Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stories from the semi-distant past: Being in a band

So, I used to play in a band.

I've probably mentioned this. It consumed a vast portion of my life for a good two years. I've been trying to avoid talking about the band too much. They're still around in some incarnation or other and we aren't really in contact anymore. But, I was recently asked by a friend to write up some stories about what touring is like so, well, I guess I'll do that because that's just the kind of decent friend I am.

Joining the band was a strange experience. Even though I had been learning music my whole life (I learned basic music theory around the same time I learned the alphabet) I had never planned to do it in any professional sense. I saw all the kids around me with their guitars and far-away looks, picturing themselves as the deified rock legend they just knew they were going to become. I never even really considered it. Playing music professionally seemed like such an unrealistic fantasy and to be honest, I loved playing too much to risk tainting it with the disappointment of a failed career. As well as that, it was a very personal thing for me and growing up I was often extremely nervous about playing in front of other people.

By the time I graduated high school I had ten years of classical piano training, six years of saxophone lessons, four years of singing lessons and some self-taught guitar skills under my belt but still no ambitions to start a career in music. I remember conversations with friends when I was graduating that they started by saying, 'So, you're going to do something with music after school?', but I told them that I was going to go to uni and get a proper job, just like my parents wanted me to.

But then, just like in those fictional stories of young girls waltzing into the arms of success, I was out one night having drinks with a friend.  Her boyfriend was a drummer who I'd  met a few times but didn't know very well. To make conversation, he started asking me a few questions about myself, mostly about music. Musicians tend to use music as a conversation starter because, really, it's what most of them would prefer to be talking about at any given time. He asked me what I played and stopped me when I got to the saxophone, mentioning that his band was looking for a sax player. A few weeks later they invited me to join them on their upcoming New Zealand tour as support for The Specials.  I hadn't really realised it, but the band had been around for about five years at the time and had managed to work up a reasonable name for themselves. They'd supported the likes of Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish and the Mad Caddies, which is kind of a big deal if you listen to ska music. Which I didn't, really, but I later remembered that they'd played support for one of the first all ages gigs I went to see when I was in high school and that the sleazy bass player had hit on not one, but two of my friends.

I didn't go on that first New Zealand tour. Not enough time to learn the songs, get a passport, organise uni around it and all that. Plus, they had yet to tell their current sax player that he was fired and I thought that might be awkward. But I did join the band, and I did tour with them for some time. The first time I visited the town I now live was when I was on tour in 2007.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what to say about the experience of touring. It's exciting to play to a different crowd in a different city for multiple nights in a row, but it's also very stressful and exhausting. There's a whole lot of sitting in a crowded van for hours on end, usually wedged between another band member and a pointy piece of equipment. You survive on the smallest amount of sleep possible in order to make it to the shows on time and you pretty much have to eat like crap because it's too expensive and troublesome to find too many decent meals. If you don't eat meat, this usually means you end up living on chips, garlic bread and the taunting jeers of your bandmates. And after a week or so, that starts to get old.

For the time I was in the band we were in an odd but probably not uncommon position where we played some quite impressive gigs (yes, I have played on the same bill as Darryl Braithwaite, thank you very much), but were all still flat broke because the band made so little money. I think the best example of this polarity happened during the second tour of New Zealand, the one I did go on.

We were playing in a club in a place called Palmerston North. Apart from the club itself, all I can remember about the town was a pizza place called Hell's Kitchen that didn't cook my garlic bread properly and some talk of public showers, which is actually insanely tempting after a few days of touring.

Probably the moment of my life when I felt most like a rock star happened when I was sitting at the bar after the show. I was making small talk with the bartender to pass the time and mentioned that I had never tried tequila. Apparently, the man on the stool next to me was the owner and the next thing I know all three of us are doing shots of 1800 with lime, on the house. Pretty glamorous, right? It was, for a brief shining moment or two.

Jump forward a few hours and things were considerably less glamorous. Apparently, when they said we were sleeping at the venue to save money, it didn't mean there was any actual accommodation there. We just sort of had to find the least cold and sticky place we could to get some bastardised imitation of a good night's sleep. We were comforted somewhat when we found a carpeted back room with, joy of joys, a heater. But, the heater was soon removed by the owner because he was sleeping in his office. Apparently his wife had kicked him out. Maybe it had something to do with giving free shots of tequila to nineteen year old girls playing in his club, I don't know. But it was the middle of July in New Zealand and we were huddled on a floor with no mattresses or blankets. In other words, it was the coldest night I have ever spent in my life.

There's a whole lot more I could say about touring, and playing in the band in general. This feels like a very brief highlights reel, but I'm also savvy enough to know that this post is already long enough that I'll be lucky if anyone makes it this far as it is. I could probably tell some more of them at a later point, if anyone wants.

-Smackie Onassis

1 comment:

  1. That was an excellent post, and I am going to have to Be A Bastard and ask you for some more band stories when you feel like writing them up.