Part 1 – Boston/Burlington/Montreal/Toronto
We’re currently trudging along Queen Elizabeth Highway in Ontario, Canada. It’s a long stretch of nothingness road flanked by featureless forests and rest stops with Tim Horton’s menus in French. It will be a long haul from Montreal to Toronto today. It’s Day Four of a twenty city tour throughout Canada and the United States. This is our longest stretch to date without a break or day off. We’ve been grinding as a band for over seven years and seasonally on the road for about three of those. I’m tasked with all the booking and business in my band “You Bred Raptors?” as well as the primary songwriter and all around band-dad. Because it took countless hours over five straight months to book this album tour, I am allotted full-time backseat privileges during the drives. It’s a small solace as I’m usually delegated to putting out fires, finding crash spaces, trying to Tetris the back of the van in motion, confirming backline for that night and booking the next tour for the Fall from my little nest back here. In the first few days of the tour, the van is starting to have a pungent aroma despite attempts to keep the clutter and body emissions at bay. The first signs of fatigue aren’t setting in and the morale is still positive. Each city presents its own set of obstacles and circumstances to navigate and adapt to. Nothing major has gone wrong yet but that only makes me more nervous.
This band is comprised of 8 string bass, cello, and drums. We are unorthodox but both visually interesting as well as aurally accessible, I promise. But we’ll also never truly fit in: We’re too wussy for metal, too funky for post-rock, too straight for prog-rock, and too heavy for folk or jazz. As the front-man for a bass-centric band, it’s my job to represent both the instrument but also its young history while still carving out our own niche. This diary is meant as an honest assessment of a full-time traveling and original band. There’ll be some sad truths, pleasant surprises and tips and tricks to make the best of this gauntlet.
Boston, MA – P.A.’s Lounge (Somerville, MA)
There’s a good rule of thumb with shows once you’re consistently touring: If the bill is packed with great bands with lots of sonic similarities and a high chance of fan-crossover, then you probably won’t be getting paid well. That’s not ALWAYS the case, but more or less it is at this level. Promotion and show-building is a thankless job. When the shows go well, the ones behind the scenes rarely get a shout-out or personal thank you but when these shows hit a wall and bomb, those decision-makers are chased out of town with tar and feathers. We were lucky to find another band named GEPH that lead the charge with both enthusiasm and tenacity. Boston isn’t an easy market to book if you aren’t local. It’s up there with cities like Philly, New Orleans, Austin and Nashville that really require some insider knowledge to book anything other than empty dives and DIY spots. GEPH is like us, choosing to swim upstream with unusual instrumentation and playing weird vocal-less music. Their two Chapman Sticks and socially awkward stage banter sets the nerdy-band-bar pretty high early on this journey.
Every band knows (and dreads) entering a venue and getting the sneaking suspicion it will be an abysmal turnout. You can do everything right and still have shit blow up in your collective faces. Boston was teasing those signs… Mid-week slump, odd music, bill, Fenway Park home game, off the beaten path and unseasonably cool weather seemed to scare off the crowds. I always prepare myself for the worst. I usually like to be away from the door or inside the venue while ‘doors’ open. I take a walk, run juggling drills (I’m a part-time instructor) or find an innocuous errand to run so I won’t be in there while the venue does or doesn’t fill up. Most of all, on nights like this, I’m bummed that it’s so hard to get people out to hear different music. Live music is difficult to promote, let alone fringe music without guitar or vocals and that isn’t reliant on catchy choruses or EDM backing tracks.
The first band was called Soundscape, comprised of six string bass and drums. The harmonic and chordal bass work was jaw dropping. They set the mood and pretty much annihilated me on bass chops right off the bat. GEPH took the stage and by this time the room had filled up quite nicely. But while they killed it with their music, they failed to engage the crowd. The audience left a twenty-foot circle between them and the stage like there was going to be an animal sacrifice on the floor after the imaginary mosh pit subsided. No matter how large or small your crowd is, interact with them! Get them to move forward and hug the stage. They’ll be awkward at first when you single them out but human behavior dictates they will do as they’re told and follow the group. Of course, this is Boston and it could have easily backfired on me. We took the stage and after a problematic line check and launched into our first song. I assured the crowd that our bedbugs weren’t contagious and that they could come up closer, that my intended stage diving was predicated on them catching me mid-song. The point is: It’s your job to entertain this crowd and shape the night. They are waiting for us as performers to do our job. That doesn’t start and stop with our instruments. If it’s a small turnout, you acknowledge it and make light of it. Then you play like it’s a packed room. No exceptions. It turned out to be an amazing show with good vibes from new and old friends. The sound wasn’t great but we played tightly and hopefully set a precedent for the rest of tour. But I was served and was forced to drink my Sprite out of a New England Patriots glass. The horror…
Burlington, VT – Radio Bean
Full disclosure: This tour was booked on a tight budget. Before embarking, we were forced to have a changing of the guard within the band. Our cellist of six years decided to finally leave the band after almost a year of waning interest in the project. He has big shoes to fill but we were lucky to find a talented, spry, twenty-one-year-old college student willing to climb aboard. Bands constantly have shift changes and those of us that are lifers and band leaders are kneecapped every time this inevitably occurs. We are currently on our eighth drummer and now, third cellist. Because this last member was ingrained so heavily, it ended up costing thousands of dollars to replace him in our time-frame before the tour. New equipment, rental cars, rehearsal time yadda yadda yadda… and all of a sudden we’re broke. Because of this, tour amenities like hotels, band meals, and triple-ply toilet paper were luxuries we just couldn’t afford on this go-around. We had to get creative. This is our longest tour to date and as dashingly handsome and immensely, bodaciously popular I am, I don’t know people in EVERY city.
