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Interview with Son Vo by Nikki O’Neill

This month, OnlineRock takes a look at band promotion from a Los Angeles-based jam band’s perspective. We interviewed a true entrepreneur in the genre: Son Vo from the award-winning Mother Jones Band. He’s a top-notch multi-instrumentalist playing several shows a week with different bands; a bandleader who’s kept his own six-piece unit together for many years, and a concert promoter with a production company and massive network of venues and bands in the Southwest. He also goes by the nickname Mekong Delta Bluesman…


You have a unique and eventful childhood, being born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and a U.S. soldier, and then your mother brought you to Maine right before the U.S. military evacuated Saigon. How did you gravitate to music?

- When I was 12, a close person in my life got a drum set for Christmas, and I instantly started playing it and reading music for it. Why, I'll never know. I ended up playing the drums more than she did. Maybe it was because they were such a big display for a kid, taking up all this room and making so much noise. It was kind of a kid's dream come true. Granted, I already had five years of classical piano lessons under my belt which I hated - of course I'm grateful for it now. When I was 14, I formally began drum set lessons and knew after the first lesson that I was going to play music for the rest of my life. It was too strong of a feeling to ignore or deny. I was instantly hooked.

You live in Los Angeles now, and you're the founder of Mother Jones Band, which was voted Best Jam Band at the LA Music Awards. What's your role in the band, and what are all your different responsibilities?

- I first make sure that the band keeps moving along with enthusiasm. My primary role is as the band's main songwriter, although other members are more than free to bring along their tunes to get performed. I'm also a booker, promoter, poster/flyer/graphic designer, website builder/updater, and all-around administrator. I've booked tours all around California and the Southwest region of the U.S. I've promoted us on many websites, from (remember them?), GarageBand, CD Baby, and now MySpace, etc. I've promoted us to several local and national radio stations. I've also had to keep a lineup intact, possibly the hardest thing to do in LA. We've been around for seven years, a feat unto itself.

Do the band members have other responsibilities, besides the musical ones?

- Halina Janusz, the other major player in this band, has made many major decisions for this band. She's helped in receiving funding for a radio promotion loan and for both of our albums via her amazing mother, Leslye Janusz. She’s also booked numerous tours, helped us to lobby for musicians and internet royalty rights issues in Washington D.C., and so many other things. Basically, she is a vital part of almost every decision that comes. Steve Janowski, the bassist, is a professional photographer, which has undoubtedly helped. And he's a computer whiz, helping to format and design our second CD from the bottom up. He's also lugged his PA in his van to countless gigs.

- Outside of that, it becomes all the intangibles that the rest of the musicians bring to the forefront – being responsible, professional, and ready to rock. Whoops, that's musical reasons.

Do you have a formal band agreement?

- I've never had a band agreement. We built a band around (and luckily) very trusting individuals who have only one interest - to play with one another, since we all seem to connect emotionally and spiritually. We have had financial contractual agreements when recording an album or receiving promotional loans with some members, but outside of that, no band agreements. At least with the individuals that have come in and out of Mother Jones, we've just made sure we all communicate openly. We seemed to never need contracts. Of course, we've also never made millions of dollars.

You've lived in LA for ten years. What's that city like for a jam band?

- LA is one of the most difficult cities, in my opinion, for jam bands in the U.S. You have to rely so much on your fan base, creative thinking, and lots of hard work. Jam bands in this town really need to rally together and create their own buzz by doing shows together. Since jam bands, as far as I'm concerned, are reliant on musical, songwriting and performance-based talent, they must utilize those tools to make an honest impression on the audience to create something that is larger than life, because most audiences in LA are exposed to the most incredible shows and artists.

What is the local fan base like and the networking between bands?

- The fan base, if you work on it, and if you stay in touch with other bands and play shows with them, is receptive and genuine. They like good, live music. The jam band scene in LA is symbiotic, like other places. Jam bands work together to get their fans and friends out. If they hear that your band is playing with so-and-so, they'll be more interested in coming out.

How do you find the response from local booking agents and press?

- Responses from booking agents have been varied, and most press is very receptive, as long as you follow their guidelines and aren't rude, disrespectful or hurried in your approach.

How often do you play outside of your home base?

- We play outside of LA about 4-6 times a year, either in Northern California or the Southwest region of the US. We've gone to playing 75-100 shows a year to about a modest 30 shows a year.

Do you find that audiences outside of LA respond to your music differently?

- Yes, people outside of LA are more responsive in the fact that they don't have that LA "machine" working in the background - they're more apt to approach us at a show and hang out with us afterwards, and we as a band find them more approachable. Although most people don't mean to be apathetic in LA, that is that consistent trait here.

