Having played music on streets across the world, at 29 years old, busker and musician Kane Muir has experienced a life unique to most. Before he embarks on his next stint in Los Angeles, I caught up with him to talk cities, warehouse-living and the busking lifestyle.
TOP: Can you start off by telling me what you do?
KM: I play music and teach as well. But my main income is busking and gigs - it's probably the main thing that gets me by.
TOP: How long have you been playing for?
KM: About 13 years. I've dabbled in other things other than guitar. I've been playing the saxophone for about a year now. Trumpet on and off for the last couple years, but it's pretty fucking hard to play the trumpet... I have no illusions of becoming a great trumpeter, it's a little bit of fun, you know.
TOP: Haha, so why did you just decided to pick up the trumpet?
KM: I love Louise Armstrong and all these old Jazz dudes. I guess seeing them solo on the trumpet I was like 'that's such a badass instrument'. I wanted to go nuts on it. But when I picked up the saxophone, I got that I instantly. I understood the instrument a lot better and was able to find my way around it, and get a better sound straight away.
TOP: So we're sitting in your house right now, can you tell me a bit about it?
KM: It's a warehouse space in the inner west of Sydney.
TOP: What do you like about this space?
KM: I love having the freedom to be able to do what I want. I could draw on the walls... if I wanted to. Downstairs we've got the whole warehouse to skateboard, create, have parties, have people over. It's up to us how far we want to push it in this space - which is great. There's no real kind of judgement for whatever lifestyle you pick. There's a general level of apathy, which is nice. If you want to go off the deep end a little bit, and party too much... You can choose to disregard all of that and just go off the deep end. Also, there's a disadvantage to that because you can get a little bit lost.
"I love having the freedom to be able to do what I want. I could draw on the walls... if I wanted to. Downstairs we've got the whole warehouse to skateboard, create, have parties, have people over. It's up to us how far we want to push it in this space - which is great."
TOP: Are there a lot of creatively-inspired people in the house? Any other musicians?
KM: I guess everyone living here is creative in one way or another. You have to be to be to function in this space. You know, you need to be able to imagine that there are no cockroaches running around everywhere. You need to be creative to ignore all of the dysfunction. In terms of people who are getting paid to work creatively and are living their art, probably half of the people here are paid artists.
TOP: Moving onto busking... How long have you been out there doing it for?
KM: Since I first moved to Melbourne I guess, when I was 21 or 22.
TOP: Where do you normally busk?
KM: Mostly Newtown Station [Sydney]. That's my main spot. I've only been to Pitt Street a couple of times and Circular Quay a couple of times. But yeah, mostly Newtown.
TOP: Did you busk before you moved to Sydney's Inner West?
KM: When I first got back from New York I was busking in Narrabeen before I got a job teaching full time. Back in New York I was busking for about 10 months. When I first got there I worked at BB King's Blues Club in Times Square. I was employed as a door host, you know, 'come in and listen to music!' That was cool. I met loads of famous people but the hours were long and it was shit pay. I was making more money busking so I quit and made my money out on the street instead.
TOP: Do you need a busking license everywhere you've played?
KM: In New York you don't need them to play on subway platforms. But you're not allowed amplification. People do it anyway though. You can't really be heard without amplification because of the noise of the trains and all the people.
It's kind of ridiculous because there were drummers down there playing loud as shit, but that was still considered acoustic. As soon as you plug in your guitar, you get asked to move on because you're not playing acoustically. I never got bothered. Most of the time cops were cool with me because I was playing chill kind of Jazz or Soul stuff which was good vibes. It wasn't metal or something grating.
TOP: How does busking compare between the different cities you have worked in, in terms of the vibe, how safe you feel, and how much money you earn?
KM: That's a tough one to answer. Every day is different. It doesn't really depend on the location as much as it does on the day and the people who are there in that moment. You know, it kind of feels the same in every place. It's just the vibe of the day that is different, and that's what affects it.
