Day Jobs

The road may be narrow, but with purpose-driven passion, discomfort in mediocrity, and honing in on what makes you you, it is possible to discover. The road I speak of, of course, is the widely missed, yet highly sought alternative path that leads to deep-found satisfaction in both work and play. Not fame, not the Benjamins (though those may be a natural byproduct), but contentment. I am convinced, after speaking to these musicians, that one truly can simultaneously love one's work and craft. And further, they can live in symbiosis, fueling and inspiring the other.

As I continue my quest to find out how local musicians are paying the bills, I have found that these three very different musicians walk said proverbial road with conviction — behind the bar, the gloves, and the stories of the past — whether or not it means living from paycheck to paycheck. Their passion is infectious. Get to know Aaron, Roxi, and Leo:

Aaron Mortemore: Union Pacific // Barista at Matching Half Cafe 

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1. In what way does your job inspire your music?

I am a somewhat methodical and process-oriented artist. The love I have for making a good cup of coffee is heavily rooted in its creative pseudoscience and the repetition of cup-after-cup preparation in order to make fine adjustments and hone in on a tasty joe. I take that "process-oriented" craft of making espresso drinks into many elements of musicianship. If it's a recording kind of day, I would hardly settle on the first microphone I'll select for capturing sound. I have to test different distances and angles from an instrument or amp, hear various combinations of processors, and continue to make adjustments till I find the right tones for a song. The same thing goes for my drumming. I can rehearse a song one particular way, but then need to go back and try different fills or nuances of a beat for different sections of a song. In our current roster of tracks, I'll pick up a shaker in the middle of a verse to give a push into a chorus or switch from sticks to brushes mid song. Most obviously though, I can't ignore that caffeine plays a huge role in putting in long hours on music.

2. How did you decide on your job?
It's been an adventure and evolution of my picky tastebuds. Although I find pleasure in simple, wholesome food and drink, there is that "special something" when someone takes their craft seriously. I found myself on the journey of the bean in a burnt wasteland known as Starbucks through promotion at Safeway. At that point in my high school years, coffee was (although necessary for a student of procrastination) more of a sweet addiction. I hadn't realized my palate's preferences for lighter roast coffees since everything was dirtied up in chai, or blissed out in coffee milkshakes with whip, to-go please. I got my first job on a manual espresso machine in a quaint Swedish cafe in Tucson where, to no one's particular fault, I was never really given formal espresso training. Truth be told, I faked it 'til I made it…poorly. That's when it hit me. I didn't want to go through motions and pretend like I 'knew' what I was doing, so I watched a lot of videos on the internet about dialing in espresso and pouring latte art. I found that I really enjoyed the experience of working hard to ensure my coffee was up to snuff and when customers would return their latte mugs to the bus bin empty, I knew when I put all of myself into this craft, it was something that really fulfilled me. Since then, I've really taken to heart all the coffee training I've had through various companies in Phoenix, Seattle, and here in San Francisco and continue to try and perfect my brews. On a frank side note, I've been a coffee-every-single-morning kinda guy for the past handful of years, so my job kinda picked me.

3. What did you want to be as a kid?
As a kid, I wanted to be an artist. On road trips with my family, I would daydream in the back of the minivan and draw up forested summer camps with zip lines, horseback archery, and rivers to go canoeing down. Thinking back on this, perhaps I really wanted to be a camp counselor for life! I doodled a lot and messed about with painting in my youth but got really into film photography in high school. As film became pricey and scarcer, I simultaneously got accepted into an out-of-state photography program that was going to put me into debt for years to come (didn't do it), so I guess it clicked that I wanted to peruse my creative passions with any free time I had on the side. I didn't really fall too far from the artist tree, however, as I've been growing up. I dropped out of my in-state bachelor's track to focus on music. I've been making a living through coffee, and gather a lot of creative energy throughout my workday. When I speed out of the cafe in the afternoon I can't wait to make sounds and be imaginative. I also can't wait for my PB&J for dinner.

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4. Do you hope to make music a full-time gig?
I can't help but acknowledging the reality of an oversaturated digital marketplace of advertised and self-promoted entertainment. With exposure being an upload away, its also happens to be miles deep in 'tags' amidst a slew of genres. It's a strangely beautiful time to be alive, with music being so supported, acceptable, and accessible.

However, it's bountiful and divided into so many sub genres these days. Being a full time musician is just not a life I could imagine until perhaps, one day, all this hard work lowers the drawbridge into a nominally successful cash kingdom that allows the modern underground rocker the ability to pay rent, eat nutritiously, and work on music all the time. I'm quite happy functioning in society and I feel lucky that at least I love my day job...although I would love nothing more for my day job to be playing drums.

