At its core, music is a labor of love. Most people who start bands do so knowing it provides little in the way of stability. Only a fraction of musicians make enough money to be financially stable from their art alone.
It’s not surprising, then, that most active touring musicians are either young, or live in places where the rent isn’t equal to a drug cartel’s ransom. Often, priorities change, causing many musicians to throw in the towel in favor of more traditional work. They might still have a band with friends, getting together to jam on the weekends. They might play the occasional low-key show for fun. Their old bands might reunite to do a larger scale gig here and there. For the most part though, it’s over. Life is different. They’re on to the next stage.
For the rest of us, there are day jobs—the things you do between stints on the road. They vary from service industry and retail gigs to tour managers, graphic designers, teachers, stock brokers and so on. A day job is whatever you do to make money and survive while pursuing music.
For the first installment of our new series “What’s Your Day Job,” which focuses on the day-to-day lives of musicians who seek to balance their art with their careers, we spoke to Sannhet. Since their inception in 2010, the New York-based instrumental experimental metal trio of bassist AJ Annunziata, guitarist John Refano, and drummer Christopher Raven have been arcing steadily upward in both critical success and respectability due to their impeccable musicianship and complex yet straightforward song structures. Their live performances are a thing of unique beauty, augmented by an intricate light and video show.
Tremendous amounts of energy and dedication are required to bring the live Sannhet experience to fruition. Finding the time and resources to make it happen isn’t always easy, and each band member maintains a full-time job outside of the band. But Sannhet’s hard work is beginning to reap dividends, following the release of 2015’s acclaimed Revisionist. This summer, they’ll appear on the Adult Swim Singles Program, and Hospital Productions will reissue a collection of older, rawer material.
We caught up with the members of Sannhet at an unassuming coffee shop on a rainy Friday evening…after everyone got out of work.
How did you guys meet and when did you start?
Christopher Raven: John and I met over a decade ago in Philly. We played in bands together throughout the years.
John Refano: Chris was just looking for a band and we met randomly. AJ and I were both working at Sony Music, and a co-worker of ours knew that Chris and I were kind of looking for a bass player, so we were introduced. I was pretty skeptical of working with a third person at first, but ultimately we ended up playing together.
AJ Annunziata: These guys were doing a really good thing without a bass player, and they were just entertaining the idea of having one. They were trying out someone else, and here comes this guy from the office. But I think it worked out.
Refano: You weren’t the biggest office boner that you could have been. I was like “This guy’s got tattoos, so he’s probably sorta alright.”
What do you each do for a living, and how long have you been working in your industry?
Raven: That’s the billion-dollar question for me. The inside joke with all my friends is always, ‘What the fuck does Chris actually do?’ In a nutshell, my job is working sales for a large concrete manufacturing company based in Queens. We supply for giant building jobs all over the city. I’ve been doing it for 10 years.
Refano: I’m a web developer. I’ve been doing it professionally for 10 years. I went to school for design. I did freelance design before that, and built websites, so eventually I moved into more of a straight-up developer/programming type of job. Right now, I work at Behance. It’s like an online creative network kind of deal.
Annunziata: I’ve been in design for about 10 years. I worked with John at Sony Music and did a lot of stuff in the music industry. I started out in print, then went into branding, then went into experiential and interactive. Now I’m a co-owner and operator of an online record store called Popmarket. That came about kind of by accident, because Sony closed up the division I worked for, and my role expanded from not only creative execution but also to curatorial stuff. Popmarket was a product that Sony had for over five years that John actually developed. When our division of the company folded, they gave us this little nest egg of an online property because it was the only profitable thing. That’s what we’re doing now.
What were your career obligations when the band started, and how have they changed throughout the years?
Raven: I have more responsibility now. When I leave, there’s no one to fill my shoes. When I first started, I was low man on the totem pole. But I’ve climbed the ladder a bit. Last week, when we were in the studio, I was getting like 15 phone calls and 50 emails a day.
Refano: When I was at Sony and we met AJ, [it] was before we really did much, and by the time the band was really doing anything, I was working for Behance, which was still a startup. That was fucking intense. I was there from 10 to 12 hours a day, every day… sometimes more. Taking time off was really rough. They tried to make it so that I could take off when I needed to for the band—and I did, but it was much more restrictive. The good thing is that once Adobe came in and bought our company, they were pretty cool. They have a really good vacation policy. There’s a lot of people who work there, so it’s not as if you’re gonna leave and everything is just gonna go to shit. That’s led to a lot more flexibility with what I can do for the band. It’s always a balancing act though.
