Teacher is a man of many talents


Dane Erbach

By Jared Bysiek, Staff Writer

Thirty-seven-year-old Dane Erbach sits down in his office at home on a very early September morning. He begins to frantically type away on a typewriter, a nerdy preference of his, as he continues working on the draft of his first book. As the morning soon reaches a more normal time, he gets up and makes his way to get some coffee before he switches gears. He tiredly greets his wife and three kids before eventually heading back into his office to begin teaching his online multiple, English-related classes at McHenry High School. This task alone is no small feat, having to try and keep multiple groups of high schoolers on track for different subjects, and even help manage the school newspaper. After the tedious, yet occasionally entertaining Zoom classes, he gets to work grading papers and doing any other work he needs to get done for school. In between all this he helps at home any way he can with the kids, making sure there is something spinning on the record player to keep him sane during it all. During whatever free time he has he may also work on his small-scale record label, or play away on the drums to let off some steam.

Erbach is truly a man of many talents, and someone that has led a busy, intricate path in life. The start of this intricate path in his life began when Erbach started to look into journalism and writing during his time at college.

“I was writing a column at my student newspaper in college, and trying to write poetry and fiction on my own. My column was called ’That’s the Gist,’ and I pitched in during my first few days of being a college student even though I had no experience in journalism prior. It was fun writing what I called ‘slice of life’ columns for the paper,” he said. “Through it, I learned about coming up with a creative routine, found my voice as a writer, and discovered how to temper my opinions. Oh, I also became a better writer.”

Though it was his senior year when he began to actually look into professionally exploring journalism. Because he had many classes to go to, and worked within the college itself, he spent most of his time at the school library. It was there that he began to grow curious about professional journalism, eventually landing his first job writing for a publication called Skratch.

“They were a pretty punk-rock, gnarly magazine with wild covers and newsprint pages. I wrote reviews. They’d send me a package of CDs once a month that were usually pretty meh. But I did get a few records I liked — one by this band called Teenage Bottlerocket that I had never heard of. My reviews were 250 each, so they were SUPER concise, but it was a lot of fun to write.”

After his work with Skratch, Erbach began to look for other potential publishers to get into contact with, but that is where the struggle of being a journalist set in. Aside from trying to find publishers who would accept work from him, he also had to face the harsh reality that working within journalism is not always what it’s cracked up to be.

“By the time I hopped into music journalism, the print industry was coughing up blood, especially music zines; some figured out how to transition to online publications, but others folded,” he said. “Not only this, but music journalism, which has always been freelance, was pivoting from publishing monthly to publishing daily, and starting to take content from whomever they could get at the time. So I hesitate to say I ever got an ‘official job’ in journalism. At best, I was a freelancer; at worst, I worked pro-bono.”

Though it may sound like it was tough and stressful freelancing as a journalist, that does not mean Erbach does not have pleasant memories or experiences with it, in fact quite the opposite. He has many fond memories of interviewing bands, and getting to meet musicians and people that he looked up to.

“When I wrote for Wonka Vision, I pitched a couple cool articles that came together in cool ways. One was about bands who had day jobs—like, what did they do when they weren’t on tour? My Gaslight Anthem / Dillinger Four / Off With Their Heads / Bouncing Souls piece became about that, and that became the cover of that issue. It was always cool interviewing bands that I was obsessed with and asking them about things that grounded them as the humans they were,” he said. “The biggest one, though, was about the 20th anniversary of [Operation] Ivy’s Energy. I wanted so bad to interview the band, but all their publicists said no. So I started interviewing these cool musicians that were part of the Gilman scene at the time—Dr. Frank from MTX, Sergie from Samiam, Larry Livermore (who ran Lookout Records), etc. I gathered all these interviews and did a people’s history of Operation Ivy. I reached out to other people too, including some serious punk guys who only corresponded via mail. Billie Joe Armstrong’s publicist said that Billie politely declined. But then, one day, when I was really sick, Jesse Michaels from Op. Ivy just called me out of the blue. He’s like, ‘Is this Dane? This is Jesse.’ And I sort of freaked out. I could barely talk, but it was one of the best interviews ever.”

During this time Erbach also tried giving his own publication project a shot, called The Switchboard Sessions. Within this project, Erbach would write long features about individual bands, but with a unique twist. Included with each feature of a band he did, was exclusive recordings of live performances done over the phone for him. And though it was a hassle to do, he does not regret a moment of it.

“I have to tell you this sincerely: Even though it was over the phone, hearing these bands play these songs for me was legit magic. I mean, I was literally the only audience. These were my favorite bands, and they were performing for me. Not all of the recordings are online, but here’s a link to some of them. The Restorations ones are some of the most magical—I sort of became friends with those guys for a while, and they’re still a really special band to me. But the most amazing was the first one with Polar Bear Club, which will probably always be my favorite band,” he said. “The singer hid in his car at like 7 in the morning on a Sunday, which was the only time the house would be quiet, and recorded them. They were unreleased songs at the time, and I hadn’t heard the full band versions. Again, it’s wild that I was the only one hearing that performance; it was for me. I felt like I was collecting trading cards but, instead, they were these raw, stripped down versions of my favorite songs.”

