Imagine being in an emo band in the Midwest circa 1998. This was a time before iTunes, before MySpace, before Napster, even. If you had any aspirations to graduate from the local basement scene to a wider audience, your only real shot at the big leagues was to cram inside a shitty old van and tour relentlessly. For former Joan of Arc guitarist Sam Zurick, that turned out to be a way of life.
“I’ve always sort of lived in a van,” Zurick says of his days roaming the country with myriad projects helmed by Chicagoland emo progenitor Tim Kinsella. “I suppose the novelty of van-dwelling may get lost in my case, because really it’s just me reverting to something I’m most familiar with.”
It’s no stretch to say Zurick is a bit out there. Then again, so is much of Joan of Arc’s peculiar brew of melodic math-jazz meanderings. Zurick isn’t currently touring with the band, but in an email conversation, he still had plenty to say about his life as a wayward musician turned vandweller.
WW: Can you bring us up to speed with what you’ve had your hand in since the early days in Chicago with the Kinsella brothers, what your role was in each project, and how it led you to where you are now?
Sam Zurick: Prior to Cap’n Jazz I was the on-stage dancer for the band Toe Jam (Tim [Kinsella]’s first band with [Victor Villareal] and his brother Mike); my job was to dress up in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and whip the crowd into a froth in order to mask the fact the music sucked. During sophomore year of high school my dancing was phased out as Toe Jam became Cap’n Jazz (and I became a bass player).
After the Cap’n Jazz breakup Tim and I formed a band called Red, Blue, Yellow . Tim played guitar and sang and I played drums. Red, Blue, Yellow played one show at [venerable Chicago venue] the Fireside Bowl and disbanded. Tim and I then formed Joan of Arc. I started off on drums in JOA and then moved onto guitar and everything else. I left JOA after the second record to form Ghosts & Vodka [with Villareal], in which I played guitar. After Ghosts & Vodka the original members of Cap’n Jazz formed Owls. I played bass in Owls. After Owls I re-joined Joan of Arc and filled various roles. During Joan of Arc Tim and I formed Make Believe. I played guitar in Make Believe. And now I’m back in Owls playing bass- we’re writing our second album and plan on recording in late July 2013 (to be released on Polyvinyl Records). I also have two solo records, one is called Flower Power?, and one is called Cock Uh Doodle Doo. How did this lead to where I am now? I’d say it makes perfect sense that I’ve recently moved out of my van and into a transient-hotel in downtown Chicago, the consistent thread being the transitory state of all things (especially music).
Where were you in your career when you decided to move in to the van?
My entire adult life I’ve worked as a bike messenger to fuel my life as a music-man. In 2006 I randomly answered a Craigslist ad for a temporary gig with The Onion newspaper. Within a year the temporary position turned into full-time. And so I had my first “real” job with a salary and a desk in an office space etc. etc. It felt like I won the lottery—not only did I have a reliable stream of decent money but I also had a job with a company I actually liked.
The point here is I suddenly stopped playing music and started eating lots of meat and cheese platters. I also met a lovely young lady that wanted to get married to me. We moved into a two-level apartment in a very nice area of Chicago and I bought a TV with a flat-screen (and an Xbox 360). We watched lots of cable TV as I became chunkier and chunkier. Then we got engaged. So there I was: I had a good job, lots of prosciutto in the crisper, a hot young fiancée—shoot, I even had bottled watered delivered to my door every other week.
Well, none of it felt right (though I must admit playing Fallout 3 on horse-sized doses of Vicodin felt more than right). I hadn’t picked up my guitar in a couple years at that point, and my only way to ground myself was to open a pack of baseball cards while stoned on pills—which is fun for the first 15 minutes, but at the three-hour mark you begin to ask the question, “Why am I collating little pictures of grown men wearing colorful uniforms that resemble pajamas?” My implosion was a gradual one. It took my fiancée leaving me for me to wake up to the fact I’d become a dead-eyed slob. So in late 2010 I made the decision to uproot my Chicago life. I obtained a nice little van and headed southwest, my nose pointing towards New Mexico.
Why exactly did you choose New Mexico?
Growing up my family would take summer vacations to NM every year. It seemed logical for me as a grown man to head that way again when I needed a vacation. As far as living goes, I’ve always sort of lived in a van. Being on tour with a band is a version of van-dwelling, and I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life doing just that. So I suppose the novelty of van-dwelling may get lost in my case because really it’s just me reverting to something I’m most familiar/comfortable with.
