A DIY Tour Guide
by Megan March
Last year my band Street Eaters put out our second full-length record, Blood::Muscles::Bones. After two years of writing, recording, playing local shows, and a few short tours, it was high time to hit the road again. We were no babes in the woods — Street Eaters had already done four largely self-booked tours across the US and one six-week stint in Europe with the help of our German record label. But this time we were going to see how far we could take it by booking both tours entirely ourselves.
The plan was to do two months in the US, dip into Canada, come back home to the Bay Area for a month, and then get on a plane to Europe for another two months. We had done seven weeks at a stretch before, but two tours of two months each, essentially back-to-back, seemed insane. What’s weirder is that we actually pulled it off.
Lots of crazy shit happened: Things broke or got left behind, I occasionally encountered bits of good old-fashioned sexism, and we played about a hundred killer shows with some amazing bands. Some things will forever remain a secret, but here’s a few tips we learned along the way. Of course, this is in no way intended to be a “end all be all” for touring, since everybody’s experience is unique. That is what makes flinging yourself onto the road so interesting.
Getting There With Four Wheels and a Windshield
Street Eaters is a two-piece, and we jam econo by packing ourselves into a two-seater pickup truck so there’s no room for roadies. We essentially do things the same way in Europe, by renting a hatchback-type vehicle, taking out the back seats, and cramming all the gear and merch in. With only room for two humans (and small humans at that), all the eight-plus hour drives are shared: no sleeping off hangovers in the loft or back seat. Because of this, we have to be conscious of not doing too many long drives and arriving as blown-out zombies to shows. Our routing cannot involve a lot of zig-zagging, which leads us to play lots of rad smaller scenes in small towns. Even though we often sleep at friends’ houses, the truck becomes our home on wheels. All shame goes out the window, as we change clothes in parking lots and brush our teeth at gas stations. We enjoy, but quickly grow bored with, the mixtapes our friends make us for the road. A month in, we either talk or drive in silence while watching the landscape change.
Planning a tour takes massive organization. I booked my first punk DIY tour when I was a teenager in 2002, before most people used email. Even DIY venues expected you to mail a demo tape, and then maybe they would get back to you by phone — or maybe not, and by then it would be too late to try to book anything else for that date. This was also before GPS, when you had to rely on shitty stoner directions and road atlases. In these respects, things have gotten a lot easier. Today, tour booking mainly takes a lot of emails — emails to say hi to old friends in bands or show organizers, emails following leads that lead to nowhere and everywhere, all requiring patience and creativity.
The best way to get started is to keep track of bands you like, drop them a line and let them know you like their music, and offer to help with their show when they are in your hometown. Have the courage to book shows! Get some good local bands, collect money at the door for gas, give the touring band the best time slot (often the middle), cook them some tasty vegan gruel, and let them sleep on your couch. Genuine enthusiasm is what builds community, and before you know it, you’ll have friends all over the country who will in turn book your band and let you sleep on their couches.
Through lots of trial and error, I have discovered that you should have two to three months’ advance notice to book a solid tour in the US and Canada. Making it across the country requires at least a month, unless you plan on skipping some important places and enduring multiple twelve-hour-plus drives. I booked our US tour the same way I have always booked — DIY thorough friends or friends of friends. Because of the routing needs dictated by being a two-piece, as well as planning around some great festival dates, we were looking at 48 dates, with only two days off and a lot of driving.
Once our summer US tour was almost completely confirmed, my bandmate John and I had to immediately start working on the fall European tour, which was more of a collaborative effort. Since we had toured Europe before, we had a good idea of where and with whom we wanted to play. It is a good idea to start booking Europe at least six months in advance. Many of the best venues/booking collectives only do a couple of shows a month, and you do not want to be hanging around an expensive continent with a bunch of days off. The old adage “On tour, if you’re not playing, you’re paying” is frustratingly accurate.
Crossing borders as a band always makes me nervous. Every border is different. A musical genre or subculture that is considered relatively harmless in one country may be considered a subversive threat in another. For example, punk rock is considered to be pretty tame in the US these days, but it is closely associated with politically radical movements in much of Europe.
