I first met Devin Shidaker of The Acacia Strain over ten years ago when we were both aspiring musicians in the local Columbus, Ohio music scene. In fact, if it weren’t for the ingenuity of Shidaker’s band at the time, I never would have made it anywhere as a musician. They opened doors for my band to perform in Canada, got us to open large shows for touring artists, and always lent a helping hand when it came to borrowing equipment, finding places to practice, and just having a good group of friends to hang out with. I was fortunate enough to run into Devin the other night at our local home improvement store, where we had both made our second respective trips for the day (because we are old now, and that’s how old guys spend their Saturday nights). Shidaker had just purchased a home and was trying his damndest to get everything moved in before embarking on the Summer Slaughter Tour 2015, which begins in Denver, CO on July 28th.
Devin was kind enough to do an interview with me about his current work with The Acacia Strain, his beginnings in Columbus, and what it takes to be a working musician in today’s economic climate.
ZF: You’re getting ready to head out on the Summer Slaughter Tour, which will take you all over the United States and Canada. What “behind-the-scenes” things do bands generally have to do in order to prepare for a tour of this scale?
DS: Right now I’m sitting in our tour manager’s basement in Albany, NY, waiting on everyone else to wake up so we can make the hour and a half-ish drive to western Massachusetts, where our van and trailer are located (at Vincent’s house). Then we get to drive back here, unload some gear at the practice spot we are borrowing for a few days (THANK YOU BORN LOW!), and get our set as tight as possible before our first show on the way out to start the tour. During the week, our tour manager will take a trip down to our merch supplier (who thankfully is local to us), and pick up a bunch of boxes, get them counted, and have things sorted to start selling on the first day.
As far as hotels are concerned, that’s something we generally worry about the day of, just because you never know what kinds of things will change in the time before or during a show. We used to stay at people’s houses a lot to save money, but it’s really a coin toss on whether or not you’re going to stay with somebody who is accommodating and understands that you are tired and need rest, or somebody who wants to have some big stupid party and invite all of their friends over because a band they like is there. Those nights were always interesting, even though we hated them. As you get older while doing this whole touring thing, GOOD sleep becomes much more crucial.
ZF: The Acacia Strain signed with Rise Records (now owned by BMG) in 2012, prior to you joining. How has working with one of alternative music’s premier record labels helped you better understand the inner-workings of the music industry?
DS: Working with Rise Records has been nothing short of amazing. I have been on multiple labels in other bands, and none of them hold a candle to Rise. Typically you hear about labels constantly battling with bands over things like royalties, creative control, marketing, recording budgets, etc. With Rise though, we have not once had a single issue. They support their artists 100%, we have the final say on everything we do, and when it comes to our music, not one time have they tried to change or alter our sound. Of course children on the internet with zero understanding of how the music industry works like to say that we “sold out” or that it sucks that we signed with Rise, and they couldn’t be more wrong. I honestly feel like we would have fallen apart by now if it wasn’t for the nurturing environment provided to us by Rise. What most people don’t get is that labels are essentially just a financial institution for bands, much like a bank. They lend you money to make your record or whatever else, and they get paid back through your sales. More successful bands pay their labels back much faster, so they are generally given more attention. What is cool about Rise is that it’s like working with a bank that’s owned by your family who will do whatever it takes to help you be successful. They don’t treat us like we are just a source of fast cash or a loss they can write off on their taxes. We are human beings to them and they do what it takes to keep us going because they invested in us as a band, not just our success. I’m glad to have learned that in 2015 there exists a label like that.
In my last band, all our label cared about was when we were sending them money, even though we were one of their biggest selling acts at the time. They didn’t care if paying them meant that we couldn’t pay our own bills or if we lost our homes. They didn’t care about us. If you know what a “360 deal” is, that’s what we were unfortunately duped into signing (prior to my joining). For those that don’t know, it’s essentially a way for a label to bend you over and fuck you from behind for the duration of your contract. Not only do they own the rights to our music, but they own the rights to our merchandise and a lot of other things. Everything has to be printed through them, and they get paid just as much as the printing costs, which we also had to pay for. That means our shirts are costing us usually more than double what the average band is paying to manufacture them, and that eats into any profit we would have made. That’s an example of a bad label that is struggling to adapt to the 21st century, choosing to drain the life force from young bands who don’t know any better in order to keep themselves afloat. It’s horrible and I don’t want to see any other young bands going through something like that.
“All of your fans are important, and if you can do something for them, even if it’s a small gesture, they will remember that you didn’t put yourself above them and you will have a fan for life.”
ZF: Your debut full-length album with The Acacia Strain was 2014’s Coma Witch, which peaked at position #31 on the Billboard 200 charts. What sort of effort is required of the band and record label when it comes to promoting an album enough to land it on the charts?
