Plan carefully, bring bananas: Surviving your band’s cheap-ass tour

They've got some lessons for you, so listen up. Especially about the banana thing. Photo by Melissa Clarke
Joelle Barrios, Erik Cline, Chris Hatfield and Mike Ambs are Love Axe, and they’ve got some lessons for you, so listen up. Especially about the banana thing. Photo by Melissa Clarke

My band consists of four adults. We’re all day-job having, mortgaged-up people in our 30s (mostly) with kids who need to have health insurance and other dumb stuff like clothes and food, so when we were preparing to release our latest album, playing shows outside of California wasn’t really on our radar. Touring in a rock and roll band is almost exclusively the domain of people in their early 20s or much more established bands who make enough money to afford hotels or a bus or at least another person to come along and sell merchandise and help with driving and loading equipment – not luxuries that we can afford.

As the release schedule started to take shape, however, we noticed that the on-sale date coincided with what was once a very important time of year for all of us: Spring Break. Only instead of being undergraduates on the lookout for a foam party or a Habitat for Humanity project, our group consists of three people who work at non-profits and a stay-at-home dad, which meant that only one of us actually had to use any vacation time (sorry about that, Erik). So, after several weeks of internal debate, negotiations and a complicated web of guilt trips that would send most people to therapy for years, we decided that Love Axe would indeed be going on a seven-date tour of the midwest and East Coast to promote our album, South Dakota, beginning on March 27. And since we were doing this for fun rather than fame and glory, the big catch was that we were going to have to do it on a shoestring budget, thanks to those previously mentioned spouses, children and their so-called “well-being.” Here’s some useful tips for that shoestring tour, whether you’re mortgaged-up or jumping in your first van:

You can't play a show like this without that amp you needed
You can’t play a show like this without that amp you needed

Plan meticulously

When you think you have everything figured out (routes, transportation, equipment, lodging, food), figure it out again, double check, and follow up. Our plan was to fly from Los Angeles (Joelle and myself) and San Francisco (Erik and Mike) to Chicago, where we would meet up, grab the rental van and hit the road. Since we were flying from CA, we arranged to bring our guitars on the plane and borrow amplifiers and drums from some friends once we got to Chicago. I secured two guitar amps back in December, but a couple of weeks before we were set to arrive I decided to double check to make sure they were ready to go. Sure enough, one of the amps was no longer up for grabs. Had I not checked in I would have shown up expecting to take it with us for the next ten days and would have had to do god knows what to find something else. Luckily, it was just enough time for us to find a good rental amp and we were in business.

Cheaper is not always better

Those flights on Spirit Airlines look like a bargain from your web browser at $0.25 a ticket or whatever, but they will fuck you when you get on the plane with checked baggage AND carry-on fees (and their seats don’t even recline. What the fuck?). Not only do bags fly free on Southwest, if you check in early enough you will guarantee a spot in the overhead bin for your guitar. The best part is, airlines are now required by federal law to allow instruments in the cabin as long as they fit in the overhead bins. Thanks, Obama!

Additionally, rent a reliable vehicle from a reputable company and make sure you have adequate insurance coverage in the case of an accident or theft. It might not happen to you, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

Plan meticulously, seriously

The last time I tried to rent a car in Chicago, I was turned away because the agency’s busted-ass card reader wouldn’t read my busted-ass card and apparently certain car rental agencies will not manually enter a card number due to this somehow being a common method of stealing credit cards and defrauding the rental agency. Not to be denied a second time, I made sure to have a pristine and definitely swipeable new card for when we arrived in Chicago again to pick up our minivan (did I mention that there are two dads in the band?). The day before we were set to leave, the car agency called me to make sure I understood their policy that out-of-state residents can only rent a car with a credit card and any debit cards must be accompanied by an Illinois driver’s license. Since if you live in Illinois, you definitely usually need to rent a car in Illinois.

Of course, this was technically my fault because I didn’t read the fine print and I don’t use credit cards, but that didn’t stop me from getting white-dude entitled on the phone with the manager, which got me nowhere anyway. Luckily, my beautiful and responsible partner Joelle does have a credit card (is also not an entitled white person) and we were again in business. Plus, the manager at the rental agency felt bad enough about the whole thing to upgrade our ride, but all that really means is that we got lucky this time and there was a real possibility of not being able to drive off with the van at all.

