How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Van
This article originally ran in the October 2005 issue of Modern Drummer magazine. For access to all of the great editorial from MD’s first twenty-six years of publication, check out our Digital Archive.
by Jon Wurster
As I flailed away behind my drums that chilly London evening in the early spring of 1996, I tried to put the events of the previous month in perspective. The club was packed and the crowd was rocking; it was a nice way for Superchunk to end a grueling six-week European tour. I was feeling pretty positive at that moment, but I sure hadn’t been a few days earlier. In the tour’s final week, our guitar tech punched out our soundman; the drummer for the band we were touring with punched a wall—shattering his hand—and I punched a meth-crazed Norwegian fan who tried to undo our bassist’s tuning pegs mid-song. They say the road drives people to extremes…and we were living proof. Had these incidents occurred on my first tour, back in 1991, chances are I might have declined tour number two. But by this point my bandmates and I were hardened road warriors, unfazed by the dazzling highs and crushing lows that go hand in hand with touring.
I remember, as a teenager, reading an MD article written by then–Black Sabbath drummer Bev Bevan, describing his typical day on the road. While Bevan’s piece was a great glimpse into the life of a world-class, arena-rocking, limo-riding band, hardly anything in it prepared me for what I’d soon be experiencing on the road in my own much smaller-time rock combos. Hopefully this article will offer up-and-coming drummers a taste of what to expect on their first low-budget tour. Hell, it might just dissuade you from doing it altogether!
“Most people find out on their first tour whether or not it’s something they enjoy,” says Kevin March, the drummer for the recently retired Guided by Voices, who’s currently playing with the Bloodthirsty Lovers. “Either you can handle the ups and downs, or you can’t.”
Unlike your day job, touring is a 24/7 proposition. It requires a “go with the flow” attitude and strong coping skills. If you prepare yourself mentally and physically and have realistic expectations, you should have smooth sailing. “Expect the absolute worst set of circumstances in all areas: food, sleep, van trouble, band trouble, and sickness,” says Atom Willard of the Offspring. “Then, when only some of that stuff happens, you will be having the time of your life.”
Although you’ll be visiting a new city each day, your daily routine will remain pretty much the same. If your tour is anything like the ones I’ve been on, the day will unfold something like this….
In a perfect world you would have been roused by the gentle ring of your hotel’s prearranged wake-up call. But since your tour budget most likely precludes the possibility of hotel rooms, you slept on someone’s floor and you’re up because their cat is standing on your chest. It’s a universal fact that 90 percent of the kind folks who put you up will have cats, and chances are at least one of your bandmates is allergic to them. Do that person a favor and make sure you ask your host if he or she has cats. (Luckily I’m not allergic to them. I am, however, allergic to overflowing litter boxes, having slept just feet away from them on several occasions.)
Hopefully you behaved yourself last night and are not hungover—or, worse, sick. Unfortunately, if one band member gets a cold, most likely everyone else will catch it. Make sure you have a good supply of cold medicines, cough syrups, and pain relievers (and Band-Aids if you haven’t yet developed a good set of calluses on your fingers). Bring a bag of earplugs as well. In addition to protecting your ears from hi-end cymbal damage, they’ll make your bass player’s jackhammer snoring easier to deal with.
Four band members + three housemates + one bathroom = a bunch of frustrated people sitting around waiting to take a shower. It might not be the most hygienic thing to do, but I always shower just before going to sleep. Sure, in the morning my hair looks like I just spent several hours in a cement mixer, but it’s worth it to avoid getting involved in the inevitable “Hey, I was next in line!” arguments. If you’re a morning-only bather, bring an alarm clock and set it so you can be the first one in the bathroom.
If you’re lucky, your host will be trusting and let you leave when you want. If you met him at closing time, chances are he doesn’t have a job that demands an early punch-in. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Once, in Toronto, Superchunk stayed with a fan who was also an elementary school teacher. New levels of crankiness were reached when, at 7 a.m. after a measly four hours of sleep, our host informed us it was time to scram. Ouch.
