Niki Avataria is a dark-core psych rock musician from Philadelphia. We like to talk to hard working independent musicians and The Band’s Perspective reflects the thoughts of indie musicians who work to make a name for themselves and create art in the underground music scene. Niki takes initiative and plays on great bills in the Philly music scene. We asked her a few questions about her experiences, and what she’s learned from making music as a DIY musician.
What’s it like being an independent musician in Philly? Do you ever find yourself wanting to move to NYC or L.A.?
When I started performing live 4 years ago, I was certain Philadelphia had no love for the unknown / unsigned artist. My assumption was if you were not toting an acoustic guitar to the various open mic nights around the city, that you as a musician were pretty much S-O-L. But the great thing about assumptions is they are often wrong. At least mine are.
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support from The HYPE and Boy Wonder early on that kept me determined and inspired. And with a lot of hard work and writing better songs (ha), the noise rock, art rock, shoegaze and heavy psych communities are opening their doors and stages to me.
There are many niches in the Philly scene, a nuance undetected prior to actually getting out there and doing shows. I have invested much time in learning about my city and where I could belong in its music scene. It’s very rewarding to feel like part of a community in a city as large as this.
I honestly have never considered moving to LA, maybe based on more assumptions. I find NYC fascinating, and would love to work up there. The place I have considered moving to most often is Seattle, WA. I have recorded a few times out there in proper studios with my friends in Mothers Anger, Basement Sessions, and DIONVOX. Seattle has such a wide-open-minded mentality that it allows artists of all kinds to flourish, breathe and find themselves. On top of that, it is a fairly small city, with a lot of musical muscle. I find Seattle to be a wonderful place for any type of musician.
What’s you genre of music?
I know my pals up in the NW hate the term, but “grunge” and modern classical music are the double helix for what I am trying to do. I have been calling it grunge-gaze out of lack of a term … Big riffs, kinda dreamy, sorta noisy, and definitely psychedelic. At the risk of sounding like every musician in an interview, I suppose it doesn’t matter much as long as it rocks and has some damn emotion behind it!
Is there a freedom to a DIY musician?
I think so, though I’ve never been signed, so I am going on personal experience only. Taking care of the stuff involved in being DIY works for me because I am a huge internet nerd. I’m also a graphic designer, web designer, and can program VSTs to do what I want in my home studio DAW. These skills transfer well to being a DIY artist, sometimes promoter, doing hours of research, finding new places to gig, meeting new bands, making connections, sharing things on social media, etc., etc.
I like this set up, because I really enjoy working with bands and others in the industry on a personal level. Having worked in live music in various capacities since 2000, I have learned SO MUCH about being on both sides of the business. I’ve gotten to see first-hand what kind of work it takes to get noticed, or even just get through to the booking agent at a venue you love.
The work load and rejections can become staggering at times but I really enjoy where I am at, presently, as a DIY artist.
What are your goals and how do you prioritize your shows and recording?
My goals are pretty varied, from things as simple as wanting to play a specific venue in my town, to wanting to record an album with the amazing Alain Johannes (be still, my heart!).
I have been prioritizing the live performance for a few years. I am thinking about bringing a live drummer into the experience, and I am currently in talks with a couple of people to do that.
I took most of 2013 off to recalibrate and determine where to take the sound before attempting to record a follow up to the Unrealitie EP.
I get wholly absorbed by the mouse-clicking-madness of recording a little too easily. There are endless avenues to trying out an idea, changing up that drum pattern, tweaking until 5am arrives and passes. That being said, I find recording to be such a different mindset than practicing/performing that I have difficulty doing both concurrently. My goal here is to have a few more well organized tracks, and then hole up in a local studio with some friends who will help keep my focus on the record itself. So much inspires and interests me that I can sometimes scatter myself thin.
Do you choose which bands you play with? Is it difficult to fit into bills?
I have helped organize a couple smaller bills here in Philly, but mainly I am asked to fit into an existing line up. Which is great, I like that. I am meeting so many new bands and people. I have been getting positive responses to booking requests for existing events, which is really encouraging. With the current popularity of duo rock acts, I am finding venues are actually fairly friendly towards my solo rock act. I often open the events I perform on due to being solo, but I’m OK with that, too.
Being an outsider is who I have always been. I’ve always struggled for acceptance and understanding. This place is comfortable for me. Striving to fit in as a musician is more or less a celebration of living my life as authentically as possible.
Do you think you’ll ever make a living at making music?
That’s such a tough question to answer. I do not think I will ever be Trent Reznor, which is alright. It would be nice, of course, but the state of the industry is very hard to gauge and predict. I feel like many who are successful still, initially found their start in the old music industry. Not in every case, of course. In the case of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, oft-named for their DIY success, both had a massive fan base developed in part by major label support during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
What new musician has withstood the rigors of the industry after being discovered on YouTube? Is it possible to advance beyond a niche, sounding the way I do? “There is insufficient data for a meaningful response.” I will say there has been a steady momentum building. I can feel the electricity. Getting a new album out for sale would likely help me better gauge the possibilities of a future.
I still program websites to pay the bills but I would definitely rather be programming drums or learning a new instrument.<
What is it about your art that fulfills you?
It allows me to connect to people. I was a poet before I was a musician. I have always had the need to reach out, to let anyone else out there needing it, to let them know that there are others like them out there. I would have never survived adolescence without the support of the rock bands I listened to. Voices of people I’d never met, or had already died, but who were patently similar, even in their darkest moments, often especially in the darker moments. It was inspiring and it helped me rise up out of the darkness. I became determined to overcome to help others do the same.
I am very shy. I am not the best at conversational speaking. Sometimes I stutter and I am not big on eye contact. But I think about everything, all the time. I have a lot to say, but plain discourse is an ineffective method of communication for me, personally. No matter how impassioned, speaking often falls on disinterested ears. Or it is easily forgotten.
With music, people come into the experience ready to listen. I find it easier to express my ideas in this manner, than any other. It’s not an ego trip, it’s a support group. Haha.
Do you have any advice for new indie musicians?
Three years ago, someone wanted to sign me to a 10-year, open-ended, formless ‘manager’ contract. TEN YEARS! I didn’t even have an EP out yet, just some terrible demos, and I would have been legally stuck with this person until 2021.
So, first and foremost, try not to get blinded by ambition or illusion. Don’t let people talk you into signing any kind of piece of paper without much consideration, and maybe get an entertainment lawyer if we are talking a big deal agreement.
Do your research on everything. You have to know when it’s just smoke and mirrors, and most of it will be an illusion. Do the legwork, keep spreadsheets, get a job at a venue, learn how to do live sound, learn a DAW, get heavily absorbed and involved in your scene or niche. Don’t trash other bands, either! It’s a thick web and we all need to cut out way through to the clearing. Every path will be different. Be open to taking the road less travelled or flat out trudging through the undergrowth. Try to remember that while it is art or expression to the musician, it is a business to everyone involved, and the business world can be harsh. Above everything, always be a professional, especially when you don’t want to be.