Welcome one and all to the “Art of Touring.” A column written with passion, love and honesty by those who live it from all levels and aspects of the touring game in the Music Industry. We dig deep into the depths of the reality of touring and the highs & lows, sharing knowledge and wisdom, engaging in a laugh and inspiring/educating aspiring artists or people who just want to enjoy a good chat between muso’s.
This issue, I got the privilege of speaking to Brendan Woodley, drummer for Gold Coast power groovers, The Black Swamp. These guys are a treat to have watched grow from a Battle of the Bands, to touring on their own and supporting internationals like Black Label Society and Sebastian Bach. Brendan is a true down to earth gentleman with a great sense of humour and a marvellous beard, who was only too happy to share some thoughts and bearded wisdom with yours truly.
As we got straight into it, I felt at great ease talking to Brendan, who shared what touring means to him, “Touring for me is freedom. You pack your gear, get in the car/plane and while there’s a mud-map, places you have to be, times you have to be there and a certain level of expectation, you don’t ever really know exactly what could happen. You have to let go and roll with it. The excitement of the unknown is that freedom from the everyday working life.” Could not have summed it up better myself. So, one had to know straight up, is Brendan a light or heavy packer for the road? He stroked his majestic beard, looked at me and said, “Jesse,…I pack light, apart from the usual cases of gear….who wants to manage more belongings than they have to!? I usually have a small sports bag with minimal essential clothing and I try to see how far I can push one pair of jeans. Other than that it’s the utility backpack with essentials for exploring the town on foot if we get the chance and being prepared for the show (tools, duct tape, cable ties, rain coat, GoPro etc.) which is usually fun explaining at airport security when you forget to pack it back in with your checked gear. Sometimes we bring boogie boards….that is not a Schapelle Corby joke haha!”
Yes folks, a sense of humour truly go a long way, and Brendan holds his own in this area like a seasoned pro, as I quizzed him on the challenge of diet on the road. As you know, I like to discuss this with everyone, as sometimes eating proper can be a real bitch on the road. Brendan shares, “The road diet varies, usually it’s pretty grim though. You need something sugary for long drives and co-piloting, plus coffee! I try to stay hydrated with plenty of water, knowing that at each show I will dehydrate with plenty of beer. Rinse and repeat. It’s very expensive not to mention incredibly unhealthy eating fast food constantly so supermarket stops to pick up some fresh fruit or bread rolls are better than fast food/service station stops, though sometimes that’s the only stop. Grant (guitars) and I enjoy rating chicken parmigiana, we like to sample what each town has to offer.” We both laugh, as I think it’s almost a general rule of the Aussie muso to try a Parmy (as we Aussies call it) in every city on tour.
I proceeded to ask him about the wonderful myths of touring in his own words, versus the reality of it. Once again, with a stroke of the wonderful ginger beard he ponders, pauses, and then expresses, “I think the myth of touring is any sort of comfort (for anyone other than the top-tier handful of bands). You’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable or you’ll hate it. If you like camping, you’ll love it. If you like being tired, you’ll love it. If you like waiting around, you’ll love it. If you like being away from your family, you’ll love it. These are realities but for me the comfort it affords is comradery and adventure with rich experience of places and people and plenty of partying. Again, it’s that sense of freedom and letting go a bit.”
Now touring can certainly play with the mind and mess with the morale of a band, especially on those long stretches, and as the boys in The Black Swamp have covered some kilometres on the Australian roads already, I asked how they survive without killing each other on those long drives. “You just have to respect each other’s space and wishes. We generally know when it’s not a good time to push each other’s buttons. If somebody is tired, let ‘em sleep, pick up your buddy when he’s drunk or feeling a bit down etc. Just help out your mates! Typically we’re all pretty easy going and just focus on having as many laughs as possible and not sweating the small stuff. Our van banter turns to absolute trash pretty quickly; those are some of the best times. Our tour runs are pretty short in comparison to others so I’m sure that’s why we haven’t killed each other….yet,” he answers with a humble wisdom of a guy still finding his feet in this crazy industry, which is refreshing to hear such a straight up and cool attitude.