Take a moment to go through your pockets before leaving the house, especially if you have a border crossing that day. I learned the importance of this the moment I reached into the pocket of a sweater I’d just worn on a flight from Sydney to Tokyo and discovered a big ol’ joint. Turns out our Australian promoter’s brother had been wearing my sweater while I’d been out and had forgotten he’d left a little something special in the pocket. The gods were surely smiling on me that day as I went through notoriously drug-tough Japanese customs.
It might not be as instantly gratifying as a Hardee’s Thickburger, but try a salad or something comparable for lunch; your body will thank you. “As drummers, we need to be in the best shape physically and mentally,” March explains. “But on the road it’s almost impossible, especially if you travel in a van and play late into the night. In an ideal touring world we could eat healthy food, but you’re usually on a time constraint, and the only option is fast food.”
Try your best not to partake of all of those deliciously enticing snacks at the convenience stores you’ll be visiting during your haul. “The junk food in the gas stations and convenience stores can really wear you down,” says Descendents/All/Only Crime drummer Bill Stevenson. That Peanut Buster Parfait you just inhaled may have tasted like heaven going down, but an hour later you’ll most likely be wishing you had eaten a banana instead.
Music Store Search
Your hi-hat clutch and your snare drum head went belly-up last night, so you need to get new ones. Since it’s noon and you’re in Columbus, Ohio, you can just drive over to Columbus Percussion and restock. If you had had to leave at 9 a.m. it would have been another story. I can’t tell you how many times on early tours some crucial piece of gear would get broken and we’d have to leave the next day before the local music store opened. I’d spend a large portion of the day’s drive fretting over whether there’d be a store near the club and whether it would still be open when we got to town. Sure, I could probably borrow something from the guy/girl from the opening band, but what if they don’t even have a drummer? It’s happened.
Space is obviously limited in a van, but try to bring as many spare sticks, heads, and easily breakable/losable hardware parts (clutches, drum keys, felts, washers, wing nuts, etc.) as possible. A few years ago in Glasgow, Scotland, I was caught with my pants down when the twine that held the snares to the strainer broke on both my main and spare snare drums. I made it through the show thanks to a huge roll of duct tape (make sure to bring at least one of these too) but later realized I hadn’t thought to bring any extra twine. Guess who was standing in the freezing rain at 9:45 the next morning waiting for an elderly man to open his drum-and-bugle shop? Guess who paid approximately $10 for a couple strands of space-age super-strength twine that took three people thirty profanity-filled minutes to attach to his drum?
If you’re in a band that’s getting some decent press, it would behoove you to check into procuring an endorsement deal with stick, head, and cymbal companies. You’ll still have to pay for your supplies (usually much less than retail), but as an endorser you’ll benefit from one particularly handy perk: overnight shipping direct from the company’s factory or headquarters. Many times the fine folks at Regal Tip, Sabian, Paiste, and Aquarian have saved the day by shipping gig-saving products to me at the next day’s venue.
Get Lost on the Way Out of Town
“Learn to read a map real well,” Stevenson says when asked what key advice he would impart to a young touring band. Don’t assume the guy with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force tattoo whom you met at the coffee shop this morning knows his ass from his elbow when it comes to the highways and byways of his burgh. If the person you’re asking for directions ever uses the phrase “beyond the old water tower,” thank him for his time and move on.
Drive…and Drive…and Drive…
If you don’t like being behind the wheel, there will most likely be at least one member of your band who needs to. All the bands I’ve ever toured with had one person who did the bulk of the driving; it’s one small way for them to be in control of a situation where nobody is truly in control due to the glut of unforeseen circumstances that can/will arise. One of those problems usually has to do with the van itself. “The van breaking down is the worst thing on any tour,” Stevenson says. If you can swing it, take out a loan and buy a recent model. That’s what Superchunk did, and from early ’92 to 2000 we criss-crossed America countless times with only two breakdowns. Make sure you have AAA Plus; with it you get up to a hundred miles’ free towing.
There’s another kind of breakdown that you should be aware of: the kind that results from musicians sharing five- to eight-hour drives in extremely close quarters. Understanding your bandmates’ quirks and peeves is paramount to getting along; so is not holding grudges. “If you’ve got three or more people crammed together in a van, everybody’s going to piss somebody off sooner or later,” says Dave Hartman, drummer for Southern Culture on the Skids. “If you take every slight—real or perceived—and make an issue of it, you’re going to be fighting all the time.”