What was the reaction of friends/family when you told them you were deciding to do this?
They encouraged it. They all saw what I had turned into and thought I was doing the right thing. I didn’t leave my apartment for six months after I got dumped, the only people I saw were friends/relatives that would come over to check up on me. I kept in touch with Tim [Kinsella]—he took me out for Mexican food before I left. Tim knows how I operate and was very supportive of my decision to GTFO.
What effect has living in a van had on your friendship with Tim, or the music situation in general?
Tim understands I’m a creature that isn’t satisfied with human-based Earth Politics, he knows I like to experiment with my opportunity as “Sam Zurick.”
Describe the vehicle you ended up with. Did you put in any amount of work to convert it to a more functional living space?
I obtained a 2010 Ford Transit Connect, which is really just a Ford Focus with more headroom. Being that the space was so limited I really had to prioritize what was actually needed and what was just a creature comfort. The first thing I bought was a cot from REI. Luckily, it fit perfectly in the back. I made a storage area with fish net that snugged up against the roof. I mosquito-proofed the front windows and side-doors (I used a combo of everyday window screens and those flexible sun-shades so I could collapse them if I wanted). I installed a peg-board thing along the interior back-walls so I could customize what type of shelves I required as time went on. I blacked-out the back windows and built a semi-permanent partition that helped create the illusion of there being a difference between the “living space” in the back and the “driving space” in the front. I obtained a small generator for the times I needed some 911 electricity. I also attached a 3-gallon water jug to the ceiling in the back - it had a spout for easy access. I think I built about 15 different contraptions to urinate in, always thinking I could improve on the previous design. It turned out all my tinkering was pointless—an empty gallon milk jug (with a cap) is all I ever needed.
What was it like adjusting to your new living situation?
There are days when it makes absolute sense and you get that false notion of, “Wow, I really figured it out,” and there are days when you wish you were Donald Trump’s granddaughter. Either/or it’s most important to not become self-righteous about it. The situation is unfolding for a valid reason you’ll figure out later instead of now.
Any tips for a newbie?
All I gotta say about [vandwelling] is this is: don’t park in a residential area for more than two or three days (unless there is an agreement between you and ALL the permanent residents within eyeshot). People are paranoid, and when a van pulls up and sets up camp it creates distress for those witnessing it from a bedroom window. It doesn’t matter how well-intended and friendly you are, the people in the bricks would rather you move along. Keeping this in mind, just be conscious of the folks that’ve spent their lives working to build a stable home-life.
I’ve had a few interesting conversations with people that wanted to “live like me” that also wanted to see me go to jail. It’s a slippery slope and there’s really no room for self-righteousness when someone is feeling violated because of your lifestyle. I always get my supplies in town and go to the outskirts of town soon thereafter. Of course there are times when you need to just park anywhere and sleep and move along in the morning. What I’m saying is don’t get comfortable in a spot for more than a few days unless you’ve found a great open WiFi network you can leech off and risk it all for the sake of Internet porn (or Facebook, or whatever you love the most). And don’t forget to piss and shit, and eat and drink.
What kind of characters did you encounter along the way? Any kindred spirits that also chose to live offbeat lives on the road?
I was in survival-mode and so I’d often end up befriending people that needed me to do some kind of laborious task. That’s how I ended up on the Alpaca farm shoveling shit and falling in love with a farm-animal and inadvertently filming a hyper-dimensional BEAM from who knows where (see: Sudden Porthole).
In total, how much time was spent living in the van?
Including the time I spent living in my van in Chicago
(when I came back here to make the next Owls record in March 2012), the
total time was 21 months, give or take a long weekend.
Do you plan to go back to this lifestyle?
I’m happy to announce I’ve moved into a transient-hotel in downtown Chicago. I love it a lot. The trick to this scenario is I have to work a lot but honestly it’s great to have my own dresser and mini-fridge, etc. My next-door neighbor is addicted to some kinda drug that invites random men to her house to fuck her mercilessly in exchange for her complaints that the drug isn’t “strong enough.” Good luck everybody!
SEE IT: Joan of Arc plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., with Arrington de Dionyso’s Songs of Psychic Fire, on Friday, Sept. 27. 9 pm. $10. 21+.