CONFIRMATION BIAS #3: Reggie Bender (Dig Nitty)

Early in the pandemic, I often thought about how there were some people for whom life in quarantine was basically impossible for me to imagine, because before the virus they always seemed to be going somewhere or doing something. My friend Reggie was one of those people. On tour, you come across a lot of musicians and promoters who look like the gig life has sucked the will to live out through their ears; people for whom music has become more stick than carrot. That’s why meeting someone like Reggie is a breath of fresh air. She has a combination of qualities—genuinely loving music, genuinely wanting to help people out, and genuinely being down to kick it—that can sometimes feel surprisingly rare in a walk of life where, at least ostensibly, most of what people do is make sound, trade favors, and hang out.

Reggie is the same way behind the kit. her playing emphasizes feel and dynamics, serving the song and leaving plenty of space for her bandmates. There’s no doubt in my mind that personality bleeds into performance, and Reggie’s drumming is the kind that seems informed not only by a natural sense of arrangement and musicality, but by an instinctive grasp on the way bands and music communities interact that reaches well beyond just the notes being played. Of the many band’s she’s played in, I think Dig Nitty is my favorite both for the songs themselves and for the way they’re brought to life by musicians who clearly understand that creating space for those around you is an active endeavor, not a passive one: you can’t just leave room, you have to make room.

So it ought to come as no surprise, then, that Reggie is the first person I’ve interviewed for this series who turned a few questions around on me. 

illustration by Tim Howe (no relation to Gordie)

You can play drums and sing at the same time. I cannot do this, but I’ve seen you do it, and I find it very impressive. Before the virus, you generally seemed to be juggling a million things at once—booking commitments, various bands, working at different venues. Are you a natural multitasker? Do you feel like you thrive in chaos?

Thank you! That’s very kind. I definitely agree that I’m a multitasker, but I don’t know if it always agrees with me. I can definitely over-do it. I like to keep involved with a lot at once, and in many ways (with what you just listed, anyway), it’s all different parts of the same machine. I find that being involved in those different aspects–playing, booking, working–makes it easier to both understand and participate in the rest. As I’m sure you know, a lot of it operates in this synergistic way. I don’t think anyone owes me anything if I book them a show, but I will say that it makes it 10x easier if a band I play in goes through their city, as most people are down to return the favor. I can’t think of any person or band who hasn’t at the very least given me a lead on someone to contact if I’ve asked for help. Also, I will say that in working at venues, there can be a lot of dead time before things get going. If you’re sitting and waiting for people to show up to a gig, why not send a few emails in the meantime? The more reductive answer, though, is that I get bored easily and I need projects to fidget with.

I like the machine metaphor. It really highlights the ways in which what you do is different from most jobs—no assembly line at the gig factory. I also like to have fingers in a lot of pies. I think it’s common for people in our corner of the world to feel that the silver lining to the virus has been the chance to just do less, and while I think that has probably been good for me in some ways, I do sort of miss the feeling of not even having the time to get overwhelmed. Do you feel that way? And is there anything about the pre-pandemic gig life that you don’t miss? 

Right. I don’t miss the all night raves that I would be working, haha. Those were brutal. They’d start at midnight and go until 8 or 10 in the morning. I definitely feel I was partying too much right before everything shut down, as it’s pretty easy to get caught in that loop. When you’re playing shows, drinking/substances are presented to you as part of your pay, because it’s no secret that this isn’t the most lucrative profession. And while I definitely like to have a good time, I think there’s a little part that nags me sometimes that if I’m not participating, then I’m not taking full advantage of my “benefits.”

As far as silver linings go, it’s a little hard not to sound bratty when talking about this. I’ll preface this by saying I have a pretty ideal situation for living through this. I have great roommates, we have a good amount of space at our apartment, so no one feels on top of each other. When it was warmer, it was very easy to go walk to a park or wherever and social distance hang with friends. That being said, I think there’s a bit of a false equation with slowing down meaning you’re less stressed out, but in this case I wouldn’t say I feel any less stressed, seeing as a pandemic is causing some real internal grief for everyone. If anything, the thing that really kills me is that it’s mostly sitting and waiting. Having something to look forward to is pretty crucial for anyone, I guess. I’m a huge extrovert, as anyone who’s ever talked to me for more than 2 seconds can attest. All my favorite things to do involve music, but I’m a side man. I play drums or bass in the bands that I’m in, and I am not the primary songwriter. I think I’ve played drums 3 times in the last year, because it’s really not very interesting on your own, at least for me. I’ve definitely pivoted to trying to write my own songs, but music is rooted in collaboration as far as I’m concerned. Dig Nitty has sent a couple things back and forth to each other, a la Garageband demos. It still feels a little impersonal sometimes sending things back and forth via email. The ability to try things out when everyone is in the same room is a lot more helpful in my opinion.

