Wrapping up a three-part series on balancing professional and musical pursuits, I could think of no one better to end this story-telling journey than Cory Kibler. Associate Creative Writer at Nelnet, contributor to Hear Nebraska and songwriter for numerous bands, Cory’s carried his astonishing passion for writing seemingly everywhere throughout his life.
Cory’s band, Shacker, played with my old band at a house show back in 2003. When I met him, I could definitely tell he loved words. I talked with Cory about how he’s managed to work that into his career, as well as his music.
Nelnet – Associate Creative Writer
Robot Creep Closer
Any good stories from your early years?
Growing up in Ventura, California, I was in bands in high school. Some of those songs were good, but most were very bad. It was a cool learning experience. I started legitimately playing shows and being able to look back and be proud of what we did musically, when I got to Nebraska for college. That was around 2002 or 2003, when I started playing around in a band called Shacker. Since then I’ve been in a couple other bands, like Robot Creep Closer, and I solo once in a while. I now have my band called The Sleepover and I’m also in a band called Demos. Two regular, kinda full-time-ish bands and then the occasional solo show.
When we were in Shacker we decided we were going to play an out-of-town show, so we drove to Warrensburg, Missouri, which is a small college town. We played a show there and the sound guy ended our set after like 20 or 25 minutes, just because he must’ve thought we were terrible.
So, after the show we go around trying to sell CDs to people so we could make some gas money back. So we went up to these girls and were like, “Hey, we have some CDs for sale if you’d like to buy some.” We told them we’d sell them for just a few bucks. Then they said, “How long have you been playing music? Like, is this a new thing for you?”
At that point we got in the van and drove back to Nebraska. That was pretty demoralizing. I feel like playing a show out of town makes you have to not suck because, you know, my parents can’t go to every out-of-town show, to cheer me on and tell me what a great job I did afterwards.
How would you describe the overlap between your job and your music?
When I started at Nelnet I didn’t think there was any overlap between work and music. Advertising is so much different than any other kind of writing. It’s really close to journalism, in that it needs to be concise and to get to the point. You really have to boil it down, which at times is hard for me because I’m a verbose guy. It usually takes me a long time to answer yes or no questions. I’m learning all the time how to use words with utility and to be as brief as possible. I think that carries over into storytelling when you’re writing lyrics.
Poetry is a little bit different because you want to use words that sound cool and bring up great imagery. I do think, a lot of times, less is more. Sometimes when I’m songwriting I’ll think, “I have to put in a bridge just because that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Then I realize once I’ve put in the bridge it feels like it’s out of place, then I’ll feel like, “You know what, what’s wrong with a 2 1/2 min song that’s just a verse, chorus, verse, chorus then ending?”
What are the differences (or similarities) between coworkers and bandmates?
My coworkers are all really creative people and that makes them fun to be around and fun to concept with. It makes them more open and vulnerable, creatively. When you work with people who have never been in a band or shown anyone what they’ve drawn, written or painted they’re not used to the kind of brutal criticism that comes along with that—outside of a collegiate setting, anyway.
Once you’ve been in a band for awhile you get used to the harshness. It’s a respectful bluntness, but it is blunt. So, if you and I are in a band together and I bring a song and play it for you and you realize one part could be way better or something needs to be changed, you’ll say, “Cory, let’s just try it this way and we’ll see how it sounds.” Then we’ll try it and chances are I’ll be like, “You were right! That sounds great!” I think everyone I work with is like that—they’re really willing to try out new stuff and they’re open to new ideas, and nobody is scared to share stupid ideas because stupid ideas lead to good ideas a lot of times.
Being creative with other people, and being open to a lot of feedback is a really vulnerable thing. It’s like when you laugh really hard with someone the first time, it’s kind of like a bonding moment. Music and art are the same way.
If I were to compare bandmates to coworkers I would say that bandmates are far less reliable, way, way sketchier, and never on time. And I’ve been lucky to be in a band with Howie Howard (Shaker, The Sleepover, Mars Lights, and Dark Satellites), because if he says he’s gonna be there at a certain time, he’s gonna be there and he’ll bring your favorite snack. But most of the other musicians, even the most reliable ones, it seems like there is an inverse ratio of the more brilliantly creative you are the more the more likely you are to completely flake on something really important. [They will] not show up to a gig, or something like that. As I’ve gotten older, band members have become more reliable and more of them have families, full-time jobs, kids, and homes.
Anything else you want to say?
I got into my field (editing, writing and all that) relatively late in my career. I graduated, I had a weirdo job for awhile, I went to grad school while I was doing data entry. Then I did accounting for awhile because that’s the job that I could find. Since then I’ve tried to be where I want to be and get what I wanna get. I feel really blessed to be working where I work and to be working with the people I work with. Everyone is so intelligent, creative and collaborative. It feels really awesome.
I think that young musicians and people who are trying to start a career have very high expectations. There is a certain generational thing—which I’m sort of on the cusp of—that you were told if you go to college and you get a degree things are just going to happen for you. Whereas my older counterparts, folks my parents’ age or older, say, “I worked at a bowling alley after college and then I figured it out.”
If you’re just graduating college, chances are you’re going to have to take a crappy job for a couple of years and that’s okay. Keep grinding away at what you love.
If you’re just starting a band there is a good chance your first couple bands are not going to be well-received or are going to suck. If you like it, just keep doing it. After playing for so long I’m just now getting some neat opportunities to play with bands that I really look up to and have people not related to me tell me they like my music (laughs).
It’s neat to finally have a job where my talents are exploited and appreciated. At work, they’re like, “Oh, Cory likes making jokes. If we need to do something silly let’s capitalize on that. Let’s get him pumped. If we give him a pot of coffee and put him in a room for half an hour he’ll crank out a bunch of weirdo ideas and we can tell him which ones are stupid and which ones might be cool and go from there.”
What Have We Learned?
So, what would I tell young musicians looking to start their careers?
Make true connections in the creative communities you want to join and influence. Pay it forward to those collectives, and they’ll return the favor. Get internships, play shows for nobody, start bands that might (will) suck, watch tutorials to learn that thing you can’t quite do yet, play a show out of town, take risks, have a back-up plan… but most of all, work really, really, really freaking hard at what you love.
It won’t be easy. People will talk over your whole set. A stunning total of twelve people will turn up for your show (two of them, your parents). People will think your ideas are stupid.
Why do it then? Because if done right, there is a harmonious relationship between work and play (and all the connections you develop along the way); this intersection of passions is where you’ll experience the best results.
The best advice I can give to any struggling young creative? Don’t quit your day job.