Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past eighteen years. Harris founded and is the lead singer/songwriter of Portland post-pop-punk band the Thermals. In fourteen years, the band has toured fifteen countries and released seven records. Follow Harris on Twitter here.
This article appears in AdHoc Issue 15, a collaboration with the Talkhouse.
I’ve been touring in rock bands for more than twenty years — professionally for more than ten. Like with any profession, possessing the proper tools and knowing how to use them is the key to doing a good job. Below, I have compiled a list of means and machines that are crucial to not just survive touring, but to do it well and sometimes even enjoy it. Some can be purchased in a store; others come from within. (NB: This short guide is for touring the United States specifically.)
Obviously you will need a vehicle to haul your gear and your band around the country. It doesn’t need to be huge. My band mate Kathy Foster and I once toured for more than a month in my 1993 Toyota Corolla, but it was only the two of us and we had a minimal setup. If there are three to four people in your band, you could tour in a van as small as a Ford Aerostar. Personally, I have mostly toured in full-sized — twelve-passenger or larger — vans.
These days, my band the Thermals usually rents a Sprinter van from Bandago when we do national tours, but for shorter trips, and for most of our career, we’ve toured in a 2002 Chevy Express Van. We bought it from a Portland dealer that re-sells rental vans once they’ve cleared 60,000 miles. We removed the two back benches, and our (fourth, I think) drummer Lorin Coleman installed a sturdy loft that can hold gear and merch above and below.
If your band only tours every few years — or if you’re just going to play shows from San Francisco to San Diego and then break up — you can probably just rent a van or borrow one from a friend’s band. But if you’re in it for the long haul, and I hope you are, I would recommend buying a van. Pool your money and do your research. Get something used — around ten years old — but sturdy. Build a loft to hide and protect your gear from theft — and to protect yourself from your gear in the event of a collision. Change your oil every 3,000 miles, and wear your damn seatbelt.
Although most days you will be traveling at sixty-five miles per hour or faster, nothing really happens quickly on tour. The United States is a very large country. (Too large, in my opinion. I say if a state wants to secede, let them secede already! I propose Washington, Oregon and California all secede and form one super-chill country with a mostly weed-based economy.) Unless you’re on the East Coast, most drives between major cities will be six to eight hours — at least. If you ever do get to the venue early, you will be alone. Promoters, sound engineers and local bands do not show up early, and many make it a point of pride to be late. Drive safely, take your time and be patient.
Patience is not something that comes naturally to me; ask anyone who has ever toured with the Thermals. It has taken me years of practice to attain even a small modicum of patience. These days I stay composed by staying occupied. Reading, writing and sleeping are my three favorite ways to pass the time.
Of course you will have your instruments with you. A few quick tips, though: keep the smaller pieces of gear (guitars, snare drums, cymbals) with you whenever you can. Tour can be treacherous! Many bands have had their vans and instruments stolen — even in their own towns — mine included. Anything you leave in the van overnight may not be there in the morning. If you can carry it with one hand, I would advise bringing it with you wherever you sleep — be it the fanciest hotel or the dirtiest punk house.
You can have the newest van and the sweetest gear. You can be selling out shows across the country. You can be on top of the world — but if you don’t like the people who are with you there, you’ll wish you were anywhere else.
Green Day’s Mike Dirnt said it best in an interview with Guitar Center: “Play music with friends. Don’t play with somebody because they happen to have a lot of skills. Play with people you get along with, because happiness is a road traveled, not a destination.”
You may be cringing if this sounds a little too greeting-card-inspirational to your ears, but it’s absolutely true. Being on tour means being with your band twenty-four hours per day. The only privacy you’ll have is when you are asleep and even then, your band mates may show up in your dreams, as mine sometimes do. Playing with people you not only get along with but are true friends with is crucial to not just getting through tour, but having a great time as well.
What did we bring on tour before we had tiny computers in our pockets? We brought books, magazines, CDs, cassettes and video games. We still do all the same things we used to do — read, listen to music and play games — we just use one device to do them all, as well as text our girlfriends and boyfriends and call our parents. There’s actually a lot more space in the van now that we don’t have piles of media stacked from the carpet to the ceiling.
Although I don’t want to totally celebrate our collective addiction to them, I know that everyone in the van having a phone keeps us comfortable, placated and safe. A ten-hour drive requires a lot of distraction if you’re not driving — especially if it’s your tenth ten-hour drive in as many days. Obviously you should try to limit your screen use if possible. When your eye starts twitching at the end of the first week of tour, you can blame it on a number of things: stress, sleepless nights and screen time. You may have to wait until you’re home again to de-stress and catch up on sleep. Putting down your phone can be done at any time. I mean, in theory. I’ve never done it myself. My eye? Oh, it’s fine. It just always twitches.
People who don’t play music for a living have a very fantastical view of what the touring life is actually like. Your friends and family back at home picture it as an extended vacation. You travel to exciting cities every day and party hard every night. What they fail to realize is that you are working the whole time.
Tour is a job unlike any other; it can be fun, but it is incredibly exhausting. Going on tour is not like going on a holiday. You spend less than twenty-four hours in each city you visit, and therefore don’t get to see many sights. It’s not very relaxing, and often uncomfortable. Tour can make you depressed, and has even made some people quit music altogether. Negative feelings can creep in quickly when you are living in cramped quarters and constantly sleep deprived. I do think it’s important to remind yourself that you are doing what you love, and that following your dreams is hard work!
A positive mental attitude doesn’t always come naturally. It is something that has to be cultivated and practiced. On tour, you will find yourself in many tough situations that you cannot command; staying cool and collected is important. A wise man once said, “The mark of a pure man is that one realizes he can’t control his circumstances, he can only control his response.” That man was Frasier Crane.
Let’s face it: we live in a filthy world. Most things we touch are covered in germs. When you’re on the road, you’re often tired and probably not on the best diet. Your body will be extra susceptible to infection, so it’s vital that you do whatever you can to keep your hands and face clean. I’m not a total germaphobe, but I have found that the more I stay clean, the less I am sick on tour. There’s nothing cool about always carrying a stock of Wet Ones in your backpack. But if you’re more concerned with being cool than being healthy, you’re gonna be coughing and sneezing your way through most of tour. Please, cover your mouth.
Academy Records, Greenpoint
Artbook @ MoMA PS1, Long Island City
Cafe Grumpy, Greenpoint
Commend, Lower East Side
Coop 87, Greenpoint
LIC Corner Cafe, Long Island City
Little Skips, Bushwick
Printed Matter, Chelsea
Spoonbill & Sugartown, Williamsburg