Ted Drozdowski of the Scissormen on His “No Burgers, No Fries” Rule and Learning to Treat Music as a Business

June 23, 2015

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

Tour vehicles live their lives in dog years. This one’s just a puppy. It’s a 2007 Dodge Caravan I bought just a short time ago with about 63,000 miles, so it was “band” new.

Now it’s got almost 120,000 with scars on both sides from being sideswiped while it was parked at gigs. And a big dent in the tailgate from where I backed into a trash can. (Yup, I backed into a trash can…pulling out of my own driveway…)

I’ve had no major breakdowns or other issues with this van, but in the past I’ve had an axle drop on a highway exit ramp, tires blow on the highway, and almost slid into a tree on a curve during a rainstorm, tipping to about a 90 degree angle against the curb and slamming back down on the tires to a stop, right next to the tree. That’s how I learned to never drive on bald tires. I’m serious, now, about regular maintenance. With Scissormen, I’ve driven close to 700,000 miles without an accident, so I’ve been really lucky.

I’ve been touring since the ’80s in various bands and have gone through six Dodge Caravans. They’re cheap, take a Thule on top, always go well over 200,000 miles, have a good motor and drive assembly, and, instead of a band van, they look like something a soccer mom would drive – so who would figure it’s packed with awesome gear?

I also went to Home Depot years ago and got metal shelving and built a cage that fits around the one back seat I leave in – typically for Pete (Pulkrabek), the drummer. He’s smallest. Sean (Szwick) and I are tall gentleman. That way we can pile everything to the ceiling and when the driver hits the brakes nobody gets beheaded by a loose cymbal.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

First day out, I pack a few sandwiches. After that its touch and go. Generally we skip fast food and hit mom and pop sandwich shops and diners, or go to grocery stores. I have a personal “no burgers, no fries” rule on tour. We try to avoid chains of any kind with two exceptions: Wendy’s, because we can get a salad or baked potato, and Cracker Barrel. But usually we’re too busy to stop for a sit down meal. Got miles, got a gig, got a soundcheck, got a load-in… gotta run!

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

Pete just smashed an Iron Cobra (kick pedal) to bits, and Sean pushes his bass rig really hard, but we generally don’t break stuff. I usually change strings before they break, but leave them on for weeks or months, depending on the guitar and how often I use it. Worn strings sound less bright (low is how I like to go) and bend beautifully, and, to me, offer a lot more control. I got an endorsement deal with GHS strings last year, and that saves me probably $200 a year. And I genuinely love their .10 Boomer set on electric guitars. (Dear GHS, please keep giving me strings!)

I probably spend the most, gear wise, on amp and effects repairs. I’m often changing out speakers or frying tubes, or a stomp box gives up the ghost. I’m always chasing my sound. I like things a little weird.

Where do you rehearse?

Our rehearsal space is the back room of my house in Nashville. And that rocks. Saves money, saves time, and we can break during practice and cook a great meal, then jump back in. The worst thing that’s happened in there is that Dolly the Dog’s thrown up a few times, although never during rehearsal. During rehearsal she hides. Dolly does not understand that daddy needs to rock.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

The first song I wrote was an untitled jingle for a radio play me and two buddies did in fifth grade. It was for a funeral parlor, and I think the tag line in the chorus was, “You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.” I think we plagiarized the Three Stooges. Hey, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best!

Describe your first gig.

It was at a weird little diner outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, in the woods, with my very first band in the ‘80s. There was barely enough room for the band – a six piece – to stand at the end of the area where they served chow. I’m pretty sure we sucked, and we didn’t get a soundcheck, although I’m not sure we would have known what to do with it if we did. The headlining band and their girlfriends were the only other people in the room, plus our keyboard player’s mom, and the headliners were merciless about how shitty we were. Damn rock stars!

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

My last real go-to-a-place day job was as the Associate Arts Editor of the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly newspaper. So it was cool! But I quit for music in 1998. I haven’t had to go to an office – or restaurant or coffee shop — against my will ever since. But I still freelance write, mostly for guitar magazines, and work as a music consultant besides having the band and producing other artists, so I can nail together a living. I can’t complain. But to get it all done I wake up early and work late, just like Donald Trump, but with better hair and manners.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

All of my income is music-related, and it’s fluctuated wildly. But over the last year it’s stabilized. I was one of 25 Nashville artists from all sorts of disciplines chosen for an innovative biz indoctrination program called Periscope that the city’s Arts Business Council and Entrepreneur Center run, and I had a meaningful meeting with a rep from the Small Business Administration — because most of us who work inside music are small businesses. That led me to focus on my strengths as an earner. It also indirectly helped me prepare for the very successful Indiegogo campaign I ran to put together my new Love & Life album, which comes out July 31. So that’s all good. It’s really hard taking care of your music when you can’t take care of yourself and your loved ones.

The future? There are so many things that might or might not happen that it’s impossible to predict. Animal husbandry? Professional dog walker? Psychedelic roots rock godhead? I dunno…

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

Meditation and mindfulness practice. It’s incredibly helpful.

Some artists just play music. Ted Drozdowski inhabits it, with all his heart and soul, powering his true-to-life songs with high-energy performances that often find him literally playing on his audience’s tables and in their laps.

Through a decade and five albums including 2012’s CD+DVD set BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues, a collaboration with world-renown roots music film maker Robert Mugge (Gospel According To Al Green, Deep Blues, Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus), he’s led his band Scissormen through the US and Europe, playing everything from Mississippi juke joints to major festivals including Bonnaroo and France’s Cognac Blues Passions.

“Like Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and my mentors R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill — and all the other artists who inspire me — I believe in keeping my feet planted firmly in tradition and keeping my eyes on the future,” Ted says. “This music is vital, contemporary and brimming with power, passion and beauty.”

Love & Life, The Scissormen’s latest album, will be released on 31 July.  Connect with Ted and the band online and on the road.