For a band, the siren song of touring can feel part reward, part obligation. Our four-part series follows four area bands and takes you into their vans and venues to find out what it’s really like to hit the open road. Read Part 1 with Nicholas St. James.
When Matt Roth and Nan Turner moved from New York City to Shawnee, Kansas, in 2012, they already had a decade’s worth of experience as partners, both creatively and romantically. Their duo Schwervon! relocated to the middle of the country to sustain their careers as touring musicians, spending the bulk of their time rolling through venues across the nation in their Suzuki hatchback.
And while their quirky brand of ‘90s-influenced indie rock is incredibly engaging, it is Schwervon!’s one-of-a-kind charm that resonates in a live setting. It’s in their indisputable connection with one another, and in the connection they’ve perfected with audiences through years of touring the United States and Europe.
Do you have a favorite or least favorite place to play?
Matt Roth: Occasionally, we'll play somewhere that is just heaven: nice staff, good sound, easy load-in, drinks, a meal, some kind of band apartment connected to the venue so you don't have to drive after the show. But I would trade it all for a room full of happy people at the show. I'll gladly sleep in a barn if people were dancing at the show that night.
Nan Turner: My favorite cities tend to be places where we've cultivated a community of like-minded friends and artists by playing there a lot, and places where we keep discovering great new bands. I think Baltimore and Cincinnati are two of my favorite cities at the moment. Least favorite cities might be places where we haven't figured out where and with whom a band like ours should play.
When you started touring, what was the biggest challenge? What is it now?
Matt: Then and now, learning how to deal with people who have a hard time functioning in a group dynamic is probably the hardest thing for me. Outside of a job, we are geared toward doing what we want to when we want to. As artists, we’re all at least a little obsessed with being individuals, but on tour, you are mostly at the mercy of the will of the group. This can create some intense power dynamics, even for just two people. This is going to sound funny, but I think my experience as a Boy Scout helped prepare me for that dynamic. Touring is not unlike summer camp in a lot of ways. It can be a lot of fun, but you still have to respect the rules or you're going to be pretty miserable.
Nan: My biggest challenge used to be my anxiety about everything I couldn't control — which is a lot. Maybe it still is, but I deal with it better. Experience has helped. Yoga. Realizing I’m tougher than I thought I was. I can survive a night or two of crappy sleep and copious amounts of fried food. As long as I get something green every couple days, I'm OK. One of the great things about touring is that it forces you to talk to people and roll through situations you might not think you could handle.
"Touring is not unlike summer camp in a lot of ways. It can be a lot of fun, but you still have to respect the rules or you're going to be pretty miserable." —Matt Roth
An obvious advantage of touring as a couple is being able to take up less space, or having more money to split. What are some of the disadvantages?
Matt: Fewer workers for the jobs. It can be stressful after a show when Nan has to run over to work the merch table and I have to move all our stuff off the stage by myself. I also think the word of mouth that can be generated by five people in a band talking up a show versus just two people who more or less share the same social circle can make a difference. If each member in a five-person band gets five people to the show, that's 25 people. If we do that, it's 10.
Nan: There's not a buffer or third party if the two of you are in disagreement. And musically, the limitations of a two-piece can really stretch you to become a different kind of musician, but it also puts more pressure on you to fill that space. I had a dance teacher say, "Movement doesn't lie.” Drums don't either. There's nothing to hide behind. For better or worse, whoop, there it is!
How does your romantic relationship inform your music and band dynamic, and how does your band dynamic inform your music?
Matt: I feel like our relationship is the third member of our band; I just wish it would help out with loading the gear a little more. Seriously, I think it inspires a great deal of the content in our songs. Our band has also become a tool for understanding our relationship. Sometimes that tool is a hammer, and sometimes it's a warm blanket.
"I'm driven to do this thing with my partner while knowing it's slightly insane." —Nan Turner
Nan: Matt put this really well! They inform each other. Sometimes I think the band is this great magic glue for our relationship; it's so fun to do something so creatively satisfying with each other! But it can get confusing and hard to separate when relationship stuff shows up in band practice. I think it takes very weird people to be able to pull off something like this. Sometimes it's a rocky ride, but the good times make it worth it. I'm driven to do this thing with my partner while knowing it's slightly insane.
