It’s been a time of growth for Michigan DIY musician Luke Dean. Last year, he put out his first full-length under the moniker Vagabonds, and he’s supported it since with a handful of shows — including a recent January gig in Kansas City, MO. The day after playing a local record store in Westport, Dean and staffer Tim Dodderidge sat down to discuss what it’s like to tour as a self-sustaining artist, sharing the stage with the drummer of Listener and other big names, and how his solo project has reflected his change as a person.
So, last night you played a show to a crowd of, like 25-30 people along with the drummer of Listener [Kris Rochelle in his solo project Red Sweater Lullaby]. How did that show compare to other shows you’ve been playing as of late?
It was a little bit smaller, but it was also a really satisfying show. It was a three band bill, which is definitely my preference. I liked both of the other artists playing on it, and I specifically asked both of them to be on the bill. Yeah, it was definitely a little bit smaller. The other shows on this tour have been around 45-60. So it was a smaller night, but I mean, there were still people there singing the words — a handful — and people who came there just for that. But there was also a competing show two miles away that all my friends were playing.
Oh wow, I didn’t even know that.
So, I kind of expected that. It was great, no complaints at all.
Well, even you remarked that it was a really respectful crowd. Like, you could hear a pin drop in there, which is always cool.
Yeah, really great.
You said you preferred Kris to play the show. What’s your history with Listener?
I know them initially through Audiofeed [Festival]. Then I got lunch with them one year the day after Audiofeed ended. And we kept in touch a little bit, and the way things go, you end up seeing people again and again in whatever state or context. Then we ended up staying with Dan [Smith] around a year ago. And he put us up and took really good care of us. Yeah, he’s just been a good friend ever since. They played their solo projects in my attic about a month ago.
Dang, that’s pretty neat.
Yeah, Levi the Poet and Dan did solo stuff, and then Kris did his Red Sweater Lullaby songs. It was great.
That’s awesome. What other artists have you played with that have been those big “shock” moments?
Yeah, I’d say definitely Circa Survive was a very cool show to play. It was the first officially sold-out show at a bigger, established venue that I’d ever played. Like, a weekend last year, there was a fest with a very small handful of artists on it. It was Jamila Woods — she’s on the Chance the Rapper record. She was one night, and then the next night was me and Julien Baker, and then the following night was David Bazan of Pedro the Lion. That was definitely standout. Pedro the Lion is one of my favorite bands of all-time, and David Bazan is one of my favorite writers. Julien’s an artist that I love musically and also just an old friend from DIY. So that was really cool. I played Bled Fest as well, which wasn’t just a small bill with me and another big artist. It was a range — there was, like, 20-30 artists on that, something in that range. But that was still cool, because I got to be on a bill with La Dispute and a handful of other bands that I had grown up listening to, whether it was, like, La Dispute being a hometown pride band, and just other bands that I had listened to over the years. That was right before I announced the record, and there were a few people taking interest that I didn’t think would, who had been heroes of mine. That was really rewarding. It just felt very fulfilling, very affirming. When you play with someone and then it turns out that you’re not just the random other person playing the bill but they’re actually a listener of what you do, it’s really cool — the way art inspires other art. A lot of these people had inspired me growing up, and to turn around and kind of flip that script.
It goes full circle.
Yeah, where I’m able to bring something to the table that they can take away with them is a really cool reaction that I didn’t really think would happen, honestly, in this musical journey.
You’ve talked a lot to other publications about life on the road for a DIY musician, but what has it been like recently being on tour and playing shows?
It’s been good. It’s been interesting. I feel like right now is a little bit transient, as is every moment in every artist’s career. You could probably say that anytime is probably transient. But in regards to right now, DIY specifically, I don’t have any other DIY tours lineup this year, so this is the last one I plan on doing for a while — unless I have a really great show out of state that would be smart to tour around to make ends meet around it. But it’s been really good. It’s been really good to me. There’s almost always people coming out who know the words to one degree or another, which is really cool to see. I feel like recently, the crowds have been more and more respectful and also consistently more well attended. Whereas, when I started, it was playing for maybe 10 people a night. The next year it became maybe 20-25 people. And now, it’s usually in the 45-60 range. Then the, like, smaller nights are 20-25.
So like last night.
Yeah, but even that, it’s not a bomb show to me. That’s still people who are there to listen, and it’s still worthwhile. People donated at that show, and people bought merch — I’m almost out, which is really nice but also really scary at the same time, being halfway through a tour and not having much merch left to sell. But it’s been really good. I think this is, like, my first time saying this in an interview, but I think it’s run its course a little bit — to a degree. I’m not saying there’s not room for growth, because there are other bands still in DIY who are much bigger than me. But I think, in some regards, it’s kind of hit its ceiling, or at least its amount of time in my life for this specific project. That said, I don’t have any intentions of leaving behind DIY. It’s been a very important part of my life since I was a kid, and I think it will continue to be so — whether it’s me booking a house or small venue, or me playing DIY shows in other bands. But specifically for me in Vagabonds, it’s near the time but not quite the time yet. It’s nearing the time to be at a different level or seen in a different venue than, you know, a typical house or something like that.
