On Touring Comfortably
By C.T. Terry
You’ve been playing shows in your area for nine months, your band’s got a bunch of Myspace friends on the opposite coast, your basement is full of boxes of your band’s CDs, the bass player doesn’t have to go back to school for three months, and you bribed the mechanic and got an inspection sticker for your van. It’s time to go on tour!
Assuming that you’ve got your shows booked, and that your van is in decent working order, here are some ideas for ways to make your weeks in the van as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
You’re taking a couple of weeks off of work, and, if your band is on the lucky side of average, you’ll be pulling in enough money to cover gas from town to town. You’re going to be left with a lot of time to kill, and little to no personal money coming in. It’s easy to spend over $20 a day on nothing but beer and a couple of meals, and it’s nice to have some extra cash, because the first thing that people like to do when you get to their town is escort you to the overpriced vegetarian cafe, and then to the record store. Pick up a few extra shifts before you leave for tour. The last thing you wanna do is go broke halfway through. And don’t forget, rent’s always due in a couple weeks.
Speaking of rent, estimate how much your bills are gonna be when you get back, and set that amount aside. What’s worse than coming home from tour with $80 to your name, and finding a cut off notice from your cell phone company?
Remember that, if you all decide to use the band fund to pay for food every day, you may find yourselves having to pitch in to pay for a tow truck if you break down. You’re going to wind up spending money no matter what.
I suggest having two bags – A suitcase or big bag that stays in the van, holding things like extra clothes, and a smaller shoulder bag that you can bring with you anywhere. While the larger bag is tucked away, keep the shoulder bag within reach, so you can have your book, water, cell phone, and headphones accessible during a van ride. Think of the shoulder bag as your own portable comfort station. It’s there to keep you from going crazy in the van, and while waiting for the show to start.
As for what to bring in your bigger bag, remember that less is always more.
Unless your tour’s over a month long, the basic clothes that you pack should be something like a hoodie, one pair of pants, one pair of shorts, and half a dozen pairs of underwear and socks, if you wear those. Bring one or two less t-shirts than you’d imagine wanting – you’re going to play with a couple of bands every night, and chances are, those bands will have t-shirts, and you all will wind up trading. Pack a few favorites, but nothing that you don’t mind wearing for five days straight and stretching the neck out on. Tour is like Vietnam for clothes, none ever come back the same.
Set aside an outfit to be your show clothes. Playing a show is sweaty business, and it feels good to make a quick switch after playing, and not walk around for the rest of the show all clammy like a jock at the end of P.E. Your show clothes should be clothes that you don’t mind wearing in front of people every night, but nothing that you’re too attached to. They’re gonna get all misshapen, especially if you rinse them off every couple of nights, like Off Minor’s Steve Roche suggests.
Be prepared for weird weather. The first tour that one of my old bands did took us from Virginia to the Massachusetts coast, in May. A couple of my band mates hadn’t spent much time up north, and didn’t know that spring in New England is a lot chillier than spring in Dixie. While our friends back home were sleeping under their air conditioners, we were hanging out in hoodie weather, and some of us were stuck in shorts and t-shirts.
It can’t hurt to keep some baby wipes on hand. They’re like the wet-naps that you get at barbecue restaurants, and are perfect for mopping off some sweat and grunge when you’re stuck in traffic in the middle of a van ride. Josh Barker, roadie extraordinaire, never leaves Richmond without them, but reminds everyone to not use the same wipe on your face that you just used on your balls. Words from the wise.
Speaking of cleaning your balls, ever heard of a Ho Bath? I used to refer to it by a longer name, the Hooker Shower, until my father loudly corrected me, in a restaurant. A Ho Bath is where you stand at a sink, and wash everything that stinks (ass, front privates, pits, and even your face – if you remember to do it first). Three steps, all involving a washcloth – wet the areas to be cleaned, soap them up, and then wipe them off. It can be done in two minutes in a gas station, and leaves you feeling fresh. Do this every day, even if you don’t change your underwear.
Bath towels are bulky and hard to dry out. Still, you need to bring your own towel. It’s gross to use other people’s towels without asking, and most hosts won’t have extras. What I’ve usually done is packed a towel, along with a plastic bag, and put the wet towel in the bag until we were parked somewhere long enough for me to let the towel dry out. You can also hang up your wet towel that night if you have room to spread out a bit. Justin Owen of Pink Razors fame likes to bring an old towel on tour, along with a pair of scissors, and cut off a new chunk of towel every couple of days, which you can just throw out when it starts to get skanky.
Bring books that you can get rid of. It’s nice when your friends lend you a bunch of books to bring on tour, but it’s better if you just pack a stack of paperbacks that you don’t care about. That way, as you read them, you can give them to folks that you meet, or trade them in at used bookstores and get new books. Don’t forget how heavy books are; the less you’ve got at the bottom of your bag, the better.
