Mid-Level Indie Band Touring Is My Favorite Sport

Craig Hendrix (Japanese Breakfast) talks Snail Mail, Olive Garden, and the glamor of eating breakfast in a Guitar Center parking lot.

It could be said that we, the members of Japanese Breakfast, have become status obsessed. Airline Advantage Member status obsessed. The apps, with their infographics and carrot-dangling promises of free baggage and seat choices — well, we’re suckers for them. They get our competitive hackles up. 

All of us in the band have our ways of expressing competitive spirit. Deven, who has tour managed as well as played bass for the last two years, competes against the clock to make sure we’re at the venue well ahead of time, like a dad getting everyone to the airport (“Sound check is 4:00… So if we get in by 2… Let’s move lobby call from 8:20 to 8:15”). It works; we’re never late. Michelle competes at games like Truth or Dare, and Marry/Fuck/Kill, which might seem unwinnable and yet, as with most things she decides to do, she somehow comes out on top. Peter invented a game which pits two players against each other, vying for tonal dominance on an electro-musical game surface of his own making. We don’t play that on tour though. 

What we do play is shows. Hundreds and hundreds of shows. In 25 different countries (so far), and even two in international waters. It is exhausting, isolating, unhealthy, and hands-down the best job I’ve ever had. 

It is exactly that, though: a job. We develop work habits and division of labor. I have moments of existential dread, and the grass on the “stability” side of the fence can glow like the Emerald City of Oz. I can feel like a fraud one minute and undervalued the next. As with most jobs I’ve had, routine is helpful. Touring is dominated by routine with tiny variations. Will the hotel breakfast have the waffle maker or the pancake conveyor? Will this flight have outlets in the seats or nah? How close is the load-in zone to the stage?

If the venue’s loading door opens directly to the back of the stage, it’s like a big shiny present for our inevitably sore backs. We soundcheck our instruments in the same order every time. After we set the stage, Harrison, our angelic sound engineer, will run through his routine, getting the console into his preferred work flow and tuning the EQ of the system to the EQ of the room. When I hear Jennifer Warnes’ “The Hunter” pour out of the sound system at full volume, I know it’s about time to go start thumping on my kick drum. It’s Pavlovian. Routine is familiarity and familiarity is comfort, and comfort can be fleeting when you’re on the road. So, we look for new ways to find it. I go back to the same Italian restaurant in Paris, hit up the same pre-show coffee hut in Bangkok, visit Tompkins Square Park again in NYC. Deven tries to find time to play some pinball; Michelle and Peter search out a Korean restaurant. We put on Naked And Afraid at the hotel, or reruns of The Office, seemingly ubiquitous on any TV at any given moment. 

Food can be a fickle mistress on tour as well. In 2016, when we were doing support tours and not making much money, we toured with a rice cooker and a few choice kitchen supplies. It was on those early tours where I found that rice and soy sauce, with a poached egg or leftover chicken on top, is a lovely breakfast. I remember sitting on a sidewalk in a Guitar Center parking lot, scooping leftover rice, lettuce, and sriracha into a tortilla, watching a doting father take his young daughter into the store for her guitar lesson. I wanted to tell him, “This tortilla is what your daughter has to look forward to if she’s lucky and works hard.” I was happy though; I was doing the job I’d always wanted to do. 

I have it relatively easy with food on tour as I’m not a picky eater and don’t have any dietary restrictions, other than a few pesky but mild allergies. I don’t envy my vegetarian and vegan tourmates, especially when we’re traveling internationally. I often eat alone, which sounds more sad than it really is. Those hours between sound check and showtime are a nice quiet, contemplative, private time for me, and I’ve gotten pretty good at sniffing out meals that are going to make me feel better, not worse. Sometimes, especially on days with long drives, you’re stuck with fast food or roadside snacks. That’s not all bad — lots of us look forward to getting within striking distance of an In-N-Out, and don’t get me started singing the praises of Tebay Services, a rest area in Northern England. If we have a drive day with no show — which usually occurs somewhere between the Mississippi River and the Rockies — we can be found at an Olive Garden near a hotel. 

I love these dinners. We’re usually already goofy from spending too many hours in the van, so tossing back an “Italian margarita” and that zesty house salad (extra pepperoncini, per favore) while Dean Martin sings Volare or Paul Anka serenades us with suburbanized big-band arrangements of Soundgarden and Nirvana songs — well, what more could you ask for? Breadsticks, maybe. More breadsticks. 

