Karli Forget
Hot Lips Band

I don’t doubt that. I mean, for me, music and writing might be my bread and butter, but as I’m sure you have too, I’ve worked with producers, graphic designers, videographers, etc. and there are all sorts of intricacies to their particular specialties that especially when starting out I didn’t understand. Yet they all were essential to my finished product, and so I found it valuable to learn about them.

Yeah, and I can attest to that. I have learned so much about so many things since I started music as a profession. I initially began booking shows when I was in high school because I just wanted to play some. I didn’t know how other bands got shows, so I just started asking. I knew a lot of great bands that rarely played because they told me nobody ever offered them shows – I never understood that. Like, why not ask for some or learn how to book them yourself? So I started asking questions, and things just went from there.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about merchandise – things like screen printing and how that works, how t-shirts are cut, what quality cotton of you should have…I’ve learned about cameras, I’ve learned about editing, I’ve learned about vans.

*Laughing* Okay, I’ve learned A LOT about vans. 

*Laughing* Oh boy, tell me about it.

But I get what you mean. Again, using myself as an example, I might be a guitar player who just thinks my focus should be on playing guitar – but it doesn’t take long in a music career to find out things and learn some lessons the hard way if you don’t dedicate some time to learning new things.

I remember when I found out that certain colors don’t print the same on t-shirts as they do album covers. That’s a mistake that could have been avoided by hiring or consulting with an artist instead of just assuming they’d print the same – and that batch of t-shirts would have turned out a lot better.

Yeah, and then there’s the business and legal stuff too – how to get commercial insurance, how to get a work visa, how to drop ship t-shirts to a venue while you’re on the road. It’s actually all been a sort of blessing learning all of this stuff when really I just started out wanting to be a drummer.

Essentially, once you start playing for money, you’re an entrepreneur. Most musicians have to be. It’s really not that different than opening up a restaurant – yours just moves around a lot.

I’ve always said that – being in a band is like operating a traveling lemonade stand.

We’re almost getting ready to wrap up here, but I have to ask: do you have any favorite stories from the road or in the music business? These are always fun personal touches I like to throw into these interviews.

I’m not so sure I have one ready. We’re a pretty behaved band, we’re pretty focused… but I guess off the top of my head, I have one about our first away gig that we did and stayed at a hotel in Windsor. We partied pretty hard after the show, and Karli had this aerosol can of glitter spray, and for whatever reason, I insisted she cover me in it – head to toe. I just laid there on the bed and insisted she spray it over me… and dude, that shit was in our van, my clothes, and really just everywhere for months afterward. I don’t know why I asked her to do it – I had too much tequila, I guess… but when I went home and crashed next to my wife, and she woke up, and she was not impressed. I couldn’t wash it out. It was bad. Even now… sometimes I still find glitter on some of our equipment or in the van – and that happened over three years ago.

*Laughs* See, there you go – great story.

Last but not least, do you have any crucial advice for someone else just getting started in the music business or in music in general?

As a performer, or otherwise?

Well, my understanding based on the fact that you were the one who reached out to me for this interview is you’ve learned a few things about music and the business side too. I had that same responsibility once. My role in my former band, aside from being the lead guitar player, was also the guy who did all the business kind of stuff – booking shows, scheduling interviews, all that stuff – so do you have any lessons from along the way in that role? Things that after doing this for years now, looking back on your career, you might say, “I wish I knew this back then” or “doing things this way would have saved a lot of time or hardship”?

First and foremost, I’d make sure you always represent yourself properly.

Hot Lips Band performing
Karli Forget, Alex Black, Keith Heppler
Photo Credit: Dylan Weller

But when you’re first starting a band – just play. A lot. Play anywhere, because you’re going to learn just as much if not more from the crappy gigs like playing in someone’s basement with a blown-out PA. A show like that, even though it might be a terrible show at the time, is going to make your band a lot stronger down the road. Anyone can play well when you have great monitors and a great sound system, but I’m always impressed with bands who can go into a concrete basement where it’s almost impossible to sound good, but yet they always do. Or bands that are having the worst gig of their lives but you in the crowd can’t see any of that because they’re so slick about it – they’ve dealt with everything already that could possibly be thrown at them.

And lastly, I’d say to try really, really hard. There are so many people out there doing the same thing – so you have to put the work in. Playing music is fun for sure, but if you’re serious about it, it’s a lot of work – as I’m sure you know. Don’t skimp on things. Don’t cancel rehearsal to go watch Netflix or do something else. Show up on time, show up prepared, and do it regularly. We always try to be a self-sufficient band – we don’t want to rely on anyone else. We work very hard to be known as a reliable, professional group.