Get a road atlas. Too many show directions end with “Take a right off of the interstate. You’ll see the kids.” Also, an atlas comes in handy on days off when you’re looking for something to do. No show between Asheville and Cincinnati? Why not take a look at the map, and, if your transmission can handle it, drive into the Smoky Mountains?
A big-ass flashlight. This is good for rooting around in the van at night, and for looking under the hood when your radiator starts having problems during an overnight drive. I suggest a nice Mag-Lite with an adjustable beam, but my family tends to be Mag-Lite happy. In the days before cell phones, the power was out at my apartment, and my Dad leant me a stylish purple Mag-Lite. I left for tour a couple days later, flashlight in tow, and returned to find threatening voicemails from my Dad; “You better not lose my purple flashlight, boy!”
Remember, you look suspicious. Your van has out-of-state plates, and is full of dirty twentysomethings. A cop is going to wonder what the hell you’re doing driving through their town, and may pull you over to find out. If this happens, be polite. His brother-in-law is in a band that sounds like Pantera? “Cool, we play some kinda heavy stuff, too,” and “No, we’re not carrying any drugs. What are we, nuts?” Remember, cops are the guys who used to try to start fights in gym class, except ten years down the line, and with guns. Humor them, and keep the wiseass shit in check.
Do. Not. Pack. Any. Drug. Paraphernalia. Especially if you’re going through the Bible belt, or crossing any borders between countries. If you’re carrying, it’s your responsibility to dispose of any bad stuff if you get pulled over, and you will be the one to take the fall for it, no matter how many times you smoked out the roadie. If you must bring a couple of party supplies in the van, don’t bring more than you and a willing accomplice can safely eat in under thirty seconds.
Don’t bring a pipe with you. If they find one of those, you’re fucked. You’re going to have to punt, so roll a bunch of pinners, learn how to carve a bowl out of a carrot, or just be prepared to punch a few holes in a dent in a beer can, and smoke out of that. I know, blah blah, aluminum is bad for your lungs, Alzheimer’s disease, etc., but remember the bottom line: you’re doing drugs, and they aren’t good for you either.
Don’t bother trying to hide your drugs. Police are trained to know all of those genius hiding places that you thought of. You weren’t the first person to stick a bud in the bottom of your cigarette pack, or a joint in a tape case. They probably did the same thing in high school.
Different states have different alcohol laws. A lot of places will consider a crushed, empty beer can in the back of the van an open container, and use that as probable cause to search the rest of your van, and/or write you tickets for weird trivial things.
Especially if anyone in your band is under twenty-one, keep the alcohol transportation to a minimum. If there’re a couple beers left over in the morning, either drink them before leaving, or leave them in your host’s fridge. That’s part of being a good guest.
In The Van
I know you’re late for your first show, and you still have to go buy strings, but do yourself a favor and take some extra time to finesse the loading of the van. If all of your equipment has a set place, then you can figure out where to leave all of your bags, and if you know where your bags go, then you can get them out really fast when you pull up in front of wherever you’re staying.
Always help load the van. Don’t just carry your equipment, and don’t expect other people to carry your stuff. You’re not the only person who’s drunk, or tired, or sweaty. Your band mates will notice how you make yourself scarce when it’s load-out time, and one night you will look up from hitting on the promoter’s girlfriend, and see your equipment sitting alone on the stage, half an hour after your band stopped playing.
On a long ride, never do two things at once. Let’s say you have a book, an mp3 player, and a sandwich, and you get in the van for the day. If you spend an hour listening to music while reading and eating, you won’t be nearly where you want to be before you’re sick of your book, and your mp3 batteries have died. If you spend an hour reading, put down the book and put on your headphones for an hour, then turn off your jams and eat some lunch, you will have passed nearly three hours. It’s all about killing time, kinda like jail without the push-ups.
Speaking of getting buff in confined areas, get a handgrip. Those are things that have two small handles, and are loaded on a huge spring, so you squeeze the handles together, buffing up your forearms, and blowing off how you’re mad at your band mate for the way that they wear their earphones on the wrong ear (I promise, after a few days in the van, the fact that someone is alive will infuriate you).
Keep some flip-flops with you. Sandals do look goofy, but if you have some flip flops in the van, you can spend all day airing out your feet, then have something to throw on when you pull into a gas station, and want to maximize your snack-stealing time. Besides, Outkast rap about wearing flip flops, and everything that Outkast does is cool.
Quit with the “I call shotgun” bullshit. You don’t deserve a certain seat any more than anyone else, unless you can prove that you get car sick, you just drove for a long time, or you need to rest up so that you can drive in a few hours. Then, you get to stretch out in the loft, or sit near a window, or whatever you need.