Now a guy like Brendan surely has a memorable truck stop tale, as we all do, and boy does he deliver! “On the way to Canberra we stopped for fuel/food/restrooms and witnessed a bit of an altercation at a roadside mango stall. Not sure how it started but the mango salesman was threatening what we presume was a difficult customer (or perhaps a competing roadside fruit vendor?) with a cordless drill and chasing him across the carpark hurling abuse. The mangoes looked ripe and good but we didn’t attempt to buy any.” Canberra Mango Massacre sure has a nice ring to it. Hi Canberra!
I then decided to steer the conversation with a curious twist to get an insight on the world of The Black Swamp to date, as these guys are truly one of many great Australian acts that are worthy of the bigger stages out there. Brendan ponders, “I don’t often self-indulge and reflect on this so let’s see what we’ve been up to and what has changed eh: We actually started about 10 years ago if you consider two workmates writing a few riffs together just for something to do as a starting. We did end up using a few of those riffs. 4 years ago decided to complete a line-up and maybe jump on stage…no big plans, no expectations. Our bucket list was to play a gig somewhere shit. Well….we nailed that, many times. We’ve had a couple of line-up changes and we’ve done several east coast tours, supported several major international acts, have our own beer brewed for us (Bacchus Brewing Co. – The Black Swamp – Russian Imperial Session Stout) and recently won Music Video of the Year at the Gold Coast Music Awards. We’ve independently released an EP, a single, an LP and something new is about to bubble to the surface very soon. Ok cool yeah we’re pretty happy with how things are going; it’s been bloody fun, thanks for asking Jesse! We’ve basically gone from sleeping on people’s couches to sleeping on people’s couches in other cities.”
And on supporting big acts and that brush with fame? “The brushes with the big artists have been very brief, even at the shows backstage. The bands are very busy and it’s usually been a case where they fly in, sound check, do VIP meet and greets, we play our set, they play theirs, they fly out straight away. Their schedules are insane compared to ours so we respect their space where they want it and also we aren’t really star-struck kind of guys. It’s amazing to meet your musical idols though you quickly realise they’re just people too however, when Zakk Wylde busts into your dressing room and hugs your girlfriends, you let him. He was a gentleman! A personal moment for me was when we were opening for Sebastian Bach on the Gold Coast. He saw me side stage applauding between songs and turned to the crowd, asking them to applaud The Black Swamp as we reminded him of his old touring buddies Pantera, then asked me onstage with him for a high five. Bloody fun night!”
We shared a good laugh and I had to know his experience of the infamous world of the backstage rider, and share his dream rider, because I knew this guy could pull a gem out. “The closest we’ve been to a crazy backstage rider was the tour manager offering us Sebastian Bach’s leftover gourmet sandwiches (which we accepted). I’m a pretty simple and not too extravagant guy so my ideal rider would probably just consist of:
An assortment of local craft beers with a new beer glasses for each beer, washed and dried.
Baked chicken wings heavily seasoned with cayenne pepper.
KFC moist towelettes.
1 Plate of cheese (non-smelly, non-sweaty on ice).
Cauliflower/broccoli, cut into individual florets and thrown immediately into the garbage.
6 Full and leafy floor plants, but no trees. We want plants that are just as full on the bottom as the top such as palm, bamboo, peace lilies, etc. No tree trunks!” He answers with a wit that brings me to tears of joy and laughter.
I then further wanted to get his thoughts on the process of supporting a big name and how much can one learn. Brendan shares, “It’s not a very steep learning curve if your band is prepared and organised. We really just walk in and do our normal thing. It’s just an upscale of organisation, crew and logistics to a smaller club show really….just the venues are better and there’s way more punters! We also spend most of our time out in the crowd with our mates as fans of the music as well; it’s what we’re used to doing and way more fun than sitting in a dressing room! To me, booking and running our own smaller shows is more stressful. You are taking all the risk and organising everything. Again, be prepared, be organised, no dramas, good shows!”