Great advice, Keith. I will say that I definitely know reputation goes a very long way. And not just your reputation for how you deliver on stage, but off stage as well.

Oh yeah – have you ever worked with a band that’s a bunch of dickheads? They’re the worst. It doesn’t matter how good they are – you’ll never play with them again.

Well, I think that’s all I have for you today, my friend! Thanks for taking the time to join me, we covered some great stuff today! Looking forward to checking out the new stuff you guys have been working on in the future!

Thanks Mitch, it was great talking to you!

Be sure to check out the band at their website and social media listed below – stay posted for tour dates (eventually) and new releases!

Website: https://hotlipstoronto.com/home

Of course, don’t forget to follow The Creative Wealth Project below – more interviews with artists, bands, graphic designers, and other creative industry types are coming soon in addition to useful articles to help you build your career in the creative world!

Fans vs. Customers: 3 Common Misconceptions

Music fans in crowd with hands in the air making a heart shape

In the entertainment and creative industries, the words fan and customer are often used interchangeably, but the two are actually quite different sets of people. While both are particularly important to building a successful career as an artist, it is easy to see just how distinctively different the behaviors of each group are.

For example:

Fans are people who:

  • Listen to your music/appreciate your art/watch your videos/read your writing
  • Follow, share, like, and engage your pages and posts on social media
  • Speak highly of your artistic work and you as an artist
  • Identify themselves to others (and sometimes also providing recommendations to others) as a fan of your brand

Customers are people who:

  • Purchase your music/art/film/written works
  • Attend your shows and live events
  • Purchase and flaunt your merchandise

The critical difference that becomes notably apparent, of course, is that while fans may provide moral support, brand affection and help spread brand awareness, it is customers who take the extra step and actually support your brand with their wallets. As most of us are well aware, you can’t have a successful career as an artist without the cash flow to pay for you to keep doing it.

So does that make customers more important than fans?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Artists and creators are presented with unique landscapes and sets of challenges that other industries don’t have to deal with because of the relationships and roles both fans and customers play in their success.

As such, here are 3 common misconceptions to keep in mind while growing your audience of fans and customers alike.

Misconception #1: Social Media is The best Metric to Measure Success

It seems today that everywhere you turn, every piece of business strategy and advice is geared towards establishing a strong social media presence. While this is undoubtedly a useful and important tool to help an artist build their following and engage their audience, it should not ever be considered a real metric to measure success.

Yes, having a massive social media presence is sure to give your ego a boost and make you feel admired. It also definitely holds some value in boosting your social proof and clout. Yet, as a standalone metric to measure success, it fails because it does not distinguish between casual or passive consumers and active consumers of your brand.

Let me demonstrate with an example.

Suppose you have started a new band, and you have created a Facebook page for your group. You and your bandmates have invited all your friends to like and share it, and a large chunk of them have done just that. After only one week and without any music actually released, you look and see that your page has over 2,000 likes already! That’s wonderful!

And then you play your first live show 2 weeks later – and nobody shows up.

Ever heard that story before? It happens all the time – because so many bands quickly forget that social media numbers don’t actually measure what they think they do (or want them to).

All we need is more likes spray painted to side of wall
If only we could support our careers on “shares”, “likes” and “follows”

The truth is that a social media “like” doesn’t always equate to one from an actual fan – one “like” or follow from a casual friend who has never actually listened to your music is worth the same as one from a superfan who buys everything you ever release.

Furthermore, people often “like” posts/articles/things without ever actually engaging with them. For example, I personally know that when I share articles from my site onto social media, often, friends will share/support them with a “like.” Yet, the metrics on my actual website tell the real tale of who actually took the time to click and read through what I’d posted (spoiler: the numbers don’t match up).

A band with 100 real fans who show up to their shows and listen to and purchase their music/merchandise is, in reality, far more successful than the band with 100,000 social media followers who can’t fill a small bar because nobody ever actually attends their shows.

Remember: a social media “like/share/follow” takes someone half a second to register and costs someone nothing – I’m not saying it is entirely worthless – but do keep that in mind when assigning it a value in the real world.

Misconception #2: Business Practices and Strategies for Traditional Industries Apply Exactly the Same Way To Creative Industries

This section should be taken with a grain of salt because learning new business practices and techniques is never a bad thing to do… but it needs to be said that the entertainment and creative industries operate a little differently than most other business sectors do.

Perhaps the sports industry is the exception, but for most businesses, their marketing focus is bent on turning customers into fans… whereas in the creative industries… that sequence is flipped.