That also helps transition too. You talked last night during your set about how you’ve changed as a person. Well, obviously everybody changes as a person, but changing as a person since you wrote the songs for I Don’t Know What to Do Now. So, explain to me, I guess, your evolution as a person and as a musician and I guess how you’ve been able to cope with things like depression, which was a big thing playing into that album.
I would definitely say that I Don’t Know What to Do Now is, like, a depression record the way as in that even the other albums I listened to that I wanted it to be like in a sense were my depression records. Like, the ones I went to when I was 16, 17, 18 that were the emotional crutch or the “lay in bed all day and listen to this on repeat,” like Mansions’ Dig Up the Dead.
I definitely can hear that in the album, for sure.
That’s, like, my depression record — the one that I would probably say has been that for the past five years of my life. So the question was coping and how I’ve evolved from all of that?
I kind of went on a tangent there.
I would say I’m more stable, I think, then I was then. Even as much as an external wreck as people might draw from the lyrics on that record, those were mostly things in my head and not things that I ever acted upon in a very visible way to other people. That’s kind of the way depression works. It’s not always something other people can see. But I would say inwardly, I’m a bit more stable. I think I struggle less with depression and probably equally as much with anxiety and things like that. So I would say if there’s a topic shift in a struggle on whatever comes out in the future, it would lean more toward anxiety than depression because I’ve learned how to navigate depressive cycles in my mind more than I had at, like 18 years old.
With everything being so journalistic, it really does change my lyrical writing. And when you change what songs are about, it doesn’t always make sense to have one carbon copy sound. If one sound is very specifically associated with this emotion, just the way hardcore is associated with anger, passion, bitterness, or regret — things like that. That record kind of sounds, for the bulk of it, messy and depressive.
There’s a lot of layers to it, for sure.
Then toward the end, there’s that hopeful bit. On that last track, there’s that view into what hope looks like for me, and that’s something I’ve carried with me and even make more of a focal point in my sets. Not that everything I need to do needs a disclaimer, but I think that’s something I need to highlight more — the hopefulness of it instead of just playing songs about depression. When it’s come to my writing, how I’ve musically evolved from that was the other part of that?
I think it’s still rooted in really similar things, or I’m still trying to expand upon ideas I had on that record. I’m very proud of what it was. It was made from pretty much nothing and it was what I wanted it to be. There’s some sonic ideas that I’m leaving on that record that I’m happy are on that record but I’m moving into different areas. And even the way I structure songs is a little bit more thought-through. I think almost all of the songs, I don’t think I rewrote anything on that record. When I think about it, there was one part on one song that I cut a final verse out of because I thought it would be too long for where it was on the record. But other than that…
…it’s pretty raw and unadulterated, then.
Yeah, I didn’t censor it. There was no filter on it. There was no, “Oh, this song’s too short. I should add a little bit,” or, “I should make it come a little more full circle, or, “I should add some sort of silver lining on it lyrically.” If you went back and listened to the voice memos of those songs, it’s the same song. It’s the same exact song with all of those — every song from the first song on the album to the last song on the album. It was all first draft. The intro to the record, I literally wrote it right there. I was about to hit record and I just set it and that’s what stuck. I wrote that right then, I typed it out on my computer in the kitchen of this place that I was renting. Nobody was in the house, and I plugged in my microphone and did it, and that was the intro to the record. It was very much this outpouring of emotion. And there was thought behind it, I think, in the production side of it in how the production would match the subject matter of the record. It ended up being almost uncomfortable, different, or challenging, and then “Teeth” being an easier or more hopeful song to listen to, it was all thought out in that regard. I structure things different now. I think more about the craft of songwriting that I didn’t focus as much on on the first release.
So you would say it’s more focused on the emotion than the lyricism and things like that?
Yeah, and still hoped to be at least somewhat poetic in a way, or I had hoped to on that. And I chose the songs that reflected what I wanted. But there wasn’t some big edit over anything I said on it. Because I felt like if I changed anything it was kind of, like, lying. Like, if I was like, “This is a little bit too much to say,” then I don’t want to sing it…
…one song comes to mind, and the lyrics are about committing an act of violence. I think it was something like that.
Oh, yeah, “I close my eyes and I see violence.”
Yeah, that was it, and that could be taken a lot of ways, obviously, but…
I wouldn’t say it is about that, but it’s also open-ended. The lens of the listener is just as important as the voice of the person who wrote it. So it wouldn’t even necessarily say that’s what it’s about but that’s the thing about art, too. It can be taken any way, and it can be a totally different story. There are songs that I listen to now that I listened to as a kid and had this whole storyline in my head and was like, “This is what that song is about.” And I listen back to it now, and I’m like, “I don’t think that’s what they’re talking about at all.”
