Showtime! A Day in the Life of a Guitar Tech Pt. 5 - Time to Rest and Think

In the course of the evening there will be several different bands appearing. There is no way everybody will get exactly the monitor levels he (or she) really wants. You have to draw a line somewhere. And we do it by enforcing a one-hour break, so that even the house technicians get a chance to grab a bite.

With several warm-up bands lined up the headliner’s crew invariably gets a few hours of calm before the storm. You can spend this time channel-hopping on the tour bus, but these days many get their share of diversion via the Internet. Social media are calling the band technician. Time to make that daily status update, and keep up with what your friends are doing while you’re away. The Net offers you plenty of routes to get away from the daily humdrum of life on the road. These days there is Wi-fi on the tour bus, too.

I get a nice cup of espresso from our new machine on the bus. Even though we are parked in a large metropolis, nothing beats a nice cuppa and Facebook.

Dark Stage

One stage technician’s and electrician’s trade union has managed to get the concept of Dark Stage accepted. During this one hour nobody is allowed to be on stage. The idea behind Dark Stage is to ensure that all of the crew get enough time to be able to have a decent dinner before the show in the evening. This may seem a strange idea at first glance, but really pays off in the long term, and I feel that the concept of Dark Stage should be made standard practice all across Europe.

Road Lag

It’s hard to keep up with regular office hours while your on tour. When I get my first chance to fire up my virtual home office the clock’s already six in the evening, making it seven pm at home. Shoot, I will have to place that important call tomorrow, after all! The days spent on tour have a tendency to lose their contours and flow into each other. Touring is like being stuck in a fog for days on end. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of the days of the week, when every day is Saturday night.

Nursing a relationship over several timezones and under different living-conditions takes a good deal of effort on everybody’s part. Skype-calls should be agreed on carefully, because a missed (or hurried) call will only cause anger and resentment.

Buy Out

Instead of providing catering for the crew’s dinner tonight, the local promoter uses the Buy Out -option. Every crew member gets handed a 20 € bill that he can use to buy his own dinner.

If the backstage catering still has a lot of left-overs you could make yourself a sandwich and save the 20 euros to spend on something else. It’s OK to live on sandwiches for a day, every once in a while, but you shouldn’t try to make it without at least one warm meal for a longer period of time, as it will bite you in the butt after a while. Today’s stop is in a place I already know from a different tour, which makes it easier to go out and hunt for a nice restaurant on my own.

Life on the road

In the best of cases being constantly on the road and seeing new places can be of therapeutical value. It takes you away from the grey monotony of your daily routines at home, and frees you from the chains of what society expects of you. It can give you a Zen-style grounding, to be forced to concentrate on the here and now. Your normal daily challenges seem a lifetime away, while putting on the show and dealing with daily equipment malfunctions takes up all of your focus. Try to make the most of this feeling of belonging to a group of travellers, a band of gypsies, or a circus troupe.

For some of the more sensitive among us, touring may cause problems. Being on a tour bus is like being in a submarine. You can watch some people wilt visibly from a fresh and sharp personality to something resembling a zombie. The lack of privacy can drive some people crazy. Some simply cannot put up with all the commotion and noise. Your only privacy barrier is the thin curtain of your bunk bed.

I take a peek through our bus’ darkened windows. Somehow the city doesn’t seem so enticing in the dark. I feel that I don’t need anything else than what the bus and the backstage area has to offer. I know that the nearest building designed by Gaudí is only 500 metres away, but today I can’t be bothered to go out. I am surrounded by friend, next to a working coffee machine, as well as my bed and my workplace.

Tour buses

The best European tour buses can be rather flashy and stylish. Shiny wooden panels, scented soap, clean towels, leather seats, roomy beds and nice lighting make you feel like travelling in a miniature hotel.

There’s a simple reason behind the widespread use of nightliner coaches on tours. If your itinerary has been worked out well, you can plan a tour without the need for travelling days. The show can stay on the road, and everybody sleeps on the bus while it travels to the next destination. This is a very cost-effective way of touring. A normal full-length European tour usually continues for eight to ten weeks – if something longer has been set up by the promoter he is being unrealistic. During these weeks the coach will be your home away from home. Your own berth – the sarcophagus – will be the only place for you to escape the hectic life on the road. Your bed is your own little castle you will keep your books, your chargers, and your soft drinks in.

Life in a bubble – leave or stay?

Life on the road is tiring and it wears you down. Like birds of a feather band technicians on tour flock together. The crew, the direction signs, and your tour coach form a sort of safe haven that you don’t necessarily want to leave. I call this environment the “tour bubble”. You should take the extra effort required to burst this bubble regularly, and take in the different landscapes and cultures life on the road has to offer!

The artist left his brain on the bus…

The tour bubble also poses challenges for the band on tour as well. In some respects the artist’s lot is even crazier, because his life on the road is completely pampered. He doesn’t need to take care of anything, as he has hired his staff to pave the road for him. On tour the band members might even lose several decades of mental development.

A band can consist of guys living in several different countries, who have all been around the world several times. Still, on tour they often allow themselves to “take their brains out” and leave them in storage, unused. The artist might ask his technician for directions to the nearest bathroom several times a day. Other questions posed repeatedly regularly include “Which way is the stage?”, “Could you open the fridge for me, please?”, “How do I open this window over there?” or “Which button must I press to get the stereo to work?”

You would think a grown-up would be able to make his own way to the loo, or know how to work an mp3-player, but some magic spell seems to take hold of the band whenever they’re on tour. I can’t explain the reason why…

When a roadie finally returns home, his wife or companion (if there is somebody waiting for him) very often has to deal with the consequences. We don’t try do be difficult, but having to play the all-knowing chaperone has taken its toll. It simply makes saying that you have no clue whatsoever very refreshing, for a change.

