Dream Small, Act Big: How To Make It In The Music Industry

Ben Ely

BEN ELY (Regurgitator)

www.regurgitator.net

What do you feel was the lowest point in your career? When did you feel the closest to giving up?

I don’t think I ever felt like giving up at the start.

I guess I kind of put myself through a lot, I remember sleeping in the back of cars, and alleyways in Sydney after a gig because we couldn’t afford accommodation. None of that stuff ever seemed to bother me, and I really enjoyed it. Later on, when I was in my mid-thirties, and I’d had my first daughter, I felt like, “I don’t know if I can keep this up, keep up the touring, being away from family”. It’s difficult, so that sort of stuff is when I second-guessed it a little bit. But when I was younger, I was really f*cking enjoying it.

How did you cope with this? How did you move past that feeling?

We kind of cut back on touring, had a break for a year or two here and there. That gives you time to realise how good it is, having a career in music, and how much joy it’s brought us, being creative people especially. I think it’s a really great outlet, being in a band, cos you can do visual art, videos, fashion in t-shirts and merchandise as well as doing music, composition, live performance – there’s just so many facets. It’s almost a multi-media project, being in a band, which is what I really like about it.

And I’d do it in different ways as well – I did a bit of soundtrack work for films and TV, and I’ve been doing composition for contemporary dance at the moment. Just doing different things, like visual art, has helped me appreciate being in a band.

It’s like family. Regurgitator feels like family, Quan feels like my brother cos we’ve been together for 25 years or so. And our manager Paul is kinda like our dad. More of a dad to me than my dad! 

It’s really good. Every time we see each other, it’s like a really nice family reunion where we get to play music and travel together. I really think absence makes the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it?

How long did it take you to get to the point where your income from music was sustaining you?

I remember, after we had this conversation on the swing set at Quan’s place, where we were like “We need to do this, we need to set ourselves goals, we need to sustain ourselves”, we were touring and the crowds were starting to get bigger and bigger.

We hit a point where we got a wage, so we started putting some money in the bank and I remember that being a very proud moment. And then all of a sudden things blew up, cos we flew to Bangkok and recorded our first album, and when we put it out this right-wing religious group in Queensland tried to get it banned from Kmart and major department stores. And because of that, it became a bit of a story in the news, about how we were this band whose lyrics were too dirty, and Christian groups are trying to ban us. So then everyone went and bought the record. That Christian group kinda helped us sustain a living off music, which is pretty funny.

Then we went on tour with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, started getting more fans from that tour, played Big Day Out… we kind of were growing with other things that were growing in the Australian music scene in the 90s, like triple j was growing, BDO was growing, and we were involved with both those things. I remember that being a really great thing.

I hadn’t spoken to my father in six years because he was so adamantly against me playing music for a living.

Then we sold out a show at Festival Hall, and mum made my dad come to the gig and he talked to me for the first time since high school. It was shit that he just started talking to me after the fact, after he realised I was making money from it.

I would never do that to my kid, I would support whatever they wanted to do as long as they were happy. I don’t really place a lot of value on money, I think so long as you’ve got a rich life and you’re creating and have friends, that’s more important than having a good cash flow.

Has it been all uphill from that point, or are there still days where you feel a little down on the music industry?

It’s up and down! We’ll go through periods of time were we don’t play for ages, it’s always like that if you’re your own boss and running your own business.

You have to keep pushing it to keep it going, and if you just neglect it then the money starts to run out.

But a word that Warner Brothers kept using was “momentum”, saying that things should keep growing – I don’t think that’s true, necessarily, as a musician. If you can get by with enough to still support your art and the work that you wish to do, that’s the biggest hurdle to get over, I think.

If you can just make enough to survive, and sustain your art. But obviously, over our career of 25 years, we’ve had a lot of highs at the start and then we’ve just been sort of cruising along in the past 10 years or so. But, you know, we still get by. 

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice about expectations, goal-setting and how to approach your career in general, what would you say?

I would say to keep going, and if you really wanna do it, just go for it.

And the other thing is – I love Quan, whenever we get together we have this real juvenile sense of humour that I don’t have with anyone else, we create together in this really strange way that I love. So looking back, I’d say just work hard, but Quan and I were always a little bit obsessive, and probably worked too hard to the point where our friends or partners might get a little shitty at us! I think that’s really healthy, and it’s okay, just work as hard as you can and treat it like a full time job.

If the older me spoke to younger me, I’d probably be a lot less stressed, I’d know it was going to be okay.

Do you feel that you’re happy with where you are now in your career? Is there anything more you want to set out to achieve?

I would like to make some more shows were people don’t know what they’re seeing.

I think, in the modern world, everything is so pigeonholed and constructed, and people live in these little circles. There’s a contemporary dance world, there’s a theatre world, there’s rock music, there’s folk music; and you go to these different shows with these expectation of it being a certain way.

I’d love to put on a show where people go to a show and people just don’t know how to react, I’d love to do a show that’s got dance, and art, and noise and feedback, industrial sounds or whatever. That’s what I’m trying to develop at the moment, a show that really surprises people, and hopefully they can kind of maybe become part of the show themselves. It’d be good to do something that challenges the audience as well as myself.

I guess you’ve got to always keep moving ahead and doing something new. But I do feel very satisfied with what has happened in my life, like if I was to get hit by a truck and I was lying on the road, in my last five minutes I would be like, “Yeah, that was a pretty good life!” [laughs] That sounded pretty grim! But I think that I would go, “I had a good time, and I did what I wanted with my time”. So I feel quite satisfied in that way.

In today’s climate, what do you think would be a realistic goal for new artists to achieve by the end of one year actively pursuing a career in music like yours?

I guess just to get a really, really good team of people around you, where you can work together.

Look for that soulmate in music. You can obviously do it solo, but if you want to play music in a band, I think music is about getting together as a community, as a group, and kind of bouncing off each other and reaching this higher level together.

So I think the strength is definitely in your team.

It’s like the Avengers. You got your Iron Man, and your Hulk guy, you know! [laughs] They all have a role, they make the team better, they save the universe and everyone’s happy. But I think that’s important, that you’re friends, that they’re people you can connect with personally and you enjoy their company more than their technical proficiency or talent. Cos you’re gonna be sitting in a car with them for 12 hours a day. So friendships and community are important when it comes to music.

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