It’s also, oddly enough, nice to spend that time with the tour party. Even though we sit in the same steel can all day every day, our van is not really a social space. We put on noise-cancelling headphones. We read and sleep. We daydream, make memes, work on our laptops, watch the scenery, or get lost in the phone zone. And when we get to venues, we scatter and go about our responsibilities. On show nights, Rachel, who handles our merchandise, has to set up our traveling boutique/general store, stay there from the moment doors open until every fan is gone, and then account for it and pack it up. Of the eight-plus hours we spend at a venue, I probably only see Rachel for like 30 minutes. So when we sit around the same table and eat and joke and laugh at each other with no work responsibilities, it feels somehow rare, and it’s refreshing and fun. 

If that makes us sound wholesome, well, I’d tend to agree. I’m glad that’s how we roll. Staying healthy on the road is hard, but it’s important to doing the job and keeping our mental states in a good spot. When we fly, I like to pick in-flight movies that’ll make me cry, just to make sure it still works. (Latest success: Billy Elliot.) There are a lot of things we’ve learned to help ourselves and each other. Knowing when your tour mate needs alone time is critical. We use hotel gyms and pools. No one in the band has the kind of habits that would make getting pulled over or going through airport security extra risky. But the party element of our job is something peculiar. Imagine showing up for work, and when you were shown your office, it contained a case of beer or a bottle of tequila that you were fully expected to consume on the job. And if you run out of beer, you could even ask for more, and you wouldn’t be fired. For one thing, what we’re doing every night is essentially throwing a party, an open and free space, trying to share an experience and communicate with a group of strangers that have at least one thing in common: our music. Hangovers occur, sometimes epic ones. My friend once described touring as getting a hangover on the third day in, then keeping that same hangover for the next three weeks. Some nights we decide to go out after the show but most often we just pack it up and get ready for tomorrow. I’ve been trying to get us all to refer to load-out as Japanese Brexit, but it’s not catching on. 

When we started touring on the debut album Psychopomp, I was the bassist in a three-piece band. We did it in a Honda Odyssey. We spent a year and a half opening for other bands, bands that we respected — Mitski, Porches, Alex G. We got to know Jay Som, Phoebe Bridgers, Ought, Cende. The venues we’d play in major markets felt big. Music Hall of Williamsburg and Bowery Ballroom in New York. Echoplex in Los Angeles. The Sinclair in Boston. We always tried to be on time and never complain. We wanted the tour managers and the promoters and the venue staffs to think of us as easy to work with. And we got more gigs! In 2017, I switched over to guitar and we had Leslie Bear from the band Long Beard sub in on bass for a run of shows opening for the legendary Slowdive, a tour that culminated in two nights at the 1800-capacity Brooklyn Steel. 

By the end of that summer, I had switched again to drums, Peter and Deven had joined the band on guitar and bass, respectively. Our next record, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, had come out and we were gonna do our first headlining tour. That changed the pace of the day a bit. When you’re an opener, you load in later and play earlier. There is a nice window after you’ve played but before you have to load out where you get to enjoy just being at the show. 

Headlining meant earlier mornings and later nights, but revealed tons of other perks. If there’s more than one green room, we get the nicer one. I get to leave my drums on stage after soundcheck. We got to bring Philly artists like Mannequin Pussy, Sprit Of The Beehive, and Mothers with us. More of the audience knew the words to our songs. Some of them knew all of the words. They’d cheer when we come on the stage. And one of my favorites: We get to pick the house music between bands. Game changer. Having a full scale PA system pump out a playlist of 300 or so of your favorite songs is awesome. We’re at the mercy of the “shuffle,” and it’s always funny when a song like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” comes on just before you’re about to take the stage. 

We also got to hire Harrison on sound. That was a huge luxury. Suddenly we never had to wonder if our balance was OK. We didn’t have to worry about our stage monitors feeding back. We didn’t have to worry about the competency or disposition of a stranger at the sound board, into whose hands we were putting our music for the night. We met Rachel on that first headlining tour as well; they were working merch for another band who was touring with us. By that time we had somewhat jokingly co-opted the phrase P.G.P.A (pro gear, pro attitude) as a catchphrase for the general ethos of the touring band. It means being on time, having your instruments in good shape, getting proper road cases, not cutting corners, always having some gaffer tape handy. It means keeping a cool head if a stressful situation arises, being able to carry your share of the load (literally and figuratively), protecting your tour mates, helping them when they need help. Rachel, like Harry, is pure P.G.P.A., and we immediately conspired to hire them whenever we could. 

