Massive Highway: Touring Tips for Musicians Who Should Probably Know Better By Now

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We got touring tips from Zachary Lucky, Geoff Smith and Jeanette Stewart

The right lane of the highway is blanketed in winter sludge. Guided by blasts of polar wind, ice has begun to tendril its way up on to the pavement. Standard prairie driving conditions, for this half of the year anyway. We glide towards Regina on the left, telephone poles, soberly erect like monolithic crosses, silently guiding the way.

Amanda, our compatriot, soul mate and band benefactor, suddenly spots a bald eagle.

“That’s a good omen,” I offer.

“Really?”

I’m bullshitting, of course, but no one else has anything contrarian to say on the matter. Besides, when was the last time you saw a bald eagle hanging out on the side of the highway in Saskatchewan?

We sidle up next to a semi and attempt to pass. In response, the vehicle spits up on our windshield, completely obscuring the view.

“Shit,” yells Amanda, as she wrestles with the wipers. It’s a tense couple of seconds before we emerge on the other side.

Icy death averted, we soldier on towards the American border.

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There’s more to touring than the overly dramatic innards of a van

This trip to Texas to play at SXSW marks my twelfth tour – eighth with my current band Slow Down Molasses. Having begun to play out of Saskatoon starting in 1998, touring has always been something of a novel way of scamming a road trip in-between the endless band jams. Teenage proclivities notwithstanding, it hasn’t gotten any easier. As long as there are vehicles there will be reliable mechanics, which in turn fuels our own desires to self-diagnose and self-medicate the rumbly tour van.

Over the course of my touring career with multiple bands I’ve been fortunate enough to experience minimal vehicular disaster.

Like that time in rural Alberta when our van blew a hose at 5am. Or that time I had to siphon out excess engine coolant with an over-sized Pixie Stick straw. Or that time we got too drunk and the sound tech had to bum rush the stage and kick us off. Or that time in Charlottetown when we went home with some strange man and he ended up taking us to his dilapidated murder mansion. Or that time I got lost in Cardiff, Wales at 3am with several drunken women. Or that time…

After being on the road for fourteen years I know, now, that there’s a lot more to touring than the overly dramatic innards of a van.

Zachary Lucky is one of Saskatchewan’s most exemplary touring musicians in that he spends much of his time on the road. Anywhere but here. Lucky’s latest album, The Ballad of Losing You, was released in December, 2013 via Missed Connection Records. It’s achingly beautiful; tellingly, it is Lucky at his finest. In celebration, Lucky got the fuck out of town, touring across Canada (again) and through America (for the first time).

“You think that after all these tours that I’d have some solid advice that would come to mind,” he says after I press him for some pro tips.

Lucky has just returned to Saskatoon, a few days before my own band is set to depart for Austin. Having been born into a musical family – his grandfather being none other than Saskatchewan country singer Smilin’ Jonnie aka John Lucky – Zachary seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to touring.

“It’s a given that you’re going to drink, most likely every night. And when you’re on the road for weeks or months at a time, this can be damn hard on the body,” says Lucky. “One thing I’ve started doing in the past year is the beer, water, beer, water, beer, water, water, water routine. It keeps you decently level while still taking advantage of the perks of the job. Good for the vocal chords too.

“Also, don’t take anything anyone says too personally,” he adds. “When you’re tired, drunk, hung over and broke, it’s hard not to read into every single thing that everyone is saying to you.”

Sane planning, sensible future. Except that in America beer is typically cheaper than bottled water, especially when you have been brought up in a frugal family where buying in bulk is the cornerstone of financial success. Case in point, our first night on tour, spent in a cheap countrified hotel in Minot, North Dakota, ends with a destroyed 24-pack of Pabst that was purchased for the princely sum of $18.

USA beer

In the midst of embarking on my own trip south, I miss another important local show. Geoff Smith has similarly returned to home from his own tour. The hirsute front man of Gunner & Smith, the band is hosting a party at Amigos to celebrate their first full-length album,

Smith has his own ideas on how to stay sane on the road.