How do you go about finding opportunities to get paid gigs and to get the word out about the band? What approaches have worked best?

- I've found many venues in the past primarily using I've also figured that if I'm booking tours, one of the first questions I'm going to ask is what the guarantee is. Over the years, I've literally stumbled onto information by listening to other musicians and bands talking, or I’ve asked them questions and found out where the paying gigs are. If your ears are open and you keep asking the questions you need information about, you'll be surprised at how quickly you get the answers you'll need.

- To get the word out, it's all about late nights of networking and being creative, going outside of your self to making exciting write-ups/press releases and emails. You've also got to spend some money to advertise, and to make visually appealing flyers/posters that catch peoples' attention. At least take the time to make things appear and sound professional, since it's a reflection of your band. Work within your budget and means, but make sure you work it. It's one thing to take a day or two off, it's another to take 1-2 weeks off.

Mother Jones is a six-piece band - has that ever been inconvenient in terms of getting gigs?

- Yes, as far as playing in places that have smaller stages, smaller venues, and that the pay at the end of the night is split up in more pieces. But then again, every decision made has to factor all those things in, so that you don't look in the wrong venues, wasting time and energy. I could say it was inconvenient, but it's relative to where we're searching for gigs.

How do you find fans? Where is your fan base?

- Many fans are either our friends or friends of other jam bands we've played with, who feel a connection with our music and performances. The jam band scene seems to morph into a collective community: people who are genuine and with big hearts, who are truly interested in interacting with others that are like-minded. We find fans within that community because our music seems to resonate most with that crowd - people with open hearts who want music that moves their souls. And with that in mind, our fan base has expanded to an international crowd.

How important are social networks like MySpace, Facebook and Virb for you in getting the word out about the band? And how effective do you think they really are for your type of band?

- Most any kind of networking medium, in my opinion, is a good thing and very effective, so long as the band focuses on the audience it senses is the most receptive towards its music. It's all important, and a part of the bigger picture, which is to expose your music & message(s).

How much time do you spend on these networks?

- I used to spend a lot of time to get it going, but lately I have used MySpace primarily to send bulletins & updates, about 6-8 hours a week.

In what areas do you put most of your band efforts if we view it almost like a 100 % pie?

Gigging: 30%
Networking with other bands/musicians: 25%
Social networks like MySpace: 10-15%
Getting gigs, etc. through 2-5%
Print Media: 10%
Online Media: 15-20%
Radio (specify if terrestrial, college, internet): 10-15%, mostly internet radio. 5% terrestrial radio.
Film/TV song placements: 5 Video/Live Web Casts: 2%

What's the best way to promote a jam band in your experience?

- Start locally, gig with other jam bands, keep in touch with them, then expand from there - find jam band-friendly radio stations and podcasts, etc. Just constantly expand and spend what you can to make it happen. Don't go broke, but do what you can. If the music is good, the jam band audience will be receptive - they are a receptive audience. Most importantly, play live shows and kick ass with other jam bands. The other jam band's audience will spread the word, that's the nature of that audience - they live for live music.

You have two residence gigs at Brennan's in Marina Del Rey, CA: Friday nights for Mother Jones Band, and you recently started the bi-weekly AcoustiTuesdays series for singer-songwriters and acoustic acts. How does one find residence gigs in a place like LA, where “pay-to-play” and “pre-sale” gigs run rampant, and artists scramble to build an audience?

- I started playing bass with Cowspace, a jam band that's been playing there now for 13 years every Wednesday. I then asked Brennan's if they wanted an acoustic night on Tuesdays, which they were receptive to, so now that's happening. It also helps that the owner/booker Mike is a cool dude who loves good, live music.

- With other venues in the past, it was also quite simple: we got booked there, the venue liked our music, and we were respectful towards them. They asked us back and that's just kind of how it happened.

When and how did you end up starting your production company Rising Sun Entertainment?

- It was created 5-6 years ago to help book gigs regionally as no other booking agents would represent us. They were either too busy or we were a 'tweener band - not as large as String Cheese Incident, but too large to play in smaller venues.

- Also, it was easier to book Mother Jones with a third person identity vs. saying we were "a band member", which limited our options in the beginning. It was all about the appearance of legitimacy, as well as creating a company that could represent other bands that we were working and performing with. It was thinking into the future and branding the concept of a larger entity that not only represented Mother Jones, but many other bands as well.

- It’s also like a savings account in a sense, something that can build interest as long as we put capital into it.

What bands are included in Rising Sun Entertainment? How do you find the artists?

- Over the last 7 years, I now know about 50-60 bands to work with or book. Of those bands I would say I truly work with about 15-20 of them consistently.

