Welcome to “The Art of Touring,” an insight and glimpse into the world of being on tour. Every week, I have the pleasure of speaking to artists, and even people who work behind the scenes, that do this almost all year round and then some. No one ever said it’d be easy, and the people I speak to are testament to that sharing tales and wisdom, joys and hardships, trials and tribulations to educate and inspire the aspiring artist or those who just want to enjoy a story or two.
This episode, I have the pleasure of speaking to UK Drummer (currently playing in Devilment) & Stage Manager/Technician for many bands, (right now with Cradle of Filth), a wonderful chap named Matt Alston. He’s played since he was 8, started touring at 16, and started touring the world as a drum & percussion/backline technician at 20. Having played in numerous bands over the years, he is enjoying laying the beats for the sinister Dani Filth in Devilment, and has worked with the likes of Cradle of Filth, Ill Niño, Static-X, Emmure and more.
Starting off with discussing the life of touring, Matt describes it like this, “Tour life is basically joining a family, unless you’re a member of the Touring Family – you have no idea what it’s like. You spend huge amounts of time being with people from all walks of life, but you all have the same appreciation for the job you do. As long as everyone pulls their weight & does their job, it’s the best camaraderie you can get. Being able to travel the world with your touring family, see incredible cities and experience different cultures is simply the best job you can have. Yes the job is hard at times, the lack of sleep can cause you to lose your mind, and all the other testing factors aside; I wouldn’t change it for the world!” Add to this the bonus of watching your favourite bands, is agreeably pretty special.
Tour life for many involves gruelling hours on the road, and hopping from plane to plane, country to country, and Matt’s preference? “If I was pushed to make a choice, it would have to be driving/ travelling in tour buses. Not that I’m afraid of flying! (Please note, Matt says this whilst flying 11 hours to Japan to work at Loud Park 17). For me, being able to make yourself at home in the tour bus for the duration of tour is far better than spending every night in a different hotel & flying between cities/countries! Also, the added stress and work that goes into the logistics of fly shows is such a pain in the ass sometimes!” To agree and add, touring can certainly rattle the cage of one’s brain. One minute here, next minute there, and add to that a lack of rest, can certainly take somewhere beyond the realms of the Twilight Zone. Some may actually get enjoyment from this.
And we got into the saga of continuous weekly conversation with all who speak in this column of the wonderful art of packing. Some master it with a Zen quality of minimalism that defies space, whilst others struggle and tend to pack that little too much. It truly is an art folks, as Matt suggests, “I think I’d put myself somewhere in the middle…I pack as much as I can, but make sure it’s all things I absolutely need without going crazy!” And what would be the essential survival tools most needed? Matt answers with “Hearing Protection. You can have all the tools in the world with you, but if you need to fix something underneath or on the kit during the show…you don’t want your unprotected ears inches from a snare drum or china cymbal that the drummer is hitting into oblivion!!”
We then discussed the diet of the road. Something not often discussed, but relevant in this column. “Oh man, you really have to make smart choices if you’re out on tour for a long time, eating fast food/gas station ‘food’ is just the worst! You’re so much more susceptible to getting sick being on tour, and if you don’t eat properly, you’ll have no chance! Of course sometimes it’s hard, for example – after show food at 3am….What is the only food place that’s open? Taco Bell…I fucking HATE Taco Bell!! Hahaha!” He then adds about favourite food on the road being, “Anything that is NOT Taco Bell! My main choices would be Sushi – but has to be good sushi, none of that supermarket/gas station pathetic excuse for sushi!”
Matt really adds a charm and wit in conversation that only an Englishman can offer, and it’s admirable. I like discussing the food side of touring, because quite often people talk about the same backstage stuff and rubbing shoulders, yadda yadda, and in this day and age of culinary prowess and the quest for food that just makes you melt, I feel it’s vital to discuss the relevance here which is the difference between surviving 6 weeks on tour or crashing after 2 on an 8 week run. Diet truly does play into this and I asked Matt about memorable cuisine experience a well-travelled gentleman like himself may have experienced to date, that defies ‘weird.’ He responds, “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything too weird, although there were some interesting choices during a trip to the Philippines a few years ago. The promoter took us all to this enormous buffet in Manila; it had everything you could possibly want…and crickets, fish heads, monkey fingers and more.” And on a memorable experience that rocked? “Now that would probably have to be the time i went to dinner with the Bullet For My Valentine guys in an absolutely incredible Brazilian restaurant in Manhattan…$100 each just to sit down! But damn, it was totally worth it. I was out with Niño in America, we kept crossing paths with the BFMV tour, and since our FOH engineer Steve is good friends with the band – we would hang out as much as possible on days off.”