One of the resources I use to help book in other markets is DIY Touring Groups on the internet as well as Facebook. It’s been a surprisingly very helpful, mostly-drama-free community of people that help each other in this gauntlet. You ask for a show somewhere and meet other promoters. Sure, it’s luck of the draw whether those promoters/bookers are capable but they are at least proactive enough to reach out and answer you, right? Being from New York has made us bitter toward the scene here: It’s unhelpful, disorganized and cutthroat. The juxtaposition is nice in smaller markets where people still care about live music and don’t just leave after their friend’s band plays. Also in this community are resources for touring bands: places to crash, cheapest gas stations, food hacks and effective promotional tools in different markets. Through this site, we found a fellow musician named Jake who said we, five people he had never met, could stay with him for the night. If this sounds like the start of a horror movie or a really involved porn scene, you’re right. It’s also a gamble for us as he could be a serial killer or worse, a DJ that wants to pass you his mix tape. But with a three person band, a driver and front of house manager, it would be two hotel rooms at about $60 each at a minimum otherwise.
Jake turned into being one of the nicest, most accommodating hosts we’ve ever stayed with. His place was small but he arranged it so we could commandeer almost every room. He was also an accomplished folk-punk artist and let us watch his band Pissant perform a few songs. He helped invite people out to our show later at the Radio Bean and took us around Burlington. It’s the community vibe that’s missing in a lot of markets but still alive and well in others.
Every tour we bring our own bass amp: a 350 Hartke Head with HDN 1×12 Bergantino cab. It’s small but packs a punch and is transportable without taking up too much real estate in the van. But some places, like Radio Bean, asked bands to use their house amp because of space issues. My recent pedal and pedal board endorsements have forced me to drastically change my setup and sound. And I’m still not used to how my rig sounds out of different amps of varying qualities. I had allotted some of our minuscule funds to getting my bass set up and expedited a day before the tour. I was having intonation issues past the 18th fret (I have 28 total). Playing in the subway in extreme temperatures and performing over 150 gigs per year means lots of wear and tear. I worked closely with the guitar tech without being overbearing or pushy. Our new cellist, Nick, was having trouble staying in tune with me when I would loop extra high bass parts. The guitar tech filed down the frets, adjusted the two truss rods and cleaned out all the sweat, grime and blood from the ebony fingerboard. Add to that, one of my pedals was freezing up during shows and staying on or off. This is a scary situation, especially in a Temple Board that locks everything in place, making quick adjustments almost not an option. It has to be a power issue with a pedal drawing too much power and making another act janky. That night I was to play out of an amp at least 800 years old and I was less than confident.
The show itself was pretty blah. Shitty weather, free ‘donation’ model and arriving after the end of the college semester translated to a small, sleepy and disengaged crowd. I tried all my normal tricks but seated crowds usually stay that way. And if my previous advice was to set the tone, my next piece is to know what battles are worth fighting. Our set was scheduled to be 90 minutes. After half of that, I realized that there wasn’t much use trying to turn it around. You don’t want to be begging people in your already sparse audience to care more. “Please clap” doesn’t look good on anyone. It seems desperate and sad. Just get up there, stay tight, be energetic and showcase your brand as best as possible. If they aren’t interested, at least you did your job and it’s on them for being a lame crowd. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t dislike the show. It just paled in comparison to the energy and reaction we sometimes naively get used to. I also have a problem with aesthetics. I’d rather bomb HARD than to be mediocre and forgettable. But you won’t kill it every show. Add to that some sound issues from the cello made it impossible to seize that crowd. We made about $70 in donations and merch on a tour when we have to hit $300 per night to stay afloat. We are now running a deficit.