Annunziata: I had a freelance project that had started during the recession. I was a designer and I was out of work, but I was really good at winning work. I’d go in on a bunch of production work that nobody wanted to do, or that agencies didn’t want to take because it was too expensive. But all these companies still needed all this stuff, and they were firing their in-house staff. I wound up having more work than I could deal with, so I started hiring my friends, and eventually I had this good pool of people that were working for me. But you can’t be the guy that’s winning the work and also collecting the invoices, and I was in that space. I got really stressed out, dissolved the company, and doled out the clients to the different people that were working with me. I took the gig at Sony so I could have full-time paycheck with everything covered. I’ve been there for six years now. I started out as a senior designer, then after a couple of years they made me creative director. Then, the company morphed into this new product where it’s eight people who equally own this new entity. The responsibility has changed a lot, but they’ve always been super supportive of the music thing. Last year, we spent a lot of time out of the office, and that was really stressful for all of us but somehow we made it work with work.
Refano: It takes some of the responsibility off of having to have your tours be super profitable when you have a full-time job. The band is a business, and luckily nowadays it’s not a totally money-losing one. But I don’t think anyone could live off of what we’re doing, especially in New York City.
Annunziata: Like, if you live in the sticks it could be possible. We’ve crunched numbers many different ways to find out how it could work out to supplement our lifestyles. Luckily, John and I have kinds of careers where we could freelance. But Chris isn’t just gonna pick up a sales gig on the fly after tour. John is a very good stats guy. He can take a lot of data and compile it into tangible information that you can then work with. And as much of bummer as that can be, sometimes it’s the reality that we need so that we can figure out risk assessment.
How do you guys fit band activities (practice, recording, touring) around work schedules?
Raven: Practice is pretty regimented for us, especially when we’re writing.
Refano: We put everything on the calendar. We all agree on times for stuff. We have practice at the same time every week, give or take. Everything else, we just figure out; I don’t think there’s any secret.
Annunziata: We’re pretty heavy on documentation. We have a band calendar, we have Google Drive. John made some really great project management software, where you have a goal and it has these series of tasks involved. You assign these tasks to people, you put the relative assets within that document, and then people have to execute on it.
Refano: It’s like a complicated “To Do” list.
Annunziata: Yeah, but it’s definitely helpful, and we used it on this last record. We’re still using it. I think that’s one of the benefits from working in our business.
Refano: Yeah, working in a tech industry has definitely taught me how to apply some of those ideas to being in a band in a way that people don’t really think about—especially since we’re not the type of band that can necessarily go to the studio for a month. So we get it all down and plan it out so that when we get in there, we can crank through the shit as if it really was urgent.
Does any of this apply to touring?
Raven: Last year we did a good amount of touring. It definitely worked out, but trying to do what made the most sense for us both stylistically and time-wise was hard.
Refano: One of our longest tours was during a time when my work was closed, because they close down twice a year. I didn’t have to take vacation, so it wasn’t even an issue. It can be an issue in my personal life when I have all this time but I dedicate it to the band. So you have to balance that too.
Annunziata: It also helps having a really smart booking agency. They’re really patient with us and they get the curation. They come to us with really smart stuff, or we say that we have this amount of time to do this kind of thing. They are really good about working with us and developing an idea.
Refano: Being lucky enough to get in with a booking agent in the past year has helped a lot. Rather than having stuff thrown at you that you have to say “Yes” or “No” to, you can kind of be like ‘This is what we can do, can you help us make that happen?’ I think they’ve done a really good job.
Have you ever had to sacrifice artistic opportunities because of job and family obligations?
Refano: We’ve definitely turned down some pretty big shows that I’m still bummed about because of family obligations and things like that.
Annunziata: And there are other logistical issues that a band that didn’t have our kind of lives outside of the band might not have. There are opportunities that come up that we would take if we didn’t have jobs. We can’t fly out for a one-off show, because we can’t do a supporting tour around it, and we’re not gonna rent the equipment there. Our tech rider is very specific, so Chris can’t just go out and borrow a drum set, and John’s not gonna just play through a Mesa Boogie and a Marshall Valvestate cabinet. We’re very specific about that kind of stuff, because it does impact the show.
Refano: We’ve definitely had opportunities where we’re like, ‘Man, I wanna do that,’ but I can’t say yes, even though I want to. Unless you’re a legitimately full time band, I don’t know if that’s something people do. I mean, even people who are in pretty active bands still work. I don’t know if I know anyone who’s just, like, a serious-ass, full-time musician. I know that there are lots of people who do that, but i’m not friends with any of them.
Annunziata: It’s interesting to think about the way jobs are in this day and age, and the way that jobs were in the ‘70s. The idea of being a professional musician then was very different from the way it is now. And jobs are different things, too, because there are no more pensions; there’s no more job security. You could be laid off any day, and be just as fucked as the guy in the full-time band.
As Sannhet has grown and your personal careers develop, does one ever take precedent over the other?
