For a touring band, life can imitate This Is Spinal Tap in any number of ways, from getting lost backstage to prop and gear malfunctions to, of course, drummers spontaneously combusting.
And then there are predicaments that not even the star-crossed celluloid headbangers in Spinal Tap endured, like the jam that Belle and Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn found himself in last August after he was left behind at a Walmart in Dickinson, North Dakota.
The veteran Scottish indie-pop band was making an overnight hop to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where they had a show the following evening. On their way out of town, they decided to swing by Walmart to get supplies. Colburn was the last one in the store, by which time some of his bandmates were already back on the bus and in their bunks for the night. Greeting singer Stuart Murdoch as he exited the store, and then seeing the tour manager inside, Colburn assumed everyone was aware he was still shopping and that they wouldn’t leave without him. But what’s that old saying about what happens when you assume? That’s right: You get stranded in Dickinson, North Dakota.
We’ll let Richard take it from here. “I leave the store, it’s about 1 a.m., and I think, This is interesting: The bus doesn’t seem to be there. I think, Okay, maybe they’ve gone round the corner. I look. No bus. All I have is my credit cards, and I’m in my pajamas. That’s it. Cell phone is on the bus.
“I’m walking around with a packet of pistachios and some cheese. I figured I’d wait for an hour or so, and hopefully someone would realize I’m gone. Now it’s 3 a.m.—no one’s coming back. I’m outside eating nuts in my pajamas. All these cars pull up and stop, look at me, and figure, No, we’re not stopping here.”
With no cell phone to contact his bandmates or crew, and no phone numbers committed to memory except a few back home, Colburn tried to use a phone inside the Walmart but was told that international calls weren’t allowed. So then he wandered around town looking for a pay phone. No dice.
Colburn finally checked into a motel across the street from the Walmart around 4 a.m. Later that morning, he got online and tried to contact Belle and Sebastian’s travel agent. By that time, the band realized the drummer had been left behind, so they took to Twitter in hopes of finding a way to get Colburn to the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, for a flight to Saint Paul.
A shuttle driver got Colburn to the airport, but there was yet another hurdle to clear. With his passport, like his cell phone, on the bus, the still pajama-clad Colburn had to rely on the kindness of TSA agents to grant him a travel waiver. Once he cleared security, he again had to rely on the kindness of strangers to borrow a fellow passenger’s cell phone and arrange pick-up at the Saint Paul airport.
Luckily Colburn made it to the gig with time to spare, his sense of humor intact (telling his bandmates upon arrival, “Guys, I’m back from Walmart, and I picked up a few things for you”) and a valuable lesson learned: “I’ll be taking my cell phone everywhere I go from now on.”
Look for Colburn—and his phone—back in North America this year, touring behind Belle and Sebastian’s new triple-EP collection, How to Solve Our Human Problems. Touring extensively two years in a row isn’t something the band did early on. At the time, Stuart Murdoch sang softly, and often off mic. To compensate, Colburn played with rods and brushes exclusively, but the band still struggled with how to present what was then a very delicate sound in a live setting. Eventually, and with the help of in-ear monitoring, Colburn says the group became more comfortable with performing live.
“We were predominantly a studio band for the first four or five years,” he explains. “We weren’t really prepared as a live band. Stuart sang very quietly. So for the first couple of records I never used sticks. And I learned to play behind his vocal and sit beneath it. When we started to play bigger venues, we had to learn to play as a live band with a bit of production and so on. And then I started to hit the drums harder and use sticks, so the songs took on a slightly different dynamic. I definitely had to learn quite quickly how to re-approach things.”
“On tour I usually play a HighWood Custom Mahogany exotic kit with wood hoops,” Colburn says. “It has a 10×12 rack tom, a 14×16 floor tom, and an 18×20 bass drum. In our rehearsal room I play a 1976 Legacy Beech kit with a 13″ rack tom, a 16″ floor tom, and a 14×22 bass drum, with a 14″ matching snare in blue sparkle. And I have an old Modern Drum Shop NYC kit that I mainly use in the studio, and occasionally for the odd live show. I bought it twenty-odd years ago, and it’s got a 10″ rack tom, a 12″ floor tom, and an 18″ kick drum.”
Colburn also employs Paiste cymbals (“a mixture of Signature Traditionals and Signature Dark [Energy], depending on the music”), Vic Firth X55A American classic sticks, DW 5000 hardware, Remo heads, and Protection Racket cases.