Outlaw con Bandana: Professional Songwriting, Embarassment and the Search for Value | Q&A

Tonight at O’Leaver’s, Brendan Hagberg is pretty sure he’ll be anxious when it’s his turn to take the stage.

Outlaw con Bandana, the Omaha folk project Hagberg has been fronting for nearly 15 years, plays one of its only shows this year tonight with Charity. RSVP here. The band has another show on Dec. 23 with Neva Dinova, Twinsmith and Both. RSVP here.

“I’m not a very good musician so when I go in front of people and screw up, it makes me feel kind of lousy,” he says.

But through Outlaw con Bandana, Hagberg maintained a prolific output through 2009 — eight records in nine years. Each is available on Bandcamp, plus 2013’s Ticks and Trips, a 27-track double LP anthologizing songs from the previous eight releases, as well as some of Hagberg’s poetry, prose and photography.

It’s a catalog of songs built on a classic country-folk structure with a taste, as Hagberg calls it, for literary techniques. Indeed, it’s easy to hear a slew of singer-songwriters woven into Outlaw con Bandana’s discography — artists like Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, David Dondero or Simon Joyner.

The common thread is the folk tradition, pursued so faithfully that songs by Hagberg and his peers sound as much from 1965 as 2008.

And for that, Hagberg considers himself less like a songwriter than he used to. He says now that he’s a little embarrassed, even, to have taken his work in the craft so seriously.

He’s more comfortable now as someone that pursues writing as a hobby in other forms, and says he doesn’t feel as much of an obligation to perform.

So it’s easy to look at the cover of Ticks and Trips and see a sort of eulogy for Outlaw con Bandana’s creative period. It’s the only record to prominently feature Hagberg on the cover. He stands in his kitchen apron, presumably at  Omaha European cafe La Buvette where Hagberg has worked. He’s comfortable in that role, as someone with a job and hobbies, more-so than he ever was on stage.

Hear Nebraska: You’ve been out of town a lot these last couple years.

Brendan Hagberg: I go sailing. The last few years I’ve gone sailing in the winter. We live part of the year here.

HN: But this winter you’re back in Omaha.

BH: My son graduates high school this spring so I’m staying home. This is the first winter in a while.

HN: Outlaw con Bandana hasn’t played all that much recently but you’ve got two shows this month.

BH: It seems like we haven’t played that much, but we sneak them in there. It seems like we’ve played a few times this year. I know you’re looking for an angle, but I’m not sure.

HN: Well, I guess I’m thinking compared to bands that play once or twice a month for 10 months straight.

BH: I’ve played some very non-descript shows, but I can’t remember them. I’ve done a little, but not too much. We’ve played maybe twice this year.

HN: Why so few show?

BH: I’m anxious. I haven’t really enjoyed performing too much. It’s kind of an anxiety thing. I’m just a nervous person. I’m not a very good musician, so when I go in front of people and screw up, it makes me feel kind of lousy. I don’t know if you’ve seen me play, but it’s a pretty sure thing I’m going to cave after about six songs. After about 15 years of that, you start to pick up some different hobbies.

HN: So do you play shows because you feel like there’s an expectation of it?

BH: I’ve got a few hundred records I have to sell, some boxes infiltrating my house right now. That’s part of why we’re playing. We’re going to play more in the next six months. Then we’re going to go off on a long, long sailing trip after. We’re going to be out of town indefinitely following my son’s graduation, so I wanted to make a bit of an impression on my way out.

HN: You’re playing shows with this anxiety, how do you work through it? Or do you just deal with it?

BH: I used to drink a lot of beer up until about ten years ago. Now I just keep banging my head against the wall, try not to give up completely. I really can’t fix it. I always thought if I practiced maybe, but I just got anxiety. I try to let adrenaline win out and force my way through it. It’s hit or miss. I’ve performed a thousand times or something, but I’ve never been able to guarantee that it’s all going to come together.

HN: Is there any part of it that’s rewarding, or are you just waiting to leave?

BH: [Laughs.] Getting the hell out of the club, it’s amazing. It’s funny, if I do good, people want to visit after the show. If I do bad, people really want to visit and spend time telling me how awesome it was.

If I break a string or forget the words or fall apart, then I got people using real big adjectives to describe how emotional it was. I can’t stand that sort of pandering. That’s kind of a hallmark of the generation — everyone is great, awesome. I’m not awesome, I’m not great. When I show people that, I don’t want to hear it.

It’s a big reward going home. I like to see the other bands, and I will. But if I have the option to go home and get out of the club, I’ll do it.

HN: Maybe your ideal show is headlining so you can hang out in the green room all night.

BH: I’ve never hung out in a green room because I’ve only played in Omaha! So you play The Waiting Room and there’s a green room, it feels kind of silly because I could just stay home a couple extra hours.

But I know what you’re saying. It’s better to play last so you can see people without having to have them rub your back the whole time when you’re done.

HN: It seems like people want to make sure you know they appreciate you trying, or maybe they just want to make you feel good about yourself.

BH: That’s what I think. It’s gotta be what it is. It’s funny how consistently people try to convince me that that’s not the case. I say they’re just being nice and they’re like ‘No, really.’ I’m sure I’m harder on myself.

