I wish I had a dollar for every time I ate at Chicago Bagel Authority. For the uninformed, CBA is the bagel paradise of Chicago, serving up over 100 different STEAMED bagel sandwiches. One of the best parts of this establishment is their #4 or 5 employee, TJ Horansky. Playing lead guitar and supporting vocals for Chicago pop-punk band Sleep On It, TJ has been a friend of mine since I first moved here in 2013 and got quickly introduced to the SOI Boiz.

One of my favorite things about TJ is his breadth of knowledge of the music industry. I would not say that he is an encyclopedia but he always has an educated opinion on any topic, can effortlessly carry on a conversation, and always enjoys talking music. At this very moment, TJ, Alex Fucking Smith and I are debating the best Menzingers record. Not much of a debate. On The Impossible Past. 

I was in CBA one afternoon and TJ and I quickly started a conversation about branding in music. His views on creating content, engaging with fans and brand development really grabbed my attention. I knew I needed to continue the conversation once he took a break from slangin’ bagels. I walked literally down the street from my apartment to his, we had a couple beers, struggled to get the Blackhawks game on TV, and talked about his views and experiences with branding.

What does branding mean to you?

TJ: I think it’s how you want people to perceive you as an artist. I guess if you think about it from a musical standpoint, it’s communicating a consistent message across the board. I think the way that the brain works is we categorize things and how we think about something, and it’s hard to condense who you are and what you’re creating into a simple message but it’s necessary. So yeah i think it’s having a consistent message across all platforms.

C: So it’s basically taking a bunch of different elements into this one singular thing that has ideas, and emotions and offerings.

T: Right. Branding can mean different things depending on what you’re talking about but at least for me when i try to think about it as being consistent, but also allowing yourself to evolve and change in a natural way.

C: And keeping that brand in mind the whole way.

T: Right exactly it’s a story, and the story needs to progress and change and whatever but you want to stay in the same book. Move from chapter to chapter.

So you’ve done freelance work, and you’ve done your own smaller music projects and stuff. Did you think about branding when you were doing those things like when you were doing freelance for Altpress?

T: Not so much for that.

C: Like from a personal brand standpoint? like “Oh this is what I want to hold myself as?”

T: Sort of but not to the same extent as the band. I mean the freelance stuff for me was like for fun, not something I was really trying to pursue full-time in that moment, but I guess in some sense you’re always thinking about how you come across, and how people perceive you. The flip side is that you can’t base every decision on what people are going to think of you but I think it’s important to think about how you come across and be consistent.

At the end of the day, you got to be happy with whatever you’re creating. You have to be happy with your product, but you have to do right by yourself first. So I think first and foremost before you’re considering how it’s perceived, you have to really discover what is going to be fulfilling, and then you figure out how to share that with the world in a cohesive way.

What has worked well for SOI, from a brand perspective? And it doesn’t have to be a contest or something, it can be like maybe a conversation that you’ve had as a band.

T: Well I think we always try to be a band that maintains a dialogue between fans. Whether it be on social media or at a show, we try to always engage in conversation with who really wants to talk and ask us questions. I feel like we’re very approachable I guess, but responsive. We try to be responsive.

C: I would agree that’s part of your brand.

T: Yeah and all those, somebody told me, somebody in another band, you gotta think about one show, one interaction doesn’t seem like a big deal but it’s like dropping a pebble into a pond, and those waves just go out into the world in a way that you have no ability to see or understand, or know how it reaches other people but each little interaction, or each show that we’re doing I try to think about it in that context. Each show is important. You don’t have the ability to see how your music, your messages go out to the world, but they do.

C: What kind of stuff did you do [In regards to in-person promotion]?

T: Just going to shows and passing out flyers to people and Jake being a very physical member of the scene and i mean for every tour we’ve ever done up to this point, we sell CDs outside after the show. Just stuff like that. That’s just as important.

C: Do you see other bands doing that? I mean I know bands do that but at your tier that you’re at right now, do you see other bands putting in that work?

T: No. Not really.

C: But at the end of the day, even if you don’t sell a single CD, you’re still talking to the fans.

T: Yeah and it’s also a name recognition thing. Warped Tour was different. It’s definitely more prominent there, but I don’t see local Chicago bands outside of shows, like after shows just selling CDs or promoting their band or whatever and especially in Chicago that’s such a great-

C: support system?

T: Yeah and we’ve got a great platform to do that. There’s so many shows, so many venues. I think it’s important to not underestimate word of mouth and in-person promotion.

C: Yeah, I mean that’s the oldest marketing tactic right? Word of mouth, people are gonna talk.

T:  There’s just a difference between face to face interaction as opposed to social media interaction. But as far as branding I think you gotta hit all platforms and I see a lot of younger bands don’t utilize that as much.

C: Do you think there’s cynicism in it? like “Oh I’m not gonna use social media.” I see that as being prevalent, especially in the punks scenes. Like, “I’m not gonna use this, it’s stupid.”

T: Yeah.

C: But the ones that use it, and use it well, get big.

T: Yeah, it helps. I would probably agree with that.

C: You guys do it well. You have a bunch of meme pages and-

T: Thanks. Yeah we definitely have this fan community and I think that counts a lot from us being responsive, and communicative on social media. Even if it is just internet fodder, we’ll get more response from more dumb, silly tweets than from a tour announcement.

