with James Zahn
Name: James Zahn
Bands: Current - None. Past - Saturday Action Theatre (2004-2007), Odlid! (1994-1998), The James Zahn Conspiracy (2000). Future - probably Saturday Action Theatre again.
QRD – How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a professional musician?
James – 16. That’s when I put a down-payment on a used B.C. Rich Warlock at Griggs Music in Davenport, Iowa. I’d been doing a cable access show for a while & after interviewing bands like Faith No More & Megadeth, I was really inspired. It was kind of like, “You know, I might be able to do this.” I guess you could say I was “professional” in that people paid me to play music on occasion.
Fast-forward a couple of decades & while my personal musical performances are largely behind me, I’m still immersed in the music world & starting to explore music again with my own children & hopefully inspire a new generation. That B.C. Rich hangs in my home office now, the same place where I now edit videos for bands like Fear Factory & Dirge Within. There’s definitely a lineage of sorts.
QRD – What are a few highlights of your musical career?
James – Odlid! Was a fun few years in the 90s, though not exactly family-friendly. We played a ton of shows making largely oddball alternative stuff that no one could really put a finger on, ourselves included. I dabbled in electronic music in the early 2000s & did a track for an event called “The Blair Witch Webfest” that was kind of cool. It was an early online soundtrack tied to the second BLAIR WITCH movie. Marilyn Manson was involved, as was Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins. It was good company to be in for “a nobody” like me.
QRD – At what age did you decide you wanted to become a father?
James – That’s tricky because my wife & I had talked about having kids, but then it just sort of happened. We’d been married for nine years & hadn’t had kids. There were certain things I wanted to accomplish first, but those plans didn’t mean anything once my wife became pregnant. That became 100% of everything. My first daughter, Addie, is undoubtedly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. My second daughter is due on June 15th, so as I type this we’re in “Final Countdown Phase.” I’ll be rockin’ to the playgroup with a toddler & a newborn pretty soon.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your family has had on your career?
James – Music has always run in tandem with other creative endeavors that I’ve been involved with; like film, video, & comics. I’m a work-from-home dad now, so I can’t just get up & go like I used to. That really has an impact on how much money I can make. I quit acting largely because of having kids & the hassle of getting to Chicago for auditions. The positive is that the stress is behind me, but the negative is that I miss out on huge moneymaking opportunities like National commercials (I did well on a Wendy’s spot once). I think I’ll probably get back into all of that eventually.
On the flipside, having kids has also focused some of my energy away from some things that aren’t exactly healthy. I used to consider myself fueled by caffeine & nicotine. After 14 years I quit smoking & as of today I’ve been clean of that for about 15 months. I didn’t quit for me; I quit for my kids, but it’s a huge positive for all of us that I wouldn’t have made the move on otherwise. The negative is that a certain creative & motivational “spark” I felt while smoking has yet to return or be replaced.
Overall, working from home has a lot of benefits, but also some drawbacks - especially that you never get to leave the office.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your career has had on your family?
James – The overwhelming positive is that my kids get to have a parent with them at all times, which is something I firmly believe that all children deserve. Our country separates families & forces kids to grow-up too fast by design. I hate that our society places so little value on taking care of the family unit. “Parental Leave” has been in the news a lot lately because The United States is one of the few countries that requires ZERO benefit for it. I’m glad that my little girls are able to have someone raise them that isn’t the TV or Daycare.
The negative? Sometimes it’s terrifying to think of the fact that nothing is certain when you work largely for yourself.
QRD – Have your children effected the music you make &/or listen to?
James – I’m honestly thinking about doing a “Kindie” project next - something that rocks, but is totally family-friendly by design. There’s some fantastic artists working the Kindie genre that make music for kids that you don’t have to feel cheesy for listening to as a parent. The Boogers & Secret Agent 23 Skidoo are a couple examples of artists that get big spins in our house. The Boogers do punk rock a la The Ramones, while Skidoo does hip-hop with a live band. Who knows? Maybe I’ll launch the first hardcore project aimed at tots?