Is it a tight-knit community?

- Yes, definitely - we love playing and hanging out with one another. It's become family whenever we play and see each other, all smiles and great music, kind of what I've always envisioned it should be. It puts a smile on my face.

Can you name some of the bands? I know you perform with some of them as a guitarist, bass player or drummer as well.

- Let's see, there's so many bands, but I'll list the closest ones: Cowspace, The Hope Knots, The New Low, Rich Sheldon (Rebel Soul Band), Gypsy, Electrobek, Jeremiah Roiko Band, Doshus, Cubensis, Nate LaPointe Band, The Rum Runners, Rachel Rizner Band, Johnny Hawthorn, and Rolling Reunion. There are definitely others, but those are the main ones.

How many venues do you work with? How did you approach them, or did they approach you?

- Depending on where I book, it can be about 50 venues. Some approach me, some I approach. I just simply call and ask or give them for an available date for a specific band. I also ask them what we need to provide the venue with (PA, posters/flyers, write-ups, etc.), and what they can guarantee.

How do you help each other?

- So long as both sides are communicating well as far as knowing what both parties need from each other, that's all the help you'll all need. How is the relationship working out between you and the venue/s? - Excellent, as long as I book bands that are good and that draw, and most importantly, make sure I'm treating the venue and their employees with respect.

What's your advice for somebody who'd like to start a similar type of production company? How do you create successful relationships with venues and bands?

- Be respectful on the phone since that is the initial contact you have with them. Your voice is all they can draw on as far as vibes go. The person on the other end is most likely a very busy person, so be mindful of that. Have your questions ready before you start talking to the venue's booker/talent buyer. Have your tour lined up with all the right questions: PA? Pay? What kind of music? How many sets? What time? Load-in and sound check? Lodging (when that applies)? Etc.

I can imagine that in the jam band scene, just like in other genres, there are a lot of artists who are very uncomfortable with the business aspects of music? What do you feel about it?

- I personally love it. It's good for the brain. Besides, I also feel a personal responsibility to keep it together for my band members and all the bands I work with.

Are there any musicians or music business figures who you admire for their abilities in promoting great music and musicians successfully?

- Bill Graham, first and foremost - a true pioneer who was placed at the perfect time in American music history. I also admire figures like David Byrne, Ric Ocasek, and Phish as far as their tenacity to build themselves up from such a small community. There are many others as well, I just can't name them at the moment.

You have an incredibly intense gig schedule, performing several nights a week. How do you balance music, business and having a family?

- It's actually easier than it might appear on paper. If it wasn't for my wife though, I'd probably get a little crazy - she's incredibly understanding and mellow, able to roll with my schedule. I just make sure I write as much down as possible, and have calendars constantly updated. If I don't, I make sure I have notes placed in front of the computer for the next day to tend to.

What's in store for Mother Jones Band and for Rising Sun Entertainment this summer?

- We have a couple of summer tours in Northern California and Nevada this summer, as well as some political events and festivals we'll be performing at. It's a busy one!

How important is involvement with other "life style" organizations (political, environmental, etc.) for your band and for getting the word out about you to a potential fan base?

- We've done many political events in the recent past for regional politicians who's positions we believe in. We’ve also done it by going to Washington D.C. on behalf of Savenet Radio to lobby directly to senators and House representatives for independent radios' ability to survive in the current online radio market. We were successful in helping to turn around royalty rights to musicians and labels. And this also helps to keep indie DJ's persisting and continuing to promote independent musicians without going broke from horrendous royalty payments. Through all these means, we've built a larger fan base nationwide, and we will continue to stay in touch with those movers and shakers for years to come.

Last question: how did you come up with the band name Mother Jones? Has the progressive magazine with the same name ever made a comment?

- Our first bassist, Larry Breedlove, came up with the name. He had researched the woman (a trade union activist and opponent of child labor), and thought she was a cool figure in American history. Since it was also a recognizable name due to the magazine, it also helped to launch the acceptance of it as a good name for us.

- We actually played for Mother Jones Magazine when they opened up their new office. If anything, they laughed at the notion that we asked if it was OK to use the name. After all, the woman (Mother Jones) had been around longer than they had. It’s never been a problem.

Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter and guitar player in Los Angeles. She’s the front person for the Nikki O’Neill Band, an original rock and soul band gigging frequently at festivals and clubs in California.

She is interviewed in Sue Foley’s upcoming book “Guitar Woman,” which features a who’s-who list of great players like Jennifer Batten, Bonnie Raitt, Allison Robertson, and more.

Will Ray of The Hellecasters describes her as “Chrissie Hynde singing to John Lennon in Otis Redding’s kitchen.”

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