Load In, Soundcheck, Wait
If you’re lucky, there will be someone from the club there to let you in. Often that isn’t the case, though, and you will find yourself twiddling your thumbs waiting for the white, dreadlocked sound guy (mark my words) to come riding up on his bike forty minutes later, cursing his roommate for not getting him up at 4 p.m. like he promised.
It’s under these seemingly innocuous circumstances that one’s mettle is truly tested. Three weeks into a six-week tour, something so small as a late sound person or the addition of a third band to your show can really seem huge. I’m ashamed to say that just last October I put my foot through a wall in a club in Nottingham, England, because of a series of minor annoyances (and one major traumatic event that I’ll get to later). “Let go of trying to control your experiences,” March says. “The whole purpose of going on the road with your band is to play music for the fans, enrich your soul, and learn from the unexpected events.” Be able to see the humor in all of it, as I struggled to do when I received word that the uninvited Norse bass tech mentioned in paragraph one could not be ejected from the club because he actually lived in it.
Once you’re inside and set up, give your gear a solid once-over, making sure that everything is in good working condition. I mentioned my spare snare earlier. If you’re a hard hitter, you must have one—no matter how crappy it sounds. You’ll be glad you’ve got it when the bottom head on your main snare breaks during your second song. Same goes for bass drum pedals: Bring a backup.
This part of the day is where time really slows to a crawl. It’s that period between setting up your kit and waiting for the sound person to get all the mics and cables plugged in. You’ll be surprised by how excruciatingly long this can take. Since a person can only explore the dark, dank recesses of a rock club for so long, ask the engineer how long he’ll be and go check out the neighborhood.
But Be Careful
In these post 9/11 times, the Man is watching. My hobby of taking pictures of odd signs and buildings has been kiboshed because it now looks, well, very suspicious. The traumatic event hinted at earlier occurred in London two days before I put my foot through that innocent wall in Nottingham. On the day of Marah’s U.K. arrival, I made a pilgrimage to Essex Studios (Never Mind the Bollocks, London Calling, Pretenders) and began taking a few snapshots of the building, which was located directly across an alley from an elementary school playground that was teeming with curious kids. The children grilled me about what I was doing and where I was from, and I chatted amiably with them for a few minutes. One of the kids even asked me to take his picture. You can probably guess where this is headed. Minutes later I’m up against the wall, with two cops grilling me on why I’m taking pictures of children. Turns out a concerned neighbor called the law on me. Luckily, I was able to explain what I was doing, and after a call to Interpol to check for priors and a quick look through my digital camera, I was let go. Scariest moment of my life, hands down.
Never, under any circumstances, agree to an all-you-can-eat shrimp-eating contest before a show. I made this mistake once, just an hour and a half before a show in Phoenix, and suffered the consequences during the gig. Talk about a lethargic performance. “Eat a light meal one to two hours before you’re scheduled to play,” March says. “You’ll play better and have more energy.”
Prepare for the Show
If you sweat a lot when you drum, make sure to bring a towel and a set of “gig clothes.” I’m not talking about a sequined jumpsuit (unless that’s what you’re into), just some things you don’t mind getting soaked every night. I played over a hundred shows last year—every one of them in the same white Levi’s and short-sleeved, button-down shirt. (Yes, I tried to rinse them out whenever possible.) I should point out that the fewer clothes you wear, the less stuff you’ll have to worry about drying out overnight. (If they don’t dry out, you’ll be taking the stage the next night in uncomfortably damp clothes—not fun.) In Superchunk I wear only pants, shirt, and sneakers—no socks, and (uh-oh) no underwear.
Stretch your legs, arms, hands, neck, etc., for ten minutes before playing, no matter how uncool you think it looks. Sometimes the size of the dressing room (or lack of one) makes warming up impossible. If so, go behind the club and do it; it’ll save you the embarrassment of dropping a stick mid-tune because your forearm cramped up. I took up yoga a couple years ago and have found it very beneficial to my drumming. I bring my mat with me and do fifteen to twenty minutes each morning while my bandmates laugh at me.