As far as listening goes, there’re certain things that I won’t crank up in front of the munchkins. On the flipside, I do an occasional feature on The Rock Father site that’s called “The Toddler Jukebox.” Basically, Addie picks a CD off of the racks in my office & I’m forced to listen to it & blog about it. In the past we’ve featured the Melvins, Imperial Teen, & Anthrax to name a few.
QRD – Have you had problems with the lack of steady money from an entertainment career providing the security you feel necessary in your household?
James – ABSOLUTELY. I get very conflicted about this all the time. We’re very fortunate that my wife has a great job, one where she’s been at since ‘98. She’s an intensely hard worker & puts in a ton of overtime above & beyond the normal work week. She supports the family, not me. Whatever I make is a necessary compliment to what she brings home. Knowing that I’m not able to financially support my family in full bothers me & I cannot gloss over that fact. But, if I were to work more outside the home or go back to the “normal” more socially accepted career routes (which I consider often), we’d be paying much of that money to daycare & my children wouldn’t have a parent with them full-time, the thought of which saddens me. It’s a double-edged sword, but it’s what works for us. I also worry about the fact that I have no substantial savings, no retirement plan, etc. I’m confident that I will work until the day I die, even if I return to the “executive” level of pay that I once enjoyed. Mortgage payments & car payments don’t pay themselves. Plus, the taxes here in Northern Illinois are absolutely, 100% ridiculous. But it’s home, & we live in a world where all bets are off.
QRD – Given the limitations having a family has on being in entertainment, would you have done more earlier in life if you’d known?
James – There’s a lot that I would’ve loved to do, but I’m happy with the fact that I did a lot. I never quite got “there” with anything, but sort of stopped short a bunch of times. There were many exciting adventures, though!
QRD – Do you think being a father or a musician has a greater impact on your community?
James – Not yet, but I think it will. As the kids get older, I plan on involving myself in their school activities, the park district, etc. I’ll be the guy championing the music & arts programs that are being cut in favor of new uniforms for the football team. There’s also a good chance I’ll run for public office as an independent at some point down the line. Right now I’m laying dormant in terms of community involvement, just waiting for the right moment to spring into action for the right cause or causes.
QRD – Would you rather see your children eventually become a musician or parent?
James – A musician for sure! But, becoming a parent is nearly inevitable & something I’d like to see as well - but after they’re well into their 20s. I was 33-ish when our first was born. No need to rush.
QRD – Both family & music seem like things that will take up as much of your time as you’re willing to put in. How do you end up dividing your time?
James – I tell everyone up front that I’m a dad first, & everything else is secondary. Where possible, I do not give clients an exact ETA on projects, nor do I like to take things with a deadline right now (though I still do). I get things done quickly, but I prefer to stay off-the-clock to keep focus on family. It’s rare to be able to do that. Unfortunately, what gets lost is any “me” time. I don’t really have any hobbies & seldom hang out with friends. I just fired up my XBOX 360 last night for the first time in six months. My wife & I haven’t taken a vacation since our honeymoon in 1999. Generally, from about 7 or 8am-6:30pm is devoted to the kids. After that we do dinner & I work from about 8pm-3am, though I’ve been hitting the sack a little earlier lately. At various points throughout the day I’ll get some work done during “nap time” or when something really compelling like Caillou is on. I’m relentless on parenting & work!
QRD – What do your kids think of your music?
James – Right now, the toddler loves hearing me play around on the acoustic guitar.
QRD – Do you think you could ever do a musical project with your children?
James – Possibly, but no Partridge Family stuff.
QRD – Any words of advice to young people?
James – Be true to yourself & learn early not to care what other people think. From my experience, I believe that the vast majority of people would rather tear you down than show support. Ignore them & find friends that are also genuine & true to themselves as well.
Also, don’t be too giving of yourself, or the value will be diminished. People love to take advantage of others & I’ve allowed that to happen repeatedly. If you’re not doing something that has value to YOU, move on & find something more rewarding. Time is precious. Don’t allow others to waste yours for their own gain. It’s a lesson I still have to remind myself of every so often.
Aside from that? The power of Rock is mighty!