Drum Tips From The Road
With our new CD, Population, hot off the press, and with the backing of Yaris and Arts & Crafts, we hit the road last October for a two-month mega-tour across Canada and the US. Covering 36 cities and 41 shows in a record 62 days, the eight of us, including our merch guy, Andrew, traveled mightily by van, equipment hitched to a trailer, and spirits high.
We had some long drives, ate a lot of fast food, and stayed at some remote Econolodges along the way, but we also had some amazing experiences. Drumming on tour is exhilarating, but it’s also a test of stamina–loading in and out, keeping your limbs energized, and keeping it all creative. Here’s my view of our journey with coast-to-coast drum tips along the way.
New York And The Maritimes–Warming Pp
Our first show was at The Bowery Ballroom, New York, for the CMJ Festival. We were on a multiple band bill and on form. Eating Rosario’s famous pizza before the show did the trick. The Bowery Ballroom is known for its great sound, and this time was no exception. Great monitoring, great instrument separation, and my drums came through crystal clear. The crowd was attentive, but not super engaged. We weren’t surprised–New York audiences, after all, are over-saturated with good music.
TIP: Practice on a practice pad in a quiet place before a show to clear your head. Then do the opposite–play along with the band that’s on right before you. This will get you in synch with the mood/atmosphere of the show.
Our next show was at Arlene Grocery in New York. Billy Bragg, a popular folk singer/spoken-word guitarist, went on before us. The venue was very basic in terms of space, equipment, and atmosphere. For this show, we played a short and unusual set. For smaller shows, we usually mix things up a bit and try out our less-played songs. We played to a crowd of about 30 in contrast to the 150 at the Bowery the night before.
TIP: Attach your practice pad to your snare drum stand. Balancing it on your lap is haphazard and you won’t be in your natural drumming position. If you can, pick up a Beatnik practice pad–it’s a stroke accuracy measuring device that can also act as a regular practice pad.
After this afternoon show, we headed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to play at The Marquee as part of the Halifax Pop Explosion festival. The bill for this show also included Young Galaxy and Apostle Of Hustle–all on Arts & Crafts. The show went well, we played tight, and the stage gave us ample room to set up and move. We did a CBC interview before we went onstage. We played our usual 45-minute set and got a great response from the crowd. Thank you, Halifax!
TIP: Stretching before a show is VITAL, and also before warming-up. Massage your arms and legs, working from the large muscles down to the smaller ones. I also use a stress ball–it warms up the fingers, wrists, and forearms. If you can, find a mirror to practice with. It helps you to analyze your drum mechanics and aids you with your ergonomics.
Next stop–Fredericton, New Brunswick. We played a little bar called The Capitol, and from past experience, we knew the stage was tiny. The crowd of 100 made up for it, though, with their large, loud presence. This was the first show we played with the band Mother Mother, who, along with Dragonette, would be opening for us until we hit Vancouver.
On October 20, we went back to Halifax to play our second Halifax Pop Explosion show, an afternoon all-ages event. The room was a cavernous space with cement walls–extra loud, terribly echoey, and I was hearing my drums and the vocals about a half second late. This was annoying, but I ignored it by using my muscle memory for the songs. The kids just sort of stood there–all-ages crowds are always pretty awkward. It was a tight show though, once the room filled up.
TIP: Warming up with heavier, bigger, and thicker sticks is a good idea, but as Jojo Mayer says in Secrets For The Modern Drummer, it can have a negative effect on speed, agility, and dexterity. So work on different muscles by practicing with different-sized sticks.
Our next show was in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where we played with the band Small Sins. This was by far our smallest show of the tour, but I liked the intimate space. When the crowd is tightly packed, there’s no excess reverb, and if the amplification isn’t too loud, you can hear more of the other instruments and your acoustic drum hits. After this show, we drove back to New Brunswick, the first part of our marathon 17-hour drive back to Toronto.
TIP: Maximize the time you have for warming up. It’s surprising how much time you gain if you cut out all the pre-show stuff like unfocused stick wanking while chatting randomly with the audience!
Eastern Canada–Getting Show-Ready
On October 23, we played MTV Live in Toronto. We arrived in the early afternoon and discovered that the sound check was a full dress rehearsal. They put a glass barrier in front of my drumkit. I thought there’d be a slap-back echo, but the reverb was only barely noticeable and I went into muscle memory whenever I heard it. We had to go over the songs twice–once for sound and then to get the camera angles right. This was an interesting experience for us–it’s a different ball game when you’re playing for TV, online, or radio.
