Notes from the road…

I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last 16 months touring with artists like Vox Lumiere and Uncle Daddy, going from one side of Colorado to the other and back, through swaths of the Midwest and down south to Baton Rouge, LA and Austin, TX, east to Wilmington, DE, Providence, RI, Schenectady, NY and Reading, PA and overseas for two weeks in Lisbon, Portugal.

What exactly does the life of an itinerant musician look like?  Here are some of my experiences and perspectives.

Keep in mind, Individual results may vary.

The tour starts where?
When a tour comes down, trying to pack things last minute adds so much stress to an already stressful situation.  You can easily get derailed and forget the basics because you’re rushing from one side of town to the other before you have to leave.  As with any travel situation, every bit of information you have makes things easier and that leads to a little less stress on your journey.

So, trust me when I say the first rule of touring (or any travel)… make a PACK LIST.

Just like your mom or dad would help get you ready to go to camp, it makes sense to do the same thing, even here.  If you’re going out for 3 weeks and you don’t know specifically about things like laundry facilities (if you’re playing theatre venues), accommodations, packing can become a bit of a nightmare.  You CAN’T pack everything, but you have to pack enough.  How to gauge?  Make a check list!  This is what I typically pack from a clothing perspective:

  • Climate specific outerware (could be an unstructured suit jacket, a heavy coat, etc.)
  • Footware (dress and casual)
  • Pants/Jeans/Shorts (several pair as needed in whatever colors you dig, for me… black)
  • Any gig specific clothes you might need
  • T-shirts (for me, mostly black and typically plenty of music related ones)
  • Shirts (button up, polo, or whatever you dig)
  • Socks and boxers (under garment choice is totally up to you)
  • Toiletry case (shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and brush, hair stuff, Breathe Right Strips, Electric Razor, vitamins, hand lotion, talcum powder, Listerine, lip balm, etc. etc. etc…)
  • Work out clothing (shorts, t-shirt, sneakers)
  • Exercise bands (those long heavy duty rubber bands means you can workout in your room or at the club – no gym required!)

This is a good basic list.  Don’t forget, you’ve got a 50 lb. limit for bags on the airlines now.  And, you typically have to PAY for bags.  Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get one for free.  Keep that in mind.  Packing heavy can cost you on both ends.  You have to pay AND you have to carry the stuff around. Plan accordingly.

How long is the flight?
Alright.  You’ve got your clothes and essentials packed and out of the way. You do know that’s only half of the pack, right?  The modern touring musician usually travels with A LOT of technology.  This may or may not be gig related, but you can guarantee that you’re packing plenty of electronic stuff.  Maybe that’s going into your carry on.  Maybe that’s in a second suitcase.  Here’s a typical list of stuff that could get packed:

  • Laptop/tablet computer/E-reader with power supplies (if you are traveling out of the good ‘ole US of A, have the proper power adapters!!!)
  • MP3 player with headphones (I suggest bringing two sets because… you never know)
  • Journal and pens (because you never know when inspiration will strike or you’ll need to vent about your roommate, etc.)
  • Gum, lip balm, hand lotion
  • Any other diversions you might need/want as you travel (games, cards, etc…) because you WILL have time to kill.

Wait, we aren’t flying!?
Right.  You find out that the whole flying thing wasn’t cost effective and you just got a Sprinter van that’s going to be your home on wheels for the next 4 weeks.  Here’s the facts: you will find yourself in a situation where there are no flights.  It’s ‘get in the van’ and put in some miles. As the dashes on the highway fall away like grains of sand through an hour glass, the same stuff you pack for distractions on a flight will still work when driving.  You may very well share driving duties  (more on this later).  Having distractions isn’t travel-mode specific and it’s not about ignoring the others in your touring group.  It’s about having some pleasant distractions as the miles fly (or wheel) by and the conversation has lagged or people are asleep in the back or you just want to tune out.

One last important suggestion about travelling:  have lots of water with you. Oh, and if you’re driving, DEFINITELY have a trash bag and make sure people put their detritus IN said trash bag.

It’s not Frank’s world… Do you think it’s yours?
Cool.  You got the gig!  Congratulations.  So you get prepped, rehearsed, packed and ready to go.  You’re on your way.  This is a good time to talk about control.  Not of yourself at the bar or after the show hanging out with fans; nor in the hotel room wanting to throw that Vizio flat screen out of the window because you’re in a B-rate hotel with 5 channels to choose from.  I will assume a certain amount of maturity and decorum regarding such things (so, don’t prove me wrong, okay?)

What I’m talking about is control over your environment and your time.

