Here are some thoughts on touring, based on my experience touring with Scissor Sisters, Alison Moyet, Marina and the Diamonds and others. My first proper “tour” was in 2000 with a band called Alpha (if you don’t know it, look up their album “The Impossible Thrill”). In 2002 I toured with Alison Moyet, followed by Scissor Sisters in 2004. I did three world tours with Scissor Sisters, including an appearance in front of 90,000 at Live8 in Hyde Park, 2005. In 2012 I toured with Marina and the Diamonds, supporting Coldplay on their Mylo Xyloto tour.
This is a follow-up to my other post entitled: Everything I Know About Being A Session Musician, which has got a lot of positive feedback. I thought people might also be interested in my thoughts on touring. If it doesn’t interest you, don’t read it! (Also there, might be some repetition/crossover between this post and EIKABASM, so apologies in advance about that.)
If you’re still reading – thanks for your time, and I hope this is entertaining, helpful, or both.
So, to begin.
I love packing. Unpacking, packing, unpacking, packing. I don’t think I enjoyed it so much before I started touring, but now I get a strange pleasure from it. Maybe it is to do with ordering your environment, or reducing the scope of your everyday life to the contents of a well-organised suitcase or backpack, I still can’t quite say for certain.
As a touring musician, I recommend a quick search for “bugout bag” on YouTube. Most of it is not applicable to the life of a musician on the road (i.e. you probably won’t need a crossbow and a groundsheet on most of your tours), but some of the practical tips and tricks are eye-opening and invaluable.
Suitcase – I generally see two types of suitcase on the road: the hard shell Samsonite type, or the soft shell duffel roller, e.g. Eastpak. There are also more expensive options, such as Rimowa, which do really well, and last a long time. Think about 2 wheels vs 4 wheels. If you know you’re going to be doing lots of airport-time, a 4 wheeler is really nice, and saves arm tiredness (a legitimate issue for many musicians). The hard shell is indestructible, but heavy. The soft shell is much lighter, normally cheaper, and something like Eastpak can be replaced on warranty in most situations. If I use a soft shell case, I like to have everything inside the case in additional bags; this is for two reasons: organisation and protection (every now and again you might land at an airport when it’s raining hard, and if your luggage is left outside for any length of time by the baggage handlers, a soft shell will eventually let in some water). I don’t buy packing cubes anymore – the zips are annoying; now I use drawstring compression sacs and stuff bags – I have some great ones by Fjällräven and Sea to Summit. Stuff bags are quick to pack/unpack, and great for keeping things separated in your case.
Clothes – look at your itinerary and work out where you are going and what the climate will be like. I do a quick weather search if I’m going to a town / country I haven’t visited before, sometimes the local climate can be a surprise. I always pack the usual – jeans, t shirts, shirts, jumper or hoodie, trainers & either waterproof shoes or sandals/flip flops depending on which way the weather is going to go. A smart outfit can be useful if you might be doing some “events” with the band etc. Your stage wear might be your responsibility, or it might be sorted out by a stylist, depending on the level of the tour. In a perfect world, the stage wear would be laundered by the tour manager or their assistant, and not something you should have to take care of. Obviously this doesn’t always apply.
Underwear – I normally take ten days’ underwear, and do my own laundry on the road, either at a local launderette on days off, or as I go, doing a bit of washing in the hotel sink (if I have two days in a hotel room, I will wash some clothes in the sink on the first day, so that they can drip dry by the next day). Pack a small refillable bottle with laundry liquid for this purpose.
I like to have with me a “euro-style” neck scarf (the kind you see worn by students in Berlin); this is useful to keep your neck warm on plane journeys or tour busses with aggressive air conditioning, and as a handy towel at festivals etc. (thanks, Douglas Adams).
A lightweight rain jacket is always handy. (Thanks, Mum).
