January 30, 2013

Get In the Van: Flagpole's Guide to Touring

Photo Credit: Dave Lichterman


There may be no better illustration of Murphy’s Law than a rock band on tour. It’s got everything: confined spaces, big personalities, vehicular meltdowns, international travel snafus, workspaces that double as bars—the works. Ask any seasoned road warrior what advice he would give up-and-comers prepping for their first rock and roll sojourn, and you’d better settle in for a while; he's gonna have a lot to say.

With so many founts of wisdom on the subject right here in town, and with SXSW on the horizon, Flagpole decided to open the vault on some of our local bands' most harrowing tour experiences—and the lessons learned along the way. Collected below are some choice tales of what goes wrong and how to avoid it, as well as pointers on how a band can make the most of the experience.

1. Aimee Morris (bassist, Twin Tigers)

Worst Tour Mistake: Having Too Much Fun

"I wanna say 'Don’t get too drunk,' but I feel like people will say it’s bullshit and you’re supposed to get drunk," Morris says. "But we had a drummer who got really drunk all the time [while we were] on tour with Minus the Bear and couldn’t control himself, and it was really embarrassing."

Oh, and then there were the (multiple) times she partied hard after a show and woke up the next morning in an entirely different city. "I had to call my bandmates to come and find me. They were pissed."

How to Make the Most of Touring: Sharing the Load

A sentiment echoed by musicians across the board: failing to take on an equal share of financial and work-related responsibilities creates resentment that can linger for years. For Twin Tigers, Morris says, one recurring issue was stepping up to drive the band and equipment home after each night’s show.

“One thing we did before one of our last tours is put all the tour dates in a jar, and everybody took two or three dates. Whatever cities we drew, that was the night that you were responsible for driving the gear away from the show. We knew ahead of time: 'I have to drive tonight, so I can’t get wasted.' And everybody else knew they could relax and just have a good time and not have to worry about who would get us home later.”

2. Nate Mitchell (drummer, Cars Can Be Blue)

Worst Tour Mistake: Being Woefully Under-Prepared

Ain’t nothing rock and roll about filling out paperwork and dealing with government bureaucracies. But, as Mitchell found out, it can be essential. After arriving in the U.K. to tour with Hot Pants Romance, Mitchell and bandmate Becky Brooks were detained and then deported for lying about their reason for being in the country.

“We thought we could sneak in, pretending to be tourists,” he says. But with 40 band t-shirts in their bag, no hotel reservations and no explanation of what they planned to do, they were quickly found out. The financial and spiritual blow, Mitchell says, ground the duo’s momentum to a halt.

How to Make the Most of Touring: Uh, BE PREPARED

Spring for that $300 U.K. work visa for your band. Have a little cushion of cash to fall back on for unexpected expenses. “Don’t buy a crappy car for $350 on Craigslist with the idea that you can put 4,000 miles on it and scrap it after that,” Mitchell says. "That’s how you end up broken down in Texas, having to take a job at the nearest motel for two months while you save up enough money to get home. True story."

3. Derek Olivera (drummer, Manray)

Worst Tour Mistake: Touring with Jerks

Diplomat that he is, Olivera won’t go into detail, although he does allude to the unpleasantness of touring with musicians his other bandmates just didn’t jibe with. “Make sure the chemistry works before you even go there. Before you even get out on the road, it’s got to work, personality-wise.”

How to Make the Most of Touring: Know the Laws of the Land

If you’re cruising north to melt some Canuck faces, you better be ready to give Stephen Harper his cut. Border patrol may want to, say, document how much merch you’re bringing into the country, so they can tax you on your way home. Got an arrest record? If it’s recent enough, it can be used as an excuse to turn you away at the border. But, as Olivera points out, you can always call border patrol in advance of your trip, or do a little research online. “They’ll let you know everything you need to know.”

4. Jace Bartet (touring guitarist, Reptar)

Worst Tour Mistake: Under-packing

Yes, of course, you want to pack light, but for the love of Pete, bring more than one pair of pants. “One time, I decided to pack so light I didn’t bring a change of pants, and that was really dumb,” Bartet says. “I got out of the van one day to pee and jumped into what I thought was grass, but turned out to be eight inches of really muddy water underneath. My pants were covered in mud. Then I had to keep wearing them for the next two weeks.”

Also recommended: being extra careful not to put unleaded gas in a diesel engine.

How to Make the Most of Touring: Just Roll with It

“The most important skill I developed on the road was being able to roll with all different kinds of punches. Stuff is not going to go your way most of the time. You’ve got to deal with it without getting emotional,” says Bartet.

In fact, of all the artists interviewed for this piece, Bartet had the most positive things to say about his touring experience. One highlight, he notes, was discovering Bonine, a non-drowsy carsickness medication. He also recommends eating well, when you can afford it; the dollar menu can be depressing if utilized too often. Finally, get to know the people you meet along the way.

“Someone asked me if it was lonely meeting people on the road I would never see again, but for me, it was really important to do that. It was awesome to experience that cool, friendly, welcoming people are everywhere.”