I was a fairly active touring musician for about three solid years, and one thing I never really hear other musicians discuss is the amount of time you have to kill between shows. This mainly happens in East Coast tours, where cities are close together, so I’ll give you a scenario of what I’m talking about: You play Tuesday night in Hartford, Connecticut, and sleep on the couch of a gracious fan who works a 9-to-5, so you’ve gotta be up and out by 8:30 a.m. Your next show is an hour away in New London, and check-in time isn’t until 8 p.m. It’s March and the weather is garbage, so outdoor activities aren’t an option. You don’t want to spend too much money, because you can’t afford to, and there are three weeks left of tour for something to go wrong that might eat up what you’ve made so far.
My answer was always finding the closest mall, because at least the mall has a comfy chair to relax in, a place to charge your phone, and free samples in the food court. And if you got really lucky, the mall might have a movie theater with a $5 matinee, so that’s two hours gone! How did and do you kill the time?
—Elliott Sussman in Pittsburgh
Can Sussman sleep? Sussman can’t sleep. Could Sussman go to the movies? Sure, maybe Sussman could go to the movies. And Sussman, my friend, I agree that the mall has a certain, well-lit allure. The Walkmen tried a lot of things over the years to stay occupied. Some of these I would recommend, and some I wouldn’t. I’ll tell you about a few, and hopefully it will be clear which is which. Given the importance of this issue to you as a touring musician, I think it’s worth devoting a whole column to it.
Now, in 2018, when you can bring your computer everywhere, you really ought to put in some hours every day working. Even if MIDI recording isn’t your favorite, you can learn a lot from spending time with it. But when we first started touring—before high-quality, portable music technology—it was harder to stay occupied. International tours are wonderful, because you play bigger, more engaging cities. These cities usually have subways, so you are no longer at the mercy of the group. You are on vacation, save for your evenings, and you should have no problem staying busy.
Much of the United States, with its longer drives and less walkable cities, can be more of a challenge. In the early days, we visited public libraries to read or to work on our website. We tried to jog, and we played sports when possible. We lost at basketball to Built To Spill, were humiliated on the ping-pong table by Kings Of Leon, and lost a football game against Beach House in the last seconds, when Alex and Victoria almost took Ham’s head off. (Okay, I’m joking about that last one.) If you kept your eyes open on the road, you could find places to swim—and from time to time we would go tubing, which is cheap but super boring. Though filling out all the disclaimers takes up some time; in retrospect I’m surprised it didn’t occur to us to use the tires from the van. But tubing makes you feel stupid. Even the word “tubing” looks stupid. I’ll never do it again.
We traveled for a couple weeks with another band I won’t name who happily passed the days talking to each other in funny voices: “Methinks the monitors are crackling, m’lady.” “Argggghh, me drink tickets are spent, Cap’n,” and on and on. The Walkmen played what we referred to as “human-powered Jeopardy” as we drove, or “radio baseball,” a dull game that I think was just an excuse to argue. And day after day, year after year, I would save the extra two bucks for a decent newspaper, only to open a USA Today and stare at the weather map.
Reading a lot allowed us to pass around books, and it gave us additional topics of conversation. After almost two decades of touring, we agreed that reading and single rooms were the two basic necessities to preserving our sanity. We toured once with Incubus, and the lead singer had a book of poetry for sale. Its mere existence—nobody had ever read it—showed depth and insight, which his own band resented and suppressed. (Right before they forced him to take off his shirt for his bongo solo.) We’d seen this general literary model by rock ’n’ rollers before, and it inspired us to write a book of our own. The joke here was twofold: One, it was written by all five of us, which is fine for investigative journalism, but seemed just odd for fiction. Two, it would show no real unexpressed depth. Instead, it would be almost pathologically descriptive and dryly factual, and—in a truly self-defeating move—would show there was even less bubbling beneath our brooding surface than our music suggested. We never actually finished it, but it sure took up a ton of time.
And then there were days when we would flail about desperately for an activity. We fought one Sunday as we drove from Salvation Army to Salvation Army, trying to buy an old antenna TV to plug into the cigarette lighter to watch some football game. Half the band thought, “Why wouldn’t this work?”—and in their defense, I think it would have. And the other half felt like, “This isn’t going to fucking work,” because, well, it wasn’t going to fucking work. It’s actually more of a philosophical than a technical question.
It was through all this searching for an activity that we stumbled across golf. I know golf isn’t free, but to us it was funny, from top to bottom. We struggled with every facet of the game, including the rental process, and when we finally got on the course, we would always be in a big, unexplained hurry (because we were always in a hurry). This disconcerted the other golfers, whose aim was leisure—why else would you play golf? And even though we were obviously rushing, we also couldn’t really hit the ball, so we were slow. It all looked like we were being forced to play.
Our engineer and “sixth man,” Pepperjack, was being forced to play, so he would usually quit on an early hole and stand in the woods smoking—near enough to us that he wouldn’t be left behind (this was a very real concern to him, I think), but also far enough away that, again, he would unnerve the other golfers. Meanwhile, Walter Martin, Pete Bauer, and I were all too competitive for how mediocre we were. Ham was surprisingly good until he actually got near the hole. And Matt Barrick wasn’t great. Once he even lost all his clubs, and was left just standing there holding his ball. Some of my favorite memories from being in a band are, oddly enough, on a golf course.
Anyway, Sussman, I hope you found some of these ideas inspiring. If not, hey, maybe reading this killed some time?