With all that idle time on the road, what kinds of activities do you like to do together?
Matt: We both love food; trying different places to eat is one of the most fun parts of traveling. We also enjoy a lot of the same podcasts, so we catch up on “WTF,” “This American Life” and “The Moth Radio Hour” in the car. We both like reading. Nan is more into books, and I like newspapers and periodicals; I've also been getting into crossword puzzles. I'm thinking of bringing a deck of cards on the next tour. Nan’s not a big game player, but I feel like we just need to find the right game.
"...When you tour, you become highly sensitive to the concept of karma, and the ups and downs kind of help prepare you for the long-term."
Do you think the audience’s perception of you is different as an out-of-town band as opposed to a local band?
Matt: Depending on the crowd or the band you are playing with, an audience can rally for you as an out-of-town band, or it can go the other way. Sometimes people are just there to see their friends, and they leave or go smoke during your set. Sometimes you can tell a band is playing with you just so they can get a contact to play in your town, which is OK with me as long as they try to get folks out to the show as well. When you tour, you become highly sensitive to the concept of karma, and the ups and downs kind of help prepare you for the long-term.
How is touring Europe different than the U.S.?
Matt: I don't want people to assume that Europe is just the land of milk and honey; we're lucky to have had some opportunities there early on and have reaped the benefits over time. A lot of things are more difficult: expensive plane tickets, organizing gear, border issues, customs and visas, different languages, different driving experiences. But at least in most of the mainland countries, we are able to get good guarantees and nice turnouts. There are also a few things built into booking a show that make it less stressful: accommodations, dinner (sometimes breakfast the next morning), drinks, a green room and a sound check are usually included in the deal. Sometimes there's a band apartment in the venue. Sometimes someone makes a home-cooked meal. It's really great.
Most nights a promoter has booked at least one or two opening bands and has spent the past month actually promoting the show. More often than not, you get the feeling that everyone involved in the night from the sound person to the promoter to the bartender respects what you do, even if they don't know you. They respect you as an artist; it's not a dirty word over there. It seems like a simple thing, but I'm sorry to say that for most of the shows we book in the States, we're lucky if we get a couple of drink tickets and a percentage of the door. Whether we're booking in the Europe or the U.S., we've learned to respect and appreciate all the people involved in making it happen. We usually end up making friends so the next time around, hopefully, things go even better. I don't know if it's this way with all bands, but a lot of the shows we play we feel like we're just hanging out with a bunch of old friends. It's a great feeling. I wish every show could be that way.
Does anybody have funny habits, rituals or things you do on the road?
Matt: We just invented a band handshake that I'd like to start doing before and after each show. Nan also has a very good obsession with eating something leafy and green every day. We try to start each day with a good breakfast.
Nan: Eating one green thing a day makes me feel like I'm healthy, even if the rest of my food that day is tater tots. Also, I take vitamins every day. I try to dance a lot. I also use my neti pot.
What are the most important things you've learned about one another through touring?
Matt: Unless it's positive, don't talk about the show for at least a couple of hours before and after. And when Nan is hungry, it's time to eat.
Nan: Don't talk about the show right after the show. Try to let things go if the other person is getting on your nerves. Matt has a lot of patience and positivity under trying conditions. I really admire that!
Let’s hear a horror story from the road.
Matt: We played a show in Hamburg, Germany, at this basement venue called Molotov. After the show was this crazy techno dance party. It was like a mob of coked-up vampires just swarmed into the place right when we finished playing. When it was time to settle up, the promoter kept leaving the room and coming back; she was really jumpy and fidgety, and it took about 45 minutes. Afterwards, we tried to go backstage to get our stuff, but the door was locked, so we had to find the promoter again.