While it may sound like this was a career for Erbach, he feels journalism was more of a fun pastime for him. The actual career path that he decided to take in life was teaching, though it was not clear for him initially when going into college.

“When I went to college, I wanted to be a writer of some sort, but recognized that it was unlikely that I’d be a novelist or a columnist for a living. I decided to do teaching because it would be a way for me to study and share the things I loved with other people, and because I hoped that I could give someone a better high school experience than I had.”

After about fifteen years teaching various English courses at a high school level, Erbach currently teaches English Honors I and Newspaper at the McHenry High School, which vary greatly in what he has to do as a teacher.

“For the former, I feel like I’m catching my students up on a lot of the basics of being a student at the high school level—how to write a claim and support it with evidence, how to closely read a story or novel, how to gather and present credible research, stuff like that. For the latter, I try to do as little as possible and let my students steer the McHenry Messenger, the district’s student paper. They pitch and assign, write and edit, publish and share stories, and just help guide them here and there. Honestly, I do make sure that the website is up and publishing each day, and I do a lot of work to make sure print editions happen, but the students are the engines behind all that effort. Besides that, I’m grading and planning a lot—especially now with the pandemic. I am currently avoiding grading 120 career research papers.”

On top of that, Erbach also currently runs an independent record label, known as Jetsam-Flotsam, which began when The Switchboard Sessions ran its course.

“We are small. Like really small. My brother is very kind and calls it a boutique indie label, but we’re just a passion project. We don’t move a ton of records (dozens on our best days), but it is really exciting to work with bands about which I feel passionate. Some of the bands that I met on the Switchboard Sessions are on the label; some of the bands I interviewed help connect me with new bands. Some I’ve met through other labels and other bands. One of the bands on the label is my brother’s,” he said. “Money is always an issue with a record label because, you know, pressing records is expensive and selling them is difficult. But it’s still really exciting to help spread the good word about music you like. We press records and cassettes, set up publicity, and do our best to spread the word about our bands. We pack records as a family, and ship them while we’re watching 90 Day Fiance or whatever. But it keeps coming back to this theme that musicians and artists and creators are people like you and I; so are record labels.”

And on top of that he also is the father of three kids, an aspiring author, and occasionally gets involved with bands as a drummer. For most people, trying to do all of these things at once would make their head spin. But for Erbach responsibilities are one thing, it is all about prioritizing and balancing his passions that is the challenging part.

“The responsibilities are easy. I have to do them. If I don’t make my kids hot dogs or nachos for dinner, they remind me of how hungry they are every five minutes until I do. If I don’t show up to work, I don’t get paid—and, if I don’t work hard to help teach my students, my job gets much more difficult. The passions are more difficult, but I try to prioritize them when I can. The label pushes to the forefront sometimes, but also can take a backseat sometimes. The musical projects are things I do when I have time. I make time for my writing—it’s something I prioritize at the top of my to-do list after my family and job. It helps also to be in a family that supports these things. Thankfully, my wife (who is equally passionate and has her own projects) helps me balance my priorities and gives me time to pursue these passions. I’m really lucky to be with her; if I was with someone who was selfish or demanding of my time, someone who didn’t encourage me, I’m not sure I could do it.”

The pandemic has made things harder for him during this time, however. Having to keep young kids inside most of the time, and try to teach in the messy world that is online learning has made things very stressful.

“I’m going to be honest—the pandemic has made parenting harder. My kids have fewer opportunities to be social. There are fewer adventures we can enjoy safely. We are stuck inside drawing a lot. Their schooling has been difficult, which really weighs on the whole family. My job has become more complicated and more exhausting; I’m not sure if it’s more difficult, but it’s definitely different, and I’ve had to totally reimagine a decade’s worth or expertise and experience.”

Erbach still continues to look on the bright side during this pandemic, as he has found some success working towards publishing his first book.

“I’ve actually found a lot of success during the pandemic, especially with my book. At first, I was feeling bummed because my writing schedule was totally disrupted, but I found a way to finish the book. Then I had the time to pitch it to agents—and actually found one! Finding a new routine during the pandemic has been difficult, but I’ve figured it out,” he said. “I feel a little guilty, though; other people have lost jobs, lost educational opportunities, lost family and friends. I’ve been able to stay healthy and persevere in all of the areas where I push myself. I think I’m going to walk out of this pandemic feeling really proud of what I accomplished, which is weird to say, I know, and I’m not totally sure I feel comfortable with that realization. Still, it’s true.”

Dane Erbach is someone who is never satisfied, in the best way possible. For him, there is always something to be done, something to pursue, and something to improve in his life. He has been able to explore many different career paths throughout his time, and continues to work on different projects even to this day. Erbach is an inspiration for anyone who is curious about exploring different passions, and doing what you love. Give it a shot, because you will never know where you will end up.