In Jersey City, mention the name Tris McCall to people, and they’re likely to free associate a variety of things: The New Jack Trippers, 111 First St., the 2004 election, live music, urban development, Jersey pride, and, of course, the Tris McCall Report. He's been very active in the city's artistic, and at times political, scenes, but at heart he's a musician. I'm Assuming You're All In Bands is his latest release. He recently took a moment to reflect on the ever-blurring lines between his life’s work and art.
Art: I’m a singer, piano player, and synthesist in four active bands: Kapow!, Overlord, My Teenage Stride, and my own. Besides that, I play on other bands’ albums if I’m asked nicely enough, and I write record reviews, essays, stories, and plays. The line between “work” and work has been blurry lately. If I’m paid for a record review that I would have written for free, and in the exact same way, is that work or pleasure?
Location: Grand Street, Jersey City
Day job: Independent writer
What's the worst or most interesting thing that's happened to you at work?
For my two most upstanding years, I was a researcher and analyst for a management consulting company that worked with nonprofit organizations. The clients were all NGOs doing commendable things -- educating poor people, fighting for reproductive rights, raising awareness about global warming, the whole nine. So every time I screwed up and lost papers and invoices or calculated something wrong -- which was just about every day -- not only did I let my employers down, but I was hindering a legitimately progressive cause. Talk about a guilt factory. Like all my brushes with politics, it ended in disaster.
Does work ever conflict with your art?
In 1998, I was given two-week temp assignment at a publishing company in New York City. There was absolutely nothing for me to do. Nobody was even sure why I was there. I did, however, have a computer. So I spent the entire first week playing solitaire and minesweeper, and by the time the weekend came, I felt horrible about it. I was determined to make the most of my second week. I started writing on Monday, and by the following Friday, I’d finished an entire play. Trouble was, I wasn’t authorized to save anything the computer, and I hadn’t met anybody who’d be inclined to help me. I didn’t have a password, and I couldn’t get on the network. The computer wouldn’t allow me to insert a floppy disk, either. So I left that Friday without a copy of the play. Theoretically it is still sitting on the company’s server. Perhaps someday someone will even read it.
Do you have health insurance?
I do, and I should probably use it. I haven’t been to a doctor in fifteen years. I’m very frightened of what they’ll find; that I’m about to kick it, or, worse, that I have a secret debilitating condition and I need to be medicated for the rest of my life. I picked the doctor out of a hat, more or less -- I just opened the HMO booklet and selected the first name that appealed to me. I think she’s Dr. Graziella Somebody.
Who are the three people you'd most like to have at one of your shows, in terms of helping your music career?
It wouldn’t help my career, but I would like to do a show for Lloyd Alexander, since his books are my absolute favorite and have scripted my life to an unhealthy degree. He’s got to be in his eighties now, so I wouldn’t want to rock him too hard, but still. Also, it would be great to play for Suzanne Vega, or Paul Kantner, because it’s hard to imagine being more motivated to make an impression than you’d be if your heroes were there in the crowd. I’d just love to give something back after all they’ve given me. Matt and Eleanor Friedberger have never seen me play with my band, and I would love to impress them, since I’m blown away by what they do. See, I just want the people who I think are great to think I’m great. That’s all I’m in it for.
If Wal-Mart approached you about putting your music in an ad, for a large sum, would you do it?
Any last thoughts on the relationship between work and art?
I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for a musician or a writer to work an office job for a little while. You’ll be exposed to new discourses and ways of thinking, and that can actually be fruitful. The key is getting out before it starts to colonize your brain. A year is probably long enough. Most musicians are terrible office employees and will be fired before a year is out, so in a way, God takes care of his own. There is definitely a danger in overstaying. The office drone is a real thing, and even the wackiest and most off-the-wall character can become one if he’s not careful. All it takes is a little taste of success and validation, and the next thing you know, you’re saying “in regards to” and “as opposed to” and piling on the management-speak. And then it’s game over, pal.
I read an interview with J.K. Rowling in which she said that she was a terrible office worker and that she was ashamed of that -- that there was nothing ennobling about screwing up. I completely understood what she meant. You can only sustain the romantic fantasy of the above-it-all-artist for so long; after you get canned a few times, you just start to feel worthless. I am very lucky that I write words as well as music, because it’s possible to make some (not lots of) dough as an independent writer, and spend the workday doing something that you’re actually good at. People who are musicians through and through -- people who are musicians by religion and not by choice -- are kinda screwed, because no matter how talented you are, there just isn’t any way to make money doing it anymore -- unless you’re Young Jeezy.
On the Web: Tris McCall
Day Job is a weekly column examining the contradictions, conflicts and convergence between “work” and “art.”