The tour itinerary:
If you will be touring with a tour manager, they will probably email you an itinerary in advance, and give you a hard copy when you all meet on the first day of the tour / rehearsals. READ YOUR ITINERARY ALL THE WAY THROUGH. There will be a nugget of information somewhere in the itinerary that you will be really glad you knew about in advance. “Oh, lobby call for the flight the day after the gig in Paris is at 4am? Ok, that means there is no point going to sleep that night… I’ll just stay up and hang out with some intellectuals on the Left Bank…” — “We’re going to Budapest to do a TV show on a day off? My Aunt lives there, I’ll drop her a line now to see if she’s around…” etc. etc…
Plan your meals:
I live in the UK, so my first few times touring the US were a little bewildering. One of the major challenges was finding the food I wanted. So one year I went through the tour itinerary, and googled for organic / vegetarian restaurants in every city we were visiting. Obviously there wasn’t time to go to all the places I researched, but when there was a day off, or a group meal being planned, I had a pretty decent list of options for each town.
One of the biggest expenses on some tours can be restaurant food & room service in hotels. To avoid this expense, I have started packing a selection of dried meals and snacks that allow me to get through a night or two in a hotel when no cheap food options are available. This would normally include: dried noodles, nuts & raisins, instant oatmeal/porridge, breakfast bars, tea bags & coffee sachets. I also pack a camping bowl, mug, fork & spoon. This might seem a little crazy, but after you have gone through your receipts for a few years, you realise just how much money gets spent on food on the road.
Drink & drugs:
Everything you can imagine about this subject is probably true. I might save this one for a separate post.
Things to ask at the check-in desk: What time is check-out? Is breakfast included? Is there a kettle in my room? Where is the nearest *insert shop of your choice*?
Dos and Don’ts:
Do – bring your own pillow if it will help you sleep.
Don’t – EVER USE THE MINI BAR.
Do – grab one of the little town maps they give out at the concierge desk.
Don’t – order room service unless you can afford it!
Do – text yourself your room number so you can remember it later.
Don’t – USE THE MINI BAR. SERIOUSLY. Unless you’re putting milk in it.
Are you on holiday? (Sightseeing):
I sometime ask myself this question. If I was working in an office in Woking, I wouldn’t go out on my lunch break every day and take photos of the local sights (although H.G. Wells did write War of the Worlds there, so…). But you are probably going to find yourself in some pretty cool places around the country or even the world, so it would be a shame not to go out now and again and make the most of the opportunity. Just don’t get confused into thinking that you actually are on holiday. If there isn’t time to go sightseeing, that’s probably because you are there to do a job. Ultimately it helps to be flexible when possible, so if an opportunity to do something cool comes up on a day off, you can get involved. I have been guilty in the past of having the “I’m just here to do a job” mindset and missing out on some fun day trips as a result.
I find shopping on tour a great de-stresser. The only downside is that you can end up carrying around a lot of extra stuff in your luggage, and when you get home you wonder where all your hard-earned money went…
Buying books is always good, as you can all pass them on to one another and end up with a mobile book club on tour.
Travelling and changes in environment can cause illness. Try to monitor your health consciously, and become aware of patterns of illness. I find certain herbal supplements very useful, but try to find out for yourself what works best. One of the issues with touring is over-production of adrenalin, so look into finding a way of balancing your adrenal output. Sleeping can be challenging, so again, find a solution that works for you. I don’t want to recommend specific treatments here, as I’m not a doctor or a herbalist.
Eat well, drink plenty of water, and remember to sleep whenever you can. Exercise if you like that kind of thing. A good walk around an unfamiliar town is always interesting. (Google “flâneur” for another explanation of this).
Looking after your ears is important to any musician, especially on the road, where you are probably going to be exposed to loud volumes on a regular basis. If you are not using in-ear monitors, invest in some decent ear defenders (I use JHAudio products, but there are plenty of decent options out there). If you are using in-ear monitors, work closely with your monitor engineer to make sure that you are listening at the right volume. Remember that when asking for changes in your mix, it’s best to identify what is too loud, rather than what is too quiet; ask the monitor engineer to bring down the level of specific instruments, so that they can make way for the element you are struggling to hear.
If you are in a relationship, being away from your partner can be very very challenging. When I first started touring internationally, Skype hadn’t been invented; international calling cards were still pretty expensive, and didn’t work on mobile phones. Now we have Skype, and it’s pretty easy to get a throwaway mobile phone that you can use in conjunction with an international calling card. One thing I find really beneficial when you have a day off with internet access is to log in to Skype with your significant other, and just hang out for a few hours. Do what you would normally do, watch TV, eat a meal, but don’t necessarily feel that you have to be staring at each other on the laptop and talking the whole time. Just share some quiet time together. It really helps.