Ironically, we have found the border between the US and Canada to be one of the toughest, while others have been surprisingly easy. We have been searched and taxed for merch and arrested for possession of a self-defense weapon not on the banned list (Canada), uneventfully waved through (Croatia, Serbia, Mexico, Netherlands, Germany) and grilled with a bunch of questions, then admitted (UK). Remember: border patrol officers are cops. They will ask you trick questions multiple times in the hopes of catching you in a lie. What’s more, you will be entering a border with one set of cops and coming out on the other side dealing with a whole new set of cops who follow different rules and laws. My advice: Keep it simple, and as with any interaction with cops, say as little as possible.
Getting Ready to Play
Touring as a drummer comes with its own set of responsibilities. You have a lot more gear to move around, set up, and potentially get broken or lost. You have a more complicated sound check, and you have more to coordinate than other musicians. As the singer/co-front person in Street Eaters, my setup has to be consistent for every show so I can sing and drum at the same time.
Once everything is in place, I need to physically prepare to play my heart out on the drums. I probably would not make it past show 20 on a 48-show tour without stretching my arms and legs and warming up my hands with some rudiments before I play every night. I used to forget to stretch, and I was too shy to make any sound on the drums before the first song. The truth is that stretching calms me down. Sticking out rudiments on my shoe or thigh wakes up my hands. Playing a simple beat helps make sure all the drums are in place and tightened, and it also wakes up the sound person. It is all okay, and you should do what works best for you.
One time we played with a band Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill) drummed in, and aside from her being a mastermind behind the kit, I was fascinated by her style of warming up and checking her set up. She silently mimes out playing without actually hitting the skins, allowing her to check all her angles and get a feel for where everything is. Now I totally use this technique. Everybody’s setup is a personal process, and setting up thoughtfully is crucial. This holds true whether we are playing to 400 people at a Fourth of July party in downtown Detroit with M80s and DIY firework displays being set off right behind us, or playing in a kitchen in Tallahassee to the bands and a few of their friends on a Monday night.
Don’t Forget Sound
Once you are all set up, warmed up, and ready to tear it up, it is a good idea to check in with the sound person. I have encountered all types of sound engineers, and the majority of them are amazing and enthusiastic people who want the bands to sound their best. Full disclosure — I am a little biased because I am a sound person by trade. However, there are always the exceptions who can give sound people a bad name, and the bad ones always stick out in your mind the most. During the two most recent Street Eaters tours we ran into a few duds. It makes sense — playing close to a hundred shows increases the odds that you might get bad sound. There was a bit of backhanded sexism on more than one occasion in both the US and Europe. My favorite was, “You hit too hard for a woman.” Also, despite telling sound people (who are mainly men) that both our mics need to be equally loud and that I am the primary lead singer, my mic was often close to inaudible while John’s mic level was very present. The best-case scenario, when this is intentional, is that they are making an assumption like “She’s playing drums too, so she must be the backup singer.” The worst-case scenario is that they assume the guy in the band must be the lead vocalist because he is a guy (despite what they are directly told).
Also, sometimes sound people just don’t know what they are doing and you have to roll with it. Several times we had to physically unplug the monitors during a set because they were feeding back louder than our amps and it sounded like the cops were busting the show. Many times we would ask for the monitors to just be turned off to avoid complications. All that said, when a sound person nails your sound, you appreciate it beyond words. Good sound can make or break a show — but that is another article.
Given all the ups and downs, the months of planning, and unparalleled adventure, tour is a unique lifestyle choice. It is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea (or gas station coffee). I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to tour so much over the years, relying on a patchwork of friends scattered throughout the world, including the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan. We would not be able to do it without the help from these friends, who book the shows, play with us, make cool fliers, feed us, make sure we get paid enough to cover our expenses, put us up for the night, buy our merch, help us carry our ridiculously over-sized amps, keep our truck working and all four wheels attached, watch our cat at home, and all the other little things.
I should warn you, tour is habit-forming. If you are crazy enough to enjoy it in the first place, when you get home you will want to start planning the next one.
Megan March lives in Berkeley, California. She plays drums and sings in Truewave//Punk band Street Eaters, and also runs the independent record label Nervous Intent Records (http://nervousintent.com). Street Eaters will be on tour across the U.S. and Canada from June 7 thru July 8, 2015 … Tour dates and music can be found here.