Loving The Hamster Wheel

Loving The Hamster Wheel

Originally Appearing in "Hardcore Honolulu" (Abstract 7)
Text by Shawn Davenport // Images by Raul Soria Jr

Writing and playing original local music in Honolulu is a labor of love. It can’t be a job—there are simply not enough paying customers for it to make any sort of economic sense, and this is a tragedy because there is an incredible amount of underground music talent here.

Local artists who want to become ‘famous’ enough to tour the world and play music for the rest of their lives seldom find that path by staying in Honolulu. Typically, a local artist would have to achieve Bruno Mars-level fame for an audience outside Hawaiʻi to pay attention. Think of well-known music cities like Austin, Los Angeles, Tennessee, Atlanta, and New York: How many well-known bands come from those places? How many come from Honolulu?

How many well-known bands come from those places? How many come from Honolulu?

The reality is that instead of building a fan base and touring locally, bands that originate in these islands are forced to play the same few venues while saving money for trips to the mainland to expand their national audience. Brit Haynes, the guitarist and visual artist for the local band Virgin Mary, describes this as the hamster wheel. But she loves it.

I’ve been managing Virgin Mary for more than a year. I took the job because I love my friends Marc and Daphne, former/current bandmates of mine, and because I truly believe in their music.

Plus, I loved the idea of setting up shows, promoting, and gigging/partying without actually having to get up on stage and play myself. But it hasn’t been easy. During my first year as manager, we had at least three lineup changes (that I can remember) and dump-truck-sized drama on an almost weekly basis. Just trying to keep the group motivated through all the turbulence has been priority number one up to this point.

This year the lineup is more solid and the drama could fit in a wheelbarrow, so I was able to turn my attention to building Virgin Mary’s reputation beyond Hawaiʻi  by using their existing recorded music and their music video on VEVO. I talk with people on the mainland almost daily about work we’re doing with Virgin Mary’s music and image and we’re fortunate enough to have connections with people in places like Manila and Singapore that love the band and have helped to build the buzz internationally.

Virgin Mary has sold 500+ copies of their debut album, Ecstasy, in the Philippines and it is great to think of all those CDs circulating out there. We are also looking at community service for kids as another way to gain exposure and give back. What we are doing, quite simply, is supporting and loving the local scene for what it is, having a ton of fun running on the hamster wheel together and looking outside Hawaiʻi for the next step.

Being in a band and playing shows is exhilarating, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more physical work than I would have believed. Sometimes a Virgin Mary performance takes as much as 12 hours of work between transporting the gear, unloading and setting up, playing the show, then getting it home and put away. Sometimes Virgin Mary has to deal with drunken bar-goers who’ve fallen in love with one (or all) of the girls in the band and they need to be kept at bay. Some of Virgin Mary’s shows have been nonstop, multi-day nightmares that rival the crappiest experiences of my former role as a Marine.

Some of Virgin Mary's shows have been nonstop, multi-day nightmares that rival the crappiest experiences of my former role as a Marine.

At least in the Marines, we all got paid well. A few months ago, I was standing in the middle of Sandbox Waikiki at 3 a.m. with a PA system, drum-set, three amps, and five people. My car, the only one available to transport all that stuff, was parked blocks away, and I found myself wondering why any of this was worth it.

But it is worth it, because when it works, it’s incredible. Once I get all the band members and their stuff on stage, they never let me down. We’ve gotten a great response from local audiences and we love our fans. We’re creating a product that sounds amazing and that makes people happy. It doesn’t get better than that—even when some of the odds are stacked (or Sandboxed) against us.

Being a band in Hawaiʻi shouldn’t be a handicap—even if it seems to make things harder in a lot of ways. And while I completely understand the challenges with working in the close environment that is Hawaiʻi, I’d rather imagine a dense, underground layer of the Earth: where the pressure creates diamonds over time.