What do I mean?  Well, think about it.  When you’re on tour, you are part of a larger organization; you’re a single component of a multi-cellular being.  A bit of a dance is in store to maintain civility, order, and pleasantness throughout the run of your thing (be it two weeks or 10 months).  You may or may not be in charge of said organization.  If you aren’t, your schedule is going to be dictated to you to a large degree and that – even if it’s a posh tour – takes some getting used to.  Lobby call times, sound checks, meet-and-greets, tear-downs, set-ups, travel days… all of these activities are often highly scripted and necessary.

Mob rule doesn’t work on a tour.  It’s more like benevolent dictatorship. He/she who signs the checks, makes the rules.

You have two options in this case:  you roll with it as best you can and make suggestions to the benevolent leader(s) in a private, discreet way, or you try impose your thoughts, will, rule onto the situation in a more vocal and communal way.

You will lose on the latter path.  You may gain short-term concessions, but at what cost?  You do damage to yourself and to the functionality of the unit as a whole.  If one domino starts to lean, the others may not be too far behind.  It also puts any further (warranted) issues you might have in a slightly different light because of previous experiences.  It’s the ‘cry wolf’ thing.   When something really DOES need to be addressed, how does that get received when you’ve been a very squeaky wheel for the past week and a half?

If you are a travel-seasoned performer, you may hear something referenced as ‘the book of lies’.  This is what we call the tour itinerary.  I mentioned things like lobby call times, soundchecks, meet-and-greets, tear-downs, travel days earlier.  Your itinerary might even include local things of interest, telephone numbers, addresses, etc.  Some of it (alright, a fair bit of it) is accurate.  HOWEVER, it’s guaranteed that, no matter how smooth things go, there will be changes.  PARTICULARLY when it comes to lobby call times, soundchecks, tear-downs, and travel day stuff.  That’s why we call it ‘the book of lies.’  It’s a term of endearment.  Get used to changes.  That’s the one constant.

What gear are they providing?  
Gear is something that most musicians kind of freak out/geek out about. On tour, this is heightened for a variety of reasons.  You may not be in a position to bring your own stuff.  Maybe it’s a ‘kit du jour’ or a ‘kit du tour’ that has been rented for you.  Maybe you had a hand in writing up the tech rider for your group.  If you did, don’t assume that you’re going to get your first or second choice.  You might not even get your third choice.

How do you cope?

I have extra stuff I bring with me that I know is most crucial:  whether I’m on tour or doing a gig across town:

  • Cymbals (full set with an option of hats and crashes)
  • 2 snare drums
  • 2 bass drum pedals
  • 2 hi-hat clutches
  • 2 sets of snares
  • 2-6 strands of snare mounting cable (or tape, etc… your choice)
  • Drum keys
  • small cordless screwdriver with drum key bit
  • cymbal felts and sleeves
  • heads (particularly coated heads for snare…).
  • Stick bag (FULL of sticks, mallets, and brushes as needed)
  • Moongels (several containers)
  • Gaffers Tape (black and/or white)
  • Stand lights
  • batteries (various, depending on need)

This is probably the most important stuff.  A lot of it can fit in a fairly small case (a spare snare drum case is great for everything other than the bass drum pedal and cymbals).  Speaking of cases, if you don’t have high quality hard cases, get some.  Before you head out on tour.  Seriously.  I don’t want your favorite set of cymbals to get bent and turned inside out because you only had a soft case and the ‘friendly skies’ made you check it only to have the bruiser on the ground decide to put someone’s 80 lb. suitcase on top of them. You’ll figure out the best way to pack this stuff when it’s all in front of you.  It’s like 3D Tetris with stuff you actually care about.

Sound like overkill?  Maybe it is.  But, I can guarantee that you will feel better knowing you’ve got your gear and sundries together so you can get your sound (or close to it).  Keeping what you need close to you so you can have control of your instrument and your space when it’s show time is BIG. Having these little extras goes along way, especially on tour.  Just like on a local gig, having your musical instrument universe dialed in is absolutely essential.

If you are in the enviable position of having your gear travel with you, there are still the same kinds of issues to deal with.  Stuff breaks down.  But, if you are dealing with the ‘kit du jour’ for each venue, then you have to hope that it will get the job done and is in good shape.  This is where your own travel gear makes things easier to deal with.  It’s not ideal.  But at least you know your snare drum and cymbals are going to sound like you; your bass drum pedal is going to feel like you like it, and you have enough odds and ends to make things work.  I’ve had everything from DW Collectors Maple kits, to a Taye Studio Maple, to an older Yamaha Recording Custom kit, and a Gretsch Renown kit.  It’s all over the map. Whatever you can do to mitigate these variations, the happier you will be.