Despite all the complaining, though, one positive has been having the free time to work on/consume a lot more things. I’ve read more just in this past year than I have in the last five. Movies, TV, even music to some degree. I’m still wishing for the safe return of live music, but it’s nice to really delve into other things. It’ll be something good to keep in mind when things do eventually come back, since it’s easy to get stuck thinking everything begins and ends with our little corner of DIY.

I agree, a little perspective has been good for everyone. Some of that is the chance to remind ourselves what we actually like so much about music—other than the, uh, “benefits.” It sounds like the energy between collaborators in the room is one of the big attractions for you, and I think the Dig Nitty record perfectly demonstrates why. Erin’s songs are great, but it feels like that record wouldn’t be so cohesively all over the place without everyone bouncing ideas off each other. It gives the music a real sense of personality that’s hard to pin down. 

When I was doing a bit of googling earlier, I must have read 4 or 5 write-ups for Dig Nitty that used the word “surf.” The last time I opened up my streaming service of choice to listen to Reverse of Mastery, I noticed someone on the content farm had put one of your songs on some editorial playlist called “Indie and Chill.” Neither category is even that off base (though the playlist’s name is obviously obnoxious and lame) but for some reason, both really got on my nerves. I think I just don’t like how you have to put a name on something in order to sell it. Do you care what people call the stuff you make? 

We all have pretty varied tastes, but when writing, each of us probably have a different pocket we individually reach into more. Erin undoubtedly has the vision, but it’s a band, which to me means that the songs are malleable. There’s varying levels of what she already has in her head before bringing us a song, but even if there’s more of a fully formed idea, there’s still room to play around. And that’s very rewarding for all of us, I would say. Removing the ego makes us more open to each other, and I would argue that weirder, cooler shit can happen vs. when you have one person doing it all. No one makes anything in a vacuum. “Cohesively all over the place” is such a perfect compliment, and you kind of prove your own point. That, to me, does more to encapsulate us than an individual genre might. 

And to be fair, I think we self-describe as surf (amongst other things) in our bio. Most writers were probably going off of that. More often than not I just refer to us as a rock band. Generally I think definitions are helpful, but there’s a level of hyper-specificity that moves down the curve and starts to lose a little meaning. I don’t know if I would say it bothers me, but it doesn’t always seem very productive. Genres have gotten to a level that mirrors that one Ferris Bueller scene, where Cameron is looking at the “A Sunday Afternoon” painting. The closer he looks, the less he sees, etc. Or, in other terms, the sum is greater than the parts. By zoning in on one dot, it really doesn’t do much to encompass the work at large. That being said, does it bother me if I feel that someone misses the mark for us? I mean, if they’re enjoying it, what do I care? It’s more of a cherry on top if someone nails it. I might feel differently if I was the main songwriter, though. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to ask questions or not, so feel free to take this out, but do you feel one way or another with regards to Strange Ranger vs Cool Original?

You’re definitely allowed to ask questions! I think I do feel a little differently about being miscategorized (or just categorized in general) depending on the project, in the sense that with Cool Original it does bother me personally on some level, especially being compared to bands that I don’t like, whereas with Strange Ranger it’s just kind of funny. But it happens way more with Strange Ranger; it’s inevitable to the point of being an inside joke. Part of that is because that band just has way more of a following, and more people hearing you means more people missing the point. But part of it is because we go for something totally different every album—occasionally you get comments that sound like Cameron is looking so closely at the painting that he doesn’t realize someone’s just put a completely different painting in front of him. 

I think the reason people miss the mark in that way often boils down to their expectations, which you can’t entirely control. Some of those expectations are based on what you’ve done in the past—before I was even in the band (and really through no fault of their own) Isaac and Fred kind of dug themselves a hole that has proved a bit difficult to climb out of, is all I’ll say about that. But more often than not those expectations are in part just based on what you look like or where you live or what other bands you play with. Do you feel like any of the bands you’ve played in have had to deal with expectations that surprised you or pissed you off? 

C’mon, play Rot Forever! No one can really win that game. Someone will always like the old stuff better, but if you don’t do anything different, then you’re stagnant. I’ve never really gotten far enough to have someone be upset that a band I’m in sounds different, haha. A lot of the bands I’ve played in I was a) filling in, b) playing in someone’s solo project with prewritten parts, or c) the band didn’t go beyond a couple EPs at most. Reverse of Mastery is the first full-length record I’ve been part of putting out. What I do know is the act of sharing something you made is a vulnerable thing, and the audience isn’t always going to see it through the same lens. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but it can make you feel misunderstood or, even worse, that you didn’t communicate the thing that you meant to say as clearly as you could have. 

