Keith Carne (We Are Scientists) on Life on the Road in the U.K. — and Ricky Gervais’ Latest Film

Carne takes on David Brent: Life on the Road.

As a member of the indie-pop band We Are Scientists — a group that’s found its strongest fan base in the United Kingdom — fans and friends often ask me what it’s like to tour in the UK as a U.S. band. It’s the everyday stuff that usually comes to mind first. There’s the knee-jerk paranoia of remembering to drive on the left side of the road every time you pull out of a parking space. Your pants pockets are forever sagging, anchored by the coinage that seems to make up most of their physical currency (the WAS touring party calls it “shrapnel”). And then there’s the near impossibility of finding a restaurant other than a kebab shop open post-show.

These are just a few of the differences I’ve come to know — though maybe not entirely understand — better than I ever imagined I would. Ricky Gervais’ new film, David Brent: Life on the Road, reminded me of many of them. The mockumentary follows David Brent through the trenches of touring and captures every calamitous moment that results from his decision to become the front man for his own rock band.

Like so many 2017 releases, it’s something of a franchise film. Its central character is someone we already have a relationship with; Gervais, who directed the film from his own script, plays David Brent, a lout whose narcissistic, misguided and unintentionally racist antics were captured in the BBC series The Office. He acknowledges this past right in the film’s opening in a talking-head close-up (a narrative technique now thoroughly ingrained within the television vernacular the series helped to popularize): “That was then. This is now.”

Brent hasn’t changed at all.

Well…sort of. Brent hasn’t changed at all. He’s still a buffoon, fumbling for attention, fascinated by prop gags and singularly capable of winning your sympathy, even if it’s just because you’re so embarrassed for him. He has a different daytime gig at least; he’s now a rep for a company that outfits public lavatories with ladies’ hygiene products. It’s the world around him that’s changed. Given our shifted political landscape, Brent-isms that fifteen years ago would have signaled intolerance and insensitivity (like the way he refers to a crowd member with a physical disability as “mental in the legs” or the ways he attempts to slyly point out an overweight woman’s state of health) now seem almost benign.

Brent is now fifty-five, and his dreams are slipping away. He decides to take what he believes is a real shot at rock stardom. He cashes in his pension, takes a two-week (unpaid) leave from his job at Lavichem, and hires four pro-grade musicians and a sound engineer/tour manager to round out his band, Foregone Conclusion. (One such band member is singer-songwriter and former WAS drummer Andy Burrows, who also serves as the film’s music supervisor.) They set out to capture the attention of labels and fans on a modest seven-date tour. Of course, there’s a documentary crew in tow to capture it all.

Gervais has said of Michael Scott, his American stand-in in NBC’s version of The Office, “If you don’t know a Michael Scott then you are Michael Scott.”

And he’s right: this character’s cheek-sucking awkwardness doesn’t originate from his misunderstanding of identity politics, but rather from our own identification politics. We’ve all been dealt a blow of public humiliation, and that ability to see little bits of Brent or Scott within us is ultimately what makes Life on the Road so compelling and so funny.

Last year we spent eighty days touring the U.K., a territory with a collected landmass that’s only about the size of Oregon.

WAS makes it a point to be in the U.K. whenever we release a new album. We’re there for festivals and tours every summer. Last year we spent eighty days touring the U.K., a territory with a collected landmass that’s only about the size of Oregon. Which is why Life on the Road brought to mind that aforementioned laundry list of annoying national variations. One of the most obvious differences between our countries — at least for the WAS members — is the difficulty in finding a cup of “filter” (or drip as we’d call it here) coffee in the U.K. You have to settle for an Americano from Costa, a ubiquitous U.K.-based coffee chain with Starbucks’ sleek-nineties-bourgeois sense for branding and Tim Horton’s instinct for flavor. Anyone who has been on a highway in the U.K. knows it well, including David Brent and the reluctant members of his band. There’s even a Costa reference in the film’s namesake song (“Then to Gloucester, I get a Costa/Hard shoulder/Coffee holder”).

The film also brought to mind the way touring can function as a metaphor for national values and practices. The observations you make while on tour can illustrate deep-seated cultural differences between the countries. Rock music, for example, still seems to be a vigorous part of Britain’s popular culture, which is one reason WAS and plenty of other mid-level indie bands like us still have such broad appeal and can make a living by playing in so many cities. Rap music has made an impact on popular and music culture there, no doubt. Brent even nods at that cultural transition by strong-arming a young rapper, Dom Johnson, to become Foregone Conclusion’s ace-in-hole on a few tunes during their live set. Ben Bailey Smith, another Office alum, plays Johnson, who functions as the film’s heart and conscience; he’s the closest thing Brent’s got to a friend on the tour — at least he’s the only one Brent doesn’t have to pay to drink with him post-show. Smith’s humanity is one of the few equalizing forces that help to neutralize the pity you might feel for Brent.

