A non-career guy’s guide to getting on in New York, Battersea and elsewhere. By Joe Porn
- While I was Sufjan Stevens’ drummer I was working with gang members with learning disabilities in Harlem. I'd been working with severely autistic adults in Notting Hill for two years, then took a trip to New York, hated it and didn't meet anyone. Then the following year I stayed with a friend of a friend who turned out to be Sufjan Stevens. We got on and stayed in touch, and I thought about trying to find a job there. I made a deal with myself that if I got a flat, was offered and job and a visa, it would be a sign and I’d move. One company interviewed me the next day, gave me a visa, and I went to a party that night and someone said, Come and live with me.
My day job was working on Fifth Avenue with 16-21 year olds who have an IQ of below 70, training train them in skills and placing them in a job. I was spending all my day hanging out with people who in society’s eyes were retarded - guys who were basically selling drugs and doing very well for themselves on the street. They might have been simple but they knew how to look after themselves. We’d get them job at Gap and coach them, get them to work on time and all that.
A bad day at work was generally about people doing really stupid things. I got one guy a job at a steak bar Times Square. He had to be in Tuesday to Thursday 8am till 6pm, working in the kitchen. The first week it went fine. The second week, the manager called me and said, Where’s DeVaughn? I phoned DeVaughn and he said, Oh, it's my laundry day. The simple stuff that some people don't know. Another guy got stabbed and didn't come in for three weeks, and another guy had a fight with a manager at Gap and I had to mediate. It was skin of your teeth stuff. There was challenge every day and I was always surprised I never got the sack. I got the employee of the year award instead.
The receptionist took calls for me all day long. Everyone else’s would be about work but I’d get about 10 calls for social engagements in the evening, or like “you’ve got to turn up for a soundcheck at 6pm”. I’d rock in at about 3am every night. It was all bit surreal really.
Sufjan and me and our flatmates started making music at home in the evening. Sufjan’s a lot more professional now but very often back then, the shows were chaotic. He’d only tell us we were doing one two days in advance. We’d practice in the kitchen and then go and do the show. It wasn’t until Michigan came out that he got far more a settled band. Up till then you didn't know what you were gonna get. Once, he’d booked two afternoons of practise for a show and it wasn’t until the second practice he realised he’d forgotten to book a bass player.
In the first eight months I was in New York I was really broke and happy and last nine or 10 months I was there I had money and I was really happy as well. It changed in one month, I think it was me and God. I went from eating one-dollar ramen noodles and scraping by to moving apartment and saving $250 in rent. Then I got a $250 pay rise, so I was up $500. Then both my band started paying – Sufjan used to give me $60 a gig, I was working at art galleries serving drinks for $100 and helping a mate who had a lamp shop to install lamps and he’d give me $60, so I had money coming in. You live your life and make you money where you can. I’ve never been a career guy.
When I moved to New York, no-one owed me anything. With a short period of time I had friends who would say things about me like, You’re friendly, you’re good at this and that. Being English you hate bigging yourself up. In America, it’s the very opposite. I chose to start believing it. Educationally I’ve never been good, but there are certain things that seem to work. Make friends, get numbers, invite yourself to things. Ask them when it is and what time I should get there.
When I moved back to London I thought I’d have this really boring London existence, but it never really worked out like that. A friend of mine had set up a youth project in Battersea. Being in a band in New York doesn’t mean anything to an eight year old. You just get on with it.
People came to stay and before I knew it everyone I'd ever met was emailing saying, I’m a friend of a friend, I’m in town, do you want to hang out? On my wall I’ve got 300 Polaroids of friends. To get on the wall, they have to be friends enough that I could stay on their couch for a week. If your house burns down, you won’t have to worry about living anywhere because you’ve got enough people can call. But if you spend your life being a complete dick, you’re gonna find there’s not much room at the inn.
I’ve not interested in success in the usual sense. I only regard success in the number of people I meet and make friends with. I’ve got about 900 numbers in my phone.
Joe Porn works at Music Glue