I typically run a 4-piece kit with 4-6 cymbals and a set (or 2) of hi hats.   Mics could be my own or supplied by the venue/theatre.  Again, this depends on space and if you’re traveling with a dedicated sound guy.  For myself, sound is VERY important to me.  It probably is for you too.  I know what I want the drums to sound like in my ears and how I would prefer to have them translate out in the house.  Whether it’s a small club or a large theatre, I know what I want the audience to experience and I often know how to get it.  But, many times all I can do is tune them up and play them well.  I need to work with the FOH (front of house) sound guy to give him the idea of what I’m looking for and seeing if/how he can help me achieve that goal.  Often they are working within the limitations of the acoustics of the hall/club and the sound system provided.  As with any other human interaction; be kind, not demanding.  Being demanding is a sure shot way to not make friends.  Discuss what you need clearly, diplomatically, and politely.  It works.  Trust me.

If you are traveling with your mics MAKE SURE you invest in a good case for all of them.  I had the situation recently where I brought out my mics for a tour run and a capsule for one of my overhead mics (a Rode NT5) got mangled.  I didn’t know about it until after the tour and while the offer to make things right was generously given, nothing every happened.  So, I replaced the capsule myself.  Now my stuff travels in a small hard shell mic case and I make sure that there’s something in writing that if anything is broken, it is replaced by the artist or touring group.

These are just some examples of things I (personally) have to remind myself I may have no control over: Gear (in many touring situations I find myself in) and the acoustics of the hall we are in (and the resulting sound the audience hears).  There are others that may be specific to the individual, but these are two big ones where you need to be flexible.

Time is on my side, yes it is (?)
Another instance where lack of control comes up (and were flexibility is tantamount) is on the most fundamental of levels: in regard to time. The very notion of time is somewhat ambiguous on tour… you roll by a different clock out of necessity and it’s almost always likely to change in some profound way.  If you’re flying and have a connection to catch, if you miss that connection, it pushes things and you need to deal with a whole host of changes and frustrations that you NEED to be able to roll with.  If you are bussing it (or vanning it) then any minor break down can create immense havoc.  Even stopping for gas can be a frustrating situation if you’re trying to keep things on a tight time frame and you’ve got to corral 15 people from the mini-mart back into the van (or bus) and get back out on the road. Carrying a trailer full of gear?  That’s going to add time because you can’t book it quite as fast.  How are you going to roll with that?

People respond to this stuff in various ways.   Some offer to drive.  That is the one instance where someone is able to maintain a certain level of control because they are responsible for getting the group from point A to point B.  This doesn’t make them the boss.  What it does is give them enough control over things so that they feel comfortable.  It may seem small if you read this, but think about it — would you rather drive or be driven? How about for 3 weeks with 14 other people (band/cast/crew)?  See what I mean?  If you like to be in control, driving is a great way to “feel like you’re in control” and function within the framework of the touring group.  Something else someone may offer to do is set-up merch, or be tour navigator (I typically do that) and guide (i.e. Julie the cruise director), etc… you get the idea.

To say there is downtime on tour is like saying water is wet.  Again, assessing your situation and being able to roll with the punches is going to be your best tactic to not blow a gasket and take yourself out of your zone to be the best musician you can be.

I’ve spent downtime on tour in every conceivable way – from meandering through the cobble stoned streets of Lisbon, Portugal or hanging at local drum shops, to being at the evening’s venue all day (where downtime was spent writing, practicing rudiments and transcribing drum music, etc.).  You might be arriving the same day you have to play so load in, soundcheck, food, etc. may all be happening before you can even get to your hotel room (if you are fortunate to HAVE hotel accommodations on your jaunt across the wild land and aren’t relying on the hospitality of friends or fans while on tour).  If you had any of those previously mentioned mechanical issues with the van or bus, or your flight got messed up… that adds to the stress.  You may be close or far away from any services, coffee shops, music stores, book stores… you may want to desperately get out of the theatre for a coffee, or to check out a new book, or even to get some fresh air and see what Skokie, IL is really like.  That may or may not be able to happen.

Routines help in these situations.  Like what?  Well, working out (remember those exercise bands I mentioned in the pack list?  These things are GREAT  – they take up very little room and are very functional), a cup of tea and some meditation, practicing (ticky tack on the drum pad… usually far away from everyone else), crosswords or Sudoku (I have NO idea how to play the latter, by the way) can be beneficial.  Should you be the sort; you can also take advantage of a VAST array of apps for your ‘smartphone’ to stay connected to friends, family, etc. with any number of diversions, games, etc.