Sit down and eat. No, not at a Taco Bell
Sit down and eat. No, not at a Taco Bell

Don’t eat like an asshole

Look, you’re going to spend most of your time in a car, passing one Taco Bell after another. You’re also probably going to be a little hung over on some of those mornings where you have to be on the road by 8am. Combined with a whole lot of boredom, your decision-making skills are not going to be as sharp as they might otherwise, which means you will have moments of weakness in which there could not possibly seem like a better idea than a Croissanwich from somewhere off I-75 in central Florida. SHUT YOUR EYES, MARION. The band van is your ark and your covenant shall be to not shit your pants in it.  “Intestinal distress is intensified by an order of magnitude for each day you’re in the van”, says our guitar player Erik, and you court it at your own peril. Even if you take this advice, you are still going to get very, very tired of public restrooms, so keep your butthole clean and stock up on hand sanitizer while you’re at it. Bring a cooler, go to a real grocery store, stock up on real food, and eat a banana once in a while for Christ’s sake.

Play in cities where you know people

No point in going somewhere in which you don’t know anybody. Nobody will come to see you play and you’ll feel like you just wasted your time, which you did, since you didn’t make any money for gas, either. You only get paid when people show up, so if you want to keep gas in the van, try to book shows for which you’re reasonably confident you can draw a crowd. Your friends and relatives are here to support you – they will buy your merch and drinks and they will actually be looking forward to watching you perform. If you’re lucky they’ll make you dinner and give you a nice place to stay and maybe even make some sandwiches for you to take on the road. If you can, try to affect a limp or persistent cough to soften them up some more.

Pursuant to this, have adult friends with real jobs. Remember that guy Carl who played bass in that shitty punk band you were in freshman year of college but who quit playing music to become an actuary and you thought he was kind of a super lame nerd with no guts or vision? Carl lives in a 3,000 square-foot house and is your god now. He’s also really stoked to see you and bought five copies of your album to give out to his friends all because you were nice to him fifteen years ago when he sucked at bass. He also has four bathrooms and doesn’t mind if you each need to spend an hour in one after the show because you all stopped in at Dairy Queen for a 3pm “snack” even though you had perfectly good bananas in the van. Thanks, Carl!

Part of not getting sick definitely involves not getting bit by those snakes
Part of not getting sick definitely involves not getting bit by those snakes

Don’t get sick

Our drummer, Mike, showed up in Chicago with the worst cold of his adult life thanks to some filthy child/disease vector who infected his whole class (Mike’s two kids among them) and their entire families. Obviously this sort of thing is not always within your control, but being sick while on tour is a miserable experience. So if you are sick, do your best not to infect anyone else. Use the hand sanitizer, wipe down the steering wheel when you are done with it and don’t stick your hands into the same bag of chips that everyone else is eating out of, or else everyone else will get sick, too, which we did.

Don’t drink like an asshole

It’s expensive (most venues won’t comp more than two drinks per band member these days), and you don’t perform well if you’ve had too much to drink, even if it feels like it at the time. Plus, you have three other people to which you are beholden.  If you really need to tie one on, do it responsibly and after you play, and save your walking-around money for something other than the bottom shelf. Remember all that talk about intestinal distress and Croissanwiches?  You could have saved it in favor of a delicious, ice-cold Two-Hearted IPA.

Try to make friends with the other bands you’re playing with

These are the people who helped set up tonight’s show and brought all of their friends to the show who are now watching YOU play. Even if you don’t like their music, BE NICE to them. Try to find a way to compliment their set or their guitarist or whatever. These will be people who will help you the next time you come through town and believe it or not, they might even become your friends. In between now and then, they might improve, or they might join a different band, or they might not. The point is that many people join bands to be part of a gang – this is a brother/sisterhood of people who all worship the same god, so don’t get mad at someone just because they suck. I can guarantee that you suck in ways about which you are not even aware, so don’t be a dick. And you can stay at their house next time around when one of them becomes the new Carl.

Have fun! You never know how you're gonna meet out on the road
Have fun! You never know how you’re gonna meet out on the road

Enjoy yourself

It’s easy to get stressed out when all you do is drive across the country in an effort to get to the next venue on time and when you have a spouse and sick kids back home. You will get tired of being in a van with the same three people for an extended period of time. Try to remember that they are people too, and they’re not just here to get in your way or slow things down, and that this is also their vacation and a result of their hard work over the past few years and not just yours. So make sure to look out the window once in a while and enjoy your time with your friends – chances are you won’t have many opportunities to do this again, especially if you have actual real-life commitments like careers and families. Remember that you’re lucky to be able to do this, even at a micro, break-even level, so do your best to relax and not worry too much about the little mistakes – nobody really notices anyway. And have a banana.

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