What It’s Like To Tour With A Rock Band – The Swellers Record Release Edition

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This post is in honor of my friends The Swellers getting signed and releasing a new CD today.  Go buy Ups and Downsizing by The Swellers on Amazon (not iTunes, iTunes sucks! ha!) right now. ;)

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We arrive at our home for the night somewhere in the middle of Illinois. The floor is so filthy I’m positive it hadn’t been cleaned in a handful of years.  There’s mold in the kitchen.  The dogs are barking and running wild.

I throw my sleeping bag down on an empty spot of carpet.  Empty insofar as there was no physical obstacle in my way.  The dirt was visible in low light from my standing position.

This is now known as Dirt House #3.  Not the first, and probably not the last.  I learned the best course of action in these situations is to fall asleep as soon as possible.  And try to cover your face so as not to breathe in too much dirt.

I wake up at 6 am.  It’s Winter.  I haven’t showered in days.  We have to leave soon to make it to the next venue so I head straight for the bathroom to get clean.

I turn on the hot water yearning for some warmth.  As is the case with most old houses in the midst of a Midwest Winter’s wrath I know it’ll take a minute for the water to warm up.

I check every 30 seconds or so and the water is still cold as ice.  This isn’t looking good.  I decide I need to get somewhat clean so I turn off the water and hop in the shower.  I turn the water back on just long enough to rinse my body.

I can’t handle the frigidity enough to actually lather up so I immediately dry off and get out.

Well, at least I’m fully awake now.

Touring, Like Long Term Traveling, Can Be Rough

To be blunt: touring is a lot of hard work for almost no pay. (In that regard, it’s not at all like long term traveling, since travel shouldn’t be hard work.)

If done right (i.e with friends) touring can be the time of your life as it was for me.

I’ve been on two 3 week tours of the US with my friends’ bands (the aforementioned The Swellers and another now-defunct band, Alucard).  Not as a musician (although I am), but to help run the show.  That is, I’d mostly help with loading/unloading gear, selling merchandise, and partying.

While doing a rock tour sounds glamorous, most bands touring the US right now are living hand to mouth.  Tour buses, catering, and road crew are for the select few.

Going On Tour Is Like Traveling On A Backpacker’s Budget

The similarities are numerous:
- You eat many meals offered by kind strangers.  In this case, sometimes the venue (small club/bar) will provide you with a meal.
- You sleep anywhere and everywhere.  Van, hotels, couches, floors, and department stores (not a joke) are all fair game.
- You pack light. There’s only so much room in a van full of 5 or 6 people.

The Deep Down Dirty Secrets About What Really Happens On Tour

An average day of an underground touring rock band looks like this:

- Wake up, get ready to go.
- Drive 4-8 hours to a new city/state.
- Get to the venue.
- Unload gear and merchandise.
- Set up gear and merch.
- Play show.
- Sell merch.
- Hopefully make enough money to buy gas and some food.
- Pack everything up and load it back into the trailer.
- Head to the night’s accommodations.  Hopefully a friend or fan offers up their home.  If not, it’s sleeping in the van (likely) or paying for a hotel room (unlikely).
- Repeat.

If it sounds rigid and boring that’s because I left out the best parts. Details…

The Drive

Driving hours upon hours in a van with a bunch of guys might not sound appealing to you, but the drive is actually a really good time.

Why?

1) If you didn’t sleep enough the night before now is your chance.
2) Because of constantly changing circumstances/locations the conversation is usually interesting and free-flowing.
3) It’s a great time to read.
4) And my favorite part of the drive, assuming you’re not sleeping you get to see parts of the country (or world) that most people will never see.  It’s really scenic out there on the open road.

Sometimes you get to see some crazy things.

For example, have you ever driven through the black smoke of a burning big rig in the middle of the Arizona desert? Check it…

The Shows

You get to meet new fun people every single night. While I didn’t make any lasting friendships with people I met on tour I had a great time with everybody.

The Aftershow

Depending on the type of venue you’re playing the aftershow might start before the show. :)  And by aftershow I mean party.  I think this is one aspect of rock life that doesn’t depend on the number of records you’ve sold.  Whether straight edge or dope fiends, I’m going to bet that  pretty much every touring band parties in some capacity.

It’s a chance to let loose and relax with friends old and new.

We would do everything from singing songs on the streets of Chicago, Illinois to scootering around Billings, Montana to playing flip cup at an Omaha, Nebraska house party.  Anything is fair game.

Lessons Learned

Many of the lessons learned from tour can be applied to any regular long term travel .

- Shower whenever you can because some days you won’t be able to.  Bonus: truck stop showers are fair game!
- Bring your own towel.  As you know from my light packing list, I prefer the PackTowl.  It doesn’t take up much space and dries quickly.
- There will be conflicts.  Close quarters for weeks on end has been the killer of more than a few relationships. Get over conflicts quickly or your time will be miserable. Roll with the punches…
- Fatty fast food day in and day out will make you feel horrible.  Eating healthy isn’t easy, but it is possible.  Stop at a grocery store and stock up on bananas, apples, and other fruit that will keep well in the van.  Raw almonds and cashews are also a personal favorite.
- Work out daily. Even simple jumping jacks and pushups will do you wonders.
- If you’re staying at somebody’s house be respectful. Clean up after yourself and offer to help clean the kitchen or any common area even if you’re normally a filthy slob at your own home.  I’ve had bands stay at my house only to leave a mess for me to clean with barely a “thanks for letting us use you!”  No, they weren’t allowed back.

Thanks to touring I’ve been able to:
- sleep on couches/floors/parking lots in 25 States.
- see some of the most amazing scenery in the United States (seeing the Rocky Mountains on I-90 crossing into Idaho from Montana is some of my favorite scenery; Northern California mountains; the vastness of the Arizona desert)
- become better friends with some awesome people.

For another view of what touring is like, check out this tour video I put together from the last tour I did with The Swellers:

{ 7 comments }

Justin- AlittleBetter.net

I’ll keep this in mind next time I visit with an independent band from out of state. I never even thought about lodgings for these guys, Great point!

Karol

Hey Justin, thanks. Looks like you changed some things, huh? No longer JS. :)

Justin- AlittleBetter.net

I went by JS both because I thought it sounded professional and out of respect for C.S. Lewis. Justin is also a very common name in Texas. It was decided though that Justin is still more genuine and inviting, which is more honest of me on most days.

Rocky | R O C K O N O V A . C O M

Hey Karol! Great article! Me and my friends have been in a band for quite some time and we’ve played local shows. We’re definitely trying to go on tour and reading stuff like this definitely gets me even more motivated. Thanks !

Karol

Hey Rocky,

Thanks! Glad the article could motivate you. Touring is an awesome time. :)

Karol

Jesse

That was a great article man. I happened to see the Swellers at the Fest on Halloween and it was an amazing and fun show. They’ve become one of my favorite bands and it was great to see and hang with them. How’d you get to know them, from living up in Michigan? I realized I’ve seen you in one of WATU’s tour videos as well. I love those dudes, they’ve become like my older brothers. Anyway, just wanted to let you know I’m really enjoying this site and the things you’re doing and saying. Keep it up and good luck with all your travels!

Karol

Hey Jesse,

Thanks man!

I’ve been friends with Ryan since high school and became friends with the Dieners when they toured with Ryan’s old band (www.myspace.com/alucard) and stayed at my house in Florida a few years ago. Anto’s old band Sydney also stayed at my house when they were touring with The Swellers in January ’08. Funny how all that stuff works out.

And yes, that was me in the WATU vid. :)

Karol

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