Other discretionary or alone time may be harder to come by.  You may find it difficult (or, impossible) to maintain your normal in-town routine.  There’s that control thing again.  If you can’t roll with it, you’re going to find yourself in a certain level of duress.  If that makes you hugely uncomfortable, then you may need to consider whether said tour is worth it or not.  If it is, then you need to figure out how to work it out for yourself.  Remember, the decisions made 3 months before a tour starts are not made to single you out or put you in duress. They are made based on the experiences of the one scheduling the dates, the limitations and expectations presented by each venue, and what makes the most economical and tactical sense to create the best situation for everyone.  A friend recently said ‘you can’t take tour logistic stuff too personally because you weren’t considered personally’.  I take that to mean the following:  tours are not created around one person.  They are created around the art itself and what is required to get that art across in the most professional (and, admittedly, cost efficient) way possible so you wind up seeing your artistic vision through.  Economically, it’s about being able to come out ahead and all parties involved being happy with the art and commerce of things so the venue WANTS you back.

So, if you are in the camp of folks that, on some level, are control freaks, allow me to offer some suggestions to alleviate some of your duress:

  • Take on the role of the person who’s making the decisions (tour manager) if your organizational skills are top notch and you’re good with people
  • Be an assistant to the tour manager or whoever else is calling the shots.

If you aren’t in one of those positions and ARE a person that needs that level of control, figure out what you need to do to be mellow and chill (as you can) and roll with things so you have a successful and fun tour.  Here are some things you can consider:

  • Be a designated driver or navigator
  • Be ‘Julie the cruise director’ – a diversion researcher that can give ideas for things to do if you have down time to kill
  • Pack a lot of books to read so you can leave the world you are in for a while and escape in a good story.
  • Interested in blogging, journalling, or photography?  Now’s your chance to start.
  • Get physical.  Whether it’s weights, bands, yoga, Tai Chi, etc… you’ve got options to stay calm and carry on.

Of course, there will be blow ups.  You WILL lose your cool once in a while.  You will be annoyed with a bandmate for something.  It will happen.  So, be prepared for it and let it (to the best of your ability) roll off your back.  It’s typically not going to be about you, but rather the situation they find themselves in with you.  You are ALL on tour.  You are ALL going to have to deal with the same stuff.  You are ALL going to have to help each other out.  You ALL need to remember what you’re out there for.

The Final Analysis (well, for now, anyway)
Of late I’ve had so many epiphany type moments where, no matter where I wind up, I’m struck at how lucky I truly am.  I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been on really nice tours by most standards… with decent hotel rooms, good meals, excellent company, and super talented people.  You’re plying your craft and art to people that may not have ever heard of you before that night, but they will remember you.  They will be appreciative of your efforts.  They may even want to buy you a drink.  Be kind.  This is a BIG thing for a lot of people that go out to see shows.  Think about how much you love music as a musician.  That same level of enthusiasm, zeal, love, passion, and desire is also within a concert goer.  If they are already a fan of your music, that’s doubled because now they get to see ‘their band’ playing in their home town.  This is amazing when you think about it.

Why?  Simple.  You have the opportunity to make someone’s week, or month, or year by your visit.  Ultimately that is what music is all about.  Connecting.  Bringing joy to others through the gifts you have fostered, tweaked, and nurtured through your journey on this planet.  So, again, be kind (even if you’ve had a crap day – they still paid their hard earned to see you and, as such, they are going to want a piece of you.  Whether that’s an autograph, a drink, a picture, or just to talk to you at the merch table).  This is just as much a part of the gig as the actual playing of the music.

What do you get?  Well, at the very least you get the experience of being on tour and playing to new audiences, in places you may never have known existed prior.  You get exposure for your music.  You (hopefully) grow and understand new things about yourself.  Yes, touring exposes things we need to work on with our instruments and with ourselves.  These are great lessons if you are willing to listen and learn from them.  Hopefully you also return home with enough bread to keep the lights on until the next trip out. In the final analysis, I consider that a great success and a true honor.  I’ve often said that I didn’t pick music, it picked me.  What a wonderful set of experiences then that I’ve been able to accrue as a result. Whether I’m out with Vox Lumiere, Uncle Daddy, Circe Link, or any one of the many other artists I work with; it all only adds to the rich stew that is my life as a professional musician.

Pack well.  Play well.  Experience well.  See you out there.  Dig?

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