“Take alone time and respect other people’s alone time,” says Smith. “It’s easy for tour to feel like a few weeks of partying with friends, but it helps when you take care of yourself, and give other people the space they need.”

Both musicians recently played at the Folk Alliance in Kansas City, a festival that takes over an entire hotel and transforms it into a flophouse with each room becoming an impromptu venue.

Lucky agrees with Smith’s sentiments.

“Alone time is key. This can be the saving grace of a tour especially if you’re on a longer tour that spans months,” he advises. “Spending every minute of every day with the people you’re on stage with every night can get to be a little much, even if you love each other. When you get to a city, branch off and go explore the city. Read a book, see friends. It’s good for everyone in the long run.”

I wonder if Lucky and Smith drank beers together while in Kansas. As usual, I’ve forgotten to ask the important questions.

Lessons Learned

Every time I go on tour I learn something new. Usually it’s something terrible about one of my band mates, who are literally in charge of my well-being while on the road.

Other lessons learned: who gets humpy in their sleep while sharing a hotel bed.

“Sleep as much as possible, wherever you can, preferably alone,” says Lucky.

It’s strange how we measure success sometimes. To some, it’s having a partner to share romance and condoms with. To others, it’s being able to starfish out over a queen-sized mattress without kicking someone else in the shins.

I share a thick, phlegm-coloured comforter, standard hotel-issue, with Levi our first night in America. I’m fine with the arrangement – we’ve been band mates for roughly two years now and I look forward to sharing many a bed with him in the future. Total romance.

Even so, I make sure there is thin veneer of bed sheet separating our skin from ever touching.

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Five totally indispensable tips for touring

Beer For Days: Saskatchewan isn’t exactly known as a wino’s paradise. Booze is pricy and often hard to come by. Why we live here, I’ll never know. So, logically, when passing through Alberta or Quebec, make sure to stock up on cheap brew. And not just for getting backseat blitzed. Sell them for retail when your play house parties.

Also, regional beers are an excellent form of currency when attempting to bribe rural tow truck drivers.

Dressed For Success: When you spend the majority of your time sitting on your butt and spewing a noxious mix of fumes made up of hangover and gas station cuisine, a clean change of ginch is likely going to save your life. For those who insist on traveling light, leave home wearing your worst, more torn up pair of underwear and keep them on for at least three days. Once you can’t stand it anymore, buy a clean pair and chuck out the old ones. You’ll feel like some kind of velvety-rumped royalty and your band mates will thank you for it.

Plastic Bottles vs. Spotty Bladders: Everyone trash talks plastic bottles – they are hellaciously wasteful after all. Unfortunately the reusable kind aren’t recommended for those awkward moments when your bladder is full of urine and you’re 30 minutes away from the next rest stop. Also suggested for in van piss-ups: old fast food bags and wrappers. In a situation when your aim is spotty at best it’s a good idea to have a pee bib just in case.

Volunteer: No one likes to get on the road all hungover and hangry, but if you get your mandatory driving shift in first you are likely excluded from the post-show evening shift. Which means you are allowed to get loser wasted and do it all over again the next day.

Get Up Early: Find out when your band mates are setting their alarm clocks for and then wake up five minutes earlier. You’ll get to use the bathroom and shower first and you’ll probably piss somebody off to boot, which is the real reason why we all tour. To annoy people.

Corndogs are cheaper than grapes

I press Lucky for one last piece of advice. Ever the showman, he gives me a good one.

“Eat at grocery stores.”

Half a day’s drive away from Minot, we are studying the dining options at a gas station that appears to have sprung from the dirt of rural South Dakota. The options are suspect at best, terrifying at worst.

corndog

Jeanette, who has recently spent time on the rails between the prairies and eastern Canada on her own tours as Jeans Boots, has purchased several items, including a bag of buffalo hot sauce cheezies that look like neon sausages, and corndogs.

“The corndogs were cheaper than the grapes,” she shrugs. After imbibing one of the deep-fried logs her pallor has gotten visibly paler.

“I shouldn’t have eaten this. No one should eat this.”

I lend her the $5 for grapes.