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No Expectations 031: My Friends Are Having a Hard Time
Going to the Salt Shed, four brief film reviews, and a reminder that you should probably take a break soon.
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I’ve been a longtime subscriber to Todd Burns’ excellent and essential newsletter Music Journalism Insider since it launched in 2019 so it was an honor to be interviewed there. I was asked to talk about every step of my career so far, my thoughts on the State of the Industry, tips for people getting into this line of work, and a few other things. It’s an email interview that I wrote answers for all in one sitting. While that was personally cathartic to do, it probably makes me sound a little intense at times. Oh well. Overall though, I think it’s a solid read. I keep thinking about the people I missed when I was asked about the folks who helped me out early in my career and beyond, so if you’re reading that Q&A and feel snubbed I promise it wasn’t intentional. Thanks to everyone for reading this and to Todd for having me on this week. You can read it here but it’s only up for free until the 24th.
It’s OK to take a break sometimes
I did absolutely nothing on Monday and it ruled. I didn’t even check my email. I’m not sure if I’m about to hit burnout or if I already hit it long ago and just kept going. That said, last week was definitely a reminder of what not to do as a 31-year-old scheduling out my freelance workload and social life. I had three long-form publication deadlines, another 1000-word bio, the weekly newsletter, and consecutive social obligations from Thursday to Sunday. Thankfully, I got everything done, had a great time seeing friends who were in town, and went to a few spectacular shows. On Sunday night though, I knew I had to take it easy this week. Being perpetually in motion isn’t good for anyone. You need rest, relaxation, and to allow yourself time to stay put. If you don’t do that, you’ll run yourself down and get sick. Your work will suffer and your anxieties will compound.
Before all these deadlines stacked up, I had another five shows on my calendar this week. At this point, I’m probably only going to make one or two. While I’ve never regretted going to a show even when I’m exhausted, sometimes you gotta make the call to skip out. The older you get, a good night’s sleep is way more valuable than avoiding FOMO. When I was starting out as a music journalist, I’d wonder why I rarely saw older writers at gigs. I’m not even that old but I totally get it now. You can’t fit everything into your schedule and that’s OK. Life’s all about balance and there is no shame in saying no to plans or letting a friend use a ticket you bought instead. There will always be more gigs to go to and experiences to have.
Though many of my close friends and peers in freelance writing feel like they’re all grinding as hard now as they did in their early twenties, this sentiment feels pretty widespread for almost everyone with a job. When you’re stressed about deadlines and work, it can cloud the space you’d normally reserve for taking care of yourself. Don’t forget to take a breath and chill out.
What I listened to:
Gig report: Lake, Spun Out, Cabeza De Chivo at Thalia Hall (7/7)
Cadien Lake James has been quietly debuting solo songs as Lake since last year. With Twin Peaks on hiatus since the pandemic, he first played a show at Metro Chicago opening up for Liam Kazar, and then did another set at Avrom Farm Party in 2022. The new tunes remind me of Pinback, the Sea and Cake, and Alex G: they trade some of the laid-back, noodly rock vibes of his Twin Peaks songs for quieter, knottier pop. I heard some demos in 2021 and the songs were so memorable, I still knew the words seeing him play them a couple of years later at Thalia. He had a retooled band, reuniting with Peaks drummer Connor Brodner, singer Sima Cunningham, and a couple of his Column collaborators Javi Reyes and Dalton Allison, to name a few. The show ruled. Keep your eyes peeled for new music from Lake.
Spun Out is a dynamic and crate-digging synth rock band that came out of the end of influential Chicago indie rock outfit NE-HI. Their lineup has expanded and evolved since they first started playing shows, but their sets are consistently excellent. It’s the kind of thing I’m always down to see: Mikey Wells is a great frontman while James Weir has made the leap to synth from bass seamlessly. It’s been great to see Meat Wave’s Chris Sutter play in the band too. I’m betting there’s new music on the way. Cabeza De Chivo, who I first saw open for Spun Out at the Hideout in 2021, headlined. They specialize in locking into some mesmerizing grooves and are one of the best live bands in Chicago. I couldn’t stay for their whole set to make a late birthday hang for a friend who was visiting but I’m buying a ticket whenever they play next.
