“Being on stage as a band is a lot like being in a small agency,” Chesley explains. “You can think about each section of the band like different departments, and they all need to work together.”
Between days spent building brands, wrangling the web, and creating delightful design, the folks of Edgar Allan also manage to have varied side hustles and passion projects – from designing aesthetic and affordable furniture, to an in-home recording studio, to writing novels of fantasy and faraway lands, each member of the Edgar Allan staff is more than meets the eye. But moreover, we’ve come to find that the skills and experiences we acquire from these ventures translate directly to aspects of the work we do here at EA. One such example: how the culture of teamwork inherent to a band can be applied to business. We sat down with Chesley Lowe, Edgar Allan creative director and former banjo player for Whiskey Gentry, for a lesson in team dynamics.
You’d be surprised how well a banjo works on Radiohead’s “Creep.” On the night of the Whiskey Gentry’s 10th Annual Merry Y'alltide Celebration in Atlanta — their final show — Edgar Allan Creative Director Chesley Lowe was on stage strumming as a packed crowd of concert-goers sang, danced and sipped along to the 90s-era alternative anthem and other covers, each tuned to the Americana kind of sound they’re known for (read: country meets bluegrass and a little bit of punk rock), as well as holiday songs and favorite tracks from the band’s three studio albums.
It was bittersweet, of course. Chesley’s spent the last decade as part of the band, playing local shows and national festivals — even a European tour — an opportunity that came 11 years after he thought he had put his banjo down for good.
After first picking up the instrument at 15, Chesley played with a couple of bands in high school and during college at the University of Georgia. When he moved from Athens, Georgia, to Atlanta a few years post-grad, he traded the strings for family and a career in design. “I assumed my banjo playing days were over,” he tells me. Then in 2009, an old friend from UGA reached out to connect him with front woman Lauren Staley and guitarist Jason Morrow — a husband and wife duo looking to start a band. Since then, he’s balanced being a husband, father and creative director with life as a part-time professional musician. Impressive, by any measure.
Equally impressive, perhaps, is the band’s successful 10-year ride in an uber-competitive industry (Lauren is leaving to pursue a solo career in Nashville). What was the secret to their longevity? “We had fun,” Chesley answers, matter-of-factly. “We had fun on stage, and the music was rowdy and fun; that’s certainly what set us up on this trajectory.” It’s hard to disagree. Even the otherwise melancholic “Creep” turns into a lively, toe-tapping tune with the band’s fast-paced, upbeat take. But the Whiskey Gentry success story is also a testament to team dynamics — factors that can affect the performance of any group, whether you’re wielding instruments or not.
“Being on stage as a band is a lot like being in a small agency,” Chesley explains. “You can think about each section of the band like different departments, and they all need to work together.” So I asked Chesley to give us some insight on how Whiskey Gentry managed their own group dynamics, and how that can be applied to any business’ team.
Employees might have a certain title and job description, but that doesn’t mean it’s always clear where specific responsibilities lie. The same was true with the band. “Everybody was a specialist in their individual craft, but they made additional contributions,” Chesley says. He goes on to explain that other than playing their instruments on stage, there was a lot of work that went into putting on a show — loading gear in and out, talking with the sound technician, setting up merchandise, etc. — and they made sure to assign responsibilities and delineate tasks. As the founders and songwriters, Lauren and Jason were the leaders of the band, so they would write set lists or set up gigs, and then were responsible for delegating to the others. Part of that delegation is about getting to know your team. “Different personalities naturally gravitate toward certain activities,” Chesley adds. “Being able to find people’s motivations and understand where their strengths and capabilities lie is really powerful, whether it’s at work or in a band.”
“Communication on stage is the key,” Chesley says. “Without it, you just fall apart.” He gives the example of a riff he would throw out at the end of some songs. The band would practice it and watch each other, and over time they didn’t have to watch for the cues anymore, but it still required the other musicians to listen for it to be able to react and musically support it. It’s a case for overcoming silos in an agency setting. In other words, a design won’t work if it doesn’t have the copy and the development to support it; everyone needs to work together to make a project successful. “You have to communicate, and then over time you can learn each other’s idiosyncrasies, and begin to pick up on the rhythms of how you work best together.”
The best teams come from an inclusive work culture, where people feel free to contribute and share their ideas. For Whiskey Gentry, that freedom became part of what defined the ensemble, marrying the sound of a country singer with former punk rockers and Chesley’s bluegrass background. “We all put something of ourselves into our work,” Chesley affirms. It’s also what allowed them to keep evolving, as individual artists and as a collective, pushing their creative boundaries — listen to their first album, Please Make Welcome (2011), and their last, Dead Ringer (2017), and you can hear the evolution. Ultimately, a safe, open environment where everyone feels like they have a seat at the table brings a higher level of enthusiasm for the work — and in turn, a higher quality of work.
So if you’re looking to improve your team dynamics, take a tip from the Whiskey Gentry and give everyone a clear role, focus on communication and make it safe for people to share ideas — “but you still gotta have fun,” Chesley says. “Because if you like what you do, that should show up in the work.”