The past two years of touring have probably been the best two years of my life, and by this industry’s standards, I’m no spring chicken. The fact that I use the phrase “no spring chicken” alone is evidence. Michelle likes to give me a hard time about being old. Like when we got the gig opening a run of shows for the lovely Belle and Sebastian, who had their biggest success in the ‘90s and ‘00s, she asked if I was excited to hang out with people my own age. Most mid-level indie bands like us get about a year’s worth of touring out of one album. We’ve pushed, prodded, stretched, and hammered that into a solid two, and those two came right on the heels of the year and a half we did for the first record. 

Early last year, we took the band Snail Mail along for a few weeks. They were literal teenagers. One night they called Deven and had him drive out to their hotel because they needed someone over 21 to check them in. I avoided phrases like “You’ll realize when you’re older,” or “When I was your age” for a lot of reasons, but once there was a puppy backstage at our show in Nashville and I turned to one of the members of Snail Mail and said “Do you realize you’re closer in age to that puppy than you are to me?” Everyone in our band is at least six years younger than me, and our audience is, on average, younger than them. I have a lot of respect for our audience. By and large, they’re open-hearted, kind, excited people. Michelle’s lyrics mean a lot to them and it’s not uncommon to see a few crying faces as they sing along to their song.

Getting gigs like opening for Belle and Sebastian is validating. It says to me that our music is good enough and we perform it well enough to be trusted with their audience’s attention. There have been many moments like that which feel like little graduations, moments where just before going on, I’ll steal an extra hug from Michelle because we’re proud of each other. Like selling out our own two-night run at Brooklyn Steel a year and a half after opening there for Slowdive. Like flying overnight from a festival gig in San Francisco to play a free show for a few thousand people on a beautiful summer evening in Central Park. Like at Sasquatch festival in Washington, when I noticed people getting on their friends’ shoulders to get a better look at us. It’s flattering! Somehow it became a strange tradition for audiences in the Seattle area to bring us fruit. As we walked off the stage after our Sasquatch set, a fan tossed up a grapefruit and I caught it in stride one-handed. The crowd went nuts. In that moment I knew my childhood dreams of being a professional baseball player could be peacefully put to rest. 

A lot has happened since we played the Psychopomp album release show on April Fool’s Day 2016, and it’s happened at the right pace. There was no meteoric rise. I’ve been playing in bands for the better part of two decades, and in the last two years I haven’t delivered a single pizza or shaken a cocktail for a customer. We recently opened for a band at the BB&T pavilion, the biggest amphitheater in the Philly area, during WXPN’s summer music festival. It’s the venue where I saw my first big concert, a hum-drum assortment of jam bands and alternative rockers touring as a festival. That’s looking at it in retrospect. At the time it was a massive spectacle and I wanted to know how it all worked. I met Alana Davis there, who was then riding high on her cover of Ani DiFranco’s “32 Flavors”, and that set my young teen heart aflutter. And then we were there. Years later. On that stage. I didn’t feel nervous or overwhelmed. I felt prepared. Excited. 

Recently we played a festival hosted by those loveliest of lovelies Belle and Sebastian on a cruise ship. There were some heavy hitters on the schedule, and two young bands that had won spots through a battle of the bands. A member of one of those bands asked me for advice about touring, and I peppered off a few dumb things about leafy greens and jogging, and it was then that it occurred to me that the best way to maintain some level of success at touring is first to believe in the music your making, and second, maybe more importantly, to make sure you and your crew get along. Find people who work hard, people you can love and who can love you back. Of every show I’ve played with Japanese Breakfast, there hasn’t been a single moment while performing that I wished I was somewhere else. 

No matter how I’ve been feeling on the day of a show, the hour or so that we’re playing is impenetrable. Me and my tour family are all on the same team, trying to win.

(Photo Credit: David LaMason)

Craig Hendrix is a musician from Philadelphia, where he operates The Well recording studio. He’s best known for his work as co-producer and multi-instrumentalist with the band Japanese Breakfast, and has composed music for film, choir, and chamber ensemble. The Wu Tang Names Generator website authoritatively suggests he be referred to as X-pert Contender. In the past, he has performed at The White House (Clinton Era), The Oregon Zoo (by the elephants), and on a giant motorized rollerblade (with TV dad Alan Thicke). He is currently at work on a song that uses the same four notes as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and expects it to be just as popular.