And the joys of a good sense of humour are truly vital to the energy of a great tour. I wanted to know if there had been a particular humorous moment as yet in their flourishing career? Brendan leans in and offers with a look both wise and serious, yet a shade of wit surfaces, “Within the band we don’t really do practical jokes. It’s when you pair up with another band or two that the jokes start coming. I’ve never been good at intentionally pushing people’s buttons so I’m usually on the receiving end. Chris Dennis from Azreal somehow convinced me one night after a show in Gladstone that his toilet was broken and he needed to use mine. He’d woken me up so I was completely dazed and confused but went with it….even though he had a camera in his hand filming. He barged into our room and we copped a massive fart-bomb attack. It’s more funny than harmful, but not so much when your wife is also in the room sleeping and she’s pregnant and suffering morning sickness (though they didn’t know at the time). We all have a healthy respect for each other really.”
So for a band like The Black Swamp still finding their way, I wondered his thoughts on playing new venues and the buzz one gets. He answers, “I just love being somewhere new meeting new people. Even if the venue’s not what we expected, sometimes they turn out to be great shows. The worst thing is when the sound is off if you and you don’t happen to have your own engineer with you. For me it’s hard to leave a show feeling like it was a good show if the sound/sounds system was awful, if I couldn’t hear the guitars or vocals as desired, even if we know we nailed the performance. It can really test your memory, focus and playing ability (which isn’t a bad thing) to be up there essentially on your own. Sound is what we do, good sound is king. The local bands are generally good with letting you know what to expect from the venues so we do our research and ask in advance for local advice. Be prepared for anything!” Indeed.
It was time to get a little more serious and discuss the hardships of touring, as while it’s indeed fun and escapism at its finest, there is also a dark reality to this art and for a fairly new name to the circuit, what have these guys faced to date that hasn’t crushed their spirits, like so many bands have. He sighs and raises an eyebrow, “Money hurts, and we bleed for this. At our level there’s no income, we do it purely because we love doing it so if we can prevent further haemorrhaging of cash while on the road then great! We’ve run out of fuel, overheated, lost pieces of gear, lost work, become ill and had to be away from our young families when they’re sick, as well as copping a fine for having an entire hotel evacuated at 2am due to the “smoke alarms in our room mysteriously going off”. I actually can’t wait to get back out on the road….for real!” There is a great deal of respect felt at hearing words like this.
To carry on from this thought, what about the support of Oz artists, especially bands like his in the heavier side of the touring cycle that doesn’t in my opinion get the kind of love that should be felt across the board. He answers. “Over the years the general punters/show goers have become less and less but you still always see mates from bands, bands supporting bands etc. plus whatever following you have managed to amass and engage with yourselves. The scene is very self-supportive and will always continue to be there for those who want it. What baffles me is for example: When we opened for Hellyeah to around 800 people and I was waiting in line for a drink at the bar after our set, some bloke taps me on the shoulder and says “hey you’re that guy from the band…where are you guys from?” and you reply with “We’re from this city mate, I live down the road, we play here every couple of months”. People still love going to the big shows, the international tours, but they have no idea what’s going on in their own backyard, and there’s a lot of really great music going on here! I have also managed to meet people at these shows (some now great friends) and convince them to come to more shows and see what see what is really happening in their own city. It’s frustrating but bands can and do break through over time. If you focus on the difficulty of breaking through and stop enjoying it for what it is (jamming with mates and writing music) then it would be easy to give it up. The support is there if you have something a bit unique, if you work hard, produce a quality product and you have a lot of time and money to pump into it. It’s a pretty obvious formula really.”
And on Recording VS Touring? “Recording is a real personal test of your skill and creativity which is what I enjoy. You’ve got to play perfectly and get the right take and also make sure that what you’d imagined in the writing process actually translates to record in the same way or better. You’ve got to be prepared to let go of some things and think on your feet very quickly while maintaining the integrity of the song. I also love some of the random things or last minute ideas and adjustments that come out of the studio like it’s the pressure of doing the best possible job that pushes your brain to that top gear to give it the extra 10% that you just couldn’t reach earlier. Touring on the other hand takes on a different level of satisfaction and excitement. Touring and playing shows is raw, it’s loud, it’s messy, it’s violent and it’s real! It is our aim to attempt to capture this essence in recording….a challenging translation at times for a musical genre that’s a bit rough around the edges to be captured in a clean, technical environment. We have evolved in how we’ve looked at the recording process, chipping away at our musicianship over the years, tightening together as players and steering it towards live recording. All of us in a room together, vibing off each other in real time, single takes. It is after all what we have to do on stage. Different strokes for different folks of course, we’ve just learned that this method suits our band best.”