The Ale House in Kingston, Ontario, was our next stop. We had a big stage to play on, played our usual set, and did an encore because the crowd (about 60 strong) made a lot of noise for us. There was a cozy band room in the basement of the venue, where we hung out with Mother Mother and Dragonette.
Next up was the Mod Club show in Toronto, on October 25–our most important show to date. This was our home city and our unofficial CD release party. Our musical guests included a saxophonist, a string quartet, and a trumpeter who played on our album. Everyone played well, but there was a lot going on sonically at once. It got so loud and muddy at one point that I had to go back to my muscle memory playing, which is not enjoyable for me–it’s just pure necessity. The venue was packed to capacity, the crowd was enthusiastic, and we sold a lot of merch. A highlight for me was when we nailed our song “Compliance.”
TIP: There’s no hiding when you’re playing for TV, radio, and online. All of the instruments go through direct feeds and are mixed and recorded from there. In a bar, you can hide your small mistakes, but with media performances, your playing is put under a magnifying glass.
The next day found us at Le Gymnase in Montreal. We had to lug our equipment up three massive flights of stairs, but we put on a killer show thanks in part to eating a large real-food dinner about three hours before we went on. This was a more intimate venue, and we had to play on a smaller stage–both good factors for playing out. Two drum students from McGill came up to me after the show to talk about our tour–they mentioned that I was one of their favorite drummers. Amazing—there’s nothing better than great feedback after a show.
Then off to Ottawa, to Zaphod Beeblebrox, where we played to a crowd of about 80. Ironically, during our song “Compliance,” a fight in the crowd threatened to bring everything to a halt, but it passed without anyone getting hurt. We were tight as a group, but onstage, there was sonic confusion. My first tom mic was way too loud in my monitor, creating lop-sided drum dynamics. I had to go on cruise control. Our resilience paid off, though, because the crowd said the sound was great from their side.
TIP: Do finger syncopation exercises as part of your warm up. Piano players do these a lot. Rest your hands on a table and start tapping your pinky fingers, then your ring fingers, and so on until you’re tapping your thumbs. Then do it again in reverse and add tapping your feet. Pick a tempo and meter that you like. You’ll soon be warmed up for the show.
After two merciful days off, we headed to The Casbah in Hamilton. The crowd was receptive, drunk, and energetic, and we ended up doing an encore. “Shopping Cart People” is a great song to open an encore with because it comes in with this powerful mid-tempo 4/4 beat that gets everyone pumped. Also, the song starts with a drum solo, so the rest of the members can gradually amble onstage.
TIP: It’s a good thing to leave a bit of relaxation time between warming up and going on stage. This is the trick–warm up, relax, meditate, focus, then psyche yourself up.
The University of Guelph, Ontario, was next on the bill. The hall had pretty decent acoustics, and we were on a stage about four feet off the floor. I like playing on drum risers because I don’t have to move my drumkit to accommodate the other band members. The Guelph crowd was amazing–loud, energetic, and willing to give back just as much as we put out. One guy climbed onstage and started headbanging, flashing the devil rock hands, and doing the Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” thing. We had to kindly ask him to leave the stage. I felt really good behind the kit on this night–relaxed, energized, focused, and chops-filled. I don’t really know what to attribute this to. It’s something intangible–like everything was aligned in the right way. Even our sound guy, Ryan Mills, said I was on fire for the show and played like a monster. The crowd went wild at the end and demanded an encore.
Our next show was at The Salt Lounge in London, Ontario. The stage was set up in the corner of the room, and, with a wall on both sides and the amps lined up in front of me, I could hear my drums acoustically pretty well. My dad joined us onstage for “You’re Not An Astronaut,” his wailing tenor sax adding a jazz-proggy feel to the song. But the highlight had to be Adrian, our lead vocalist, jumping into/onto my kit, limbs flailing, a la Kurt Cobain. He set the tone for the show, which was all “high energy” and enthusiasm filled.
TIP: Find random everyday objects to play on–it’ll enhance your creativity. What’s more, it’ll improve your ability to make music anywhere and everywhere, out of almost nothing.
