Seth Vanek is a talented musician and cultural programmer. As part of Homeroom he stages some of the best, most varied events in Chicago. Before Homeroom, Seth lost blood. -ed.
All my bandmate told us was that we had been invited to play at the Hard Rock Cafe. I wasn’t naive enough to consider this a cool or prestigious thing but at the time it was a welcome break from the endless cycle of slightly depressing weeknight 3-band bills that mediocre local bands in Chicago are likely to get sucked into. What I couldn’t figure out was how the HRC thought our mostly instrumental post-rock quartet was going to help them sell t-shirts to tourists. Regardless, we were in no position to turn down a gig and allowed ourselves to get minimally stoked.
I can’t remember the timeline over which the fuzzy details of the gig came into focus but the first one was that we weren’t hired by the venue, we were hired by our guitarist’s aunt’s company, a well-known blood bank. “Maybe it is a fund-raising gala” I thought. Next it was revealed that we were the only band on the bill. “Great. It’s a showcase!” my optimism retorted. Also, we weren’t playing inside in any type of venue, we were playing outside in the parking lot. “Summer festival-style!” said my dumb brain.
I don’t think it fully sank in until we showed up that day that the show was an actual blood drive. Apparently, the idea was to pull a huge trailer full of nurses and needles into the parking lot of the Hard Rock, hire us to draw a crowd, and then draw the blood of that crowd. Problematically for everyone, what small following we might have had were all at home sleeping off the epic party from the previous night that we probably also should have been sleeping off.
It was a brutally hot August day and we were scheduled to play in the prime of the afternoon sun. By the time I had my drums halfway set up I was dripping and exhausted and decided I could use some A/C and a bit of the hair of a certain dog that I sensed might still be biting me. I walked directly past several far too dramatically lit cases of memorabilia and found a bartender who was either particularly judgmental of someone having a beer before noon or as unhappy to be there as I was. Having had the good judgment to skip breakfast that day, I was able to reemerge from what felt like the inside of gigantic faded black Aerosmith t-shirt with a decent buzz going.
I’ve never quite been able to explain what happened next. I don’t know whether I can chalk it up more to the influence of the implied “everyone else is doing it” peer pressure of my bandmates, a sudden surge of uncharacteristic altruism, or a weak attempt to assuage the guilt of being partly responsible for what was sure to be a dismal failure of a blood drive, but I found myself immediately walking into the blood truck and rolling up my sleeve. I was not then nor am I now a doctor, but I probably should have known that my morning so far had practically been a recipe for thin blood and once the nurse tapped me open, my blood scientifically proved it by leaving me in record time, taking my consciousness with it. When I came to, there was a crowd of nurses bustling around me, putting ice on my forehead, pillows behind my head, and free cookies and apple juice in my face. In the distance I heard my bandmate laughing and calling me Seth “White Lips” Vanek, the name I would be introduced with from the stage less than 30 minutes later.
In my 20 years of performing music, I’ve played a lot of badly attended shows for disinterested audiences but something about the bored and exhausted faces of the 6 blood drive volunteers sitting in the blistering, asphalt-softening sun around a table of unopened snacks and juice made it really hard to believe our 8-minute synth-driven odysseys had a chance of winning them over as fans. I remember only two things about the set. One is that I played particularly badly, not just from the hangover, loss of blood, and gallons of sweat but because my hi-hat cymbal just didn’t seem to be working right. I realized after the set that I had never finished assembling it and didn’t have the presence of mind to realize the crucial missing piece of hardware (what drummers call the “the clutch”) was in my pocket the entire time.
A slightly clearer memory from the set is the moment when the band’s front man, trying his best to salvage whatever he could of his relationship with his aunt, was reduced to using his microphonic privilege to encourage passersby to halt their progress toward the ESPN Zone or Rainforest Cafe to come donate. After directing a half-hearted “Give blood, sir?” to one such pedestrian, the man, in a decidedly non-Midwestern accent replied with a forceful, “I GAVE MY BLOOD IN ‘NAM.”
It is my sincere feeling that moments like these are what make playing in a band worthwhile. One “I gave my blood in ‘nam” can keep a certain kind of band going for months. In our case, the phrase had remarkable staying power, reaching Spinal Tap-ian levels of quotability during especially stressful shows or tours for years to come.