When we finally got there, Nan was sitting there crying and started screaming at the promoter: "Where have you been?!?" Evidently, the promoter told Nan to wait in the room while she went to get the money and had somehow locked the door from the outside so Nan couldn't get out. We were all very tired and disoriented by the thumping techno music and the crazy, speedy vampire crowd, and everything just kind of exploded. The promoter got defensive. Someone from the other band got involved, and it was basically a room full of people shouting at each other. Total chaos. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs, "LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!" We grabbed our stuff, pushed our way through the crowd and spilled out into this seedy red-light district in Hamburg full of drunk people and prostitutes. It felt like a scene from a movie.
"The momentum of playing every night, connecting with people and putting yourself out there is addictive."
Nan: One time Matt and I were going to take an overnight train from Paris to Toulouse, France. I thought "sleeper car" meant that we'd have our own room, and I thought it'd be romantic to be on a train, so we got some wine and were psyched. When we got to our "sleeper car," we quickly realized this was no paradise. There were six cots in the room with several travelers already asleep with their packs at their feet. There was barely enough space to get on the cot, and you couldn't sit up without hitting your head. Also, it smelled. And there was a Tibetan monk on one of the cots who told us he was breaking the rules, as he's not supposed to sleep in a room with a woman. Oh boy. I looked at Matt, alternately giggling and mouthing the word "Help!" for the six-hour train ride.
When you return from tour, what’s it like getting back to “regular” life?
Nan: I'm more used to it now but still am surprised by the post-tour depression that hits for a few days after every tour. The momentum of playing every night, connecting with people and putting yourself out there is addictive. It's physically exhausting sometimes but also very exciting and fun! It's hard to come down from that high and get back to being in one place and working a day job. My friend Dan Fishback says, "I don't have stage fright — I have offstage fright."
Talk about a person you’ve met on the road who has impacted you.
Nan: Meeting Kelley Deal at a show we played with R. Ring in Columbus, Ohio, a couple years ago was pretty impactful. That was after meeting another hero, Chuck Cleaver of Wussy, who actually had organized that show! Getting to know both of these people and drumming with R. Ring on their last tour really validated and inspired me to keep forging our own path in music. To keep striving to make good songs. Both Chuck and Kelley are "lifers.” They're going to be writing songs until they croak, and I think I will be too.
Best advice to any band that wants to tour for the first time?
Matt: Find good local bands you really like to play with. Arrange your accommodations ahead of time. Make sure every venue has what you need for sound, or bring it yourself. If you need two mics and a boom stand, bring them with you. Stay hydrated. Get sleep. Stay flexible. Be thankful. Take care of yourself so you don't end up acting like a jerk to others.
Nan: Take it in baby steps. Do a night away first, then a weekend, then maybe a week. And if you have stinker shows, keep going or try different things. It takes a long time to build an audience or figure out what venues are right for your band. Hit up your friends in different cities. Try to stay healthy, physically and mentally!
How long do you think you’ll tour?
Matt: The rest of my life, hopefully. I love it.
Nan: As long as I'm physically able to; I don't see why I need to stop. In fact, I'll probably be touring straight into my 70s and 80s. I think drumming and carrying heavy bags of hardware are the key to a youthful visage.
Finally, why is it important to tour, as a band and as an individual?
Matt: If you want to make a living as band, I think it's pretty much mandatory. It's one of the last ways you can make money in the music industry, outside of licensing. I think it's important to tour in the same way that it's important to travel — it opens up your horizons. There are a lot of people in this world who are wholeheartedly willing and able to be inspired by what you do, but you can't expect all of them to travel to your favorite local music venue to come see you. As an audience member, I've had countless amazing experiences that have centered around small to midsized live music events with bands from all around the world. It feels good to be doing something that could inspire others the way I was inspired.
Nan: It makes you a better human being. I've learned so much about being in the moment, appreciating life and being thankful by touring. There is a web of real kindness and love out there, not to mention great art to get inspired by everywhere. To thrust yourself out of what you know takes courage, but you will be so much better for it!
—Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, and plays with The Philistines and Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds. Her grandma will always be the coolest person she knows.