We then headed to the L3 lounge/bar in St. Catherines. I had a drum riser again, except this time it didn’t work to my advantage. My playing was going over everybody’s heads (no pun intended), so it seemed detached from the rest of the band. Anything over a foot and a half means that you often lose the group dynamic that makes a show special. We were tight for this show, but unfortunately, the crowd was flat. Kudos to the one guy who danced a lot. He was the only one moving!
Central Canada–Cruise Control
On November 9, we played the Pyramid Cabaret in Winnipeg to a crowd of 60. This venue had high ceilings and a large stage. The show went fairly well. My monitoring mix was sub-par, so I settled into my own groove, relaxed, and turned on my muscle memory.
TIP: Practice playing on awkward, slightly broken drumkits whenever you can, because that’s what you might just end up with onstage. Learn to adjust your playing style and ergonomics on the spot. It’ll make you a more adaptable and effective drummer on tour, and a more resilient musician in general.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was our next gig, at Amigo’s restaurant. We went on stage at 1:00 a.m., so the small crowd was tired and not willing to give us much energy back. It was a tough show. We rifled through the set, and played decently. Our band room was a small vacant apartment above the venue. It was great because we got some needed space and silence.
Then off the following day to play The Exchange in Regina. This show went really well for us–the monitoring was pretty decent, and we had a loud and very responsive crowd. I felt that was one of my best shows of the tour so far.
TIP: If you’re finding it very loud onstage, you need to rely on muscle memory (cruise control). Practice this by recording yourself playing a beat from one of your songs. Let your mind intentionally wander while you’re playing, so your main focus is no longer the beat. Then, after a few bars, return your focus to the beat. If you’re not lost, and if you kept on playing smoothly, then it’s pretty safe to say that you know the song well enough to rely on muscle memory.
The next stop was Red Deer, Alberta, at The Vat. This was another tough night. We had to wait forever for the sound guy, and then, to our amazement, he bailed halfway through Mother Mother’s set. Fortunately, Dragonette’s sound guy stepped in and finished off the night for us. Oddly enough, we had a great crowd when we did finally get on stage–they were small but wild. Our lead singer, Adrian, even surfed the crowd during “Compliance”–that’s right, the 30 had morphed themselves into a mosh pit, headbanging and having a good time.
TIP: If your drums aren’t miked well, you need to play louder and more deliberately. If you’re tastefully loud, then you can get away with it without compromising the songs. Still create dynamics, but don’t feel the need to drop way down.
Our next show was at the Canmore Hotel in Canmore. As expected for a venue like this, we played to a dull, small crowd–maybe 25 people or so. Nevertheless, we put on our game faces and delivered a solid show.
Another day’s driving brought us to Calgary, Alberta. Our show at Broken City was solid and tight, with a crowd that sang the words of our songs back to us. Our monitoring was good for this show. Broken City has a lounge feel to it, with chic couches and chairs lining the walls.
TIP: You can develop good song ideas out of segue or sound check jams. We had at least five segue jams during the tour that turned into strong show segments. In contrast to ideas created at home, ideas created on the road are usually full of experience and momentum.
Then—on to Edmonton and The Starlight Lounge on November 17. The stage here was massive, about seven feet high, and I felt like I was hanging from the ceiling! Our music floated over everyone in the crowd. I’d never played a venue like this before. We had really good monitoring. Usually, in my monitor, I like to have a bit of the lead vocals, a bit of bass, a bit of keys, and a bit of snare, bass drum, and hi hat. For my bass drum, I like to have it as a mid-eq thud, with the bass-y booms and sharp highs taken out of the mix. We had a great, responsive crowd of more than 100.
TIP: Integrating double bass drum in a song should be tasteful and natural. In “Shopping Cart People,” the original drum part uses many 16th-note flourishes, usually occurring as four in a row at the end of bars, which are in 4/4. The song is played at about a quarter note = 150 b.p.m. Since the hands are already doing these 16t-note flourishes, why can’t the feet respond in a call & answer or trade-offs style? This is the concept that I keep in mind for this song.
Pacific Canada And U.S.–Sane In The Membrane
On November 19, we played The Central Hotel in Fernie, British Columbia. We loaded our equipment into the bar, set it up, loaded our bags into our rooms, and then did our sound check. The stage was very small, bringing back memories of Fredericton and Charlottetown. We played well, but the crowd wasn’t really into it, so we used the space to come up with some interesting segue song ideas instead, doing straight-ahead bebop jazz, some Latin, and some ethereal-prog-fusion.