Whoever winds up riding shotgun is the navigator. They have to be awake, and paying attention to the directions and atlas. Says Lew Houston of Blurt! Zine, “Nothing’s worse than missing your exit because the person riding shotgun is reading a zine.”
I wish I had something reasonable to say about smoking in the van, but I don’t. So, just quit smoking a couple of months before tour, so you won’t be grouchy, and my arm hair doesn’t smell like Dorals.
Keep a water jug in the van, and change out the water every morning, so it doesn’t taste like you poured it out of an iron. Your body works better when it’s full of water; you’ll be happier, healthier, and nicer to everyone.
Keep a couple of piss bottles handy. I suggest sports drink bottles that have the wider mouths, so you don’t get the weird thing where your piss sprays everywhere because your dickhole is half on the rim of the bottle. Twenty ounce bottles are better than sixteen-ouncers, because they’re harder to fill, and nothing’s worse than breaking your stream, and fumbling around the van with your dick in your hand, looking for something else to piss in.
I asked Exotic Fever Records’ Katy Otto what women do when they have to pee in the van, and she told me that she’s always preferred to pull over and “pick flowers” in the bushes skirting the interstate.
As for men, get down on your knees, face the wall of the van, and piss away. When you’re done, screw the cap on as tight as possible, and either leave the bottle in the little gutter by the door of the van, or just throw it out the window. This is the only time that litter is OK.
Only use a bottle with a screw-on top. Once, one of my band mates drunkenly pissed in a fast food cup, threw the lid on, and then sketched while going to toss it out the window. The top blew off, and February air mixed with High Life piss misted the entire van. I’ve never punched someone so hard.
Everyone that I asked about food told me to avoid fast food, and eat well, but no one can name a quick, cheap, convenient, accessible wonder food.
Big, suburban supermarkets are a good bet. They usually have a little something for everyone – a salad bar, a deli, coffee, etc. While you’re there, stock up on some van snacks like Powerbars, fruit, pretzels and trail mix, and maybe even some basic travelable foods like spaghetti and sauce, cereal, and PB’n’J. Having some food in the van will save you on lunch, and if you wind up with access to a kitchen, you can whip up a couple boxes of spaghetti, and feed everyone for just a few bucks.
Cooking on tour is hard to pull off. You’ll probably be traveling with a vegan, a guy who doesn’t eat vegetables, and someone who sincerely likes to eat Wendy’s, so agreeing on a meal can be really hard. Hence spaghetti and sauce with a twelve-pack of beer.
If you’re lucky enough to cook something while on tour, respect the kitchen that you’re using. Ask before using any oils, spices, pots, or pans. Before deciding to throw on a slab of bacon for the band, make sure that you’re not cooking in a vegan kitchen. Even if your host is vegetarian, and says that they don’t mind the smell of cheeseburgers, assume that they are being too nice to say “no,” and stick with something meat free. Plus then, you can share with your host, and they’ll be more likely to contribute something from their food to whatever you’re cooking. After you cook, do all of the dishes in the sink. Even the ones that you’re not responsible for. Even the moldy coffee in the percolator.
On the flipside, remember that you never know what to expect out of someone’s kitchen. A lot of people never cook, and don’t have a lot of supplies at home. Don’t act taken aback if you show up and the only pot in the kitchen has week old mac ‘n’ cheese in it, and they don’t have a spaghetti strainer. No matter what your host has, they are doing you a favor by letting you use it. Never forget that.
Get some multivitamins. They do taste like hamster food, and make your piss look like Mtn. Dew, but you’re not going to be eating well on the road, and these pills will keep you healthy, adding a little something to your steady diet of spaghetti and beer, so you don’t get scurvy.
Don’t get mad because there’s no vegan food in whatever tiny town you’re playing. You chose to be vegan.
If less than half of the people in the van are vegan, you aren’t allowed to discuss the by-default vegan items at every fast food spot that you pass. Of course McDonald’s shakes are vegan; they’re nasty.
Also, please don’t try to out-vegan one another. It’s 2 a.m., there’s only one place open, and you’ve eaten nothing but trail mix all day; please don’t look down on someone because they didn’t read the website that said there might be casein in the bread at Blimpie’s.
If you drink coffee, get a travel mug. If you don’t, give back your Crimpshrine records. You don’t get “it.” Most convenience stores and cafes offer a refill price if you bring your own container, so welcome to the world of paying $.50 for a quart of gas station coffee. Plus, if you’re carrying your own mug, it’s easier to sneak it out of the gas station – you can even left hand it while paying for something else. And if you get caught, you have an ironclad excuse – just act all spacey, point to the mug, and say, “Ahh, I’m sorry, I haven’t had my coffee yet!”