I mean, weather plays a really big part in whether people give or not. If it's overcast and miserable and windy and shit, people just wanna go home and get to their places. So if you're out there busking trying to reach people, touch people - you can - but it's harder to crack that front they've put up.
"When I first got there [New York] I worked at BB King's Blues Club in Times Square. I was employed as a door host, you know, 'come in and listen to music!' That was cool. I met loads of famous people but the hours were long and it was shit pay. I was making more money busking so I quit and made my money out on the street instead."
I mean, that's what you're trying to do when you're busking. You're trying to crack into people, open them up a little bit and make them be present. And when you do that and have that connection with them, it's really rewarding for yourself cause you're like 'yep, I've established this connection with someone.' But they feel affected, and if they're moved enough they'll be like 'yeah ok I'll give you some money.' So it's mutually beneficial, you know. Some people view it as begging, which kind of annoys me. It's not that - it's a service. You tip for a service if you like that service.
But yeah, New Orleans, New York, Sydney, Melbourne... People are all the same everywhere, really. There's always going to be that angry person that's walking past that gives you that look and it cuts your ego and it hurts and you go 'ahhh!'. You gotta try not let them get to you down, they're just having a bad day - and that's not your fault. You just need to rise above and put out the good vibes. Cause that's what it's about. It's about sharing joy and stories and love and that's what people crave.
When they see someone with good energy, they're like 'awesome!'. But if you're feeling self-conscious or you're feeling bad or you're having a bad day that'll come across. And that's the tough thing about busking. If you're off that day, you're going to feel worse once you finish busking. And you're not going to make any money if you're putting out bad vibes.
TOP: I guess that can also blow your confidence and getting back out there might be even harder?
KM: Exactly. It can be damaging. You got to look after your energy and look after how you're feeling. Try to keep in mind that it's about the music and the income will follow, you know.
TOP: Do you choose not to busk if you're in a bad mood, or do you consciously try to change your mood?
KM: That's a tough one, yeah. Obviously I need the money because it's what I do for a living. If I'm feeling really bad, I try to make myself feel better, but if I check in with myself and I'm like 'nah', then I don't busk because I know that it's not going to be good for me. It's important to listen to how you're feeling.
That's the other thing, when I was busking in New York I was going really hard there to survive and when it was winter I had to keep playing to survive. Especially the winter I was there in 2013, there were loads of cold snaps.
"... that's the tough thing about busking. If you're off that day, you're going to feel worse once you finish busking. And you're not going to make any money if you're putting out bad vibes."
TOP: Ah yeah, I remember that winter, it was pretty horrible in London as well.
KM: Yeah, it was insane. So I'm out there still busking and I'm breathing out mist. I had these pocket warmers.... I would loop my phrase on the pedal and then put my hands in my pockets. I'd get my hands warm again so that I could feel them and then I'd keep playing. That ended up biting me in the ass after doing that for a couple of months.
I ended up with really bad RSI to the point where I couldn't even use my left hand for most things. Then I couldn't work obviously. Then, you know, it was a hard time. I broke up with my girlfriend, I was effectively homeless and trying to stay with people who I just met. I was right on the edge there. It was pretty dark times. The people I was staying with had some friends down in New Orleans and they recommended that I go check it out and go to a warmer climate... Probably because they were getting sick of me! [laughs]
TOP: "Get this mopey Aussie guy out of our house. Send him south!"
KM: Yeah it was a good idea. I mean getting down into the warmer climate and just chilling out. After a couple of weeks my hands started working again. I was busking again, making more money and I made enough money to get myself up to San Fran... You know, my job is relying on the generosity of strangers. But at that point for 4 or 5 months, I was relying on strangers for just about everything. I was living with strangers, getting to know them, falling in love with people. And by the end of my trip in L.A I was completely burnt out. I flew home and I was a zombie. There was nothing left in me.
TOP: Did you feel like those relationships that you had built overseas had been lost?
KM: When you're in the present moment somewhere and then you pull yourself out of it, you can wonder if it was all just kind of a dream and if it actually meant anything.