Next up was Kelowna, British Columbia, at a lounge venue called Habitat. We had a good crowd of at least 80 on this night, really up for hearing some live music. We played our regular set, did an encore, and then headed off the following day by ferry boat to Victoria. This was a beautiful journey for us. We ended up playing a tight show at a large bar called Sugar. The crowd was decent and the sound on stage was solid.
TIP: Don’t eat anything heavy or gassy before a gig, and not too close to showtime either, or you’ll regret it onstage. A decent eating rhythm is especially important for drummers, as our job is so physical.
By the 22nd, we were back on the mainland, playing the Plaza Club in Vancouver City. This venue was big, comparable to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, where we’d be playing later in the tour. The sound guy gave our monitor mixes special attention, and the 50-strong crowd pumped up our energy by clapping along with a syncopated rhythm in our song “Phages.” This would be our last Canadian stop of the tour.
We arrived in L.A. four days later and began by exploring Sunset Boulevard. The next night, we played the Echoplex. This was the first of two shows with our label-mates Los Campesinos. We opened the night and received some good recognition from the crowd. We worked very hard for this show, wanting our first appearance in L.A. to be solid.
TIP: Stay as healthy as you can on the road. Whenever you can, eat some baby carrots, have an apple, enjoy a fresh sandwich, and—sleep.
The following night was the best venue for us all tour–the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The room had amazing acoustics, it was very big, there was a whole crew in place to assist us, we had great meals, and we had our own band room. We would open again for Los Campesinos. We felt confidant, relaxed, and loved the enthusiastic crowd of about 100. Thanks, San Francisco!
After that, we headed to Seattle to play a bar called Nectar. This was a free show, the only one on the tour, and as a result, we had a patchy crowd. We made the best of it, though, and got some famous Seattle coffee before the show to lift our spirits. Our band space was a trailer in the alleyway behind the venue–pretty cold, too.
Our next show was in Portland, Oregon, at Berbati’s, a nice bar. The Portland people were really hospitable, and one of the opening bands turned up with donuts from this famous place near the venue. We had a small but enthusiastic crowd, and everyone stayed till the end. One fan said he’d traveled a few hours to see us play–it really lifted our spirits.
TIP: Find some alone time on the road–read a book, work on your musical ideas, bring a laptop, or just look out the window and be in your own thoughts for a while. This gives you a break from the stresses of touring and from the people you’re touring with.
Central U.S.–Even Saner Still
On December 4 we played an all-ages show at Kilby’s Court in Salt Lake City. This was an odd experience. The directions led us to a fence door at the end of an alleyway on the outskirts of town. Scribbled on a faded, peeling sign were the words Kilby’s Court. We thought it was a practical joke by our label, but we knocked on the door anyway. The person who opened it announced himself as our sound guy and invited us in…I mean invited us “out”—to see the venue. To our surprise, we saw a backyard with a bonfire ablaze in the centre. There was a small makeshift drink hut and, at the back, a greenhouse for Andrew to sell our Ts and things. And then there was this garage space–our stage.
The opening band had cancelled, so we had the evening to ourselves. The show turned out to be fun in a makeshift sort of way. We had a crowd of about 50, and they were enthusiastic as hell. This was a very organic show, a back-to-the-basics of what it means to play and experience music.
TIP: Hang onto shows that go over well for you and your band–remember them whenever you have a not-so-good show. And don’t be discouraged because of a poorly executed or uninspired gig. Just ride the unpredictable wave of live music, work hard, and stay on board.
When we finished our eccentric Kilby’s Court gig, we headed off to Denver for our next show at the Larimer Lounge, a mid-sized venue with a stage at the back that was about two feet off the ground. No band room for this venue. To escape the loud noise, we just hung out in the tour van for a while. We put on a solid show for about 30 people. I chatted with a fan after the show, another valiant soul who had traveled some hours to see us.
TIP: Maintaining a balanced, centered core is essential in a show. If this is off, you’ll have timing, coordination, speed, and power problems. You shouldn’t have to reach too far for any part of your main kit. Without strain, there’s more creative gain (cheesy, but true).
Our December 7 show was at Slowdown in Omaha, Nebraska. By this point, we were traveling and playing about one state a day. This was a fairly large venue, with a raised stage, a chic bar, and a pool table. We played to a small but receptive crowd. Ryan and I extended the jam passages between songs just to see where we could take them. We ended up having a straight-up jazz jam and a handful of mixed fusion jams too.
