| A Family Affair: (clockwise from bottom left) Peter Swenson and wife Marisa, Benjy Rickard and wife Teresa, Simon Swenson (center). |
On Nov. 13, 2007, multi-instrumentalist Benjy Rickard excitedly wrote the following in his personal blog: “The recent batch of Boy Eats Drum Machine shows have been particularly good, some would even say amazing—as many have done…. I broke my tambourine! How cool is that!I pounded my dearly beloved double decker ass shaker into the ground! That’s about the most rock thing I have ever done.”
Only two months later, the electro-soul band’s founder and core member, Jonny Ragel, sent out a press release stating that the project would be moving on as a solo effort, just as it had begun. In the release, Ragel noted, “I will be focusing on my DJ-oriented material and taking BEDM out there as a one-man band. Is the world really ready for a singing DJ? I hope so...in today’s scrappy and sometimes tenuous market, this is the only way I can see [music] being economically possible. I’d think that the times I’ve been forced to innovate have led to my most creative work All seemed fair in the impermanent land of—especially in the mecca of transient musicians that Portland has become.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find an angry blog post from BEDM drummer and fellow newly dismissed member Peter Swenson only days after Ragel’s announcement. Swenson, a 30-year-old office-jobber, wrote: “Benjy and I were fired from the band, since Jonny could only succeed by going it alone. That gave me the distinct impression that he considered us dead weight. Then again, a few nights ago Jonny told us that people with kids shouldn’t play in bands. I’ve got [10-month-old son] Simon, Benjy’s got a boy on the way. Does [Ragel] know that in the business world, it’s illegal to fire someone for getting pregnant?” Consider the pot stirred.
Though Ragel ardently denies that Swenson and Rickard’s parenthood (current or impending) had anything to do with his decision to go it alone, the 33-year-old masseuse is forthcoming when discussing the demands on parental musicians, and those who play with them: “Parents in indie rock bands...should be able to tour in fall and spring (like every other indie band needing to play CMJ [College Media Journal’s annual music festival] and South by Southwest),” Ragel explained in a recent email. “[They need to] be assertive with their needs while demonstrating clear and professional communication—they must have their shit together, know what they want, and be eloquent with those desires and needs. [Parents] can make it in the industry,” he continues, “but face some difficult economic realities.”
Difficulties aside, plenty of modern-day musicians—many highly successful—are pulling off the rock ’n’ roll dream and fulfilling their desire to procreate. Portland’s own lit-pop heroes the Decemberists have two dads, frontman Colin Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk, in their ranks. And as Funk told junkmedia.org in a 2006, the challenges were something he took on knowingly: “This is my job. There’s no surprises—I’m in a touring rock band, and we decided to have a kid. This is reality.”
Likewise, ex-Pavement, current Jicks frontman Stephen Malkmus, one of Portland’s biggest indie-rock stars, is the father of two. Perhaps the difference between Boy Eats Drum Machine and the Jicks or Decemberists, though, is the relative level of success. Meloy and his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, for instance, didn’t have their first son until around the time of the band’s fourth album, 2006’s The Crane Wife—the band had already achieved widespread acclaim and moved to a major label, and its members had easily quit their day jobs.
Local songwriter Scott Garred, of indie-pop group Super XX Man, on the other hand, says everyone’s had to adjust since the birth of his 20-month-old son, Cy. Garred and his wife, to complicate matters, are both members of the band, and he says post-birth recording has made him “the most patient I’ve ever been.” Still, Garred, a music therapist at Oregon State Hospital (the setting for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), says he “never once thought band and family could not coexist—and I’m not making references to The Partridge Family. We made [most recent album] Vol. XI because of our son.”
But even lauded Northwest rockers Sleater-Kinney have had to address the parent-band question: Women-in-DIY-culture magazine Venus noted of the band’s 2006 breakup: “It’s time to move on, for the sake of lives, art and Marshall Tucker, [frontwoman] Corin [Tucker]’s young son.” In a 2003 interview with hipmama.com, Tucker admitted that “it’s extremely hard to keep your art going when you have to take care of this fragile being.”
So was BEDM’s disbanding and Ragel’s supposed “preemptive strike” against playing with two parents, as Swenson puts it, warranted? Rickard, a 31-year-old teacher at Redland Elementary in Oregon City, and Swenson, 30, don’t think so. Though they admit their accusations against Ragel are “speculative,” both musicians (who have starting rediscovering “collaborative music” under new guise Pinkie Cubitt) feel they got a raw deal: “You just change the paradigm [when you have kids],” explains Rickard. “A paradigm was thrust on us: ‘Family and music doesn’t work, so I’m gonna do this thing solo.’ That’s, at least, the message that came across to us.”
Swenson, who claims he’s never missed a show due to family obligations, agrees: “Music is such a huge part of what makes me tick. When my son was born, it [wasn’t] like, ‘Oh, this is my new hobby.’ My family just got richer, and I still love to play music.” Rickard chimes in, “I think you can be flexible.”
All in all, the band members, who have been friends for a number of years (five between Ragel and Swenson, more than 10 between Ragel and Rickard), seem to agree on one thing: that they’ve had a misunderstanding and a falling-out. “If [Jonny’s] intention is, ‘I wanna do something different,’” says Swenson, “I respect that. He needs to follow his muse.”
Ragel, who’s married as well, closed his side of the story by saying, “Anyone who knows me knows that I love kids.” When it comes to music, though, it appears that isn’t really the question.