You gotta love the solid down to earth strength of character, Brendan possesses. It’s an admirable quality that is warming to the soul. I then wanted to probe tour highlights and what has made this guy hungry for more in this vast ocean. “For me, the general highlight is building relationships and meeting people from all walks. The heavy metal community is very diverse and there’s a lot of interesting and very professional characters. I really enjoy learning so I often talk less shite and listen more to others. Meeting anybody who appreciates your music is very rewarding when all you really do is set out to do something that you can be proud of yourself. When people you don’t know and who haven’t heard of your band approach you personally for a chat and really understand what you’re trying to do musically, it’s a great moment. I want to stay up all night drinking with those people…so I usually do,” Brendan answers. So I further probed with when he felt that this was the kind of lifestyle he wanted to pursue. He props up and enthuses, “That’s got to be the first concert experience you ever had right!?!? For me I think it is anyway…back to my first metal show, 2001, Brisbane, Festival Hall, Pantera: The first time walking into an arena, stage banner 2 storeys high, massive wall of amps, lighting show out of control, a thousand people cheering and pulsing to the music, the merch, knowing all the lyrics, seeing the band members in the flesh, the ringing ears, it’s completely surreal! That magic slowly diminishes over time as you see more and more live music…..but if I’m the one on stage, it doesn’t. It always takes me back to that feeling.” Mind slightly blown…..
Brendan is also a great dad and wonderful family guy outside of the band, and I wanted to know his thoughts on balance and maintaining a strong relationship in this. His wisdom knows no bounds, as he responds, “Firstly it takes an incredibly patient partner, happy to let you chase your dreams, knowing that it’s your happy place and you wouldn’t be the same person without it. Secondly, a whole lot of time and patience and doing as much as possible to contribute to the household and family while you are at home, trying to be as present as possible. Thirdly, you’ve got to have a job that accepts you running off every now and then which allows you to still maintain a steady income and plan ahead for tours knowing that you’re financially secure. At our level, this isn’t our income at all so we must prioritise and work at the maximum pace that we can which suits all band members. Lastly, throw your TV, Xbox and Netflix in the bin. I don’t watch it; I couldn’t possible get everything done if I did. I feel very lucky to have a nicely balanced busy life that allows for me to achieve everything that I want but it does requires hard work, no sitting on your ass! Family – work – band….in that order.”
Touring can really shape a person and provide the kind of education, one cannot possibly learn from reading. You live it, you breathe it, and you get beat up and dirty and go back for more. Why? Because it’s in our blood and we live for it. How has this been for Brendan I wondered? “When we started this band (my first and only band) all I knew was how to play drums…and that’s debatable at times. I knew nobody from any other bands personally, no venues, promoters or engineers. I knew nothing about running a band, nothing about recording music or booking a show, let alone a tour. Getting out and up on stage has definitely brought me out of my shell a lot, increased my confidence across many facets of life, made me more organised (perhaps even a bit of a control freak at times) and generally opened my world to a whole range of life experiences. It’s fair to say I’ve learned a lot but I don’t think it’s really changed the core of who I am.”
As we brought the conversation to a close, this chat leaves me with a sense of pure satisfaction, getting an insight and perspective from a genuine guy that’s still finding his way with the band he loves and enjoys what he does with no ego, no agenda, just a zest for comradery, respect and yes a damn fine sense of humour. I’ll let Brendan close this with some final word and advice for the aspiring musician. “My advice for young muso’s or those just starting out is to get your music and show as good as possible before getting out there, you only have one chance to make a first impression. Learn from other bands, ask questions, get a mentor etc. You’ve got to be at other people’s shows, you have to get to know good people, but also not just expect people to do things for you and take advantage of them. A wise man once told me “it’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice”. There is nothing more true. Do whatever you can to add to your scene, help out, use your particular skills to your advantage to help others and your own band, promote the work of others and just be good people. The heavy metal community can be a very small place and you can’t afford to be anything otherwise.”
The Black Swamp, hail from the Gold Coast, play loud and party hearty!
You can find them on Facebook HERE!