Brandon Lopez is a worker. He’s constantly in motion, a consistent and open thinker. Although we grew up at different times and under different circumstances, we share the same feelings about work and what separates real and valuable work from necessary, but wasted, energy. In the last five years, I’ve been watching Lopez grind, becoming one of the most in-demand bassists in New York, and I have been happy to see him thrive as his hard work begins to pay off.
As a musician, Lopez is a force of nature. He transcends his instrument’s role as the rhythm section’s powerplant and forces everyone around him to come up to his level. When we’ve played in the past, I’ve delightedly scrambled to ride his wave of sound and density of activity, so as to not be crushed by its force. It’s a good feeling, a camaraderie almost, to be in a band with someone there to work, to put work in, to make it work. There is a pride to it, and the music, even when it doesn’t work, moves forward.
The idea that putting time and energy in order to reap the benefits is an American myth, however. It’s not that effort and hope are incompatible, but how we bring them together in our minds—“If I just practice more, things will start to happen”—doesn’t take into account the frustration, menial occupation, disappointment, and dark nights of the soul that are the byproduct of a life in music. When I received Lopez’s answers to these questions, I recognized a lot of my own feelings from the past (and present) in them. These are moments of questioning and uneasiness, even in the midst of—what may seem to an outsider—a successful and productive career.
I asked for this interview because Lopez is at an interesting point in his career and life. It’s a moment of precarity I recognize from my own life. It’s as Anaïs Nin wrote, “…the risk to remain tight in a bud [is] more painful than the risk it [takes] to blossom.” Lopez is blossoming in life and in music, and with all of its attendant difficulties.
NWTell me about your average day. How many things are you doing to keep the money rolling in, and how much time are you able to give over to artistic work that is purely for your own satisfaction?
BLMy daytimes need to be regimented considering how strange working in nightlife can be in this city, and how much I’m attracted to that strange nightlife. There’s a lot of time spent with personal managerial shit. There’s a lot of emails. I practice a lot. Money certainly isn’t rolling in, but I’ve found some way to make it trickle enough to maintain: I take odd jobs; I work part-time; I say yes more than I’d like to. I have to keep up with social media, because I can’t afford a publicist, and, for whatever reason, it helps get gigs.
How much time am I able to give over to artistic work purely for my own satisfaction? I don’t think this work is ever about personal artistic satisfaction. I mean, I do enjoy when I’m making music, and I try to put myself into situations where I enjoy myself. (If I don’t enjoy myself, it won’t work out for anyone.) But the idea that I’m putting myself in front of other people for my own personal satisfaction doesn’t really track. I don’t think we exist in a vacuum. I feel like this work is for people as much as it is for us. But that probably wasn’t what you were asking.
NWI know you came up with a specific attitude about work. Can you talk a little bit about growing up? When and how did the bass come into your life?
BLMy family came to the US as a direct result of Operation Bootstrap, which ruined the economy of Puerto Rico by importing Puerto Ricans to the US mainland as cheap labor. My mother’s family had a few generations of professional musicians on her father’s side who happened to be involved in some iconic recordings and bands. My father grew up in the projects in Passaic, NJ and did everything he could to get out and differentiate himself from what was a pretty fucked up situation. He’s worked as the superintendent of a cemetery for over thirty years. I worked in the cemetery, on and off, for about fifteen years. It was, and is, hard labor. I learned a lot about humanity and human capital as well as how to deal with hard, thankless work.
As far as learning music and bass, I think—due to the family history with music—my parents were somewhat supportive of my musical pursuits. We were a solid working class family, and thinking of music as a viable pursuit wasn’t necessarily the case for the people I grew up around. My parents were able to afford a guitar and lessons when I was about thirteen years old. Once I got the guitar, I couldn’t put it down. When I was nineteen, I switched focus to double bass and practiced a lot. I went to, and dropped out of, Berklee and New England Conservatory fairly quickly. I couldn’t vibe with student life at that time.
NWBy the standards of the New York improvised music scene—being able to play, record, tour—you’ve been very successful at a young age. But this kind of perception around success exists only on the surface. Over the last few years, what else have you been doing to be able to play as much as you do?
BLWhat you see versus what it is (and what it took to get to what it is) can be distorted, like most visible optics in this country. For years, I worked manual labor by day and played/organized gigs at night. I was nearly homeless, living in a walk-in-closet-sized room for the better part of seven years. I was a gravedigger, a moving guy, a kitchen worker, a babysitter for entitled transplants. I organized weekly or twice-weekly gigs for years and probably spent more to play than I was ever making. It feels like I’m doing the work of six people to maybe scrape by. I don’t think it’s easy to see the difficulties and the sacrifices some of us have to make to do the work.
That being said, I do get to enjoy myself, and the musical work is mostly fulfilling in spite of whatever circumstances I’ve dealt with. Right now things are somehow working out, though I’m not sure how long it’ll be that way. The “industry” or the infrastructure for this music is, and has been, in a constant state of flux. What and who it deems programmable is a pretty ridiculous and fickle thing, and it’s obviously not tied to artistic merit or originality. When and from where the money comes is a mystery. I don’t think I’m so concerned with relevancy or following trends, but sometimes you’re forced to deal with some shit in order to work.
NWI’ve been asking this of almost everyone. It’s a little thought experiment. I want you to think thirty years down the road; it’s a utopian version of the future with the best possible circumstances for you, your career, your family, our culture. What do you see? How are you working? How is the world around you?
BLI’d love to see a democratization and dissemination of information and access. Right now, it feels like I’m surrounded by a generation who have parents who could foot the bill. Don’t you think that kind of cloistering of information drastically cuts back the amount of creative work that could benefit society at large?
I’m also genuinely uninterested and/or disturbed by what the middle and upper class wants or has to say. If the current socio-political structure benefits you, it’s hard to offer any real criticism. I think that’s central to great work: a rigorous critique of imposed social hierarchies. I don’t necessarily mean work that does that in a didactic and obvious way. I think a lot of “political” art or music I’ve seen (or unfortunately been a part of) has been more signaling that reinforces the divisive aspects of the neo-liberal co-opting of identity politics. I think we need to offer and be open to hard critique of our work and personal politics. And if we come from or obtain a position of power, we need to do what we can to uplift people around us and level the playing field. Working for yourself or your small circle of friends doesn’t benefit anyone. Playing a system so it massively benefits you at the expense of a majority is pretty fucking bad.
About my idea of the future… I don’t know what my future looks like, I’m not sure if it’ll be there. I’m just trying to be present and deal with what’s happening now!