In some ways, Daniel Niswander is a throwback to the hard-working vaudeville performers he idolizes. He"s a singer, comedian, actor, filmmaker and music entrepreneur with dozens of successful shows under his belt. He"s devoted substantial chunks of time to charitable causes.
Niswander and his alter ego Buddy Shine
His monthly Monday night shows at Birdy"s - in which he performs as himself as well as several other characters - have become a local institution. Featuring a mixture of comedy and music, they"ve found a loyal audience. Prince even dropped by one night last year for a late-night jam.
Tirelessly promoting, ceaselessly working, Niswander has become one of the most influential people in local music. "It seems like I have 10 projects going on all the time," Niswander admits. "Things have just fallen into my lap." With the second anniversary of Niswander"s Mystery Monday coming up (the next show is March 10), NUVO sat down with the "Surfin" With Jesus" singer to talk about his shows, his attitudes toward music and how to help build a positive scene.
NUVO: With all of these things going on in your career, how do you think of yourself first and foremost? You"re a musician, an artist, an entrepreneur -
NISWANDER: In that order. I"m an artist and musician first, and a promoter and entrepreneur after that. I"m looking for a niche to be an artist and a performer. If being an entrepreneur allows me to find that niche, then that"s a plus.
I"ve become kind of a talent scout with Mystery Monday, looking for bands who are good and need a place to play. Mystery Monday is kind of an L.A.-style of gig where musicians can try different things away from their normal gig.
NUVO: Of course, what you"ve been doing is different from the normal Midwestern experience of classic rock and such. You"ve been trying something more subtle and different.
NISWANDER: I"m from the Midwest, and I love hard rock. I mean, I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, too, but that"s not all I listened to. A lot of my friends were the same way. We liked a variety of things. I can remember a time when you walked into a music store and there weren"t as many categories. You had pop, rock, jazz and classical. That was it. You could be a New Age artist and you could find their records in pop/rock or classical, depending on whether they were heavier or lighter.
Nowadays everything is broken up. Why? They wonder why there"s so much division. Fan bases are smaller and you have to work harder with multiple-bill bands to get people to come out. I think that"s part of the problem. It"s a cultural thing. We don"t need a breakdown into all of these genres.
I remember growing up, there were moments of greatness in every medium. On television, on the radio, there was always something new that would be exciting. Where are those moments of greatness that I remembered as a kid? Do I miss them because I have less spare time? I don"t think so. It looks to me as if a lot of the younger kids are bored, too. I feel like one of them.
You can"t fabricate excitement. I lived in L.A., so I know you can create hype, and to a certain extent it works. But you have to provide the goods at some point, because the audience will pick up on that.
NUVO: Do you think you"re good at creating hype?
NISWANDER: You know my work; what do you think?
NUVO: I guess it"s a rhetorical question.
NISWANDER: It"s like this: People like celebrity. They like bigger than life. In show business, you create this image and people like it. The problem, I think, a lot of what"s going on in culture right now, is that people don"t know how to distinguish the private lives from the public lives. The private lives are really none of our business. That"s a fact that some people aren"t dealing with very well. With my public life, it"s hype. Have fun with it. My private life is different. Don"t go there. People in show business know how to create that distinction. I"ve been very adamant about keeping it that way.
NUVO: The entertainment industry is in a slump right now, especially live music. Even top performers are having trouble filling halls. How, both as a promoter and artist, do you fight against these overwhelming societal forces running against you?
NISWANDER: I think you up the ante even more. What"s wrong with being flashy? It"s rock and roll! Pomp and circumstance, over-the-top stuff. Once in a while, throw in some serious stuff. Something I really try to do is borrow from the past and look to the future, where things might be going, then try to make things accessible in the present.
Why are people going to see a band? I"ve been to shows across the country where I enjoyed the atmosphere and the people more than the band. I didn"t waste my money, because I had a good time. But I thought, is there anything I can do to change that?
People will eventually figure that out, and they"ll eventually go to the mall, or sit in front of their computers, or anything other than seeing a band. I"ve had people come up to me and say they"ve never seen anything like my show before. But I"m just being myself. I"m toning it down, even!
People are hungry for entertainment and spectacle and they respond to it. Music has always been the center of my life, and everything else has been supporting it. Bringing attention to music is what I do.
Some aspects of my music are underground. Some are commercial. Why not have both? Why not both? Bowie did it. The Beatles did it. That"s what"s missing in a lot of music these days. Beck is doing it. The Flaming Lips are doing it. I know there"s a niche for what I do. I just have to keep working hard and encouraging people to work together more. That"s a very important thing. I find that things get done when more people become aware of what there is to do. It"s important to be supportive of things that can help our city.
I think if we"re just thinking about our "scene," it can be very selfish. We have to open ourselves to the city and the world. If we want people to take us seriously. Are you creating something the world wants to hear, or is it just your circle of friends? Those are very important questions people need to ask themselves. Not that there"s anything wrong with having a circle of friends, but if we don"t break out of a mold of thinking, if we don"t get people to see the bigger picture, we"re missing out. If you want people to pay more attention to Indianapolis, create something the world will want to pay attention to, and not your own little world. That"s hard for some people to understand.
Niswander"s Mystery Monday on March 10 at Birdy"s will feature the Niswander Band, Gabe Harley and the Spent Prophets, Living Proof and others in a tribute to Prince. Niswander will host the Springbound Music/Shotgun Reviews Showcase at Birdy"s on March 29, featuring Kremidas, Niswander, The Brand Plastic, America Owns The Moon and Extra Blue Kind. For more information on Niswander, visit www.niswander.net.