The Night Drivers and I have just completed what I believe is the world’s second shortest European tour. The world’s shortest European tour involved a band that just took their instruments out at the baggage claim of Amsterdam Schipol airport, played Salty Dog Blues, collected 40 Dutch Guilders in tips, then turned around and went home. It’s hard to top that.
Our tour took place entirely in Switzerland, and now I’m writing this from a special chocolate and cheese detox facility on the North Sea in Scotland.
In keeping with the theme, below is a follow-up to last week’s column on international touring. Both are “encore presentations,” which I’m told sounds more appealing than “reruns”:
International touring is something that most professional musicians will have an opportunity to do at some point in their careers, and last week I introduced you to some of the joys and hazards of this kind of work. I saved some of the more specific recommendations for this week’s column. If any of them get too specific for you, just try relaxing your eyes until the words get a little blurry. That always works for me.
Here, listed in a “do’s” and “don’ts” format, are some things to keep in mind before you pull out your passport and step on that plane (or ship, if you’re old fashioned and have weeks of spare time). As I mentioned in the last column, this advice will be oriented mostly towards European tours, because that’s where my experience lies, but there will be some tips that will apply to foreign travel generally.
Do: Tour overseas because you want to, not because you think you should (see last week’s column). Exceptions: if your spouse is in the band and is the band leader, or you’re wanted by the law in the U.S.
Don’t: Haul hundreds of CDs in tubs or other containers that don’t look like luggage. In the case of playing in Europe, this is the only situation in which I’ve heard of anyone having trouble with customs. Generally speaking, European countries are a lot mellower about this sort of thing than the U.S. or Canada. The border officials there seem to have this naive view that they should be concentrating on stopping actual smugglers and terrorists instead of spending time hassling someone with a mandolin who may play a gig somewhere for 150 Euros without filling out the proper paperwork. Still, hauling trunkloads of CDs, T-shirts, etc., in large tubs stacked 10 feet high through the green “nothing to declare” line will arouse the interest of even the sleepiest customs official. Also, it’s a good idea to just stick with CDs and nothing else. Things like T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, your own custom line of lingerie, and coffee mugs are bulky (okay, the lingerie might not be) and may not sell that well at your shows. CD sales, on the other hand, are likely to be pretty good.
(Disclaimer: As was pointed out during last month’s “Gigging Through Europe” seminar, the United Kingdom, in contrast to continental Europe, is very strict about permit requirements for bands performing there, making it much more like the U.S. or Canada in that way (now I’m wondering if it’s the English language that makes these countries pick on musicians). Since I’m writing this from the U.K., I’d like to make it very clear that I’m not playing any shows here, nor am I selling any CDs. I’d elaborate on this, but I have a sound check in an hour.)
Do: Try new food. You have a unique opportunity to sample some international cuisine the way the locals eat it, as opposed to food designed to make tourists feel comfortable. Sure, there may be a food item or two that may make you squirm (if you travel to an exotic enough location, the food itself may be squirming), but be as brave as you can.
Don’t: Complain because the food isn’t “like home.” Of course it isn’t, nor should it be. You’re a long way from home. Yes you can find a McDonalds almost anywhere in the world, but the only excuse for going there should be that you wanted to experience the novelty of ordering a beer at a McDonalds (which you can do in Germany, where you can also get a “Big Mäc”).
Do: Get out and enjoy your surroundings. You don’t need to be a history buff or a scholar of other countries and cultures to just appreciate where you are. Musicians, if they’re being put up in hotels, may have the opportunity to go from their room to the stage, back to the room, to a cramped vehicle, to another room, etc. You can do all that in Nebraska. The only difference will be that there are fewer chain hotels that look alike, and people will be speaking a different language on your television. Go outside and see where you are. On a side note, though, I highly recommend The Simpsons in Italian.
Don’t: Make the tour too long. I can’t stress this one enough. Because of the profit motive, and because you’ll travel so far to get there, it’s tempting to tour as long as possible, but don’t do it. No matter how mature and easy going you believe your band members to be, touring in foreign countries adds a unique level of stress that can take its toll. Numerous bands have broken up, or at least had significant personnel changes after an international tour that lasted too long. I think 21 days is about the limit. I’ve been on longer tours than that, and the 22nd day seems to be the magic day when perfectly level-headed people start to go a little nuts. Ones that weren’t level-headed to begin with start talking to themselves, clutching teddy bears and occasionally blurting out “Don Stover was right, boys.”
Do: Spend time on your own. Clinging to the familiar group may be comforting at first, but just remember that these are the same people you’ll be thoroughly sick of in about 14 days. So if you have the time, do some shopping on your own, visit an interesting scenic or historical spot, check out the Bread Museum, ride public transportation even though you’re not sure where it’s going, run off with a French biker chick. Anything to get a little breathing room from your band, even if it’s just for an hour.
Don’t: Complain when people in another country can’t speak English. This isn’t their responsibility, in the same way that it wouldn’t be fair for someone to walk up to you in Indianapolis and act irate because you couldn’t respond to them in Portuguese. I should add that if you are attempting to communicate with someone who understands no English, speaking English to them louder doesn’t help them at all. If you can’t speak the country’s language and they can’t speak yours, it’s your problem, and it just may have to be resolved with hand gestures and hastily drawn stick figures. If, on the other hand, people are rude to you because you can’t speak their language, you have the right to at least feel that they’re not being very hospitable (my guess is that you’re either in France or Manhattan). Incidentally, if you find that a lot of people are walking up to you in Indianapolis speaking Portuguese, you might double-check and make sure you’re not actually in Rio de Janeiro; it’s an easy mistake to make.
Do: Travel light. If you’re touring Europe, for example, you may stay in small hotels without elevators, so you’ll find yourself lugging that massive diva-like suitcase up and down 3 flights of stairs. On top of that, your band may be traveling in a Renault Something-or-other that’s probably less spacious than what you’re riding around in at home. You’ll also probably have to wash some clothes anyway at some point on the tour (probably by hand, in your room), so the less of that you have to do the better. If people in the band comment that you’re wearing the same clothes all the time, point out to them that your socks are different from yesterday.
Don’t: Wear the same socks every day (this should also apply to domestic touring).
Do: Have fun on your tour, above all, and please send me a postcard.
Next week: The complete lyrics to the long version of Little Bessie in Portuguese, and the recipe for a tea containing moonshine, guava nectar, and the hair of a yak, guaranteed to cure jet lag.