A lungful of fresh air

But even the Internet can become boring and the tour bus’ walls start to cave in on you. Time to get off your backside and take a little stroll to shake that beginning bout of touring anxiety.

You can easily soak some oxygen in – and get the endorphins going – by walking around in a strange place. One hour’s worth of time can be enough to pick up your little tour of the city, where you left off in the morning. If you’ve done a little background work you might even be able to take in the most important tourist sites (Gaudí), take a stroll through the old town (Barri Góthic) or take in some local culture (Las Ramblas).

Barcelona is a prime example of a city that shows itself – quite literally – in a rather different light. Some of the not-so-nice elements of the local populace start prowling the streets at night – drug dealers, pickpockets, prostitutes, homeless drunks, and all sorts of conmen.

Use your common sense when you’re out in the streets of a foreign city. Alcohol is the biggest risk factor. Most of the stories about foreigners “getting in trouble” abroad have at least part of their roots in people getting drunk. I know – been there, done that…

Here are some examples of my exploits in Barcelona over the years (as a deterrent): 
1) Got my wallet stolen in a crowded place – I was drunk. 2) Left my coat on a terrace. When I returned to get it the coat was already gone. I was drunk. 3) One Moroccan tricked me into buying some overpriced nonsense – I was drunk. 4) I almost picked a fight in front of a nightclub – I was drunk. 5) Thinking of it – almost all of the unpleasant things I have ever encountered – in Barcelona, or anywhere else – have happened while I was drunk.

If you keep your wits up and your senses sharp you shouldn’t run into problems in most places. Don’t take all your valuables with you, leave what you don’t need on the bus in your sarcophagus. Most thieves or robbers are only after your valuables and your money, and won’t hurt you, once you’ve given them what they want.

Don’t mull work-related problems while your out and about. These are very precious moments, so try staying in the now – you won’t ever get this particular evening back. If you cannot do anything to rectify a problem at that moment, try not to dwell on it.

Culture Shock

The most basic type of culture shock is characterized by you getting annoyed at the local people’s customs, language or even the kind of alphabet used in a certain country. Being away from home for too long can make life feel uncontrollable.

A culture shock experienced on tour can be more severe that a tourist’s. Places change every day, and having to deal with new strangers and new languages on a daily basis can cause anxiety. Exotic places can start feeling repulsive. Not being used to the local cuisine with all its strange tastes and odours is what can drive you to frequent the local franchise of a US hamburger or pizza chain. The presence of these standardized restaurants tells you a good deal about the need for something “safe” and familiar in our mobile world of culture shock victims.

The VIP-list

As we sit in a nice café my phone starts to ring. It’s our contact from the local tour sponsor. He is very sorry for getting in touch only now, but he would like to add several guests to our VIP-list. I am very tempted to flip him the bird for not getting in touch earlier. VIP- or guest-lists are compiled before the doors are opened, and that’s that. But, actually, I need the guy more than he needs me, so I grit my teeth and oblige him politely.

This is a stupid situation. The tour manager won’t really be jumping for joy when I approach him with additional names to the list. The doors have been open for quite a while and he will be busy.

I compile a list of the people to be added using my mobile’s notes-app, and mail it to our tour manager to give to the doormen. I also text him, apologizing for the trouble and explaining the situation, adding a row of emoticons. Soon I get his reply that the list has been taken care of – great!

Being taken ill

While I eat our last tapas my colleague suddenly complains of feeling unwell. He has to make off for the lavatory several times. Luckily, our tour bus also includes an on-board pharmacy. The worst thing about being on tour is that, in most cases, you will have to work even when you’re sick.

If a technician has to keep to his bed the rest of the crew have to share the patient’s workload among themselves. A cancelled show is a huge budgetary and organizational nightmare, which is why shows are cancelled only in extreme situations. One of the only reasons for cancelling a show is if the lead singer has fallen ill. If the frontman/frontwoman cannot sing there will be no show.

Back to the venue

My comrade doesn’t feel too well, and even though I try to stay calm, I can feel a bit of anxiety rising. We have to deal with the show. I pay the bill and we set off for the venue.

It is hard enough to try and relax before the show. I’m running on high gear, which makes us turn up at the venue a bit too early. My colleague says he’s feeling much better now – it seems to have been a false alarm, so far so good!

A quick look at the stage tells me all our equipment has stayed untouched, which is how it should be. Looking at the clock tells me I’ve come back way too early, but I can’t seem to be able to make up my mind on how to spend this extra time. I feel slightly amused at the though that I might have stayed a little longer at the café to soak up this bustling city’s ambience. Looks like the tour bubble, my responsibilities and my care for my fellow crew member have all conspired to drive me back here.

The crew and alcohol

It is moments like these that make a guy think about having a drink or two. It sure would feel good to bridge the time before the show by downing a couple of refreshing Catalonian lagers. Sadly, this is not the way to go! Not just for once, and not in the long run. If you really have to have an alcoholic drink you should save it for after the show. A technician’s work ethic forbids alcohol on the job. There may be the occasional touring entourage partial to a tipple, but they should really keep their eyes on what’s important. When it comes down to it, only a sober crew is a professional crew – there’s no two ways about it.

The Story continues next week with Part 6 - The Endless Wait

19.11.2014 Kimmo Aroluoma (Translated by: Martin Berka, Pics: Harri Huuhtanen) The author is one of Custom Sounds’ owners, and an incorrigible guitar and gear enthusiast.