"NOTHING TO DO BUT FIGURE IT OUT," A Conversation with Spencer Peppet of The Ophelias and Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW)
How does touring affect your emotional and physical health during and post tour?
Touring is hard! It’s a lot of fun, but the band and I have all had to figure out what works for us. At one point I was having a hard time and feeling overwhelmed with the work of being both the front-person and our de facto tour manager, so we talked about it and delegated the duties on the next tour. Physical health is a tough one – on our last long tour, I got hit with some kind of mysterious bug in the middle and ended up in the hospital in New Mexico. A couple days later I was fine, but I found myself mostly worrying about whether or not we would be able to make up the money we would be losing from missing the shows on the nights I was too sick to play. I’m very grateful for my bandmates, they took really good care of me!
Is it hard for you to find community within the music community that isn’t centered around drinking or other sometimes destructive behaviors?
I feel very lucky to have found community with musicians in a different way – through organizing! I’m an organizer with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, and I’ve made friends and comrades through the org that I feel connected to and in solidarity with. I do most of my work with UMAW when I’m not on tour, but I still try to go to the meetings on the road (they’re virtual, so my bandmates get to / have to hear me talk about all the fun inner workings of union stuff). I think having that community beyond just the touch-and-go closeness that I can sometimes feel on the road is really grounding – it’s a different feeling than “we’re passing through your city, let’s grab a drink!” though that can definitely be fun too. This is a longer term, more involved commitment, and it provides real solidarity that can be hard to find.
Some musicians experience a double bind, where they are touring too much to have a reliable day job yet don’t make enough money solely through their music to get by. Have you been in this position? What did you have to do to make touring feasible for you?
We have definitely been in this position! We all currently have other jobs on top of music and touring. I edit textbooks and do random odd jobs (sewing costumes for music videos, selling things I’ve made, etc), Jo is a freelance VFX artist as well as a researcher for a university, Mic is a substitute teacher, and Andrea is in grad school but our touring violinists do other kinds of gigging work. We chose jobs that we could either do on the road or were more flexible out of necessity.
Do you feel like there is financial, and emotional sustainability and stability in being a touring musician? Or do you have an alternative plan down the road?
No! I don’t. LOL. It can feel Sisyphean to think about everything that would need to change for touring to become completely stable and sustainable. There are a couple things that immediately come to mind, though! The average guarantee for an opening band (or small headliner) hasn’t changed since the late 90’s and would be almost double if it moved with inflation. That can’t happen until venues can make more from the shows as well, which means… ba bum! We need a livable minimum wage (and universal healthcare!). I’m no economist, but I think that if working people weren’t struggling to pay their bills on a $7.25 minimum wage, more people would be able to go to shows, buy merch, buy drinks, etc. If the costs of living continue to rise and the minimum wage doesn’t move, it puts incredible strain on everyone (including musicians, for whom a night’s pay often comes out to pennies when accounting for the time spent working and the split between the members).
What existential thoughts or moments have you had on the road? What insights has it produced for you?
I have found a lot of peace on the road, which is partially why I enjoy it so much. In my daily life I like to be able to control things, but when I’m thousands of miles from home and something goes wrong, there’s nothing to do but figure it out. I can’t be weird about my pillow touching things, I need to eat to fuel myself to play the shows and interact with people, and my socks are going to get gross. That’s just what happens! And for some reason, that’s allowed me to find some peace. I have to throw my hands up a little and say okay.
How can we as a Society make the music industry better?
I think it comes down to care – caring about the art people make, genuinely wanting to connect to it on a deeper level, giving artists time to grow and change, listening when they do. I’m on TikTok (like everyone else in the world, lol) and there’s a creator @oldloserinbrooklyn who talks about the accelerating trend cycle. She’s talking about fashion and the way that trends so quickly flare up and die out, but I think the same thing can be applied to music. I actually love TikTok and I’m awed by the power it has, so I don’t think they have an inherently bad model, but I guess I would hope that out of the song-based trends that are so popular on the platform (which in nature are fleeting, a trend doesn’t stay trendy forever) come at least a couple people who return to that artist and give them a little more time.
That hope may be a little optimistic when everyone has to work a million jobs and free time is a valuable commodity, but if we’re talking individually that’s what I’d say.
On a larger Capital-S-Society level, I think grants to musicians and venues, fair pay for streaming, universal healthcare, a livable minimum wage, increased disability accommodations, Safer Spaces training, and funding for community resources like gear libraries and label co-ops would be some really great places to start.
Celebrity moments - any celebs come to a show? Give us the hot goss!
We met the icon, the king, the now-friend-and-collaborator Julien Baker because she came to our show in Nashville! This was like, 2019? We were opening for Finom (fka Ohmme) at Drkmttr, and a friend tapped me on the shoulder and went “DON’T LOOK. Is that… Julien Baker??” And it was! We had no idea she was coming and we were so nervous, LOL. She chatted with us at the merch table after, we immediately hit it off, and we’re super lucky that we got to keep in touch and collaborate after that. She’s the best.
What’s the most “extra” thing you have brought on the road? Alex’s bass player once brought a body pillow.
Mic’s new thing is rockhounding, so he brought a satchel of rock gear on the last tour. A chisel, a hammer, safety goggles, the whole deal. We all got really into it and would plan our routes to go past cool rock spots. He found a couple really sick crystals and a lot of limestone.
Jo is also pushing to get a portable grill? I don’t really know how or why we would use one, but Jo and Mic are always coming up with schemes. I think I’ll stand by my original take, which is that we don’t have room in the car (lol).
How do you deal with writer's block or creative slumps?
Most of the time I write in bursts, so I’ll write a ton in a couple months and then go the same amount of time without writing anything. I find that if I’m in a period of not writing and I want to get back to it or I have the itch to create something, I’ll try to push myself to write something that feels out of my comfort zone. I was messing around on my computer and made a hyperpop song that way! I don’t think The Ophelias will become a hyperpop band but it was a really fun experiment, and it made me think about ways I could potentially use those sounds in other ways. I also love getting to play with my bandmates irl. We’re all in different cities right now so we don’t get to play together as often as we used to, but when we do it feels so supportive and experimental and solid.
What’s the most special moment you have had recording? That sort of “ah ha!” moment.
There have been a lot of special moments, but a more recent one was actually doing demos for something we’ve been working on (👀). I had sent a version to the band from one city and Andrea recorded her parts in another, and I remember listening to it as I was walking through Central Park to meet a friend. She added the most gorgeous, layered, dramatic, cool part in a song that I never would have thought of, and I had to stop walking, double over, and play it again. I can’t wait for people to hear it.