Rock 'n' roll never made Zia McCabe rich. Houses might.
As the keyboardist of Portland psych-rock mainstays the Dandy Warhols, McCabe, 42, lived a musician's dream life. She and the rest of the band toured with David Bowie, became the subject of an iconic documentary and established a cultish following, particularly abroad.
But after two decades, the grind of the road was beginning to wear her down.
So she activated her Plan B—becoming a licensed real estate agent.
Earlier this year, McCabe went to work for Windermere, the region's biggest realty company. While she's still in the Dandys, selling homes is now her full-time job.
For fans, and even some of her friends, the image on the Windermere website—flashing a dimpled smile while wearing a blue blouse mostly concealing her prodigious tattoos—is hard to reconcile with the woman who once appeared on film shaking a tambourine while topless.
"There's quite a bit of rebranding between the way people see you as a rock star and the way people see you doing a complicated legal transaction for them," she says. "I was expecting everyone to go, 'Zia's smart, she can do this.' Some people still think I'm just drunk every day."
It's a perception she's dedicated to changing. The transition into office life has been awkward, she admits. But so far, she's enjoying the challenge.
WW: When someone's been making a living playing rock 'n' roll then suddenly pivots into a new career, the presumption is that the band is reaching its end. Is it?
Zia McCabe: In interviews, we were saying, "Rock 'n' roll forever," but I noticed that wasn't really reflected in our daily lives with each other. Nothing imploded, there were no big fights, but there was a bit of a wearing-out feeling. At some point, I was like, "How much fun are we having, really?" Because unless you're in five-star hotels and have tour buses, it's hard work.
So we did this wonderful switching of gears a lot of people do in midlife. We fired almost everybody who was taking a percentage off the top—which is why we weren't making money—and now we're doing all these exotic gigs and weekends away, and netting almost the same. So it's not that we stopped making money as a band, we just stopped working all the time as a band. And that gave us all more time to do other things. We just diversified, really.
Why real estate?
I was in a band during a time when people are gaining skills, and I realized I was relatively skill-less. Then I realized, you do have some skills. They're people skills. And I'm good with numbers. And I'm a Portland native. How does that give me an advantage, to be such a big part of my community? Eventually, that narrows down to real estate. There's almost no other choice, really.
It sounds like you arrived at it through a process of elimination. Was any part of you intrigued by the idea of the job?
The neighborhood I live in is Northeast Martin Luther King Boulevard and Shaver Street, between the New Seasons and the Whole Foods. In '99, I bought a house there, when it wasn't a place a lot of people felt comfortable buying houses. I thought, "This is going to be a different neighborhood in 10 years." Ten years later, I was driving down North Williams Avenue, going, "This is a completely different neighborhood. Wait, you said that 10 years ago. You have a feel for this."
What about the job took the most getting used to?
The culture shock of office life. Being under fluorescent lights all day. I spend more of my day doing things I've never done and don't know how to do. That's a big ego-crusher. I go in and I don't know how to use the fax machine. And I say completely inappropriate things, because office politics are so different than rock 'n' roll. Someone was talking about getting a [speeding] ticket, and I'm like, "Get your tits out." And they're like, "What? Uh, I have to take a call."
What was the reaction from the rest of the band when you said you were going into this?
They saw me studying constantly the last couple tours. It's all I did. I skipped out on a lot of fun, and it was really hard, because it was the last long tours. Everyone's having a great time, and I'm thinking, "Are these some of the last fun times? Is summer almost over? Should I have gone to the river one more time?" I did the right thing, but it was hard, and sometimes I felt isolated and lonely. But mostly, they were impressed.
What has being a real estate agent taught you about housing in Portland?
When I imagined going into real estate, I pictured getting first-time buyers cute, old Portland homes with good bones that were a fixer. Instead, what I have to do is get people tiny-ass condos on the edge of town. I have to help them understand that just getting a piece of property is a good idea, even if it's not your dream.
Have there been any deflating moments?
My big introduction was when the eclipse was coming. I got the whole office riled up to order the eclipse glasses, to give to clients. And they were the counterfeit ones. I was devastated. The first way I introduced myself with my new business was by handing out garbage.
The deeper you get into this, has it made you think about the mortality of the band?
The real impact becoming a realtor has had on the band is now there's someone in the band who knows how to run a business. Not once has one band member known what our overhead is. If you get a check each month, it's so easy to not pay attention to where the rest of the money went. Now, everyone wants to know where every penny went. And I sit at a desk, so I can stop doing real estate and do Dandys stuff for 30 minutes. I run one business, it's not hard to run another business from the same spot.
So in some ways, you may have actually elongated the life of the band.
I might have just saved our asses.