On the Road
Eight Stories About Being in Love While Being on Tour
My band started touring in the late '90s, during an era that just preceded the ubiquity of the cell phone. We had one among the four of us, and it was reserved for emergencies. It was just as well: The rates outside of the greater Seattle metropolitan area were ungodly. I'm pretty sure you can now make an hour-long international call for less than our 10-minute call to AAA after we broke down on I-5 near Coalinga, California, in 1998.
In those days, calls to my then-girlfriend were reserved for the rare opportunities when we came across a functioning pay phone at a rest stop. We usually drove during the day while she was neck-deep in a classroom of first graders. This meant little or no real conversation on the rare occasion I could even get her on the phone. The boys and I would eventually get to the club, load in and sound-check, eat whatever the promoter cobbled together and called "dinner," and begin the seemingly endless wait until set time. I would feel so drained by that point that calling home seemed like an act of self-sabotage. I desperately needed what little energy I had left for the show, and combing a city like Baton Rouge for a pay phone was out of the question. Honestly, it wouldn't have been as difficult as I'd like to remember it. I was so carried away with the newness of traveling with a band that I didn't think very often about what it meant to be home alone. As the weeks passed, I called less and less.
In February of 2001, "the phone" got a call from Chris's parents telling us about an earthquake that had violently shaken Seattle. Everyone was fine, they said, but they insisted we call our roommates and girlfriends to make sure. We said we would, and most of us did. Except for me. I didn't call home until three days later, from a pay phone in the noisy bar of the Fireside Bowl in Chicago. My girlfriend was extremely rattled by the experience and very upset that I hadn't called until now. I was indignant and insensitive about the whole thing, making excuses about how busy I was out here, blah blah blah. Looking back now, she was undeniably right. I was an asshole for not calling the minute I heard about it.
The touring eventually took its toll on our relationship (among other things, of course), and we parted ways six months later. Now, whenever I talk to young musicians heading out on their first tours, I always stress the importance of calling home often. Do it multiple times a day. Be sure to call when you have the time to have a real conversation. You have no excuse not to. These days, everyone owns a cell phone.
Oh and lastly, don't call late at night after you are drunk and have been partying with townies. You will simply reinforce the idea that you are having all the fun while they toil at home holding down the fort. Also, keep your in-van conversations short and concise, if you have them at all. Long, lovey-dovey, I-miss-you-so-much babbles in the van drive your bandmates crazy. They hate that shit. BEN GIBBARD
My girlfriend has a rule: No songs about being out on the road. It's not just me who she holds to this high standard: Jackson Browne is not allowed to croon about roadies setting up, and it's not okay for ABBA to sing about having to be a super trouper. She finds the theme tacky. It is true, though, that being on tour can be a little grueling and being far away from someone you want to snuggle can suck. A major difficulty of it is that, as a performer, you are constantly being pulled between worlds. Being on tour and giving a piece of yourself to the audience every night could, through some eyes, be seen as engaging in a sort of affair. I mean, it's best when it's intimate, and you really can't be in two places at once.
I hear ABBA describe the tension of touring in their song "Super Trouper": "I was sick and tired of everything, when I called you last night from Glasgow. All I do is eat and sleep and sing, wishing every show was the last show." It's funny that ABBA would write these lyrics, because everyone knows that the band was composed of two couples. They are, like, the archetype of the double married touring outfit. I enjoy viewing this song as a sort of kinky fantasy being acted out by the members of the band. They are tired of being together all the time, and it spices things up to have imaginary phone calls about feeling lonely and far away. To me, the sad verses especially feel like a fabrication, because the thrust of the song comes with the enthusiastic chorus, where they sing that everything is going to be okay because "tonight the super trouper lights are gonna find me, shining like the sun, smiling having fun, feeling like a number one!" These don't sound like lonely people. They also don't sound particularly tired of being onstage. In my relationship, we have worked out a somewhat-similar arrangement. My girlfriend tours with me, doing the sound design and the tech for the shows (and generally making everything better), and for songwriting topics, I look elsewhere. KHAELA MARICICH
Amakeup artist I met in Minneapolis said the following rules helped her keep a long-term relationship afloat during the three solid years (!) she spent on a Tina Turner world tour: Make some contact every day without fail, whether by phone, e-mail, or fax, and never go more than three weeks without physical contact. Even if it's just a brief encounter in an airport lounge, find a way to see your bf/gf every 21 days. That way, you're a couple separated by circumstances. Any more than that and you're exes who haven't admitted it yet. This is admittedly both arbitrary and extreme. Plus, not everyone who tours can afford to fly his or her mate out to Winooski, Vermont, for a dirty weekend once a month. However, it does address the fundamental difficulty: remaining engaged. Touring is its own ecosystem, its own time zone. It makes arduous demands on the consciousness even when nothing whatsoever is happening. Abandoning regular life and taking shelter in the hermetic sphere of the van/bus/plane is the blessing and the curse of the experience. You need not have read The Dirt to understand that the road is a hotbed of temptations. But the question of sex with strangers, however complex, is a red herring. The bigger temptation is to check out, rather than fight to straddle two cross-purposeful lives, both of which are entirely real. It's less a question of fighting a war on two fronts than of needing, on some level, to be in two places at once all the time. SEAN NELSON
As the girlfriend of a musician, I spent a gargantuan amount of time privately contemplating what a person on tour should or shouldn't be doing in relation to their significant other. I kept these thoughts mostly to myself, but I found the infrequency of phone calls and the vagueness of the reports from the road profoundly unsettling.
