I just completed an interview Ethan Tufts, an LA-based musician who goes by the moniker State Shirt. He had some interesting things to say about his music and his career strategy.
I love his songs, often melancholy and sometimes very catchy. I’m a sucker for effects like loops and reverb and he makes great use of those. Any time I make a playlist of “atmospheric” songs, several of his invariably wind up on it, alongside My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain and Slowdive. He was one of my first discoveries when I frequented TheSixtyOne a couple of years ago. (He was also one of the ones, like me, who got the angriest when they killed the social part of the site and cut off artist-fan communications.)
His latest album, Let’s Get Bloody, would’ve been a good candidate for my best of 2011 list if I’d found it in time. It has some great songs. “Disappointed,” “Let’s Get Bloody,” “Suffer Someday” and “Crush” are particular favorites.
He also has some interesting, forward-thinking attitudes toward the music industry. In an age when media companies appear to be in a frenzy to stamp out piracy and other indie musicians are struggling to find ways to make money from their music, he actually has a “steal all” button on his website, as well as an option to pay. (I “stole” the mp3s and bought the CD.) He also encourages other artists to make remixes of his songs. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, he likes to race cars.
I’ve read that your stage name comes from your hobby of collecting and wearing state promotional shirts from around the country. Do you have a shirt from all 50 states yet?
Not yet. I’ve set some arbitrary rules for my dumb state shirt collection. I really only like state shirts that feature nature scenes or animals. And they can’t have the name of a city or a landmark. It needs to be a true state shirt. So I’m missing quite a few. I’ll be be sure to scour the bargain racks at all of the dirty truck stops on my next tour.
You were popular on TheSixtyOne back when I was active on the site – before the redesign that removed most of the social media aspects. You were also among the most militant critics of the change. You gave them the finger in a profile pic and wrote a protest song. What’s your perspective on that site, two years later?
Well I didn’t exactly give anyone the finger. I was more really just baffled by their marketing decisions and how they were okay with upsetting so many people. It’s not often that you see a company that has a product that people really like just completely disregard and abandon their entire user base. Looking back I’m actually a little embarrassed that I got so mad about it. Though I am really glad I wrote the song “61 Ways” because of it—it’s become sort of a multi-purpose protest / break-up song.
In other interviews, you’ve named some rather aggressive bands as influences – Fugazi, Helmet, Drive Like Jehu, hardcore punk, etc. I’m hearing a bit of Depeche Mode, maybe some shoegaze acts like Slowdive, maybe a bit of Red House Painters. How did those hardcore influences get transformed into the atmospheric pop you’re creating now?
I really have no idea. I listen to a pretty wide variety of music, and on occasion will get into the heavy and more aggressive stuff. I’ll even record some hardcore-ish tracks from time to time, but it rarely sees the light of day. For years I’ve been threatening to record a cover of every song on Helmet’s Meantime but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe next year.
Part of it may be that my songwriting process is so odd and random that I never know how one of my songs is going to sound until it’s finished.
What music inspires you today?
I’m totally in love with the band Subtle. It’s not that often that something so unique comes along. I’m so surprised that not more people have heard of them. They’re incredible. I’ve also been kind of reverting back to stuff I listened to back in the 90s. Lots of Sebadoh. Funny story, for about a year I actually lived two houses down from Jason Loewenstein of Sebadoh when we were both kids. He was several years older than me and stole my Big Wheel tricycle. But I got over it and listen to Sebadoh way too much.
I’ve also been getting inspired by many of the undiscovered and semi-discovered artists on YouTube. Amongst the glut of terrible ukulele songs there are some incredibly raw and emotional performances.
I hear a lot of pathos in your songs. How autobiographical are they? Are they just an outlet for you, a kind of catharsis?
I had a pretty normal childhood. A pretty normal life too, actually. Never was addicted to heroin. Didn’t live on a commune. Wasn’t molested. Not an alcoholic. Most of my friends would probably describe me as pretty easy going, and even positive. But I’ve always struggled with an obscene fascination and preoccupation with death and dying. There has always been this underlying, unillumated hopelessness that I’ve never been able to escape, and that I’m pretty good at hiding. It makes its way into most everything I write. It’s not rational. And I feel like if I ever were to seek professional help, I would be diagnosed as clinically, undoubtedly normal. But that never gets rid of the underlying desire to crash into the center divider just to see what it feels like to die.
I think it’s interesting that you seem to zig when the music industry zags. The industry is putting a lot of political muscle into stamping out piracy. You on the other hand, have a “steal this album” option on your website. How is that working? Do enough people pay to make up for all the “stealing”?
Piracy is like gravity. It’s always going to exist, no matter what laws are in place to stop it. Musicians have been incredibly lucky over the last many years to have had formats where you can affix music to a tangible object. Now that music is virtual, piracy is so easy it’s essentially unstoppable. And I don’t care. I’ve decided to stop fighting gravity. Piracy is awareness. I don’t want to make money selling plastic discs.
In terms of supporting my career, I’ve focused my attention on licensing. Many of my songs are licensed for television, film, and commercials. I’d rather work on partnerships with filmmakers and companies that I respect, which will subsidize my music for my fans. Though I will say I’ve been very lucky that many of my fans buy my music. I don’t really know how many people steal it, but enough people pay for it to allow me to continue to be able to make music.
What do you think the future holds for musicians on the Internet?
It’s the same game that it’s always been—to make a living making music—but now the barriers to entry are gone. The lack of barriers doesn’t mean it’s any easier than it was back in the record label days. It just means the rules are different and the gatekeepers are different. There are no templates or formulas for success.
Musicians are finally becoming part-time marketers. But I hope that the marketing side doesn’t overtake the music side. Like the constant attempts to capitalize on viral trends as a method to gain awareness. There are only so many YouTube parodies that you can listen to. I don’t think it’s a good long-term strategy for your art. I’m guilty of this as well, I once made a remix song out of the Slap Chop commercial. I hope it becomes more about creating new, innovative and mind-blowing art rather than crap where the marketing is more important than the music. It is a fine balance though. If you don’t market your music, no-one is going to hear it.
Which do you think is more of a threat to musicians, piracy, or bills like SOPA or PIPA? (And now the treaty being pushed by the industry, ACTA.)
I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I want people to pirate my music. I encourage it. I don’t give a shit if anyone pays me for an mp3. I want music licensing and carefully chosen partnerships to subsidize my music so I can give it to my fans for free.
I understand you’re into racing. What do you race and have you won any trophies?
I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to get into such a ridiculous and insanely fun hobby. I race something called a Spec Miata—it’s basically a near-stock Mazda Miata that has been converted for road racing. I’m an incredibly average race car driver, though I did somehow manage to finish on the podium four times. If you’re in Southern California, drop by one of our road courses out in the desert. You can usually find me towards the back of the field, trying to keep from wrecking.
Where can people hear your music? Do you make it available to streaming sites like Pandora or Spotify? I understand some indie artists have decided they don’t get a fair shake with those services.
All of my music can be downloaded for free on my website, stateshirt.com. It’s also available on iTunes and most music sites, including Pandora and Spotify. The payout through those sites is tiny, even with a decent number of plays and downloads. Though it doesn’t bother me at all. Services like Pandora and Spotify are the new radio. I view them as a source of exposure and awareness, not cash money.
This is one of my favorite songs off the new album:
And here is a live loop performance of the title track: