Making it in music: Jake Leech looks to get a wider audience
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Jake Leech doesn't have a draw.
As the industry defines it, a draw is what makes a performer or group worth booking, an estimate of how many people will attend a concert. Venues in larger cities will often ask potential entertainers what their draw is before they sign them on for a show.
"Most small bands don’t have a draw, and that’s not the point. The point is that this small band is trying to get out there," Leech said.
And that's just what Leech is trying to do. He and other young musicians have to “get out there” before they can develop a draw. But living in St. Louis, he's been given access to a community of musicians that he otherwise may not have had.
"I feel like I have gotten a lot of really neat opportunities to open for bigger national acts, like Youth Lagoon, for instance. Or Lotus Plaza, which is a side project of Deerhunter. Or coming up now [is a show] with Calvin Johnson. ... He started K Records. K Records put out Beck’s and Modest Mouse’s first albums," Leech said.
But he wants to go bigger. I've known Leech since our days at Clayton High School. Then he performed in a small underground band called Zebras in the Backyard and went on to a solo project as Kid Counselor. As of the new year, he has been performing under his own name, creating ambient music and writing songs. He talked with me about how he approaches trying to take his music to the next level.
Leech has been living at home as he works on his associate’s degree, which he expects to get in the spring of 2014.
“Kind of ironically, I have one year left to play in St. Louis, and what I want to do with it is play other places than St. Louis,” he said.
While performing in St. Louis has been "very positive" for him, providing a number of learning opportunities, Leech recognizes that he won't get the full experience of a working musician until he ventures out into the so-called real world.
"As a baby, you put your legs in the water and move around, and you’re like, 'Oh, OK, this is maybe what it feels like to swim.' But until someone drops you in a pool, you really don’t know what that feels like," he said in an analogy.
He said that a good point about St. Louis is that audiences are not hard to find. Larger cities often have shows starting at 10:30 p.m. or later, open only to audiences age 21 or older, with higher ticket prices at venues that are not necessarily easy to access. Here, bigger name bands will perform at smaller venues for $20 tickets or less.
Still, Leech has trouble defining St. Louis as artistically progressive.
“There’s not a lot of eager people to expand music. There are not enough record labels; there are not enough people that are thinking about music on a national scale in this town,” he said. “If you’re to be an artist — to be taken seriously, to be put up on the national scale — you have to go somewhere where the art is being taken seriously.”
Chicago is an option that readily comes to mind. Living expenses and a recent disappointing experience in the Windy City have persuaded him against it.
“I just didn’t feel at home. It felt Midwestern, which I like, and it’s a big city. But I like my car,” he said.
The symbolism of the car is important to him. The album Leech recently released, “Brightest Night to Memory,” is based on the experience of driving around the odd and secret parts of Clayton. He’s taken me to some of these, many in the downtown area, to better explain some of his new perspectives of his hometown. Much of his appreciation can be attributed to the cityscape.
“You walk through [an] alleyway — it might look kind of sketchy, there might be broken glass, there’s Dumpsters — it’s an alleyway, more or less trashy, but it’s in Clayton. So it has this very dark, kind of city landscape, but it’s in this town that almost feels permanently safe,” Leech said.
In high school, a number of us would refer to Clayton as “the bubble,” so much that it inspired the title of our senior yearbook: “Inside the Bubble.”
The danger-free feel of “the bubble” inspired the feel of “Brightest Night to Memory.”
“With this album, it’s more ambient and less structured, so it feels maybe a little unsafe, you don’t really know where it’s going, but I really tried not to abuse that privilege. I don’t feel like there’s ever a scary moment,” Leech said. “It’s very soft, it’s very pretty, but I don’t think it doesn’t have grit.”
Leech often uses the word “pretty” in describing the types of sounds he hopes to create. He grew up listening to U2, gaining an admiration for the “wall of sound” it would create by adding reverberations and echoes via effects.
The ambient music he has created is in direct contrast with noise music, which has loud, distorted and destructive sounds, including, for example, TV static. Leech “hates that stuff."
“I don’t want to sit at home and just make destruction,” he said. “When I think about the concept of making a horror movie, like making ‘Saw’ or something ... I’m like, how can those people go to bed at night knowing they made something so horrible? ... Something can be horrible but with a point. This is just horrible for horrible’s sake.”
Leech is not against distortion itself. But he would prefer to use it in a purposeful way.
“I feel like, if you’re going to be making art and being an artist, you have a responsibility of making something that’s going to help push the world toward a happier or better direction,” he said.
This is much in line with Leech’s own desire to make music that would become meaningful for other people. But music isn’t just for others. In high school, he came up with an analogy for happiness I never forgot: When someone finds themselves in a crashing plane, the instructions are always to put on their own air mask before assisting other passengers. Similarly, Leech believes that we cannot make others happy until we make ourselves happy.
For him, putting on his own air mask first means playing music, recording and performing.
“I get to stand in front of humans who spent money to see me, and they sat and watched me play for like 20 minutes to half an hour. That’s incredible to me,” he said.
Performance in practice
In the hopes of making others happy, he says he is constantly trying to balance making something that is pretty and soft but not so soft that it’s in the background and “not making it worth people’s time to come see me,” he said.
Despite receiving compliments after shows, Leech noted that it’s often difficult to determine just how he’s being received.
After a show “you go online and you hope that you’ll see that new people have ‘liked’ you from the show and, just, nothing. Or you go to Bandcamp or Soundcloud and it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s see if my plays have gone up at all.’ Flatlining. So it’s kind of hard to get that momentum going, I think,” he said.
As he thinks about how to promote his work, Leech has put more consideration into which shows he will play. He says he’s getting pickier about “smaller shows [where] no one’s going to show up, no one really cared about my music, I’m probably not going to get paid, I’m going to haul all of my crap there to do nothing, I’m probably not going to sell any of my stuff,” he said.
More money, more problems
One of the benefits of living at home, though, is that Leech does not necessarily need to sell the little merchandise he has or count on funds from tickets. In fact, many of the times that he did get paid, he gave the cash to the touring band, which he figured needed it more.
At the same time, this sense of comfort is in opposition with Leech’s idea of what it means to be fulfilled as a creative person.
“I like to dream a lot about being a touring musician, and having a claim, and being respected and loved, and I play a random town somewhere in Germany and it’s a sold out show. Of course, who wouldn’t want that?,” he said. “It’s kind of the idea of more money, more problems, in that way. I have been struggling with the idea [that] to be an artist, you kind of have to have a fairly unconventional life.”
He realizes that having a family and having a music career do not mesh easily. However, he doesn’t see himself ever leaving music behind.
“I’m actively fighting that, that I would ever get to a space where I would be like, ‘Well, I tried music, but then I gave up and realized (giving up) was stupid,’” Leech said.
Right now, not giving up means looking into new challenges and opportunities presented by what will be his last year in St. Louis.
He talks about doing a “Midwestern tour” during which he would travel to college campuses in Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to play solo shows for one or two nights.
Leech said he is still rather uncertain about where he would want to go or what he would want to do next year.
“I think that I am hyper-aware of the art I’m making and the direction I’m trying to take it, to extents that drive myself crazy,” he said. “But I feel like I’d much rather drive myself crazy than be uninspired.”