5. Share a random/interesting story from your job.
It's pretty wild how music and coffee are so entwined in my life because this story predates my employment by only a mere 48 hours. I moved to San Francisco to play drums in Union Pacific at the beginning of December. I touched down at SFO at 4:30 in the afternoon (after missing my first flight thanks to security finding a stash of lighters I totally forgot about in my carry on), got off the BART downtown, and met up with my bandmate. He had my first night in town kinda planned out and got me hyped to go to a house show. We dropped off my bags at his place then headed right out to the Sunset. I found myself in kitchen full of new faces and started talking to the girl next to me. It must have been the 20 or so ounces of PBR mixed with the luxurious two hours of sleep I got the "night" before leaving Arizona, but was scrolling through pictures of swan latte art I had poured when she grabbed my arm and promised me employment at her cafe. I must have dropped off my resume the next morning (or probably closer to the afternoon) because in a few days time I was happily employed at Matching Half ever after.

Aaron and his band Union Pacific just recorded a single at the Converse Rubber Tracks Session at Different Fur Studios yesterday. You can catch an upcoming show on April 23 at the Luke Sweeney 7" release show at Hemlock Tavern or on April 30 at the Young Minds Advocacy fundraiser (acoustic night) at SOMArts.

Roxi Pianko: Grow + Twine // High School History Teacher 

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1. In what way does your job inspire your music?

When people ask me about how I would describe myself, to keep it short, sometimes I say, “I’m 50% history, 50% music.” Music and history aren’t separate worlds in my life and they inspire each other. They are both my passion and one just so happens to pay the bills. Music was probably my first love because it was such a huge part of my childhood before school — that’s when the history part started. There are few things I remember from my childhood in Romania (three things to be exact) and one of them is sitting on my uncle’s lap while he was playing a stringed instrument surrounded by young adults singing songs, two of them my parents. I love this memory. My family has always loved music so I grew up absolutely immersed in it.

I used to think that your actual profession, your job, had nothing to do with who you are as a person. But I don’t feel that way about my job. I am a high school World History teacher and that is a huge part of who I am as a person. Every day, I get to be present with people whom I cherish. We learn from each other, I get to work at being a positive example for my students, and I get to serve others. To say that those things aren’t a part of my identity would just be false.

My job inspires my life, just like music inspires my life. It puts pep in my step, and anyone who has spent any time talking to me about my work knows how genuinely I mean those words! The creativity around me in my school community, students and teachers alike, the freedom to creatively and authentically share history with my students in my classroom, and the overall happiness that work gives me absolutely impact my music process. Just like music sometimes inspires my classroom creativity, aside from the environment, the history itself inspires how I actually do music sometimes and that is just such a wild thing to me. We will talk about really crazy things or really heavy things in class and they don’t stay in what I call the “have-to zone," which is school — they go home with me and I think about them and those things sometimes have great impact on the way that I make music. If we think about it, everything that we write about, the things we sing about, they are all history, our own experiences come to life in a song!

2. How did you decide on your job?

I have always loved history. I think I get that from my dad and from my own family history. I know not too many people can say that until adult life happens and they realize they love history, but that’s not the case for me. As far back as I can remember, it was the only subject, other than English here and there, that really spoke deeply to me. There was always just something so good about history! From making a California Mission diorama in the 4th grade, learning about the history of the world and U.S. politics in high school, and then onto college when I had my “aha!” moment.

Early in college, I thought studying music full-time was a good idea, but it wasn’t, not for me, I just wanted to make music. Somewhere along the road, I took a 19th Century Europe class and a fantastic professor, who looked like Santa himself and would become my mentor and my friend, reminded me of my love for history. Some of the most sacred memories of my life are those of sitting with him in his office for hours after class to talk about history. Memories that still bring tears to my eyes when I think about them years after his passing. One day, he asked me what I thought about grad school. I wasn’t sure, but he was — he believed in me and saw that history actually meant something to me, and he insisted that I go! So I did, and history was the only imaginable option for me. It feels like it was just two blinks ago, but grad school happened and history became such a key part of my life, in more ways than one. I studied history AND archives so I had the opportunity to handle history in the flesh! It was in grad school that I realized teaching history could be my thing. I loved it, in the books and in physical form, and people needed to know it and to understand it, so that together we could break a bad cycle. I wanted to do something meaningful with my life and I knew this was it. I was always so terrified of public speaking so it is ironically wonderful that public speaking is what I do!

3. What did you want to be as a kid?

In kindergarten, I thought a nurse would be nice. They take care of people and make them feel better and that sounded really great to me. And then my asthma (yes, I am an asthma kid) started acting up and I had to go in for regular blood draws and that destroyed my dreams. I thought being the president would be really awesome too, but in the 6th grade I found out that my Romanian birth made me ineligible. That was pretty soul crushing as well. But I’m not too upset about the way that things turned out.