Easy on the hooch, Clyde. As drummer, your role is to provide the foundation upon which the rest of the band builds its house of rock. Your job is also to play in time. Drugs and drink can seriously mess with your ability to perform both of these tasks. “In general, I didn’t consume very much alcohol, because I liked to keep my wits about me,” March says of his time with Guided by Voices, a band known almost as much for its love of beer as for its music. “I’d have a two-and-a-half- to three-hour show ahead of me, and the boys would be depending on me to hold it together.”
Play the Show
There’s an old adage that goes, “You play the show, not the crowd.” Translated, that means, “Try not to get bummed because you drove eight hours to play for thirteen people…five days in a row.” If your band is good, there’s a decent chance you’ll do better next time you come to town. “Those first tours we did, we were drawing generally no more than twenty people a night,” Hartman says of his early days in SCOTS. “We found when we went back the next time, those people showed up, and each one of them brought a couple friends.”
If you’re doing a lot of shows in a row, be aware of the stress you’re putting on your body. If you want to keep drumming and touring, don’t feel you’ve got to kill yourself up there every night. I’ve been fortunate to have had only a couple minor drum-related injuries over the last twenty years, but I know plenty of people who have suffered career-threatening hand, arm, leg, and back injuries from playing too hard too many nights in a row.
If you’re feeling pain in your wrist or elbow, adjust your playing, back off a little bit, and try wearing a brace. If you’re having trouble with stiffness or cramping, apply some Icy Hot or Bengay on your arms before you play. (Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly; that stuff is slippery.) And be sure to drink plenty of water before and during the show to avoid dehydration.
After the Show
If you’re not the headliner, be kind and get your drums off stage as soon as possible. Don’t break them down on stage; this is one of the top ten grievances of sound people everywhere. If you’re on a multi-band bill, make sure you put all your gear in one place after your set, being careful that nothing gets mixed up with the other bands’ equipment. Another way to avoid this problem is to stencil your band’s killer logo on your cases. (Yes, make sure you have drum cases.) Double-check that you got everything into that hardware case; it will suck mightily when you discover the next day that you left one of your floor tom legs behind.
You’ll no doubt want to mingle with people at this point of the evening. Before you do that, do yourself a favor and get out of those sweaty duds and put your street clothes back on. Oh, the rashes I have gotten as a result of not adhering to this rule. Bring along some Gold Bond Body Powder, and apply it before getting into your dry duds.
Make sure everyone helps. The person who makes himself scarce every night at load-out will soon become something of a pariah. Don’t be that guy/girl.
Don’t wander away from the club at 2 a.m. Back in the pre-cell days of the mid-’90s, I went off looking for a pay phone after a show and was robbed at gunpoint by two young entrepreneurs. Now that was a nice way to start a month-long tour.
DO NOT LEAVE YOUR GEAR IN THE CLUB OVERNIGHT. One band I toured with wanted to do this frequently. Several members would be so wrapped up in the after-gig revelry at the bar that they couldn’t tear themselves away long enough to pack up their instruments and load out. One of the other band members and I would pack up our gear and go back to the hotel, leaving the others to do their marathon hang session. In the morning we’d all have to trundle back to the club and wait for the bar manager to show up and let us in. Of course, it was usually 50/50 as to whether or not the manager would even remember this little arrangement the next day. Annoying? You bet.
Most bands do the sleeping-on-someone’s-floor thing only on their first tour and then make it a point to stay in motels, if the budget allows. The main reason for this is that while it may be just another night on tour for you, it can be somewhat of an event for your host. “That’s the worst part about staying on floors,” Hartman says. “When people bring you back to their house, they expect a party when you get there.” More often than not you will come back to your lodgings, sleeping bag and pillow in hand, only to discover that dude invited seven of his buddies to “chill with the band” until 6 a.m. This is where you’ll be glad you brought those earplugs. Heck, go all out and buy a pair of those Vic Firth isolation headphones and experience the beauty of absolute silence.