The Touring Type: Tips From The Road

I’ve been on the road. Hoo-wee, touring is fun. Also, it’s hard work, but that’s pretty much the definition of my ideal job right there: hard, fun work.

Six years ago I wasn’t the touring type, basically because I wasn’t in a band. A lot can change in the moment that your upstairs neighbour knocks on your door and says “Gemma! Band practice!” and you say “Okay! (Shit!)”.

I have new respect for every band I ever see play outside its hometown. I have respect for every musician who shows up for a pre-midday interview and stays long after the gig to sign stuff and talk to people. I’ve learned loads about being on the road, and I’ve learned loads about myself in the process. It hasn’t always been comfortable, or pretty, but that which does not kill you makes you stranger!

Cambrian Valley, Central Otago, March 2012.

Wanna know what I’ve learned along the way? I’ll tell you, but first, this list of 21 touring tips remains the best-ever post about tour etiquette. Thor Harris nailed it. Here are the first three, just for a taster:

How to Tour in a Band or Whatever
by Thor Harris

1-Don’t Complain. Bitching, moaning, whining is tour cancer. If something is wrong fix it or shut the fuck up you fucking dick. goddamn.

2-If you fart, claim it.

3-Don’t Lose shit. Everybody loses shit. Don’t fucking do it. Asshole.

Read the rest of Thor’s tips. 

“Don’t lose shit” makes me laugh every time. I’ve – twice – left a very sentimental and important ring behind on bedside tables in motels. Asshole. I kicked myself both times because I failed to do one of the single most important things I learned from working in TV: the Idiot Check. That’s the “last sweep” of wherever you’ve just been: the motel room, the stage, the van, the cafe table, or the incredibly beautiful part of New Zealand that you just stopped to take a photo of…

Aoraki Mt Cook. March 2012.

Many, many, many musicians and roadies before us have figured out their own secrets of touring. A whole bunch of blogs and articles are about the admin of tours – driving to the speed limit to save on petrol (and speeding tickets. Asshole), collecting every contact you make along the way, keeping the merch shiny and new, yadda yadda. And many are geared towards American bands touring in America, so it’s all about how to eat healthily at Denny’s. (Ingrid Michaelson’s touring drummer Elliot Jacobson keeps a great tumblr about eating and exercising on the road. Here are some of the things he eats.)

The Indie Professor’s tips in this Guardian column are universal enough. I particularly like No.9:

Always be nice to the crew. Bands come and go but the crew go on forever. They’ll be there on your way up and there on your way down. Also, you’re at their mercy on stage. You don’t want to end up with bodily secretions in your beer, profanity in your monitor mix or a private part rubbed on your melodica.

I have a melodica.

Whakatane, February 2012.

Okay, so here are 10 things I reckon are good to remember when touring:  

  1. Exercise. Take a frisbee, hacky sack, soccer ball, swingball or cricket set with you. Do Yoga. Can’t find a class? Take a DVD or subscribe to an online course. You may not always get decent, cheap wifi on the road (especially if you’re touring New Zealand), so find a Yogini/Yogi who’ll send you the files up front. Here’s one I like. Me? I do my research, take my togs and goggles and do laps in many excellent provincial swimming pools.
  2. Whenever the van stops, get out.
  3. Cook for yourself whenever you can. Take a traveling kit of oil and seasonings. Hotels tend to have sheets with a higher threadcount and that shit gets really important towards the end of a tour, but motels have kitchens. (I saw a documentary about the NZ Symphony Orchestra’s tour of Europe. Their guest violinist takes a slow cooker everywhere. She finds the local organic store, puts the ingredients in before sound check and returns to her green room for a delicious, healthy hot soup.)
  4. Work on the music. Work on things that’ve been bugging you about songs. Ask a bandmate to show you their riffs and licks. Internalise a chord progression. Find a new harmony.
  5. Try not to work on anything else. It’s near-impossible for many musicians since we often have other jobs to pay the rent. A lot of us end up taking our day-jobs on the road. But if you can clear your diary for a tour, do it. Be present.
  6. Ask for what you want or need. Nobody is going to read your mind. Ask for it with positive statements. “I’d like…” rather than “Can you not…”. (That’s a guide for life, really. I should take my own advice more often.)
  7. Say “please” and “thank you”. I learned this one at a seminar that legendary UK manager Peter Jenner held in New Zealand. (And also from my parents.) When asked what he thought distinguishes real rock stars – you know, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix – from the rest, Jenner replied “Charisma and manners”. Charisma is an X-factor mystery that’s hard to cultivate, but manners are really easy to remember (except when you’re dog-tired, which is usually when you need your manners the most. The artist’s paradox).
  8. Don’t hate yourself for getting shitty or being badly behaved. It doesn’t help the performance or the band. Suck it up, apologise, have a good cry and move on. As Thor says, “Touring makes everyone bi-polar”.
  9. If you’re not enjoying it, work out why. It – prepare yourself – it could be you. The rest of those assholes on the bus might be assholes, but they might be assholes because you’re an asshole. And they’re your assholes, so make it work.
  10. Before you go away, figure out a way to stay in touch with family that suits you all, because touring hours are crazy hours and that 20-minute opportunity for a phone call might also be your only 20-minute nap-gap, and it’s the nap that’ll make you a better bandmate, but the phone call that’ll make you a better lover/sister/daughter/friend. If you can afford to take your family with you and your band is into it, that’s awesome. If you can’t, then research ahead of time to find out when you’ll be near decent wifi for Skyping. Send them postcards. Bring back souvenirs. Indulge in some advance-planning: I collect up little presents and wrap them up and write random dates on them and put them in my beloved’s drawer before I leave town.

