Finger Eleven’s Newfound DIY Attitude
They’ve been one of Canadian rock’s most popular bands for over 15 years, but even Finger Eleven had to learn to stretch budgets and take on more tasks themselves
By Michael Raine
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Canadian Musician
“My perspective is maybe very different than your readers’ because we’ve had many, many years of success and are now having a chance to almost take an outside look at ourselves and reduce it down to its honest elements again,” offers Finger Eleven guitarist and founding member James Black. His band, of course, has been very successful. After forming in the early 1990s and slogging it out in rehearsal spaces and dive bars for nearly 10 years, they found mainstream success with the 2000 LP The Greyest of Blue Skies. The album kicked off years of commercial growth, with their next two albums, 2003’s self-titled release and 2007’s Them vs. You vs. Me, both going platinum in Canada and the latter’s single “Paralyzer” going double-platinum in the U.S. After two decades and six albums, including last year’s Five Crooked Lines, as well as countless tours, Finger Eleven has learned the lessons of success and failure in an industry that looks much different than it did when they were young.
For a recent acoustic tour with American band 10 Years, the members of Finger Eleven saw a chance to go back to basics. Actually, it was very basic for a band that had gotten used to tour buses, crews, riders, and the other conveniences of mid- and large-scale tours. For this, it was just the band members travelling in a van, no techs, and bassist Sean Anderson even booking the hotels himself.
“Just that one tour, we found that a lot of the functions that you get on the bigger tours, like all the amenities and stuff, they add up and that’s a lot of dollars and a lot of money that could be spent on other parts of the band that end up being a sandwich tray that sits on a table in a room that nobody goes into all day,” says Black.
Putting himself back in the mindset of an up-and-coming band, Black says for any band or artist who sees gradual success, the tendency is for each tour to be slightly bigger or nicer than the last. “The nature of touring is that it will always want to bloat and get bigger,” he warns. “You’ll want to hire another guy to do this and another guy to do that and you want to have a bigger rider and all that, and it’s amazing, but it’s all coming from somewhere. It sucks to be the guy who is thinking that way because I remember being like, ‘No, I want the free food and the free booze and I don’t give a fuck where it comes from.’ But looking back at it now with a little bit of wisdom, all that stuff, the people involved and everyone you add to it, make sure it’s worth it because that is what you end up trying to pay to maintain. That’s really what sustaining your band is, is earning enough money to keep the thing going and the wheels greased.”
Black and Anderson acknowledge that for the tour with 10 Years, because they were in an opening slot, they were able to avoid many costs that come with being on a headlining tour, but there were still lessons to learn. “Hotels is a big one,” says Anderson. “Now I’m 44, and I mention that because I was reading about a young band and basically they wouldn’t spend money on hotels. They would stay at people’s houses or connect through social media and be like, ‘Hey, you can stay at my place when you’re in town and we’ll stay at your place when we’re in your town.’ I looked that and thought, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ but I don’t know if I’d be up for doing that now at this stage in the game because now we’re older. If you’re 22 or something, I could see that. But that was pretty cool because otherwise it costs a lot of money to tour. For us, it is just looking to see, really, ‘OK, what do we really need?’ The tough part about that, of course, is balancing it out because you don’t want to sell the show short, either.”
The other balancing act Anderson says they had to learn is to weigh cost and comfort. They’d double up two to a room many nights to cut costs, but Anderson would also book separate rooms for days off when they’d be spending more time at the hotel, for example, so as to avoid band members killing each other.
Off the road, budgets across the board aren’t what they used to be when Finger Eleven broke out in 2000 and record labels were flush with cash. As such, the band has learned to save where possible and utilize their skills. A good example is the video for the 2015 single “Not Going to Be Afraid.” Their label said there wasn’t a budget for a video, so they did it themselves. Black has a passion for animation and some experience directing short films, so he and a friend created an elaborate animated video for the song themselves.
“Our budget was non-existent. I did the treatment on it and a black and white storyboard of the whole thing and I submitted it to some great production houses that we’d made videos with in the past and they all came back with a rather large budget to get it done,” he recalls. “[The label was] like, ‘No, no, no, a tenth of that.’ So I knew exactly how I wanted this to be and it is almost like a gesture, this budget compared to how much work is going to be put into this and Rich [Misener] was in for the challenge. It looked like we weren’t really going to get to have anything otherwise, or it was going to be something very cheap.”
Budget-wise, it was far cry from the expensive videos Finger Eleven’s label funded in the past for “Paralyzer” or “One Thing,” but like Black says, when it comes to items such as videos, photography, or album art, if you’re not given the budget, someone still needs to do it. “At some point it was all very, very expensive, and then all of a sudden people are able to do it with their own computer and almost their own phone. Then you start to get a little bit of a shift, I suppose, where it is like, you can have that big budget thing if you have $200,000, but if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the road. It just means you need a more creative idea.”
The great misconception among unsigned artists, Black says, is a label deal will take the weight of money and responsibility off their shoulders. “I think that is kind of the grand illusion – that if you get signed, all your troubles go away. But what happens is you get signed and, until that point, you’ve basically been in training and now you get to go to work. You get signed and now you’re in the game. I’ve seen bands who get a big advance, buy a bunch of nice gear, and then just coast, and we didn’t see them around anymore after that. It’s just really your chance to get into the bigger game and be on your top game the whole time.”
Lastly, Black warns any artist starting to experience commercial success to only bring people onto the team who offer skills that are lacking elsewhere. “Every person you add in there, as long as they can keep saying ‘yes’ to [the question], ‘Hey, do you actually bring something to the equation?’ then they belong there. When success and momentum start coming, then people start showing up that don’t really do much, but they look busy so they get to get on the train.” He advises looking inside the band, and taking advantage of the individual members’ talents to trim the budget.
If a band like Finger Eleven – who have experienced platinum albums, multiple JUNO Awards, sold out arenas, and $200,000 music videos – thinks it’s worth it to book their own hotels, make their own videos, and lug their own gear, then it’s a safe bet anyone reading this could do the same.
“A lot of musicians say, and I get it, ‘I just want to play and I don’t care about money,’ but the same guy who says that at some point will come to you and say, ‘I thought I was going to get paid X amount of money for this?’” says Anderson in closing. “I think if you can be smart about it and look after the money, then it kind of frees you up to be creative. It hopefully takes that stress off so that when you’re being creative and being a band, you’re hopefully not worrying about that.”
Michael Raine is the Assistant Editor of Canadian Musician
Tags: album Five Crooked Lines, album The Greyest of Blue Skies, album Them vs. You vs. Me, Canadian Musician, DIY musician, Finger Eleven, indie music, James Black, Michael Raine, Sean Anderson, Song Not Going to be Afraid