Speaking of hanging out, for one who gets to work with the many bands he does, I asked Matt about his most memorable band to work with, as he sentimentally describes, “Having toured with Ill Niño for such a long time, we’ve experienced a lot together; travelled the world & shared highs and extreme lows together. Those guys have become as good as family. Because of them, I met my current girlfriend, which is obviously a good thing! Ha-ha, but on the other side I lost a very close friend (and fellow technician) Ricci Castro, he was the FOH engineer for Niño from 2014-2016. We were incredibly close, same age as me and we took him on his first tour outside of the USA, he had such a hunger for the job and was totally devastating to lose him at such a young age. RIP brother x.” Ricci was a joy to know and he truly is missed. I smile every time I hear Paramore’s “Aint it Fun,” cause he used to crank that song at sound check every day we were on tour together.
As Matt mentions, the lack of sleep on tour being one hell of a hard ship, one must accustom to on tour, he mentions the impact of touring on his personal life as, “When it gets busy, you barely spend any time at home. There has been times when I get home, throw my dirty clothes out of my bag, refill it with clean clothes and head straight back out the door to join another tour. The most important thing for me is having a girlfriend who understands about me being away from home a lot, and being mentally strong enough to cope with it, whilst having incredible trust between each other.” Another hardship is also hygiene, or lack of, as Matt laughs and agrees, “I was on a North American tour last year, where the first week of shows was all in Texas…with the normal hot as hell Texas weather! And of course the venues either didn’t have showers, or we didn’t have time for showers! So I spent the week trying my best to have as many baby wipe baths as possible! But that was pretty grim to be honest. Regarding clothes, I always try to pack as many clothes as I can! Especially underwear!!! But if you do run out of shirts, you just get some from the support bands merch.”
Getting a chance to a guy who works behind the scenes on tour is a real bonus, and it’s only fitting to ask about the role Matt plays as a Tech. He describes, “So, essentially the role of a ‘Tech’ on tour is simply making sure the show happens each night. Fixing anything which is broken, maintaining the equipment, and pretty much making sure that the artist doesn’t have any stress or worries while they’re on stage. My role for example, as Stage Manager/Drum & percussion Tech with Ill Niño meant that as soon as we arrived at the venue, I would be on stage assessing the situation regarding stage power, making sure the audio equipment in house was up to scratch with my FOH Engineer, making sure the venue had the correct information regarding the support bands etc.… Once that was all done, the other techs and I would start to build the show, get all the equipment set up & checked before the band would arrive for sound check. And if some of the band weren’t there for sound check, I would also check their instruments with the remaining band members. Once sound check is finished, you then prepare the stage for the support bands to setup by removing any equipment so it doesn’t get damaged & giving them as much space as they need for their show. Show time: As a stage manager it’s my job to make sure all the support bands get on stage and more importantly OFF stage at the right time. If the support bands run late, it’s a knock-on effect for the rest of the night, and might mean the headline band (my bosses) get their set cut short…Which is a big problem. After show: As soon as the show finishes, we pack the gear up as quickly as possible, I collect all equipment from dressing rooms (IEM wireless packs etc..) and make sure all equipment is loaded back onto the truck. As soon as the truck is locked & the final idiot check has been done inside the venue, its then time to relax…have a shower/chill with a beer or two, or get straight onto the bus for the 12hour drive to the next city. And then the process repeats!” Yep, pretty straight forward? Much respect to all who work so tirelessly behind the scenes to get the show happening.
I wanted to further know about the stress involved on a job like this. “It can be extremely stressful. Especially if you’re working with incredibly tight time frames, trying to get everything in place & working to how the band expect it to be. Festivals for example can be amazingly stressful if you arrive late, as you are working under strict orders from the Festival Stage Manager – who will cut your set short if you’re running over. It’s also a lot of pressure if you don’t have your usual equipment, such as flying into the country for the one festival show – all the equipment you usually have would have to be provided by the festival, so building everything from fresh takes 10 times as long. But you do get used to working under those conditions pretty quick, if not, you won’t be doing the next tour! Ha-ha,” he adds.
And it’s no secret, there are pranks galore to be played whilst on tour, as I asked Matt to recall any. He responds, “Oh I’ve seen many tour pranks, some better than others! Ranging from lowering fried chicken from the lighting rig in front of the drummers face to the lighting engineer doing a seductive dance on stage wearing nothing but tiny tiny underwear. I think the days of big scale tour pranks are starting to die out, the schedules are so tight that people just don’t have the time anymore! Plus there are lots of rules when it comes to pranks on stage…especially if I’m expected to clean it up during a show!”
As we wrap up this enlightening chat and having gained some extremely valuable insight on life behind the scenes, I asked Matt for any advice for you the aspiring reader, who has dreams of hitting the road. He lays it out like this, “Some people can handle the tour life, and others can’t. If you can, your hard work will get noticed. Get to know your field of expertise, and don’t be afraid to take jobs which are out of your comfort zone! It can build a huge range of jobs you can specialise in. I started as just a Drum/Percussion Tech – since then I have done guitar teching, FOH, Lighting, Stage managed and Tour managing. You should never stop learning!”
Knowledge is power. As a great man also says to me often on tour, “Everyday is a school day!”