Gig report: Frankie Cosmos and Japanese Breakfast at The Salt Shed (7/9)
Until Sunday night, I incredibly hadn’t made it out to the Salt Shed. It’s Chicago’s newest major venue that converted the iconic Morton Salt Factory on the riverfront into a massive live music complex and entertainment district. When you walk in, it’s staggering what an undertaking it must’ve been and how nice it is inside and out. I’m used to local venues that have been Doing Things The Way They’ve Always Been Done—divey places with sticky floors, cheap drinks, and a setup not too different than what it was when it opened up. So, entering a pristine and amenities-filled 3000+ cap complete with neighboring shops and bars and food trucks was sort of a shock. I can’t argue with a $7 PBR and Old Style tallboy. But I do wonder who’s going to use the musical instrument store connected to the venue besides the touring bands playing the space that need something last minute. Still, it’s a gorgeous space: They did a great job.
For a venue this big, the sound is pretty immaculate. Frankie Cosmos opened up the gig and her band featured Cende frontman Cameron Wisch playing drums. As a trio, her songs filled the room perfectly and reminded me how much her catalog has stuck with me over the years. She’ll be back at the Empty Bottle on October 3rd.
Seeing Michelle Zauner and her bandmates headline Salt Shed could not have been a better introduction to this venue. Japanese Breakfast has been one of my favorite bands ever since 2016’s Psychopomp and each time I’ve seen them play, it’s been one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It’s wild to think that Lincoln Hall had Jbrekkie play first of three opening up for Jay Som and Mitski in 2016. I’ve gotten to know bassist Deven Craige over the years through his work as a tour manager and Michelle was the first person to do a Blind Spots interview when it moved to VICE (she had never heard Black Sabbath before so we crushed Miller High Lifes listening to it in the Bottom Lounge green room). To this day, it’s one of the most fun interviews I’ve ever done.
I went to the gig on day one so I missed the day two cover of Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago.” Still, Zauner has amassed hits. Her band, which that night included multi-instrumentalist Jill Ryan and Chicago’s Nico Segal on trumpet, could not have been better. I’m in awe of the band’s deserved ascent over the last couple of years but at the same time couldn’t be less surprised. All-timer night.
What I watched:
Air (Prime Video)
This Ben Affleck-directed movie about Michael Jordan’s Nike deal came about because some guy watched The Last Dance during the pandemic. Watching it, you can definitely tell. While it was just one segment in a 50-minute docuseries episode about Jordan’s massive popularity, screenwriter Alex Convery stretches the story to a 90-minute star-studded feature film. It’s not a bad watch but it’s also not very good. There are far too many ultra-specific and future-predicting lines like “It would be crazy if Michael Jordan became a six-time NBA champion, defensive player of the year, and league MVP and starred in a movie with Bugs Bunny.” These bits of crowd-pleasing dialogue are pretty stupid: everyone knows what happens to Jordan and Nike. Still, it’s a fun “dudes rock” hangout movie where Ben Affleck’s Phil Knight shows feet while Matt Damon and Jason Bateman’s characters compete to be the Most Divorced Guy at Nike.
Renfield is so underwhelming it’ll remind you of when Nic Cage was Hollywood’s laughingstock in the 2000s after a string of mediocre movies like Ghost Rider, The Wicker Man, Bangkok Dangerous, and several others. While he’s obviously an iconic enough actor to claw his way to become a deserved cult favorite in the past twenty years, he can’t save this film. This cornball vampire comedy literally opens up with a *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* “Yep, that’s me” bit where the protagonist (Nicholas Hoult) explains how he became Dracula’s familiar. The following hour and a half tries to lay it on pretty thick with Joss Whedon-level cringe writing but comes up with maybe only two laughs at most. With What We Do In The Shadows showing how vampire comedies can actually be funny, it’s incredible how much of a joyless slog this one is.
Bad Education (Max)
Cory Finley is the guy behind the 2017 pitch-black satire and thriller Thoroughbreds, which starred Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. I thought that film was brilliant in the way it was structured like a play and sorta did the White Lotus-style skewering of class and privilege in a subtler way. Finley has another movie out this year, so I checked out his Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney-starring film from 2019, Bad Education. The movie, which is on Max, is based on the true story of two Long Island superintendents who defrauded a public school out of $11 million. I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers for an assignment I’m working on and probably can’t talk about until the fall but I loved the way this movie picked apart how they got away with it for so long and how it all unraveled. It humanizes the scammers in a way that doesn’t excuse their behavior. Adulthood is a series of ethical choices you have to make, and you can see how easy it was for these people to dive into the pockets of taxpayer money for their own gain. Really well-done stuff here.
