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On the road again

What it feels like to tour in a hard-working rock band

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When people think about life in a rock band, they probably assume that traveling all over the country is a blast — all glory and joy.

Yeah, right. Touring is tough, especially if you're in an underground act. Trust me, I know.

Through the late-'90s and early-2000s, I spent a lot of time playing in a number of independent bands based in Athens and Atlanta, including Hayride, The Rock*A*Teens, Elf Power, Vic Chesnutt's band, and Shannon Wright. Most of the time, my bandmates and I met in small rehearsal spaces throughout the week, hammering out ideas and recording demos. Every few weeks we gigged around town. If we were fortunate to have enough funds and a little bit of label support, we'd spend a few weeks in a nice recording studio. Once or twice a year we'd embark on a lengthy tour, ranging from a one- or two-week jaunt up and down the East Coast to a massive five- to six-week journey around the entire country (and elsewhere).

Playing with Chesnutt's band in 2003, we had the benefit of "tour support" — some extra funding to cover gas, lodging, salaries, and per diems for the individual band members (in this case, three buddies from Athens along for the ride). We each had enough pocket cash for a nice lunch, newspaper, and coffee every day and a clean Motel 6 bed every night. Traveling with Wright in Europe in 2004, her French record label provided even better tour support — a nice new van, a two-man road crew, elegant lodging, wonderful meals, and local wine! But while the experience of traveling and performing with these artists was fantastic, the hurry-up-and-wait daily grind was unsettling.

T. Ballard lesemann (second from left) recounts his cheap beer and gas station cuisine days out with the Rock*a*teens
  • T. Ballard lesemann (second from left) recounts his cheap beer and gas station cuisine days out with the Rock*a*teens

The first two of my dozen or so Rock*A*Teens road trips — in 1998 and '99, in support of the Merge releases Baby A Little Rain Must Fall and Golden Time — were certainly the toughest road experiences of my career. Lead singer/guitarist Chris Lopez, guitarist Justin Hughes, bassist William Brandon, and I toured in a blue and white 1984 Chevy Beauville van nicknamed Gary. The speedometer was broken, the AC was kaput, the FM radio worked only when someone banged on the dashboard with his fist, and the driver's side window was permanently stuck in the up position, which royally sucked in the summer heat.

There were some bright spots. A shining album review in CMJ Weekly. The time a monitor guy grabbed me after sound check and said, "Your kick drum sounds just like Bun E. Carlos." A quick game of Pac-Man on an old Atari at the booking agent's office. A tow truck driver who traveled 15 miles down a wintery Kansas highway at 7 p.m. on a Friday to fix the van's shot distributor cap. An old friend from Georgia who showed up to a gig in San Diego with a hand-painted sign reading, "Welcome R*A*Ts." Comforting moments during a grueling journey.

It was during these two six-week tours that we learned how to tour econo. Inspired by our underground rock heroes who adventurously paved their way through the indie circuit — in my case R.E.M. and the Minutemen — we piled into crowded, dented vans, eager to make our mark, build our audiences, and sell our CDs. Often out on tour, I asked myself, "What would Mike Watt or Mike Mills do right now?"

But playing low-budget shows in the vast network of clubs, music halls, and warehouse spaces around the country offered both successes and failures, opportunities to connect and miss. The occasional on-stage triumphs made me feel like a genuine artist, inspiring the kids in the crowd as we were inspired by our heroes. However, the routine of loading gear in and out of dirty buildings (each one in a strange town in far-away states), riding up and down generic interstate highways in cramped quarters, drinking cheap booze, and eating low-grade gas station cuisine (stale hot dogs, bean dip, burnt Maxwell House, pork rinds, microwaved burritos, etc.) is mind-numbing and health-wrecking.

Without the help and muscle of a national agency, booking shows can be a frustrating and disheartening experience. It's tricky. If nobody at that cool dive bar in the college town 12 hours away knows who the hell you are, you have to beg and plead for an early-night, opening slot. At best. For beans.

Some promoters and booking agents couldn't give a damn about you and your rock 'n' roll dreams, talent, or goals. The Rock*A*Teens frequently arrived for shows where even the sound guys had no idea who we were. No notice in the local paper, no mention on the marquee, no scrawled name on the chalkboard over the bar. And when those things did happen, our band's name was sometimes even spelled correctly. Sometimes.

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With luck, the venues we played were nestled in a hip, happening section of town, near a cool record store and indie coffee shop. But most of the time, they were remote dives in industrial neighborhoods or in the ugly sections of an abandoned downtown. We were trapped.

If the club's booker doesn't know you, chances are hardly anyone in the town's cozy music scene knows you either. Audiences can be middling to nonexistent. Heckling is common, but sometimes amusing. In fact, any reaction from the crowd can be better than nothing — even a teenager at an all-ages show who staked his claim at the front of the state, flipping you off during the last two songs 'cause he was anxious to see the headliner. Once again, I know this from experience. It happened to me in Portland in 1999.

Antagonism is manageable, but indifference, man, it's the worst. After all the trouble of driving, setting up, sound-checking, and getting the set ready, nothing is more of a blow to the ego than to perform a set and be met by pitiful smatterings of applause. Crickets ... crickets.

Most bands on the road can't afford decent lodging. Even a cheapo motel room could cost more than what was earned at a night's show; hell, most bands can barely afford a piddly per diem of $10 (in 1998, our self-imposed per diem was eight bucks each). More often than not, we stayed with whomever might offer us a place to crash after the gig. This could be a cool staffer from the club, an old friend who drove down from Knoxville, someone from the local band on the bill, or a complete stranger from the audience. Extra beds and couches were luxuries, but usually, we ended up in our sleeping bags on hardwood floors or cat and dog hair-covered rugs. Many times, we spent the night sleeping in the van, either on our seats or on the floor.

Beer and booze can help dull the drudgery ... but not always. A few too many warm cans of Bud, swigs of Jack, or shots of Jäger, and the next morning you're hanging your head out the window retching the miles away as you travel to the next show. But when the night's pay is 50 bucks and a free 18-pack, each beer is like currency; not to drink them all amounts to ripping yourself off. As a result, the vicious cycle of guzzling and aching become part of the routine, save for the most responsible and self-disciplined bandmates.

Some aspects of touring have changed over recent years, but even with the modern conveniences of affordable cell phones, iPods, laptops, and such, life on the road is still a rough grind. Even with the electronic distractions, it's easy to become aggravated and grouchy. Spending every day in a vehicle, hotel room, restaurant booth, and backstage area with the same four or five guys is never easy. Everyone becomes tense and annoyed by relatively minor things — from the way someone sips a beer or the noise someone makes while eating tortilla chips, to the way someone tunes his guitar during sound check or thanks the audience over the mic. Everyone becomes homesick. Everyone feels beaten down from time to time. The most successful bands learn how to leave each other alone. The least successful eventually combust.

Playing music with others is a creative challenge in itself. Playing in a determined working band and making a tour happen is even more challenging. Touring can be rewarding in many ways. It feels great to survive such an endeavor and yak about it later. But it's some of the hardest work a musician could ever try.

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