Use a shared calendar like Google calendar so that you both know what’s going on with each other’s schedule. Make sure that you have also shared your tour itinerary with your friends and selected members of your family. Sit down now and again and make an effort to write emails to friends and family. It’s surprising how quickly they slot you into a section in their brain that files you under “away on tour doing interesting stuff, won’t be interested in me anymore”. A chatty email once a week or every two weeks will remind them that your shared life hasn’t stopped, and your relationship with them is still important. It took me a long time to learn this. I would come back from a long tour and wonder why nobody was getting in touch. Now I try to let friends and family know what my schedule is, and that I’d really like to see them when I get home!
Being on tour can be boring. Doing the same gig every night can be boring. Travelling can be boring.
Some people like to bring creative projects on the road. Some people do an Open University course. Personally I like to read books and watch A LOT of TV – comedies if possible. On a recent tour I took some speakers with me and mixed a friend’s album, which was a great way to fill the time, but I am generally wary of believing I will achieve any creative work on the road – I just find the environment a little counter-intuitive; but that is just a personal opinion. The thing to be aware of is that you will get bored, and sometimes you will be stuck in a portakabin in the rain at the arse-end of a Scandinavian festival that has turned into a mud-fest and you are wearing completely the wrong shoes and you don’t have a waterproof and all you want to do is curl up in a chair and watch a whole season of Frasier with your headphones on…
So you have your box-set of Frasier. Ipod with all your tunes. Kindle / paperbacks. Smartphone with Angry Birds. What else could you need?
Maybe some decent speakers… I have some cheap Logitech speakers that fit nicely in any bag, and make watching movies on a laptop much more enjoyable. I also bring some really nice over-ear headphones, and some good in-ear buds.
I pack an extension lead for power, as many hotel rooms will place the power outlets in really un-useful places; also whatever international power adaptor I might need.
If I’m flying a lot, I try to have a paperback or magazine for those moments when you are told not to use electronic items during take-off and landing. (Also for those moments when you are stuck on the runway for two hours for no particular reason.)
Playing an instrument every night can lead to injury. Check your technique periodically to make sure that you aren’t doing damage to yourself. I have talked about this in EIKABASM.
Flying east and flying west are two different things. Flying west is normally easier to recover from, and flying east can be pretty difficult for some reason. There are many tips and tricks on jet lag on the internet. Here are a few that I can remember and have used.
1. Set your watch to the new time zone the minute you board the plane. When it is “bedtime” in the new time zone, try to sleep a bit. Take a sleeping pill or melatonin if that’s what helps for you.
2. When you land in the new time zone, if it is after noon, try to stay awake until the evening.
3. When you get home after being in a different time zone, do not drive for 48 hours.
Melatonin is not available in the UK, but is sold widely in the US. It helps to reset the body clock when you arrive in a new time zone. Consult your doctor before use!
You will probably be on tour with other people. Try to be nice. You are sharing a living environment and a work environment. The tour bus and the dressing room are especially controversial shared spaces. There are a few practical rules that I try to follow:
1. Don’t leave drinks unattended on the tour bus. If it doesn’t have a lid on it, hold on to it or bin it.
2. No bags on seats! There are never enough seats on the bus or in the dressing room, so don’t put your massive backpack on the seat please!
3. Every now and again the tourbus will turn into a PARTYBUS!!! If you aren’t up for the party, you might have to live with it just for one night (maybe even join in, you might like it). If it goes on night after night and you totally hate it, you might be on the wrong tour.
4. If you want to PARTY EVERY NIGHT!!!! but everyone else wants a quiet night on the bus with their box-set of Frasier… you might be on the wrong tour.
5. Look after your bus driver and your bus driver will look after you.
6. Respect the dressing room as a private space. If it’s your band and you’re all old friends, this might not apply, but if you are a session musician on tour with an artist or band who is paying your wages, don’t invite people into the dressing room without checking it’s ok first.
7. No number 2’s in the tour bus loo.
That’s all, folks!
Thanks for reading. If you’ve found this helpful, or if you have any comments/questions, please get in touch. I try to reply if I have time.