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4. Do you hope to make music a full-time gig?

I have always loved music and am so excited about the opportunity to be a part of something so special during this season of my life. When I was younger, I dreamed about doing music full-time. At this point in my life, I am so truly satisfied with the way that my work situation looks: I get to do music and teach history and it’s the best. It really is amazing that I get to do both and that I don’t have to choose one over the other. And a really awesome thing about teaching is that I get time in the summer to invest in music, so summertime tours are an option.

5. Share a random/interesting story from your job.

Two of my classes recently began a project and they started their brainstorm for a research question by looking through tons of awesome National Geographic magazines. On the first day, one of my students called out to me and with uncertainty in her voice, asked if something in the magazine was real. I wasn’t sure what she found so I panicked for a moment and started walking over. When I got there, it was the loveliest little surprise. She found a sound sheet insert with Songs of the Humpback Whale in the January 1979 issue! Recordings from the 1970s of whales that are probably still out there! Terrifying but so incredible. Goosebumps, right?

In the process of figuring out how to remove the sheet from the magazine, I found out about Soviet Bone Music from a fellow teacher. It blew my mind, I’m still thinking about it and probably will for a long while, and my goal is to get my hands on some. Once we were successful in removing the sheet, it was the moment of truth. We put it on the turntable and it worked! The next day, my students and I were able to listen together thanks to the little portable record player that I have in my classroom and I was so delighted to see the looks on their faces as they were listening! They were excited, I was excited, it was a magical experience, a sweet little memory that was created.

Roxi and her band Grow + Twine are currently in the process of recording a full length album. Exciting! In the meantime, you can listen to/download their EP 'Wind Fool' here

Leopoldo Larsen: Citabria // Boxing Coach at Hitfit SF 

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1. In what way does your job inspire your music?

It's hard to say if my job as a martial art teacher and boxing coach inspires me as a songwriter. The one thing that I can say is that there is a definite parallel between the the two worlds. For example, many times when I am teaching a student, I will reference rhythmic patterns to help the student understand timing. I will often ask a student what type of music they listen to and suggest they think of dance for certain looks and styles of fighting. Now that I think of it I would probably say that music inspires my job...

2. How did you decide on your job?

I never really decided that I was to be a fight instructor. It more so took its course naturally. Back in 2009, I was certified with a black belt and teaching certificate from a private kung fu school. Shortly after I was offered a job working at an MMA gym to run basic boxing and kickboxing classes. It didn't take the staff and owners too long to see I had a natural knack for teaching and was demonstrating highly intricate, advanced movement. I was then promoted to become the gym's head boxing coach. Seven years later, I am now able to make an honest living doing something that I love and take great pride in.

3. What did you want to be as a kid?

A rock star! When I was as little as 3 years old when my father used to blast rock and roll in our little townhouse through his badass speakers. He played nothing but Led Zeppelin and Rush. I was so possessed by the sounds and energy of the music, it's all I would ever think of as a child.

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4. Do you hope to make music a full-time gig?

Yes! There were some years ago that music was a full-time gig for me and I desire to get that back. I know what it's like to be a touring musician and studio songwriter trying to make it. It's not an easy road. It's a very corrupt and hard business to become a successful working artist in this day and age. It would literally be like hitting the jackpot if I could at least make the same income as I am now with my current occupation. Either way, I will never stop writing music.

5. Share a random/interesting story from your job.

Believe me, there are far too many to choose from, but probably one of my favorite stories is about a young man some-odd years ago that came to me because he was being picked on. He was a very soft-spoken, scrawny guy and reminded me of a lot of myself before I was exposed to combative arts. He took one lesson and after was hooked. For two years straight he never missed a single lesson. Believe me, this poor guy was so delicate that one time I slapped him with a pair of focus mitts as a reminder to keep his hand up and almost knocked him out (I felt so bad, by the way!). He was so determined to get better; become stronger mentally and physically. Two years later he become one of my top students. This guy could now box, had a decent grappling game and became quite the ladies attraction. I have way too many transformation stories like these, in which I myself am one of those stories. I know what it's like to be weak and feel powerless. I give all credit to my amazing teachers, but (there's) one in particular that has truly been a huge inspiration for me all these years, Chris Suboreau. I couldn't thank him enough for giving me the tools to create a better life I now have today.

Leo and his band Citabria are gearing up to release their monthly brand-new single in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime check out their brand new music video here or download their album Exit Reality here

If you've missed any of this ongoing series, catch up here.

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