HN: What would it take for you to believe someone that tells you that?

BH: It is possible that I might be magnifying the mistakes.

HN: So are you still writing music?

BH: I don’t have any plans to make more records. We’ve done eight. I wrote a play this year, I’m working on some fiction. I’ve continued to write, but I’m looking into other forms of obsolete media. There’s no folk singers that I’m seeing that have an easy time of it. I like to travel, But I like to travel by water so that’s not going to work out really well.

So I thought I’d write a book or a play. That’s even less of a chance of having any recognized success [laughs]. But it’s fun because you don’t have to perform. You have to perform but there are ways to do that work and not be on stage.

HN: You wrote a guest post for This Band Sucks a year or so ago, and you seemed really disenfranchised with the whole system. Are you still feeling that way?

BH: When I got into it, I decided to write songs and try to sell songs. I had some notion in my head that it was the ‘60s and if you wrote really good songs and you were lucky you could maybe give up working as a fry cook.

It turned out that my generation and the one following it have an inordinate amount of upcoming musicians. Like poetry, there are more poets than there are readers of poetry. It’s a little embarrassing to have felt like that was a big deal when actually it’s a very common thing, especially one that uses advanced literary technique on the country western song structure.

It was a big deal in the ‘60s, but that’s like a hallmark card as far as creative output is concerned now. It’s cool, but it’s a little embarrassing to have taken myself seriously for as long as I did. So I was making peace with that and the sort of humor that This Band Sucks was pointing at with songwriters.

HN: The thing that stuck out to me was a comment about how there’s not value in something just because you created it.

BH: There are more creative artists than there are consumers. Or it’s one-for-one. But the balance has shifted. I could sit at home and write an album that would be as good as “The Time’s They Are A’Changin’” but the world already has 30 or 40,000 songs like that. The currency has been devalued. I didn’t realize that soon enough to save the prime of my working years [laughs].

I was a little disappointed when I found out this pack of songs I had written weren’t so rare or valuable as I had hoped them to be.

HN: In that kind of climate, what does it take for something to be valuable, then?

BH: I’m running away from it, but having a few dozen people that actually know the words to your songs and value them personally, not from a great distance. That’s what a person can hope for now, to be respected among their immediate peers and community as an artist.

The idea of broadcasting, that’s less realizable with the internet. Some kid in San Diego might have written a beautiful song, but there’s a way harder chance of that song making it into my memorized repertoire. When I was 20, everyone I knew knew all the words to all the David Dondero songs or all the Simon Joyner songs. We’d sit down and sing the words to the whole Michigan album or the whole Umbilical Cords album. That’s as good as you can get.

It worked out for Leonard Cohen on a larger scale, but that won’t be happening as often any more, with the exception of people that tend to be older. I don’t think any of 2014’s folk records have as good of a chance as a record from 20 years ago as being remembered in folk tradition.

HN: So what do you think we do, then?

BH: We have to start going down the street to the tavern and see one of our buddies sing and memorize a half a dozen songs if they’re any good. Revert it to the time before the real big broadcast marketing. I’m sure we’ll listen to the Beatles for another 200 to 300 years because they found a sweet spot. They were at the right time to end up in the collective social repertoire.

A lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s covered the airwaves for a while.

HN: Right. I don’t imagine buying an album in the next few years that will be shelved next to Graceland, for instance.

BH: And that’s okay. The idea that you’re going to earn a living as songwriter is becoming less realizable. That happened for poets 150 years ago or it’s always been that way. There’s a good time to be a good painter or sculptor and centuries where you just gotta do it because you love it. It’s just the way it’s going to have to be for urban country singers with literary taste [laughs].

HN: In that sense, songwriting was only a viable career for what, 50 years?

BH: Probably 30 to 40 years as a career. Who knows how many people made it. I listen to Tom May’s program on public radio where they have those coffee house circuit folks. They talk like they live off it.

I don’t have a lot of contact with that adult culture even though I’m well into middle age. Maybe there’s some way for guys to work out a little circuit. But even bar bands and DJs are having a harder time. Taverns are probably having a harder time. I’m pretty sure people are staying home. Going out just to hear music, there are other ways to do it now.

At points along the way, that was the only way to do it, to go see someone. You might make some money these days, but I would never suggest to a kid that it was an option. But when I was a kid, we were told go for it. Now that I have a kid, I’m not pushing him to pursue his rap career. We were raised by some really positive people that told even the worst of us that we were great. Now I’m still working as a cook, going ‘well, shit.’

I’m not complaining, though, either.

HN: It’s like a generation of people raised by parents who made their own way, so they said you could do whatever you wanted and then it’s like, ‘Well, you should have wanted to do something else.’

BH: How important is it to earn a living? I never had to beg for food too much, I didn’t end up in a gutter. Being a songwriter, it was fine. It’s a good thing to do. I would suggest people continue on with their passions. But if you are a broke songwriter and you dare complain that it’s unjust, then you haven’t done your research or looked into your own talents.

HN: What about your son? What would you push him to do?

BH: He’s thinking about going to college to play baseball, to pitch or something. I want him to experience the world. So I’d nudge him out into the world, whether he wants to join the service or go to college for baseball. I’ve offered him my own sailboat when he graduates. I’ve nudged him toward getting out.