Finding Your Path To Success|
(Soapbox Column #2)
Bass Player Magazine
Published October, 1999
People used to wonder why a young man or woman would choose the life of a professional musician over that of a doctor or lawyer. Now they wonder why a young Gen-X'er doesn't opt for the lifestyle of a highly-paid website designer or computer consultant over the tough road of playing bass for a living. There are lots of answers, but only one that's relevant to this month's column - they don't pay computer geeks to fly to Europe and perform their duties in front of a crowd of screaming French fans in, say, Bordeaux, where some of the local wine (you may have heard of it?) is chilled and waiting for you backstage after the gig.
Touring is the most romantic of all musical term jobs. Travelling for free, seeing places you've probably never been, playing every night, meeting people under the best of circumstances (those being your special status as a badge-wearing band member). If you can handle the pace, there's nothing like it. But touring in America is one thing. Touring Europe is quite another.
I was recently lucky enough to have done a five-week Euro tour with former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer (Epitaph), and I learned a lot about what to do, what not to do, and how to make such a trip successful in music, business and pleasure. So here's my list of Ways To Have A Good Time Touring Europe:
- Before leaving, prepare your equipment for travel to the nth degree. This includes loosening the strings on your bass before flying with it, as some pieces of wood don't react very well to being 30,000 feet high for eleven hours with tension on the neck. If you're bringing gear with you-especially an amplifier-pack it as if it was heading to the Samsonite Gorilla Testing Facility. Because for all intents and purposes, it is. Non-shock-mounted rack cases will make you very unhappy upon arrival.
- Communicate with the tour manager beforehand. (This will be a recurring theme.) If the tour won't help you pay for the cost of bringing your favorite rig with you, chances are you'll have to procure backline in Europe. Do you have an endorsement? Will Company X get you a rig for that festival in Belgium? If you can't get the itinerary from the tour manager at least four weeks ahead of time, the answer is probably no even if you are endorsed. If you're not endorsed and can't fly your gear, then you are at the tour manager's mercy. Be very nice to him when you ask for specific pieces of gear. Try to remember that he's most likely working within a budget that might not allow for your six-cabinet/ten-rack-space configuration that you use at home, to say nothing of how that setup would fit in the back of the fifteen-year-old Mercedes van you'll be travelling in.
- Voltage. America operates at 120 Volts/60 Hz, Western Europe at 240 Volts/50 Hz. They use a funny plug about the size of a baseball. England (as it always does) insists on being different than the rest of Europe and uses a softball-sized plug. If you're bringing a 120 Volt pedalboard to use with their 240 Volt backline, will they have a 240-to-120 step-down transformer so that your pedals don't burst into flames upon being powered up in London? Does your 120 Volt amp operate at 50 Hz without going into ground-loop hell? The tour manager will know all this and more you won't even think of until you get there and it's too late. Ask him before you leave. I recommend bringing the following items if you can find them: an English-to-Euro converter, a Euro-to-English converter, US-to-Euro converter, US 3-prong to US 2-prong converter, and the Eb-Tech Hum Eliminator for ground loop problems. And, if you're using a 120 Volt electric shaver, Radio Shack has a tiny step-down transformer that will keep you from looking too much like Charles Manson no matter how primitive the hotel you're staying in.
Culture and Recreation
- Don't wear t-shirts with American flags on them. I made this mistake in Sweden, hardly a hotbed of anti-American sentiment, when I donned a Mike Keneally t-shirt adorned with stars, stripes and dolphins. The dirty looks I got that day in Stockholm were enough to make run back to my hotel room and change. Good thing I didn't try that in France.
- Be careful with the beer. It's better and stronger over there. Long rides on the autobahn are significantly less pleasant with a hangover. Also, as a rule of thumb, never go shot-for-shot with the drum tech.
- Stay healthy. Try and get some exercise. Five weeks of bread and cheese (the European equivalent of the backstage deli tray) will trash your digestive system something fierce. There are certain places where you should not eat at all. You'll know them when you see them. On the positive side, drink as much of the excellent coffee as possible. It makes American coffee seem like cod liver oil.
- If you're planning on frequenting a red light district, take a roadie with you. Preferably the biggest roadie. Chances are he's been there before, and they may even keep you from contracting a disease or even getting killed, which would severely hamper your ability to make the following night's gig.
Lastly, just remember why you're there - to play bass. No matter what you do in your time off, no matter how crazy the schedule and culture is, as long as you do what you need to do to play the gig to the best of your ability every night of the tour, you'll emerge a more well-rounded musician and person for it. A European tour is one of the ultimate payoffs you can get as a working bassist. If the opportunity comes your way, don't dare pass it up.
- If you have an English road crew (and chances are that if you have one, they'll be English), do NOT under any circumstances bring up the subject of the English monarchy. You'll be privy to a screaming debate containing curses they don't even use in South Park.
- Spend your money wisely. Keep track of the exchange rates. Your Spanish pesetas and Italian lire will go a lot farther than your Swiss Francs and Norwegian Kroners. Your salary and per diem will arrive in different colored Monopoly money every week. Bring a calculator. And when in doubt, ask the tour manager. Remember, he's collecting the band's gate receipts in Monopoly money every night.
- Keep your cool. Crazy things will happen, like a cameraman kicking out the power cord of your bass rig during a live performance on the French national television, or having to stand outside in the freezing cold while Danish border patrolmen with drug-sniffing dogs make the crew empty the van to make sure the bass drum isn't stuffed with heroin. The more level-headed you are about things, the more respect you'll get from the artist you're working for (who's been through it all before), not to mention the crew and tour manager, whose job it is to deal with the unexpected in a professional manner at all times. Even if they're using curses you've never heard before while they do it.
And don't forget to bring a camera.
Reprinted with permission from the October, 1999 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.