Yet, when traveling there, I’ve noticed that rap hasn’t neutralized rock’s influence on British youth the way it has in America. David Brent is certainly out of touch, but it’s telling that his idea of contemporary musical success means fronting a classic rock quintet (vocals, guitar, bass, piano and drums) rather than rhyming over Serato tracks (thank God). This is, after all, the country where Oasis still reigns supreme.

The truth is that large-scale cultural differences don’t come to mind when comparing touring here to touring there — it’s the more mundane differences that do.

The truth is that large-scale cultural differences don’t come to mind when comparing touring here to touring there — it’s the more mundane differences that do. The one musicians will likely point out? Embarrassingly, it’s probably travel time between gigs. WAS pretty much do all of our own driving, and transporting equipment and bodies to the next venue becomes a major part of how a band fills their day. The less time you have to spend traveling to the shows, the more time you have to mess around with your instrument or go out and explore a little bit of the town you’re playing. I play significantly less music when I’m on tour, and time cooped up in the van is the reason why. The burden of traveling is less restrictive when you’re in the U.K. because bands traveling over there can expect average travel times to be less than half of what they are in the U.S. On a WAS tour last October, there were multiple drives under an hour that brought us to a new venue filled with hundreds of discrete fans. Maybe it’s because people won’t drive far to see shows over there? Or maybe cities are simply spread too far apart here? Either way, that luxury just doesn’t exist in the states outside of the Northeast.

Even by British standards of travel, Brent’s tour routing is ludicrously modest (most of the gigs seem to be concentrated in south-central England). This is largely a function of his pull within the industry (he has none). It’s already painful to see him hire a tour bus he doesn’t need, or lay down a credit card for hotel rooms that are farther away from the gigs than the musicians’ homes, but I guarantee anyone who has been on a tour feels the sting of Brent’s daily outlay on an even more profound level. And, in a strange way, it brings the film’s humor to a darker, more sinister place. Sometimes it feels as if only musicians and road crews understand the irony of how little money there is to be gained on an average tour, but how much “investment” it requires to even attempt. There’s some vindication in finally seeing that on screen.

Once the shows get rolling, Brent confronts a lot of realities of touring that, necessarily, he hasn’t considered. The band doesn’t want to hang with him, the dressing rooms are busted and Foregone Conclusion is…less than popular. But he’s also forced to face misperceptions about touring’s professional function for a band. It is a blast to go on the road and play music with your best friends every night — it’s one of the reasons I love touring with WAS — but as a business tactic there’s very little ROI.

Many non-musicians believe that touring affords your band exposure and opportunity.

Many non-musicians believe that touring affords your band exposure and opportunity. If your band gets booked as the main support for The War on Drugs or Mac DeMarco, it might. If you’re opening for a band bigger than that, you’re likely popular enough to headline your own tour. Otherwise, it’s almost guaranteed that a tour will not get you noticed by a label, a booking agent or enough fans for it to be an efficient growth strategy. Think about it: when was the last time you decided to check out new music by heading out to a dingy rock club to pay $12 to see bands you’ve never heard of?

Listeners will probably have to read about your band first, and that process starts months before you drive your first highway mile. It begins with a promising record (whatever that means) that your extremely well-connected PR agent sends out to review sites and promoters of consequence, who are then moved enough to cover it. And probably a ton of live local shows. If you’re lucky enough for that to happen, then you should consider going on tour. You can then think about it kind of like a mobile showcase, where you hope enough people will come out to see you that the venue will appear to be full. That’s when you invite booking agents, managers and labels who probably won’t come out. But “maybe…” is what you have to tell yourself. Brent lives inside that utopian fantasy, and regardless of how serious he might be about getting his band off the ground, his efforts don’t amount to much more than musical tourism.

One of the biggest reliefs about Life on the Road is that Gervais never makes a joke out of Foregone Conclusion’s musical adequacy. Brent is actually a great singer, if not a conventionally gifted lyricist. And his band is full of stone-cold solid musicians (a la Burrows). As a promotional stunt, Gervais staged a number of real-life Foregone Conclusion concerts with the band that appears in the movie. They can really play. It made me wonder whether or not the entire film was just an excuse for Gervais to get a taste of what it’s like to tour in a rock band. It also made me wonder whether or not I’ve heard a band on the U.K. pub scene that’s as tight as Foregone Conclusion. Maybe I haven’t, but as a word of caution: don’t listen to them too closely. You may wind up identifying with Brent too much.

David Brent: Life on the Road is available for streaming on Netflix now.

Keith Carne works as a drummer, performer, composer and educator. Between tours with We Are Scientists he performs and records regularly with New York based bands Power Mystery, Beverly, Prasanna, Brian Bond and Communipaw. He currently serves as the primary instructor at Manhattan Drum Studios. He has contributed articles and segments to the Leonard Lopate Show, the Home News Tribune and Modern Drummer Magazine.

(Photo credit: Jessica Stone)