Bottle Rocket (Max)
I saw a tweet the other day that read, “It's crazy that Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson -- three contemporaries of the 90s indie boom who have gone on to experiment with evolving ideas of distinct & personal filmmaking -- still haven't topped their debut films. just magic in a bottle.” If this were true, that means PTA’s Hard Eight, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and Anderson’s Bottle Rocket are these filmmakers' crowning achievements. I don’t know. People will just say whatever online, I guess. But I realized I actually never saw Bottle Rocket or if I did, it’s been almost twenty years and I barely remember it. I watched it Tuesday and I’m sorry to report that it is not Anderson’s best movie. You can catch glimpses of the director’s style forming in real-time, which is thrilling. Also, Luke and Owen Wilson shine as the leads. However, it feels like an art student’s cutesy take on Michael Mann’s Thief, which funnily enough features a James Caan appearance. Ebert gave it two stars. It’s not bad and worth a watch to see what someone makes before they find their voice and the resources to realize that vision.
What I read:
Kyle Chayka on training A.I. to copy your writing style (LINK: New Yorker)
The looming presence of my personal A.I. model has indeed left me feeling a bit like an artisanal carpenter facing down a factory-floor buzz saw. Should I embrace being replaced and proactively automate my own job before someone else does? Could Robot Kyle help me write better, cleaner, faster? It seemed to think so. When I asked it to describe the long-term effects of machine-generated writing, Robot Kyle wrote, “Writers should not fear AI, but rather embrace it as a tool that can facilitate their craft, driving creativity and innovation instead of replacing it.” What, exactly, does Writer mean by the label “writer”? Our digitized world runs on filler text: avalanches of words and phrases written to optimize Web sites for search engines, to use as tags on social-media posts, and to employ in marketing newsletters that spam in-boxes. May Habib, the C.E.O. and the other co-founder of Writer, told me that the platform’s tools will automate the writing of “summaries, metadata, ads, distribution copy—all the stuff you spend time doing.” Victoria’s Secret, for instance, is using Writer to automate product copy for its underwear and swimsuits, but Writer promises something more sophisticated than mass-produced marketplace listings or formulaic e-mail blasts. Its core product, as Habib put it, is “automated insight extraction”—another way of describing the task of thinking, which is arguably the purpose of writing in the first place. As Joan Didion wrote, in 1976, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” A.I. programs such as Writer aim to supplant that process.
Katie Way on what’s going on at VICE (LINK: Hell Gate)
Meanwhile, a steady stream of editorial layoffs chugged on, while VICE lost other employees—including, eventually, me—to gigs that didn't involve begging a company allegedly worth millions of dollars for the basic resources required to do our jobs. I watched three different friends get laid off, one days after giving birth, another while they were in the process of finding out whether they had cancer, and the third while they were in the middle of cancer treatment. Last November, I watched my ex get laid off, along with almost everyone else left on the tiny team that comprised VICE.com, when we were both on vacation the day before his childhood friend's wedding. The HR representative who conducted my exit interview three months later revealed they were on their way out, too, and that the cash flow issues extended far beyond editorial—every department was bleeding workers.
But there's one area VICE's financial crisis doesn't seem to have touched: executive salaries. Newly public documents from VICE's May 15 bankruptcy filing lay out exactly how much money VICE's leadership made the year before the filing, the same period in which employees had to hassle their managers for basic newsroom resources. These documents show that the company's executives received mind-boggling retention bonuses along with biweekly paychecks for tens of thousands of dollars. This was all done in the midst of layoffs and as VICE's more lowly employees scrambled to produce work for a clearly sinking ship. As a former VICE employee and a born hater, these documents make for a fascinating read.
The Weekly No Expectations Chicago Show Calendar
Thursday, July 13: Protomartyr, Stuck at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Friday, July 14: Bonny Doon, Anna St. Louis, Hazel City at Thalia Hall. Tickets.
Friday, July 14: Deerhoof, Serengeti at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Saturday, July 15: Lawn, Gentle Heat, Eli Winter at Empty Bottle. Tickets.
Saturday, July 15: Footballhead, Habitats, Bottom Bunk, Friko at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Sunday, July 16: Alicia Walter, Carlile, Sima Cunningham at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Sunday, July 16: waveform*, They Are Gutting A Body Of Water, Teethe at Subterranean. Tickets.