I mean, when I was there it was real and I feel like if I was to go back and talk to some of these people, there were still real moments and experiences that we shared. But that's the age old thing, you can stay in a places and grow old and have the same friends and have lasting long relationships. Or you can go to different places and meet new people and have these little fleeting romances and bromances, or whatever... even beautiful relationships.
But it's tough after a time when you keep on moving. You kind of form these connections and then you move on, and then it feels like you've lost a little part of yourself. You feel a bit hollowed out after a time. Like I can't just keep giving pieces of myself to people and then moving on. But at the same time, it's so exhilarating, being in that new 'thing'.
TOP: ... It can be addictive?
KM: Yeah, totally, it can. Sometimes I feel like 'do I even have any real friends?' you know. But I guess if they're really friends you can always pick up where you left off. You just might've missed out on some of those in-jokes that have developed over the last couple of years. But then there's other people who you feel like you can't just call - like it's been severed. And that's kind of good too.
TOP: I guess travelling around also makes you prioritise the friends you want to maintain?
KM: Yeah exactly, when I was younger I was BFFs with so many people, giving them all my time. Now I've become a lot more selective with my time.
"... it's tough after a time when you keep on moving. You kind of form these connections and then you move on, and then it feels like you've lost a little part of yourself. You feel a bit hollowed out after a time. Like I can't just keep giving pieces of myself to people and then moving on.
TOP: So, you're heading over to L.A in 2 weeks?
KM: Yeah, I am. I don't like L.A by the way... Just so you know!
TOP: Haha! I quite like it there, but I know a lot of people who don't
KM: Yeah, well my point of view is biased because it was at the tail end of my U.S trip, so I was burnt out. I wasn't going to have a good time anyway. I just found it was like a big highway with shopping malls. I felt like I was always driving in someone else's car because I didn't have a license. Or trying to get public transport, which was really shit.
I'm going to see how I go busking there, which will be hard because it's not really a busking city. There are some spots, like Venice Beach and Santa Monica boardwalks. But for the most part, busking doesn't really happen.
TOP: Did you meet many musicians when you were there last time?
KM: No, not really. So I guess the goal is to try and get some gigs, play in some cafes and stuff. Now that I'm singing doing the one-man-band thing, I think it'll be a better experience.
TOP: ...The one-man-band?
KM: Yeah I'm playing the drums with my feet, singing and playing guitar. I've only been doing that for 3 weeks. I've worked at it... I find that it's just an extension of what's happening in my right hand when I'm playing guitar. So for instance, I play the bass part with my thumb and then my fingers are playing what a guitarist would be doing with the melody. So my thumbs are controlling the bass and when I'm playing a gig I have the top 2 strings of my guitar tuned into an octave pedal, it makes it down an octave, so that it sounds like a bass guitar. Every time my thumb hits, my right leg just has to hit the drum.
I've tied them together. Every time my thumb does something, so does my right foot. Then the snare - my left foot - is most of the time on the same beats - the 2 and 4 of a bar. That has to do the same thing... It made sense to me straight away.
TOP: Why did you feel like the drum was needed as part of your set? I mean that's kind of rare, right?
KM: When I started doing it I just thought, 'this is fucking fun!' That's the main reason. But I also thought, this works because it makes me more marketable, it's essentially a trio in one person. You're getting an ok drummer, an ok bass player, and a pretty good guitarist.
TOP: What's the end-goal with your music?
KM: My end goal is definitely not to be famous or anything like that. That's a shallow way to think about music. For me, it would be nice to be respected by peers. Maybe a small cult following would be good, and to make a living comfortably. I make a living now but I'm always hustling and kind of living on the edge. It would be nice to be a bit more comfortable.
But really, for me it 's about discovering new ideas, learning new instruments and really bettering myself as a musician. That's what my goal is as a musician. It always comes back to just that, self-improving, honesty, sharing, and touching people. Hopefully, in a way that am touched when I listen to music.
TOP: Awesome, thanks Kane.