I have to be honest, you’ve kind of stumped me on this question about expectations. I almost have the opposite problem. I don’t find there to be many expectations of me at all, really, because I’m irrelevant until proven worthy. Which, of course, becomes the “What’s it like to be a woman in music?” question, and anyone who isn’t a white guy has already been saying all of this. I’ll also add that part of the reason I’m not eager to talk about this is because I don’t think print allows you to get your point across as well when you’re dealing with “No, no, it’s how they said it!” Since, in my personal experience, it isn’t typically outright hostility so much as a generally dismissive/disrespectful attitude. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve been more frustrated by expectations from me as a booker. The same people who are initially dismissive of me tend to think I owe them a show, or, even better, that they’re throwing me a bone by asking me to do free work for them. Like… you can have your bone back, lol.

We’re all overworked and underpaid, right? Sometimes I find a disconnect between that mindset and the expectations of what other people can (or should) do for you in the scene. I guess that’s bound to happen when you start blurring the lines between a hobby and work. Do you tend to view your relationship to playing music in a particular way (job, hobby, other, etc)?

Our subject, on what I think might have been the third or fourth time we’d ever hung out?
Photo credit: Fiona Woodman

I guess this is another place where I’m kind of a baby about putting labels on things. At this point in my life, music is just the thing that I do. There are a few other things, some of which I get paid for, but music is the one that I do most. I actively seek out opportunities to get paid for music when it doesn’t feel gross, so it doesn’t really feel like a hobby. But my tolerance level for what I consider “gross” is pretty low, so in that sense it’s not a job either. I’ve always felt extremely ambivalent about the traditional attitudes people have towards work and jobs, and financially I have more or less reaped what I’ve sown in that regard. And you’re right, there are all sorts of people’s misguided expectations you have to navigate as a result of that blurriness—I tend to not totally see eye to eye with either the hobbyists or the careerists, it turns out. 

Speaking of reaping what you sow, what’s the most money you’ve ever lost due to something band-related?

I totally relate. I think there’s an outside perception that picking up jobs in music is always because you feel really passionate about it, or that it maintains some type of purity. The core love of it has to be there, because it isn’t lucrative enough to do it without caring. Am I bartending a band of the week’s show based out of love? Maybe not. I still enjoy it the vast majority of the time, but that isn’t the part that’s driving anyone I’d imagine. But again, I think the variety is what makes it interesting, so it’s hard to clown too much on it. It is funny how the things that lose money almost always tend to be the most fun, though. 

There have been a couple tours that seemed comically cursed, but the financial burden didn’t necessarily fall as heavily on me. I think there’s a degree to which tour feels like a twisted family vacation, so I’m less upset if I’m financially drained after. (That could just be the absence of touring talking.) The first thing that popped into my head, though, was a show that I’m pretty sure I didn’t play, I just booked it. It was the avalanche that wouldn’t stop. A date changed, the show got bumped from the original venue it was meant to be at. When relocating, the house booker at the new spot was not upfront about the house cost. Then, the show got moved to a “late show” which I didn’t feel was appropriate for the type of gig it was. The band was on tour from pretty far away, one of the locals dropped due to some last minute emergency or whatever. I’m sure I looked completely batshit trying to promote this given the amount of changes. The details seemed to change every day, and ultimately I didn’t get enough people there. I think I ended up paying $200 between making up house costs and paying the bands. The whole thing was ridiculous. I can’t even tell the story without it sounding like I’m making up a reason as to why I got home past curfew. I know everyone has bad nights, but I felt so awful for the band. Is there a part that you enjoy more than the rest, or does it all fall under the same umbrella (i.e. touring vs recording)? Is there any egregiously bad night on tour that just sticks in your brain?

The bad shows never really get to me for whatever reason, but I’ve had enough van problems to last a lifetime. The worst was probably when Cool Original blew a transmission in the middle of West Virginia on 4th of July weekend in 2017. Long story short, neither of the like 2 mechanics in town were open because of the holiday, so we ended up having to fly home. We would have been completely fucked if it hadn’t gone down during the couple year window when my parents just happened to be living a couple hours away in Ohio (they usually live in California; long story). My dad had to come pick us up from some highway exit in front of an Applebee’s. And that really only scratches the surface—my financial woes were nothing compared to those of our bass player whose appendix burst the day before, and the whole saga is a much crazier story that briefly threatened to veer in a sort of Green Room direction. But this probably isn’t the place to tell it.

OK, last question. You have a great name. Reggie Bender—how could someone with that name not end up being cool? Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you familiar with the idea of nominative determinism? As far as I can tell it’s mostly a joke, but jokes often have an element of truth to them. Think there’s anything to it?

That’s hilarious. Thanks, Mom! I think it has less to do with an individual making themselves fit a mold and more to do with how it informs someone else’s perception of you, the same way that wearing boat shoes or combat boots might also inspire a preconceived notion about a person. The difference being, of course, that we don’t pick our names at birth. That’s probably part of why people change their names, right? Especially once you get into some of those assumptions, they aren’t always fair or can even be harmful. I guess you might say names are the ultimate label! In the end, people are multifaceted. A name can’t possibly encompass all of that.

On the other hand, my last name is Bender and I have made most of my money from bartending, so do with that what you will.

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