Sheffield, May 2012.

And here are 10 things I take on tour : 

  1. My own pillow.
  2. A giant red scarf that I knitted and have taken everywhere for ten years.
  3. An eye mask or one of those hoodies that pulls right up around your face like Kenny from South Park so that your band mates know you’re in “sleep” mode.
  4. A Keep Cup. In the morning I climb into the van with a fresh cup of motel tea; in the evenings I nurse a hot lemon, ginger & honey on the way to the venue.
  5. Togs and goggles.
  6. Snacks appropriate to my dietary needs for the long drives with few stops in small towns that only have pies and custard squares. (That’s so that I’ve had a balanced diet by the end of the day. Pies are the touring band’s milk and honey.)
  7. Fully-charged batteries on whatever mobile device thingy I’m using.
  8. A strong bladder.
  9. A bottle of very good single malt whiskey.
  10. My preferred brand of women’s sanitary products.

Now for the bit at the end of this blog about how it’s all about the show, and the audience, and the joyful human connection between the both of you. Yes, it is that. And it’s about personal development – meeting your limits and pushing past them, working out how to entertain your brain on the long drives, how to be with people, and how to be with people.

It’s hard. And it’s rewarding. But is it glamorous

When was touring ever about glamour? I guess it’s those glamorous words like “international”, “travel”, “rock star”. For me, they go hand in hand with “muddy field”, “no sleep”, “long drive”, “uncooperative sound system”, “hangover”, “guys, it’s raining inside the van”, “pies”, “sound check’s gonna be late again”.

Is touring glamorous? That depends on your definition. If it encompasses eating fresh paua and crayfish and staying in a dusty historic mansion at a beach so remote there’s no cellphone coverage and the sound system is marginal and you’re getting paid nothing but you’re helping a small community raise money for books for kids who need them, then hell yes, it’s glamorous.

And if it includes playing at a fancy chateau, getting to swim in the spooky basement pool and walk around the base of a great volcano and dance with the happy couple at the wedding reception, but you’re staying in the pokiest room on the oldest foam mattress, then yes, it’s glamorous.

And if it means getting up at 3.00am for an international flight that gets cancelled, waiting several hours for the next flight, going straight into a photo shoot and a rehearsal upon landing, and getting to bed way past when it’s sensible in the country you’re in, never mind the timezone your body’s still on, never quite catching up on that sleep so that the rest of the week passes in a weird blur and you think you had a good time but you’re not quite sure, then yes, it’s glamorous.

And sometimes it’s just glamorous, eh babe.

Q Theatre, Auckland, February 2012.

P.S. All of these comments are my own and are in no way a formal statement on behalf of my totes awes band.

7 Responses to “The Touring Type: Tips From The Road”

  1. weatherwithyou

    Glad I found your blog – intelligent/hilarious/endearing. Great combo! Go you x

  2. Satan

    So happy to have aided and abetted you buying that amazing dress during your whirlwind LA stopover!


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