Montreal, QB – Barfly
I can’t emphasize how important it is to push boundaries as well as experiment with different markets while planning and routing a tour. There’s something to be said for hitting the same cities along tested routes to grow your audience so you can command better turnouts and guarantees. But, it can also get repetitive and lazy. It’s imperative to take a chance and test your product in different areas. We have been expanding our tour-circles by including Canadian dates as much as possible. Not only is Canada home to some of the nicest people we’ve ever met, it also boasts a formidable music scene that has the reach of city markets while maintaining the small town camaraderie.
This was our second time in Montreal. After a successful show last Fall on a Sunday night to a packed house, we decided to route there on a weekend. Playing on a coveted Friday or Saturday is a gamble for a relatively new market. You’re competing with a lot more events and will experience more pushback and run-around while booking and promoting the show.
If you aren’t familiar with border crossing for touring artists and musicians, I suggest you read up as much as possible. The laws are always evolving and different for every country. You may hear horror stories from bands about having their vehicles searched, being interrogated, forced to pay a hefty tax on all merch or turned away completely. In America, if your band is a small outfit playing only a few shows with an SUV packed to the brim with gear and a few boxes of merch, you’ll MOST LIKELY be okay. If you’re a band on a larger label rolling through with a hitched trailer or a tour bus, with weeks of shows lined up, the jig might up. You’ll probably have to bite the bullet and get an Artist Visa. But, if you read the fine print, everyone is subject to paying duties and taxes on any goods or services brought into another country. You should also have all the serial numbers of your gear handy to prove you aren’t trying to avoid paying taxes on it by importing it. Whenever we go to Canada, we request exemption papers from the venues where we perform. It’s basically a permission slip saying we are playing a promotional showcase for zero pay. That means we aren’t taking any Canadian jobs and we aren’t expecting to ‘work’ there for longer than a few days.
Also, just like America, it all depends on where you pass through. My band has been pulled into secondary inspection EVERY time for a thorough search when we passed through the Buffalo/Niagara Falls border crossing. The last two times we passed through Vermont we had our papers printed out, passports handy and ready to answer any questions about all the weapons we weren’t carrying, we were waived through. That’s $4 from Staples Print Center that I’ll never be able to get back. Better to be safe than sorry.
The show was booked through Wild Wolf Productions. Preston, our fearless Montreal booker, took a chance with us last year on a recommendation from another touring band. He works tirelessly at curating shows that make sense with bands that compliment each other with maximum crossover from fans. He’s one of the rare and mythic promoters that actually gives a shit. Overall, the show was fucking awesome. The Barfly is an inviting dive bar and everyone was super supportive of ALL the bands. I wish they could all be like this.
Like I mentioned earlier, we had to get creative about where we planned to crash after the shows. I found a Facebook friend that lived in Montreal and close to the venue. We had never officially met but he was a big fan of our band. It turned out also that he lived in a communal house that put on their own shows. He was super kind to offer us a place to stay but I got the feeling he was expecting us to perform another set after our Barfly show. This brings up a lot of concerns for me. If I was in college, sure, I would be down to play for ANYONE, ANYTIME. But now that this is our profession and we have a nightly minimum and long, daily drives, we need to be taken care of financially and rested to be safe on the road. There is also an entire van that needs to be unpacked for even a small show. Seriously, it looks like our chariot vomited after having an orgy with Guitar Center and an airport luggage store before and after each show.
We arrived before the gig to check out the place and it was kinda sketchy at best. The area we were to play was literally a hallway alcove about 3×5 feet flush against a closet with freshly used paint supplies. Our host also said that they can’t ask for donations because “that’s just not the way it’s done here”. And he added that we probably wouldn’t get much sleep because the parties usually go till sunrise. Outside of one half-couch near the ‘stage’, I would be sleeping on the neighbor’s couch downstairs (who seemed just as surprised as I was hearing this development). There’s five of us total and three of them begged to sleep in the van instead. I reluctantly agreed to the after-party set as long as he followed through with promoting our sanctioned show. Long story short, no one from his crew showed up to the Barfly and we kept hearing that most of the housemates were very much NOT down with the idea of a loud after-party into the wee hours of the morning. I began asking around to the other bands if they could put some of us up. The headlining band “Saturn Alien” all lived in a place about fifteen minutes from the venue with a safe driveway to park our whip. The problem is that we had some of our overnight stuff already at the shady after-party place. We rolled back to get that and saw a slew of people outside the house waiting for a show. We COULD have made something up and just grabbed our shit and left. But this was promoted, albeit poorly and last minute, and I didn’t want to be rude. The vibe had grown somewhat even less inviting and we had a band powwow. Everyone agreed to not be ungracious, to just play a short set, get some poutine and to crash with Saturn Alien so we’d all feel safe and rested. Our drummer was given some homemade moonshine from someone in the housing complex. And then he was GONE. I’ve known him for almost two years and I’ve never seen him hit a wall like that.