DS: I think that to get a record to do really well, there are a lot of things that need to fall into place. Your band, your management, and your label all need to be on the same page, because if any one of those three aren’t happy with something, your record isn’t going to get the 100% push that it needs to get out there. Your label has to be happy with the record you’ve recorded, your management has to be happy with the way your record is being treated by the label, and they have to be happy as well, and your band has to be happy with everything. If you think your record sucks, you’re not going to be motivated to give it the push that it needs, and the same goes for the people putting it out. If they don’t think it’s good, they aren’t going to want to dump a bunch of money into marketing it. I think it’s also very important that you have a fan base who genuinely cares about what you’re doing.
As a band that formed in 2001, we have been lucky in that every record we have released has outperformed the one that came before it, and that’s largely due to our fans and how rabid they are with supporting us. We go out of our way to interact with them without being one of those bands who put themselves above their fans as if they aren’t worthy to meet them. We don’t do the “VIP Meet and Greet” thing because I think that’s it’s stupid to charge people money to meet you. We hang out in lawn chairs outside of our trailer every day on tour, and if you really want to meet us, you can walk over and do it. We will never tell you to go away, and we will never be too busy to say hi. I think that it’s unwise to assume that your fans will be okay with paying to meet you forever. They might do it when they are young, but I think when they grow up they will remember things like that. “Hey, remember that time we had to pay an extra twenty bucks just to meet so and so for 5 seconds? Why did we do that?” All of your fans are important, and if you can do something for them, even if it’s a small gesture, they will remember that you didn’t put yourself above them and you will have a fan for life. That’s why our fan base gets bigger and bigger, and that’s the main reason our record did so well when we released it.
“We certainly don’t care whether or not our music is accepted by mainstream society, because this music isn’t for them, it’s for us.”
ZF: With the rise of streaming and resurgence in vinyl record sales in recent years, have you noticed a shift in the way fans consume your music?
DS: Streaming has done nothing but help us out since it became so mainstream. I feel like less people are downloading music illegally because they can stream it from any of the services out there that are reasonably priced. I personally use Spotify and I love it. I have access to the majority of things that I want to listen to, whenever I want to. And when I listen to music on there, it’s helping the artist, albeit in a very small way. Before that, bands didn’t get anything from downloading, and it hurt. You have some people who just don’t care, they just want it for free, and then you have people who try to justify it by saying things like “oh I’ll support them directly by buying a shirt”. It’s a little better, but it’s kind of like going to the grocery store and stealing all of the ingredients for spaghetti, but paying for the garlic bread. You’re not really helping out the grocery store that much. With streaming, now we’re at least getting something from a lot of those people. I usually make enough from streaming each month to cover my car insurance or something, which isn’t much, but it’s something.
With that being said, I think vinyl has had a big resurgence because people like how collectible it is. A record comes out and you have this big, beautiful artwork that you don’t get with a CD, and in addition to your standard black records, there are usually a lot of color variants that are extremely collectible. People like knowing that that record they bought only has 99 others in the world that are that color. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something. On top of that, I think that streaming and digital downloads go hand in hand with vinyl, because now you can buy that record without needing to actually play it on your record player (although you should!). Most vinyl come with a download card or a CD so you can put the music on your phone or iPod and listen to it wherever you want. So that to me makes vinyl the ultimate format right now. As a music fan, vinyl is like the coolest thing you can own.
ZF: There has also been a change in recent years with metal music becoming more accepted by mainstream society. Do you think this has altered The Acacia Strain’s fan-base over the years?
DS: I think people are slowly coming around to us, they just need to see us live to get the full picture. A lot of people will listen to your music and their first reaction is “I don’t even know what the fuck this guy is saying”, but then maybe they read lyrics or they start to get an ear for it and they can make it out more. With us though, the music and lyrics aren’t the full picture. A lot of people will read lyrics and take everything said literally, and not look any deeper. A lot of our lyrics are metaphorical, and if you look at them from different perspectives, they can paint a completely different picture than what you may have originally thought. Then if you come to one of our shows, you will realize that this band is about living your life with no compromise, not letting anyone but yourself dictate who you are going to be, and having fun. We aren’t trying to be more “brutal” than any other band, we aren’t trying to be flashy on stage, and we certainly don’t care whether or not our music is accepted by mainstream society, because this music isn’t for them, it’s for us. We play what we want to play, how we want to play it, and luckily for us people like it. If they didn’t, we’d still be doing it the way we want to.
ZF: If there was one thing you could change about the way the music industry operates, what would it be?
DS: I would really like more bands out there to bet on themselves. Too many bands that pop up today are just variations of other bands that already exist. There are a lot of talented people out there who will never reach their full potential because they want to play it safe and do things that have been proven to work by other bands. When a band comes out and does something new and exciting for the first time, other bands go “hey, we should do that!”, and then you end up with a bunch of clones that are talented, but they usually get overlooked or eventually fizzle out.
ZF: When you were an unsigned musician, your most popular band was 1931, which was hardly local. You toured the United States, Canada, and even had interest from across the pond. What were some of the struggles you faced as an aspiring artist which made you a more experienced musician?
