I’m sure it’s happened to every band at some point in their career. It’s the reason many people wouldn’t throw an event in the first place: the deep-seeded, underlying risk that comes with extending yourself to others. It’s the reason RSVPs and advance tickets exist.
What if no one shows up?
Whether it is your birthday dinner or, say, a rock show in LA on your first American tour, the sting of a poor turnout is very real. But unlike a broken ankle or even a broken heart, you must pretend to be indifferent and remain confident that people will show up beforehand. More importantly, you must appear unaffected afterward if no one shows up. Yeah, pride and the blows that come with still having it, these are solitary lows that demand personal reflection rather than camaraderie.
But as PS I Love You takes the stage at The Mint, a small night club and restaurant in West Los Angeles, singer/guitarist/bass-organ-operator Paul Saulnier shyly begins the opening number from the two-piece’s debut full-length, both titled Meet Me At Munster Station. A few people that were not me or venue employees or one of the opening bands did show up, but it was literally 10 legitimate attendees, tops.
A couple hours prior, Saulnier sat across from me in a small green room at the club. Even while sitting, his size is intimidating, and the large beard and genuine casual demeanor starkly contrast the man’s ability to express himself. Even in conversation, he is careful and patient with our topics, feeling at times like more of a job interview than a media interview, with both of us tap-dancing through a potential minefield of wasted opportunities, possibly saying less in our spoken words than in what we remain silent about.
But in what might have been a jinxing conversation topic, Saulnier recounted the West Coast headlining dates (they had been in town a month earlier as support for Japandroids), saying, “Some shows are extremely good, like Seattle was amazing. A lot of people were really into us–it was surprising. And then in Portland we played to exactly 12 people.”
Hearing this statement, it suddenly clicked that the first singer of the night had been playing to an empty room when we walked by. I mentioned that the L.A. gig guide that I use, The Scenestar, did not mention the show at The Mint, and that I have never been to this place before. Saulnier took the words with stoic integrity, as I imagine all people from “The North” do, having been toughened up through harsh winters and ice hockey games.
Whether Saulnier is a tough guy or a gentle giant, I am not sure, but when asked about his childhood influences, he first mentions Metallica. Saulnier falls in the rare category of people that have it figured out pretty young, deciding at age 10 that he wanted to be a musician. He began taking lessons on the guitar and bass simultaneously and also started listening to his formative music.
“I was a bit of a metal-head,” Saulnier begins, “A friend of mine’s older brother…he was a skateboarding metal-head, and we all thought he was the coolest guy, and he gave me some tapes, Metallica’s first three albums: Kill ‘Em All, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets…And they stuck with me; I still listen to them a lot.”
The influence might not come through your speakers when listening to the PS I Love You’s debut, but just watch Saulnier play — well “play” is the wrong word entirely. I believe “shred” is more appropriate. He even does the Eddie Van Halen tapping technique. With that in mind, Metallica seems almost tame. Surprised he didn’t list Yngwie Malmsteen.
Unfortunately, the guitar mayhem is the highpoint of the show, as the two guys cannot really get into it without an audience to share the music with. They play well, sound totally decent, but there is no energy in the room. It might as well be on T.V. I feel bad for the band, but they have been through this before. It is not all glamorous.
In fact, many of the early interviews that I encountered in my research seem to focus on negativity, and I was surprised not to see this manifest in the conversation. I brought up the fact that he had to quit his steady job to embark on this tour and that he had a favorite guitar stolen at a gig, wondering if there was a bittersweet flavor to the accomplishment of releasing a debut LP.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work (referring to being a touring musician) and I’m happy to be doing it. When I get back home, I’ll get another job, but we’re going out on tour again in December. The music has…taken over my life?” He finishes this not so much asking but questioning himself if this is the right way to phrase the expression. He then adds “But this is what I’ve always wanted, so I’m happy to be working at it as hard as I can right now.”
Saulnier comes across as inspiring at this time, especially to a music writer who has about as easy of a road as an indie musician. There is something to be said for pursuing your dreams, mainly because most people simply don’t. But with the two men in PS I Love You (the second being drummer Benjamin Nelson), it is a perfect storm of ambition actually matching talent and creativity. As mentioned, the guy can shred on guitar, but the melodies combine this expert musicianship with the pop sensibilities and energy that draws an immediate comparison to Wolf Parade.
“I think it’s coincidental,” the singer responds when I point out the similarity of his vocals with Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer, wondering if it might be an influence or, simply, a Canadian thing. “I never thought ‘Oh, I’m gonna sing like Spencer Krug or Carey Mercer…I’ve never been a very strong singer, but one thing I’m good at is sort of screaming it out…and I think, in a way, it’s what those dudes do as well.”
Live, the scream even surpasses the recorded version. And who knows where it would go if he had people to play off of in the audience. Still, PS I Love You is clearly a tight performing group with a sound made for enthusiasm. But this was not their night, and I let him know earlier that if he had to come back to The Mint after this show, his career is having problems.
And though the word “career” still sounds as sour today as when Stephen Malkmus repeated the dirty word at the end of “Cut My Hair”, attempting to make a dent in the recording industry brings up some obvious and difficult questions. The band plans to tour into the first part of next year, with South By Southwest being an inevitable destination. After that, things could go various directions, with Saulnier admitting, “I’m writing a bunch of new songs, and I’d really like to start working on the next album.”
Ambition and determination like this are practically prerequisites to succeed outside of a local following in any of the arts, something Saulnier embraces, adding, “It would be cool to do an album a year, or at least a couple seven inches,'” and then casually dismissing my suggestion that if the album were to take off, they might have to ride it for a year or more. But even with the plan to follow-up the week-old album quickly and with dates into the Spring, PS I Love You is both within reach and light years away from success. One day, it could be a glowing write-up from CoS or Pitchfork, and the next day it could be a show in the nation’s second largest city where practically no one bothers to even show up.
Luckily, the end goal for Saulnier doesn’t hinge on ticket sales for this show. The singer-songwriter is reflective when asked when he will consider this musical endeavor a success, stating, “I guess I want to be able to do whatever I want, without fear or consequence…Like in the sense that we could tour for a couple months, but if we don’t want to, then we’re fine. It would be really cool to be in that kind of position…even just making it sustainable, being in a band…obviously financially sustainable falls under that.” He is quick to note that there is little money to be made at this stage for the band, saying “I don’t even care if it’s profitable; I just want to pay my rent.”
“And not worry about what you are going to do for work when you get back,” I add.
“Exactly. The only thing I want to worry about is making albums and playing good shows.”
“That’s not too much to ask,” I assure him without considering it, leading him to the obvious conclusion.
“It kind of is.”