Starbucks sets the stage for working rock musicians

By Steve Stolder / Starbucks Newsroom

Karl van der Velden and two bandmates stroll across Seattle’s First Avenue, chatting over traffic noise as they catch up on what’s been happening in the two months since they last gathered. Time is short – they only have an hour for a noonday practice session. But there’s no time wasted on getting to their practice space. It’s directly across the street from Starbucks headquarters, where they all work. Hence the group’s name – the Band Across the Street.

The three have worked with a variety of drummers, including a couple of Starbucks vice presidents who, they complain lightheartedly, are generally too busy to put in much time rehearsing. So, as a trio, they work through a series of covers, “Blue Light Boogie,” an old R&B standard, leading into the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today.” Boasting that they “peeled the paint off the walls” when they started out nearly a decade ago, they’re now more understated, taking pride in finding a fresh approach to offbeat material.

Bassist Ben Heege, keyboardist/accordionist David Johnson and van der Velden have been playing since they were teenagers. They also have a combined 46 years of Starbucks corporate experience.

For them and other Starbucks partners around the world, the combination of income, benefits and the accommodating flexibility the company provides jibes nicely with a musician’s lifestyle, whether they’re veterans like the members of the Band Across the Street, fulltime musicians who launched their careers by balancing days in Starbucks cafes with nights in the clubs, or upstarts currently working as baristas.

‘I was prepared as anyone could be’

Van der Velden, 55, has been in and out of the spotlight in the nearly four decades that have passed since he bought his first guitar as a high school senior. He got a break in the mid-1980s when a group that shared management with the Northwest powerhouse Heart brought him aboard as lead guitarist. The band, called Widow, recorded a major-label debut and shared bills with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, INXS and Bryan Adams. Van Der Velden, however, soon recognized he was in an all-or-nothing position; if Widow didn’t become very big, he wouldn’t be able to support his family, which included two young daughters. He left the group and looked for something more dependable.

He gave the stardom another shot in 1992 when the guitarist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers quit shortly after the band achieved a massive commercial breakthrough. Van der Velden immersed himself in the Chili Peppers’ repertoire and managed to earn an invitation to audition in Los Angeles.

“I was prepared as anyone could be,” he recalled. “They let me play and play and play. They were all nodding their heads and I thought I was going to get in. Then they told me they’d keep me in mind, but they were still looking for someone a little weirder.”

He joined Starbucks in 2001 and is now a business systems analyst. Meanwhile, he continues to play in everything from the Band Across the Street to power trios to a contra dance ensemble.

“I got used to the idea that, OK, I’m a working guy and my music is something I do on the side,” van der Velden said. “I was pretty quickly able to shift my outlook and say, ‘You know, it’s OK that I never became that professional rock star.’ I loved being with our girls. If I were traveling, I wouldn’t be there for this soccer game or that sleepover or this birthday party.

“I’m actually lucky things turned out the way they did. I’m totally fine with that. Although, every now and then I think, ‘Wouldn’t it have been cool to have been that rock star.’”

‘There was so much flexibility’

Joshua Havens achieved rock star status as coleader of the Afters. The Christian rock band has been together for nearly 20 years, touring regularly and releasing a half-dozen albums, including 2008’s “Never Going Back to OK,” which topped the Billboard Christian Album chart.

The whole thing started at a Starbucks in Mesquite, Texas, when Havens befriended Matt Fuqua, another barista with a musical bent. The two got in the habit of pulling out their guitars at slow times to write songs. Encouraged by customers and store partners, they started performing in 1998, recruiting two other partners to play bass and drums. Regulars from the café turned out in force when the band started playing around town, giving the quartet a base to build upon. Havens even married his shift supervisor from the store.

“The cool thing was, through all our time at Starbucks, there was so much flexibility,” Havens said. “I don’t know if we could have made it through those years if it hadn’t been for how supportive our stores were.”

The Afters signed a deal with the Sony subsidiary Epic in 2005. With a 52-city tour looming, all four bandmembers gave notice, texting the last order they filled to one another on their last mutual last day. The Afters still maintain a connection with Starbucks. Their tour rider specifies that a coffee brewer and two pounds of Starbucks coffee – one dark and one blonde – be backstage at each performance.

“I met my bandmates, I met my wife – my life wouldn’t be what it is today without that time working for Starbucks,” Havens said. “I tell people that all the time: ‘The best job decision I ever made was applying at the Starbucks in Mesquite.’”

‘Adjusting to reality is a very difficult thing’

During the prime of his old band the Swellers, Jonathan Diener toured worldwide for 10 months of the year, playing more than 200 shows annually. Backing his frontman brother, Nick, Diener pounded away on his drums around the globe, playing large and small venues and building a devoted Swellers following in punk-rock circles.

In 2015, the Swellers fell victim to “marriage and big-boy jobs” and announced their split. They toured the U.S., Australia and Europe and ended on a high note. For Diener, who’d joined the band when he was still in high school and hit the road one week after graduation, life post-Swellers required some getting used to.

“Adjusting to reality is a very difficult thing for a touring musician, because when you’re in a van or plane or whatever, you’re waiting to play for 30 minutes to an hour every night,” said the 28-year-old Flint, Mich., native. “From that to being just planted is very hard.”

Diener returned home and began creating comics and working as a freelance writer. He also started playing bass, singing and writing songs for his own band, Baggage. His new group mostly stays close to home, though they’re embarking on a second East Coast swing this summer. Diener decided he wanted to find a regular job – one that would accommodate his less strenuous but still complex performance schedule.

“I always had friends who worked as baristas and they were telling me, ‘You can do this between tours and obviously you don’t have to tour that much,’” he said. “The more I heard about that, the more that sounded like a good idea.”

Diener started working at a Starbucks in Grand Blanc, Mich., a year and a half ago. He’s found the job combines the stability he appreciates with the flexibility his creativity requires.

“When I want to play music, I have the ability to go to work, do my thing, come home and then I’m not at work anymore,” he said. “That’s a big part of it.

“And there’s another perk in this – pun intended: We’ll play shows locally and our whole store will show up if they can. It’s a really nice support system.”

Steve Stolder is a communications manager at Starbucks. Reach him at [email protected].

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Workforce Diversity at Starbucks