For example, Coke spends a fortune in advertising trying to create enthusiasm and passion surrounding their brand – they don’t advertise to create awareness, and they certainly aren’t concerned with “the next thing coming.” Their main product and source of revenue has been the same soft drink since the company started. Instead, what they want is for you to consciously choose their product every time you buy a soft drink – that is, to become brand loyal (or, a fan). Coke wants to turn customers into fans.

Corporate companies spend millions of dollars every year in efforts to strengthen and maintain their brand identities. They accomplish this through a multitude of tactics and associations designed to resonate with their customers on a deeper level. For example, think of Molson-Coors using the slogan “I Am Canadian” to identify and associate their product with their customers’ senses of national identity.

An artist is in precisely the opposite situation. An artist, through their creative work, usually already resonates on a deeper level of meaning with their audience right from the beginning (that connection is how people become fans). Therefore, an artist spends most of their time and money promoting spreading awareness of who they are and engaging their audience to hopefully translate that existing connection into a sale.

They are also always under pressure to create new things (music, videos, etc.) because they cannot rely on their product (one song/book/video, etc.) to continuously re-sell to their same consumer base. The only way to generate new sales from the same clients requires them to release entirely new products regularly, all with the hope that their passionate and enthusiastic followers open their wallets each time as they switch between being fans and customers.

Let’s look at the sport industry for further demonstration:

A passionate sports fan might follow his/her favorite team on TV, he/she might have a tattoo of the team’s logo, and you might find him/her every Friday night arguing passionately with anyone who will listen to him/her why his/her team is the greatest thing to ever grace the earth – he/she’s a super fan, right?

Sports fans in Philadelphia Eagles gear crowd the streets waving flags celebrating their Super Bowl LII win

Yes – except for if that person doesn’t ever to the games, purchase merchandise, or pay for a sports package that allows him/her to follow his/her team on TV – that person is not really worth any more to the team they cheer for so passionately than someone who doesn’t care about sports all.

The goal of the sports league and team is then to take this person’s passionate fandom and turn it into a sale.

In most other industries, customers purchase products all the time but frequently switch brands due to factors like pricing, immediate needs, or convenience. In creative industries like the music industry, diehard fans turned into customers will shell out almost infinite amounts of money to get exactly what it is they want. If you don’t believe me, look at concert ticket prices for any massively popular artist.

The point is, the focus for a lot of traditional business advice is on how to turn customers into fans. However, that work is already done for you in a creative field. There’s a good chance anyone following your work is already a fan (which is super valuable), so instead, your focus should be on turning those fans into bigger fans and actual customers.

That brings me to my next point.

Misconception #3: Fans and Customers Should Be Treated Separately

At the beginning of this article, I very quickly demonstrated the differences between fans and customers. After reading, you may have found it very apparent that only one of those groupings is going to support you with their wallet. Perhaps also, you decided that you should prioritize your efforts to focus on one group over the other.

Yes, but also no.

Yes, it’s impossible to have a successful career supported without paying customers, but the truth is… you want your audience to be people who are both fans AND customers at the same time.

Hip hop artist in a crowd full of hands singing with mic and giving high fives

While it’s human nature to infinitely group and classify everything and everyone based on differences, in the case of building a successful career as a creative, there is no reason to separate fans from customers in your marketing efforts.

Looking at fans, there is value in having a passionate audience who speak highly of your work, share it with others, and become an ambassador to your product. In an ideal world, all of these people would be your biggest supporters with their wallets too. That doesn’t always happen – but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them either.

You never know where the tipping point is for a fan to make the next jump up in their commitment of fandom, which might be a purchase of tickets to your show or your latest album (or single, in today’s case)… and even if they don’t, maybe from their recommendation, someone else becomes a fan who does.

The music industry not overly long ago went through a severe piracy outbreak (hello, Napster) because the music business as a whole started ignoring fanbases and treated music fans as cash cattle. When the fans collectively had had enough, they stopped supporting the industry’s greedy behavior. Don’t make the same mistake: fans don’t exist for you to suck their wallets dry, but they will support you when you generate value for them at an exchange.

Fandom is always a starting point for building a successful career, and while not all fans will purchase your products or artistic creations, that doesn’t mean they never will. Ultimately, that decision is their choice to make; how they interact with your art is entirely up to them; and so you can only create it, put it out to the world and stand by what you’ve done.

The takeaway here is simple:

Treat both your fans and customers the same way; with dignity, and your chances of having a successful career that will last you go up significantly.

Fans vs. Customers

Now that you’ve seen a few misconceptions regarding the differences of fans and customers, and how to acquire them, perhaps you’re now wondering how to turn a fan into a customer?

In my next post on the subject, I’ll be covering just that.

Until then, make sure you sign up to follow The Creative Wealth Project, so you never miss a post or a new featured artist!

Never stop learning and never stop creating.