Since making his public debut in 1978, at the age of 15, singing Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” at the First Congregational Church spring party in his home town of Austin, Minnesota, Martin Zellar has forged a reputation as a regional journeyman with a deep songbook and a classic sound. Best known as frontman for local legends the Gear Daddies, Zellar has largely flown solo since the band’s breakup (prelude to numerous reunion gigs, most recently on November 29) in 1992. I sat down with Zellar on his recent swing through Fargo, North Dakota with the Gear Daddies.
So, tell me a little bit about what you’re up to these days.
I’ve just kind of settled into a nice little rhythm in the Midwest. My Midwest fan base is big enough that I can stay busy. I do a lot of house concerts now, which are the best. You basically go to people’s houses and play acoustic guitar. My fans are at that age where they don’t want to go out to the clubs or stay out that late…which I understand because, well, I am my fan.
How often do you make it up to the Fargo-Moorhead Area?
Oh, Lord. I think this is the fifth time that I’ve flown into Fargo, let alone driven here. This was one of the first markets outside of the Twin Cities that really embraced the Gear Daddies, so [Fargo] has always had a really special place in our hearts. We have very fond feelings for Fargo and they’ve been very good for us.
What do you think of the Fargo music scene?
It’s a good market. For bands, when you’re touring, there’s not a lot between Minneapolis and the West Coast. Ideally, you want to be playing every night when you’re out on tour. Fargo’s always been a good market for bands. Very often, bands go right from Fargo to Seattle. The club we’re playing at [the Venue at the Hub] is as good a music club as you’d find anywhere. The PA system, the lighting—this club stands out period, let alone for Fargo.
So how long is your current tour?
I’ve been out for two weeks but I’ve been mostly doing solo acoustic stuff. This is the only Gear Daddies show on this two-week stretch. I had two days off, so I got to fly home to see my boys for a couple of days.
You have three kids and a wife—it’s got to be difficult to be away from them for so long.
It’s rough to be away as much as I am, but before I came here I had a month and a half off. It’s hard to complain when I have to come up and work for two weeks. In the end, I know I’m lucky because I get to spend so much time with my family.
Hopefully you have time to talk to them while you’re out on the road, at least.
Yeah…I still haven’t been able to figure out if Skype is the greatest thing in the world or the worst. I get to see them but I don’t get to hold them. It’s better than nothing, but it can kind of be torture. When we were all young, the music was our life. Completely. The guys were my family. We didn’t have girlfriends or families. It was just who we are. Back then, I would identify myself and be like, “I’m a musician.” Now it would be like, “I’m a husband, father, then a musician.” It’s fallen down to third. It’s a great thing to do—you get to do what you love for a living—but ultimately it all pales in comparison to your family.
You’ve been playing music for a long time now. What keeps you going?
It’s just who I am. I would not be happy doing anything else. The same things that made me want to do it in the first place are still there. The writing part is really what I love, love, love. I love to perform, but it’s writing that really keeps me going. I’ve been doing this for a living for 25 years now. What else am I gonna do? Even if I did want to do something else, I’m completely unqualified!
I always tell people to get involved in anything that has to do with the arts. You do it because you love it and you hope you can make some money doing it. No one should go into the arts—writing, painting, music—hoping to get rich. We do it because we love it. Most of us would rather be poor and writing or making music than be rich and working in a stockbroker’s office.
You said you still love playing, but it still has to be scary sometimes.
As you get older, the one thing you do realize—which I say a lot more now to fans at shows—[is] how nice it is that you still have people showing up. There are people still passionate about music, still going out to hear music, to see music. You’re sitting backstage and you have no idea if there’s going to be anybody there. There’s no safety net in this business. Every time I walk out and there’s people there, I am so grateful. When you do it for a living, it does change things. You’ve got mortgage payments to make, you’ve gotta save up for kids’ colleges. There’s no insurance plan being a musician, no retirement plan.
What do you have to say aspiring musicians?
Do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else and you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. If anything else comes from it—money, fame, whatever—it’s just icing on the cake. Don’t ever go into with the end game of being rich or famous. Don’t ever assume that any of your labels or booking agents or managers are going to do anything for you. They might, but ultimately you need to take responsibility for it. No matter what, no one is going to ever care about your career as much as you do. You have to make sure it’s getting done, which means doing it yourself.
As we wrap this up, is there anything you wish I’d asked you?
Well, you haven’t asked how much I can bench press. It’s gotta be around 350 or 400 pounds. I mean, I haven’t checked lately…but it’s gotta be somewhere in there.
Meagan Pittelko is a student at Concordia College.