DS: In 1931, there were a lot of opportunities we missed out on because we didn’t have the experience to know any better. We would get approached by brand new labels who also had zero experience, and we would be pumped because we thought “holy shit we’re going to get SIGNED!” Of course these “labels” would fall apart within a few months, and nothing was ever done by them to help us out while they existed. I think that 1931 was a learning experience more than anything. It taught me how to improvise on tour when bad shit happens, because as a young band with no money, you can’t afford to fix your van, you can’t afford to eat, you can’t afford to sleep, you can’t afford to do anything. So you have to learn to improvise to stay alive and stay on the road, and I think we did that pretty well for what we were. We lasted from 2004 to 2009 which I think is a pretty good run for an unsigned touring band.
ZF: After the breakup of 1931, you toured with Cincinnati-based band Rose Funeral, then eventually settled into playing with Earache Records band Oceano. How did it feel to finally be a part of an established and consistently touring/recording band?
DS: At first, it was awesome to be in a band that toured constantly and actually played in front of people. As time went on though I realized that I was on a sinking ship due to the treatment of the band from our label, the money we weren’t bringing in, and the time we didn’t have to work on music. The thrill of being established eventually wears off if things aren’t working out the way they should.
ZF: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that it was pertinent for you to tour as much as possible, something you weren’t getting from Oceano. In an industry as unstable as independent music, how did it feel to make the jump from leaving one band for another?
DS: Making the decision to leave was not an easy one to make. As I said before I could see that the ship was sinking for me, and if it got to a certain point I would have to quit the band and get a job at home. I can’t sacrifice my well-being to go on tour and make no money just because it’s something I love doing. Luckily I got the offer to be a part of TAS, and after a lot of deliberation in my head everything fell in to place and I’m where I am supposed to be right now. It was a difficult decision to make because I consider everyone that was in Oceano with me family, and it’s hard to leave your family. But they all understand and thankfully things are on the upswing for them. Their new album is fucking awesome.
ZF: Do you think it’s possible for aspiring musicians to juggle a day job with their music career?
DS: It’s possible but it’s extremely difficult. Most places don’t want to hire somebody who is going to leave constantly. They don’t see you as being reliable. If you can find a place that will let you tour, hold on to that job for as long as is humanly possible. TAS is by no means a huge source of income for all of us, so when we aren’t on tour I still struggle to make ends meet, and it’s something I wish I didn’t have to do, but such is life.
ZF: You and your wife live in Ohio, but the rest of The Acacia Strain are from Massachusetts. What is it like balancing family life and coordinating practice, writing, recording, touring, and general band business from several states away?
DS: It’s kind of a headache. We are actually spread out all over the place. I live in Ohio, Vincent lives in Massachusetts, Kevin lives in New York, Griffin lives in Iowa, and Richie lives in California. We don’t have our own practice spot because we’d be throwing money away on something we never get to use. We have to meet up a few days before a tour starts so that we can rehearse, and if we’re writing, we have to all go to a central location so we can work on things together. It’s a headache because nobody wants to be away from home when you aren’t making any money, but we do what we have to. I miss the days where 4/5 members of my band lived in the same neighborhood and I was able to have band practice whenever I wanted to in my own basement. Life was way easier back then!
ZF: You’re slated to spend the entirety of the month of October touring across Europe. What are some of the barriers for bands to play in foreign countries?
DS: If you’re somewhat established, a lot of the things like visas and gear rentals will be handled by the agency bringing you over to play, that being said, it’s still a headache. There are a lot of things that can really fuck up a tour that people don’t realize. For example, if you have any sort of criminal record and you try to get into Canada, chances are you are going to be denied entry. I have lost count of the number of friends I’ve had over the years who couldn’t get in because of something stupid from their past that comes back to bite them in the ass. The same kinds of things can happen going overseas as well. It’s not as strict with getting in, but if you’re bringing any gear over, be prepared to have it scrutinized and be ready to get screwed by people at the airport saying that you have to pay extra money to transport it or that you have to pay customs fees. I’ve been lucky so far, but luck runs out. Language barriers are a pain in the ass so if there isn’t somebody with us who can speak the language, I don’t even try. I took German for three years in high school, and it hasn’t helped me once in Europe.
“People in this industry respect people who respect themselves.”
ZF: Do you have any words of wisdom for current aspiring musicians?
DS: Anyone can “make it” if you work hard enough at it. The industry is all about working hard, who you know, and how they know you. What I mean by that is that somebody who knows you as a hard worker who will bust your ass for them is going to be the most willing to help you succeed in whatever it is you’re trying to do. The music industry is built primarily on relationships between people, and you want to have good relationships. Don’t burn bridges that you may need to cross in the future. With that being said, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel you’re being taken advantage of. People in this industry respect people who respect themselves.
The Acacia Strain are currently on the Summer Slaughter Tour which will make an appearance at the Northland Performing Arts Center in Columbus on August 3rd. Tickets can be purchased here.