We played a sloppy twenty-minute set. I don’t want to seem dismissive… Some people seemed to dig it. But I’m NEVER down with playing a sub-par set, even if it’s for just a few people. They had a good time but we weren’t going to keep playing for free when it was obviously annoying some of the housemates. This is an extremely nerdy band. We juggle, throw a frisbee, play video games and listen to podcasts on the road. We don’t do drugs and don’t drink excessively (I don’t drink at all). So, the vibe was considerably not for us. We packed up and the host was gracious and bought some merch. It was also becoming apparent that our drummer may have been poisoned or dosed with whatever he bathtub alcohol he drank. He was acting like a freshman college girl, dancing on a bar, singing along poorly to Journey before taking her top off. It was a mess. We left in sort of a hurry, thankful we had a quiet place to sleep. The next day I received a text from the host saying that a random stranger showed up to the party a little after we left and pulled a knife and tried to attack some of the people staying there. So yeah… follow your instincts and realize that sometimes, it’s okay to say “no” to some offers.
Toronto, ON – The Hard Luck Bar
Toronto is on the short list of places I would relocate this band if given an ample opportunity. Politics aside, America is existing in an uncertain time. I’d prefer to live in a city that embraced the arts a little more and wasn’t as nearly impossible to survive as NYC has proven to be. We are always excited to come back here. The last show we played here was sort of a dud. Filling only about 40 people in a 300 capacity venue doesn’t look good. We opted to try a new promoter and was surprised they had already heard of us and booked us right away. It was the first show of twenty-eight cities booked for our Spring and Summer legs. Fast-forward a few months and I get word the original venue was double booked. Typical… nothing is ever that easy. I put out an APB and through some serendipitous luck, a fan of our band told his roommate about us, who happened to be in a prog band, and who happened to have a show that night.
The new venue was twice the size as the original booked and I got a familiar twinge of worry we wouldn’t be able to fill it out. Another piece of advice is if given the choice, to take the smaller venue. It’s good to challenge yourself in new markets, yes, but be realistic to yourselves and more importantly bookers and promoters about your projected draw. Don’t be “that band” and inflate your numbers because you’ll eventually be found out and perhaps blacklisted.
The show was packed with five bands and had us sandwiched in the middle. Always take the middle slot if possible. No one wants to play first or last but you take one for the team if you’re hosting a touring band. Give them the maximum draw to help push their merch as much as possible. If they suck and don’t sell anything, well, that’s on them. Our experience is that in MOST cities, fans leave after their local bands play. We might be overcautious about this but there are few feelings worse than being forced to play last on tour after a very popular local band leaves with all of their fans. It’s been seven years and I’m still being ultra conservative about our draws. It’s best for us to grow and to play a little earlier so we can hang out and network AFTER we play.
The bands all sounded really good and were typically Canadian in their politeness and attentiveness. My amp head shit the bed by having the input jacks lose BOTH screws (on active and passive) and fall into the amp right before we line-checked. I was forced to go direct in the house PA. I hate not having an amp but with five bands and short strike times, you gotta roll with it. Coupled with that, my BOSS Phase Shifter pedal was freezing up while trying to get levels. My pedalboard setup is currently as follows:
8 String bass —> TC Electronics Spectra Compressor / Boss TU-3 Tuner / Mooer Slow Engine / Cusack Music SubFuzz / MojoHand FX El Guapo / MJH Colossus / Ernie Ball JR Volume Pedal (Passive) / Boss Octave 3 / MJH WonderFilter / Electro-Harmonix Nano Clone Chorus/ Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter / MXR Bass Overdrive (Boost) / CM Tap-A-Delay / CM Reverb / Boss DD-7 (Looper) —> Amp
There a lot of ways to set up pedals so no way is ‘wrong’ but there are do’s and don’ts for sure. You should have your compression pedals near the beginning of your chain, along with your tuner so it has the cleanest signal to work with. Then, most chains will have the dirt pedals next, followed by modulation, delay/reverb and your looper last before the amp. Volume pedals, as well as octave pedals, can fit anywhere depending on what you want and if you use them in accordance with other sounds. Now… SOMEWHERE in my chain, there is a problem. And in the few precious moments during a line check is sometimes the only time you have to diagnose and fix a problem. The sound on stage wasn’t ideal but the house sounded really good. The pedal Gods let me off for another night but I’m tempting fate. I’ll need to carve out some time to rewire things in hopes that will fix it.
We have a lot of friends in Toronto so luckily our crash space was guaranteed. Our drummer, KC, is deathly allergic to cats so he had to stay in the van but at least he can sleep naked, right? We also got to take our time sleeping in, getting up, grabbing brunch and going to a local park to relax before that day’s four-hour drive. It’s imperative to carve out this rare R&R on tour. It’s a long tour and no one is scrawling REDRUM on a door frame with lipstick yet and we’d like to keep it that way.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Windsor/Detroit, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas & Arkansas.Photos by Mike Peloquin + Thomas Lee