Aside from getting drunk every night, and sleeping on floors, the most exhausting and demoralizing part of tour is all of the waiting. Every day is either hurry up and wait, or hurry up and late. Many evenings will find you parked in front of a club in an unfamiliar town, with a couple of hours to kill before the show begins. This is the perfect time to clear your head with some alone time, because you are gonna be stuck there for a while. The band is usually the first there, then you have to “wait for people to show up” before the show starts, then wait through two bands before you play, then wait for the show to end, and chill out while everyone leaves and the promoter haggles with the club for money.
Take a walk. Stretch out your legs after spending hours in the van. Check out this new city. I love the fact that, having toured so much, I can tell most people I meet that I’ve been to their hometown. Think of your walks as investments in future bar conversations. What’s cool about Pittsburgh? The Hot Metal Bridge and the half-priced Mexican food! Gainesville, huh? Ever go to that park where all of the alligators sunbathe? That shit’s crazy!
One thing, and I hate to say it, but keep track of where you’re going on your walk, and where you have to meet every one. One time, me and my old band mate Jeff left our cell phones at the place where we were staying, and went for a run, only to get lost on the way back, in our band mate Evan’s parents’ neighborhood in suburban Massachusetts. We wound up getting a ride back from some dude who went to high school with Evan, and lived across the neighborhood. I still feel stupid about that. Also, know if there’s a time when you need to be back. You don’t wanna return from a two-hour walk to find your band all set up and everyone waiting for you.
Keep a couple of games handy. We used to keep a wiffle ball and bat, and a set of Uno cards in the van. Uno doesn’t take up any space, and is easy to learn, so you can kill an hour before the show, plus there’s something kind of gangsterish about playing cards in an empty bar, even if they’re Uno cards. Wiffle ball can be a fun band-bonding thing to do, too, just try and use it to dispel band tensions, instead of escalating them. Don’t hound about dumb infield fly rules, just be glad to be in Oklahoma City, watching someone who was annoying you in the van two hours earlier belting the ball onto the roof of the club for a home run. You can take a few minutes to pretend that you aren’t on tour. It’s good to get your mind away from the grind of sleep-drive-music… sleep-drive-music…
Get a sleeping bag that comes in a drawstring bag. I’ve had two sleeping bags since 1986, so I can’t really suggest brands or anything. Don’t worry about any of that keeps-you-warm-up-to-20-below crap; you’re going on a punk tour, not a survival mission in the Andes. All you need is a strong zipper, and a drawstring bag to carry it all in.
A sleeping bag that comes in some sort of drawstring bag is crucial for two reasons – The straps that hold your sleeping bag together when it’s rolled up will stretch out, and you don’t want the whole deal coming unwound in the back of the van, 'cos it’ll rub up on all sorts of dirty shit, and get stuck on cymbal stands. Also, the carrying bag can hold more than a sleeping bag. You can cram your pillow, sheet, and camp pad in there, too, keeping all of your sleeping stuff in the same place, and eliminating five minutes of drunken digging through the back of the van at 3 a.m., outside of wherever you’re staying.
Fold up a bed sheet, and keep it in the bottom of your bag of sleeping gear. There will be many nights where it is too warm to sleep in your sleeping bag, and instead, you can sleep on top of your bag, with the sheet over you. This is extra sweet, because then you have two layers of padding between the hardwood floor and your sore, sore shoulders.
Bring your own pillow and pillowcase. There won’t always be an extra couch cushion for you to grab, and the goal is to be as autonomous as possible so you don’t impose on whomever you’re staying with. Also, keep it in a pillowcase. Besides impressing people with the Transformers print that you’ve been rockin’ since grade school, the pillowcase will become another way to carry things around. You can stick books, your toothbrush, dirty magazines, or whatever in there.
A camp pad is a rectangle of foam rubber that pads you from the floor, and rolls up for easy traveling. They kinda look like yoga mats, and you can get them for about ten dollars at most sporting goods stores. After a few nights on the road, it’s nice to have something between your sleeping bag and the floor. They’re perfect for those nights when you’re staying in an apartment with no rugs, and everyone has already claimed the couches and spare beds, so you wind up on the kitchen floor.
If you’re feeling really cushy, invest in one of those 9” oscillating desk fans. Yeah, that brings you a hair too close to being the Prince Pampered of the tour, but a fan will cool you down at night, plus the fan’s white noise will help drown out the party that’s still going on downstairs while you’re trying to sleep, and help stir up the air around you, so you can smell like a couple different cigarettes in the morning, as opposed to just one.
I hope that this guide will give you a few good ideas to make your next tour that much more enjoyable. Just think of my smiling face every time you play wiffle ball in the parking lot behind a club.