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Clocked In: A conversation about the difficulties of working and touring with Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner

little big league

I called Michelle Zauner on the phone a couple weeks ago and this is what she said to me: “I forgot this was happening.”

It is easy to forget things are happening, especially in the summer. Plus Zauner was on vacation, in Oregon, the state where she grew up and where she lived before attending college at Bryn Mawr, before making Philadelphia her home and before starting the band Little Big League.

It was recently announced that Little Big League signed with Run For Cover, the Boston label that released the new album by fellow Philadelphians Modern Baseball, You’re Gonna Miss It All. A new Little Big League LP, the follow-up to the well-received These Are Good People (Tiny Engines; 2013), is expected to arrive later this year.

In addition to her work as the singer and guitarist in Little Big League, Zauner also makes music under the name Japanese Breakfast. Last month, the Seagreen Records label released her cassette American Sound & Where Is My Great Big Feeling?

Zauner is clearly very busy with music, but when she’s not on tour, she works elsewhere. For this new installment of Clocked In, we spoke with Zauner about her non-music-related work history, from clerical work at her dad’s truck broker business, to bossing a grill at Bryn Mawr, to holding down the comic shop Brave New Worlds. Continue reading →

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Clocked In: A conversation about bagging groceries and driving school buses with Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter

Dusdin Condren
Photo by Dusdin Condren

A couple weeks ago, Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter had just returned from a European press tour. “I’m just hanging out, cleaning the house,” he said, speaking on the phone from his home, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll Tuesday! Or, wait, it’s Wednesday. Shit. Sorry.”

“I didn’t sleep for like four days,” he confessed, attempting to justify not knowing what day it was. “I didn’t have to play shows while I was over there, I just had to talk to people, so I figured I’d just stay up and party, and rage it out. I think I had a mixture of lack of sleep and alcohol psychosis. I was having a hard time deciphering between dreams and reality. Was I dreaming or in the park? I didn’t know. But you gotta do that sometime… it keeps the beast alive.”

Showalter’s beast, Strand Of Oaks, is alive and well. He was overseas promoting his new album, Heal, out today via Dead Oceans. Unlike previous albums Dark Shores and Pope Killdragon, Showalter abandons metaphors and sci-fi concepts on Heal, where he sings about pain and love and the joys of being lonely in a no-frills kinda way. The new album’s noticeably heavier — more rocking — too, and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis even drops in to rip a solo on early single “Goshen ’97.”

This Friday, Strand Of Oaks will play a WXPN Free At Noon show. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Showalter as part of a new column, “Clocked In,” which focuses on the past and present work experiences of Philadelphia-area musicians. Before he became Strand Of Oaks, Showalter held various jobs, from Kroger bag boy to second grade teacher. He told us all about them.

What was your first paid job?

Well, I always worked for my grandpa, doing construction jobs. But my first paid job was at a Kroger grocery store, in Indiana. I was part of a union. It was real. I was paying union dues at 15 for a bagging job. I was fantastic at it. I’m not very good at a lot of things, but if it’s ordered, and I have an exact purpose, I love it. And I loved making efficient bags for the ladies.

I actually quit this job; this doesn’t sound true, but it’s true. It was summer, in Indiana, and there was a tornado warning. The sky was turning yellow and pink and that’s a sign you need to get underground immediately. The tornado was there! So I had this mean old woman that was my boss, and she told me to go get the shopping carts in the parking lot so they wouldn’t blow away. I was thinking, “Fuck you, Cheryl! I quit! I’m not going out there to get the carts!” I definitely quit that job on account of a tornado almost killing me. We all went to hide in the freezer, and after that, I just rode my bike home and that was it.

Have you ever been fired from a job?

Nope. I’ve never been fired. I like working, so I always try to do a really good job no matter where I work. I quit a job after one day once. I was on a roofing crew, when I was 17, working with all these 30-year-old coke-heads. I was there for like six hours and they were just the craziest, meanest guys I’ve ever met. I was out in the sun, not getting paid much, and lifting plywood on a roof. They were doing bumps by their trucks, and I was like, “Nope, I’m not doing this, this is not what I want to do.”

That sounds like a bad scene. What sort of construction work were you doing with your grandpa?

One of my best summers ever was when my grandpa and me built a seven-stall storage garage, which took most of that summer. He was a farmer, and a typical midwest kind of guy. One day we had to put the trusses up on this garage, which were like 14 feet, to support the roof. We had to put up 7 or 8 of these, and my grandpa was like, “Make sure these are all put up when I get back in a few hours.” I didn’t know what to do at first, but I eventually rigged up a wench system with a Ferguson tractor, and I found a way to stabilize them and nail them in. That’s how I got my grandpa’s respect. I had to put up 14-foot trusses.

Was he impressed?

He was super-impressed. He let me take one extra water break that day. You’d think working with your grandpa would be this easy experience, but it wasn’t. It was 14 hour days, and we’d start working at about 5:30 a.m., to beat the sun. I would work all the time, so I’d work with my grandpa in the morning, and a lot of summers I had two jobs. I’d do construction all day, and then when I was 16 or 17, I worked at this place called Hollywood Connections. I was in charge of the snack area, and I had no idea how to make the snacks. I got no training, and I had no idea how to use the cash register. I worked there for two months and I had no idea how to do the job.

What sort of snacks?

There was a little pizza grill, and nachos, and things like that. I kinda learned how to make the pizza, but I’d tell people I’d make them this super-pizza and just put everything I could find on it. I didn’t know what I was doing! I had just finished working out in the sun with my grandpa for 8 hours and I was exhausted. It was a good way to meet girls, though. That part was fun.

Preparing people’s food incorrectly is bad. I used to make salads and desserts at this fancy restaurant in Virginia, and I once burnt salt on top of a crème brule instead of sugar. I didn’t notice, sent the dish out, and the customers were upset about it.

Oh, man. Luckily, I never worked in food. That job was the closest, but it doesn’t really count. I never worked in restaurants or learned how to use a cash register. I did all manual labor through high school, then in college… well, first, my dad had a car dealership. That was my favorite job ever. I would wash cars for my dad and do minor detail work, like fix bumpers. People there called me an “aqua technician.” It was so fun. I never got to hang with my dad because he worked 70 hours a week, and this job was great because we got to hang in the office, like two men rather than as father and son.

I’d sit in the back of the dealership and play my stereo really loud and wash and detail cars. One day, this dude showed up; I think he was friends with my dad or uncle. His name was Pete, and he had this huge collection of antique cars. He asked me to wash them and do full details. He said the only rule was the I had to drive them around. So, one summer, when I had just got my license, I was driving around in a ’69 Corvette to the movies, with girls. I drove a ’53 Cadillac, a ’71 Camaro. I’ve toured the world as a musician, but if I could just go back to Indiana and cruise around in the summer, in a white ’71 Camaro… I’ve never had more fun.

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