It’s completely different. It’s a whole different situation.
Definitely, and I mean, with that song, it’s just about being dark. I wouldn’t even necessarily say embracing it, but acknowledging that it’s there.
There’s definitely a difference between those two things. I know a lot of people are ashamed of their past and don’t want to think about those things now, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that it happened and that you’ve changed as a person.
Yeah totally. I’m not nearly as dark and sit-in-my-room-and-stare-at-the-ceiling-all-day as I was at all. Not to say that there’s not depressing times, but it’s not the same as it was — a couple years after writing those things, you know. It’s good to know that (laughs). I had my time in that realm of depression, and I don’t think it’s anything that I’m necessarily above either. I’d gone through phases before where I was, like, “I’m done with depression,” and then I wrote that record. So, you know, I don’t think it necessarily makes you a bad person, the struggles that you have, or if I were to slip back into that depressive cycle someday that I would be a worse person or a failure — just as I struggle with anxiety more than I have at other times in my life, and I’m not a failure because of that. It’s always changing, and it’s sometimes difficult to separate growth in change. Sometimes, it’s one struggle to the next, or I dealt with the one, I’m dealing with it in a better way now but there’s something else that’s also really tough.
You mentioned Mansions earlier, but what other artists would you say have built the foundation of your musical identity, to name-drop some or even genres?
Yeah, Mansions, Pedro the Lion, and anything Conor Oberst has ever done.
Okay, yeah I had Bright Eyes — I remember I wrote that one into my review…
…and also bands that verge more onto hardcore like Touche Amore and things like that.
Yeah, that’s cool. So on the new songs that you played last night. You said you were going into the studio to record those?
Can you provide some details about the timeline for recording and release?
So, it’s my first time in a studio…
…because your album was all recorded on your laptop, right?
Yeah, it’s my first time even having real microphones and equipment at my disposal. So I’m recording with Matt Frank from Their / They’re / There, and I’m going to Chicago on the 23rd and 25th of next month. Then, depending on when masters get back, I’m hoping to have one song out by March and one by April or May. So at least by May, I want both songs out.
What other plans do you have for the near future? Obviously, as a DIY musician, it’s not always set in stone.
I’d say I usually have a lot more touring on the table. Right now, I’m more focused on creating art and creating things that I think are really representative of where I’m at now, and the light in which I put those out as well. And being more specific in that, it’s about being home for the next six months with occasional shows. I’m playing with Neil Hilborn, which will be really cool. He’s a spoken word artist that I really like. And then I’ll be doing a handful of other shows, but there won’t be extensive DIY touring in the first half of this year. If I do more touring on these other releases, it’ll be short stints on support slots.
So how do you balance taking things one day at a time versus big picture thinking? I’m sure it’s tough as a DIY musician, where things sort of evolve as time goes.
That’s really a question that’s more in my mind now than it ever has been. Living on my own and paying all my bills and sustaining and doing this for most of my time and energy, I’d say I’m still figuring it out. I had a conversation for a while with Dan this morning about what’s next and big picture things and long-term things. I try and set goals that will really push but also that I think I can get to if I really work at it every day — which I do every day. Yeah, I’d say it’s just setting those goals and chipping away the best I can. Making a couple cups of coffee and sitting down for 4-5 hours and sending the emails, or writing the songs, or demoing the songs, or drawing the artwork — whatever I can do to make the next thing happen.
What message do you have for other DIY musicians, local bands, or really anyone who dreams of creating music but is maybe intimidated by the thought of doing so?
I would say to do whatever you do with integrity, honestly. I think that your goals can be whatever they are. I’ve met people who have played to 10 people who want to sell out an arena in a few years, and that’s not a goal of mine whatsoever, but more power to them. But I would say to do it with integrity and consistency, to establish what you want to do and what success means to you. Even for myself, success means something very different from when I started this. I didn’t have much of a goal at all when I did the first Vagabonds show, or for awhile after that. Then the goal was a DIY tour, to put something out — not even put an album out or anything. Then it became to put out a full-length on a label and tour a lot. And I did that, and now it’s where it’s going now, which I’m really happy about.
I try to not cut corners, because I’ve seen a lot of people do that and it’s always kind of frustrating and even sickening to watch. And also, eventually a lot of those bands crumble that do those things, or don’t treat people well, or only make friendships or connections on the certain level of popularity it can get them and then play those cards. It’s, like, when you use people as money, and even though there’s an economy and a system to making things work, it’s when you’re just using people as tokens you can cash in at some point to fulfill whatever selfish desire it is. Putting in your work and doing it honestly is the most important thing to me. Working with integrity and honesty and consistency is really important — and knowing what you want out of it in the first place so you don’t get lost in what other people say. I’ve seen bands also get big who didn’t necessarily want to do the things they had to go to get to that point. It felt like they sold their souls to it, or sold their identities to it, and that sucks to see too. So it’s being true to yourself, but also being able to get where you want to go.