C: How does that make you feel?

T: I get it, I get it, like yeah it’s kind of a bummer but like I don’t know, people are looking for entertainment on social media. But a lot of times, that silly internet fodder poster will increase the awareness of your band, and then people will check our your page or your account.

So you have band meetings, at least every week and you talk about marketing ideas amongst yourselves and with Buck and EVR, I’m sure. What have been some really terrible ideas, where everyone’s been like: “Dear god no.”

T: Really bad ideas. I mean, we really, I still don’t know if this would be a bad idea or a good idea  

C: Run it by me.

T: We seriously really discussed and kind of pursued doing a split with Smash Mouth. Like we had the label reach out. There was some discussion but it didn’t really go anywhere so I’m still not sure if that would be a good idea or a bad idea. You don’t really know until you do it, I guess.

C: Who knows, maybe people will start talking about it and then it’ll happen. That’s how that stuff works.

T: Yeah, sure. I mean I’m down to do it.

C: Would you not want to be known to some people as that band that did a split with Smash Mouth? That could’ve been part of the decision like this is a weird idea.

T: There’s worse things to be known for. I’ll leave it at that.

What have you guys done that has worked really well? You just did a bunch of phone calls to your fans.

T: That worked super well. It was an incentive to be part of the street team. It was a very personal thing. It was my voice, it was a voice recording that I did so there was that personal connection where you feel like you’re talking with the band. It tied in with the theme of the song, and the imagery of the single art.

C: Which is awesome.

T: Yeah thanks, that was our friend Lily she did the artwork for that.

C: I love the connection with Overexposed, is that intentional?

T: Yeah. I mean, again it felt like a consistent part of our brand, I guess. And tied in with the theme of the song. But yeah that phone call I think worked super well, I think it was a really great idea.

So combining your personal brand with Sleep On It, is there stuff that you do on social media, or just in life to put yourself out there and also tie it back to the band, even indirectly?

T: Yeah, I started doing photography this year. And I really love doing that. I shoot everything on film. I just got a camera in January, so it hasn’t even been a full year yet. And I love to travel, even when it’s not Sleep On It. So i really enjoy experiencing different places and different cultures, and I obviously really enjoy writing so I’m gonna releasing a book of my photography which is kind of journal style, some handwritten anecdotes and stuff like that. But as far as personal brand stuff, I think no matter what you’re doing, you just can’t force it. You just gotta be honest about who you are, and what you do, and what you enjoy. Anything that I post, my photography or lyrics or whatever, it’s like it’s something that I actually believe in, I’m not just doing it, for like ‘the Gram’.

C: I’ve always been kind of cynical about posting on social media but now it’s like, I need to just kind of break through that wall.

T: I think you have to have that confidence too. There’s a difference between confidence and I guess like an inflated ego. There definitely is a line, but you gotta just like be confident to think my stuff is pretty good, and I think there’s value to it.

C: You gotta just put it out.

T: I think by putting it out and really pushing it, you inherently are showing your confidence.

C: Absolutely.

T: I’m not gonna post and be like my shit is the shit, buy this or you’re an idiot.

C: That should be your tweet for when you post your book.

T: I think a lot of people falter with the confidence thing because they don’t think what they’re doing is any good. But if you spend enough time doing something, and trust your own taste, ya know. If I write a song and I think it’s really sick, you can’t get bogged down with “Oh is this gonna sell, is this really marketable?” You just gotta be like I think this is really fucking good so I’m gonna put 150% of myself into it and just put it out to the world.

Who has the best personal brand in Sleep On It?

T: Um…probably me.

C: Oh really?

T: [laughs] I’m just kidding, I don’t know. I mean some of us work harder at it, than others. Which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing.

C: I like what AJ’s been doing, he’s been talking a lot about gaming and getting into Twitch stuff which is really cool.

T: It’s great, and that’s a conversation that we’ve consciously had. Each of us individually like sharing things that we’re passionate about. I guess that is part of your brand, but you don’t always have to think of it as branding.

C: It’s easier when you don’t think about it is branding.

T: Right. I was like I want to do this because I love doing it, and I’m interested in it and I’m not doing it because oh this would be great for my brand.

C: Yeah, exactly. If you are thinking about that, you might want to reconsider some things.

T: You’re not being honest with yourself, or with anyone else, and I think when you’re not being fucking honest people can see that.

C: Maybe when you’re getting paid six figures doing photography then you could be like “Oh this is good for my brand.”

T;  Yeah that’s a different story. Just be honest with yourself first, and the rest will fall into place. Once you find out what your actual interests are, then put effort into that. Your shit has value, ya know. In music things are constantly changing, all the time. It used to be like, how many Facebook likes do you have on your page, then it was how many Twitter followers, now it’s like how many Spotify monthly listeners. Like the gauge is constantly changing.

C: Yeah, what playlists are you on…

T: Totally, that’s a huge thing. And it’s so easy to get bogged down. I do this to myself all the time, get bogged down in the-

C: analytics of it all.

T: Yes. And the numbers. I don’t know what the answer is but you have to be happy with what you’re doing and what you’re making. Ultimately, it’s how many people are actually coming to your show, and are you having a strong emotional impact and connection with them.

Be sure to check out TJ’s new photo book here and catch him and the rest of Sleep On It on the road in a few weeks with Broadside and With Confidence.

Interview edited for clarity.