TIP: Bowling is great for shaking off tour nerves. So is pool or billiards. It challenges your mind, it’s social, and it goes down great with beer.
Next up was The Beat Kitchen in Chicago. With a crowd of 150, this was our most attended show, apart from the Mod Club. The atmosphere was electric and the crowd was loud, dancing, and up to enjoying the music. We played our best set of the tour this night. We were pumped and energized by the crowd and by the fact that this was one of our last stops on the tour. We played the longest set we could and then got forced by the crowd to do an encore. Don’t get me wrong, we really wanted to do one, but they wouldn’t let us out of the show room until we’d gone back on. It got intense. But, we needed this sorely because many of our previous shows were lacking this kind of vibrancy. Thanks, Chicago!
East Coast U.S.–Locking In
On December 10 we arrived in Pittsburgh to play the Garfield Artworks, a long, narrow art and performance space with a stage at the back. They had a wonderful Thai meal waiting for us. It was a modest show in terms of promotion and turnout, but one of the fans came up to us after the show to say that we’d exceeded his expectations and that seeing us live was terrific. This was really nice to hear, especially at this advanced point in the tour.
TIP: When playing live, lock in first with the vocalist, then with the bassist. The rest of the group will follow suit.
Our next show was in Washington, D.C., at the Rock & Roll Hotel. This show turned out to be really tight–the acoustics were great and the sound guy gave us amazing monitor mixes. The next day, we drove to Philadelphia to play at the North Star. Our stage was about six feet off the floor and almost totally overlapped by a balcony where some of the crowd watched our set–others watched on the ground level. They were all receptive, but a bit reserved. We topped off the show with a famous Philadelphia tradition–Philly cheese steak!
TIP: I had some nerves before and during our Mod Club show in Toronto. Whenever I feel this way onstage, I play my parts as simply as possible–no fills or frills, just the meat and potatoes. This should also kick in your muscle memory and let you play out again.
Brooklyn, New York was next on the agenda, at Southpaw. I played well on this stage, the acoustics were good, and our set went great. The 40-strong crowd was really into it. We ripped through our set and came on to do an encore.
Contrary to our previous experiences, the crowd at New York’s Mercury Lounge the following night was ecstatic and made a lot of noise for us. They’re usually hard to impress, but on this night, we got ’em! We played our full set, did an encore, and had plenty of congratulations after. We played some interesting segue jams on this night, combining mid-tempo “high-register on the piano” ethereal progressions with upbeat Steve Gadd syncopated marching band/funk grooves. This was a near perfect show for us because we pretty much nailed every song–this was one to hang on to!
TIP: What do you do when you hit a stamina roadblock? Try channeling one of your favorite drummers–it worked for me. When I did this on tour, I found that my power, confidence, and energy returned. For me, I thought of greats like Antonio Sanchez, Brian Blade, and Steve Gadd.
The all-ages show the next day at The Loft in Poughkeepsie, New York, was weird for us because the audience was an odd mix of parents, teenage girls, and suburban guys. The first opening act reminded us of a Grade 9 high school—cafeteria talent show. We couldn’t understand why we got on this billing. After another opening act, we finally went on, played a shortened set, and left. In these situations, we just play for ourselves and for the people in the crowd that are digging our music.
TIP: “When you practice, you think, and when you perform, you react.” I like this quote. It means getting the thinking and analyzing done beforehand, so when you go onstage, you have your subconscious on your side as much as possible and you won’t be scratching your head, wondering what went wrong–or right, for that matter!
Our last show of the tour, on December 16, was at the Middle East in Boston. The opening band was On Fire, playing ambient jam-band prog rock. I liked them and quickly made friends with the bassist, Tom. We chatted about jazz, its diverse and eclectic scenes, and our favorite jazz musicians–Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Brian Blade, et al. We liked this show and felt it was a fitting finale to our tour. Besides, we adore Boston. Earlier on in the day, we did an interview and songs for a local radio station and had a serious fix of coffee with legendary Boston cream donuts. Pretty Canadian, eh?
The following day we headed back to Toronto, feeling good about the tour, but exhausted. Many experiences, positive and negative, had turned us into better musicians, and most importantly, better people. Hopefully this piece of writing has been helpful for some, and simply a good read for others.
For more on Tony visit his website here. Tony Nesbitt-Larking Photo by Blythe Dresser. Band shot by Victor Tavares.