Raven: I think that’s coming to a head right now
Refano: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, it’s hard to say. You have to keep things in balance. You have to balance your ability to exist and live a life and not be constantly broke. I guess to try to do music for real, you eventually have to sacrifice, and it doesn’t feel very safe. So, it’s a tough question. Like, what does take precedence? You only get one life, and you wanna try to do what you think matters. But at the same time, it’s hard to just give up the safety of having a job and a normal existence. Sure, there’s nothing stopping any of us from just being like, ‘Screw it,’ and hit the road for six months or something. I’m sure we could do that, and I’m sure we would survive. It depends on how comfortable you are with having a quote-unquote ‘normal life.’
Annunziata: I may be projecting, but there are moments of existential strife that are just like, ‘This isn’t fulfilling me. I could be doing something else.’ But then you know that you still need to eat. Some people are very happy in the structure of doing their job and going to a sports bar after—that whole thing. It’s a little bit more volatile when you’re creative, I think.
How has the dream of playing music changed over the years? Did you want different things when you first started than you do now?
Raven: I think that we’ve always had to scrap for what we’ve got. Nothing comes easy. We just strive to do better.
Refano: As a kid growing up, it was this kind of generic dream of, ‘I’m gonna be a musician, and I’m gonna play in a band.’ Like that’s gonna be a career or something. It’s interesting, because I think that morphed over time for me to, ‘Nah, I’m just gonna make music that I like and that I’m happy with, and that maybe some other people will connect with.’ I like the idea of trying to have what we do be part of some musical history. Like, we’re a part of a conversation that happened, and nothing’s gonna change that. We put these records out, at this time. We existed. We made our mark on human culture, or whatever. But I think as we go on it’s like, ‘Oh shit, people actually like this now?’ It does change things a little, because at some point I kinda threw away that dream of being a ‘real musician,’ or whatever people call it. Now that things are going pretty well, it’s almost like there’s a hint of it coming back again. I don’t think i’m gonna be a rock star, but it does seem like, ‘Oh, you know, maybe I could actually do something with this.’ It’s not just for fun. It’s not just a hobby. It’s a real thing that’s got its own life now. The dream definitely has kinda gone on a weird cycle like that. I don’t have any crazy illusions about the band being a huge thing, but at the same time I wonder, ‘Wow, maybe this could actually be something that I could do.’
Annunziata: I’m the chaos factor because I’ve been a hard-on since the day I was born. I’ve always been really, really, really into performing. These guys balance that out.
Refano: Yeah, except for the fact that we didn’t do shit until AJ was in the band. He helped us realize that if we do this right, people might care. You don’t have to sit in your practice space or in your bedroom and feel bad for yourself because nobody likes you.
Given the level of complications and personal sacrifice, is it worth the headache to play in a band?
Annunziata: Yes, if you are creative you feel like you just have to do it. It’s not really about work or not.
Refano: It’s not really a choice.
Annunziata: I dropped out of college twice to join two bands. I never regret that for a second. I would destroy my life again if it meant that I could make something that, in 15 years, someone could listen to for 10 seconds and say that we were part of something cool happening in Brooklyn in 2016.
Refano: Yeah, I feel like regardless of if I have to work and get barely any time for music, I’m still gonna probably find a way to do it no matter what. I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t.
Raven: I’ve been playing drums since the third grade. I grew up playing beats to Quicksand records on my Discman. If I was to have stopped to just focus on a normal life, I would have never had the opportunity to play with a member of that band. It goes way back for me. I never thought i’d have some of the opportunities I have now, looking back on when I started.
Refano: If I really think about it, I’ve definitely sacrificed a lot in my life in order to do music. I would never say that I regret that. It’s like any inconvenience. I would do it again, I think. Chris and I played in a band where we had to drive five hours to go to practice.
Raven: Yeah, and it was really bad times. But it was also really good times, and I don’t regret any of it. For all of us, this is our main passion, and the one thing that we’ve enjoyed and been good at.
Annunziata: I remember watching this movie about the Jackson family. I was a really young kid—like seven or eight years old—and my mom walks by while I’m watching it, and she goes, ‘You know, Michael Jackson was a star by the time he was 10 years old.’ I was like, ‘I’ve got two years to go.’ Ever since then, I’ve been interested in performing. My father was a musician, he sang on a lot of doo-wop records in different bands in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s how my parents met. He’s always really pushed that on me, and I’ve always really been into it. I got my first bass because he pulled it out of the garbage and brought it home. And ever since then i’ve been really into it.
What, if anything would it take to leave everything behind and concentrate on the band entirely?
Refano: That’s a question I ask myself all the time
Annunziata: I think we’ve been trying to figure that out. We crunch numbers and try to figure what would be the right kind of execution. I don’t think there would be any jumping into the deep end. There would be a really methodical ease-in.
Refano: It’s definitely something I’ve thought about. What would have to happen? I guess we’d have to have enough interest and support behind us where we felt like we weren’t wasting our time. I’m not really sure what the tipping point is. It’s hard to say. I’d like to think that we’ve been slowly getting closer, but you never know. Who knows if anyone’s gonna care about the next record or not? Let’s hope they do. Maybe then we’ll get closer to that as a realistic option.