Several years and relationships later, I went on tour for the first time with my own band. And I rarely called my husband back at home. I'd like to say that I was too busy to call or there was never any privacy, but that's not the truth. I just never wanted to talk. I wanted not to talk. The whole enterprise of tour, the idea that total strangers were supposed to come see my band and buy my record and tell their friends, required a suspension of all the normal rules. Checking in with "real life" not only was jarring but seemed dangerous. As if real life was hell-bent on putting me in my place—and my husband was its dark emissary.
Now I'm divorced and touring isn't nearly so strange or precarious to me, yet I still find it very difficult to puncture the bubble around performing to check in with my other life back at home. All of the significant things that happen on tour, I don't know how to share with another person. I've tried, and they mostly just sound stupid. HEATHER LARIMER
When my daughter Lulu was 6 weeks old, her dad left on a six-week tour. He was in a band called Blood Circus that were on Sub Pop. I wish I could say we had the sort of relationship where he wrote love songs about me. The one song he wrote about me was called "Two Way Street" and was basically about me being a bitch. I found it amusing, really better than a love song. The tour was planned months in advance, but when it came time for him to leave, the reality hit that I was going to be alone with a brand-new baby. Until Lulu was born, I had never changed a diaper. Ever. Before he left, I asked what I was supposed to do, and he said, "Learn to take care of a baby."
I was really torn about being left with the responsibility of taking care of my business, my baby, our home—yet I never wanted to be the ball and chain. The tour went well, I suppose, yet the band really never had much success. Who knows why some bands do and others don't. We split up within a year for many different reasons. One of my favorite breakup lines was "I could have slept with so many chicks on tour and I didn't." I wished he would have. He never went on tour again. LINDA DERSCHANG
I don't know much about life on the road, and I know even less about "love." All I can say is that until you've spent 24 hours a day with a person for 40 days in cramped quarters, forced to deal with their eating habits, their smelly body, the annoying sound they make with their mouth, their poor taste in music, their dedication to discussing the faults of others, their bad driving, their need to prove that they're superior to you, their tardiness, the way they lie to themselves, and their farts—until you do that, and also realize that you yourself carry the same sack of poo-poo, then you don't know much about what it means to commit to another person, let alone love. (This list of personal traits has been shortened for the purpose of this publication. In full, it's actually longer—and growing day by day.) SABZI
I was in an 11-year relationship with Phil Wandscher, who I started the Sweet Hereafter with. We were together all the time, from day one. So the hardest part for us with touring was that we had no buffer zone. Often we had to attempt to resolve our conflicts in a van full of people. I always felt bad—and still feel really bad about this—that we put our band through these moments. But five or six adults in a van for four to eight weeks at a time isn't the norm. It's a unique situation, and I think people in bands (luckily, my band) tend to cut each other a lot of emotional slack because we all share "that" same knowledge. We are all seeing through the same sleep-deprived lens and collectively understand how tough it can be. And how easy it is to become irrational or lost in a moment. Phil and I are no longer a couple, but we are still doing the band together and we are good friends, though we still fight (mostly over the music, which is what our disagreements had usually been about anyway!). We LOVE our band, and we worked so hard to build our existing musical life. It just wasn't an option to let it all fall apart. JESSE SYKES
Some folks are just cut out for touring relationships. Most people probably are not. It requires that both parties are trusting, independent, and committed to each other, and that they have shared and separate social circles. I've been with my boyfriend, Reno, for 11 years. I'm not sure how we've made it this long. I'd be hard-pressed to find someone less interested in music than him, which is a bit odd considering that it consumes my life, but it also means that my touring life is entirely my own. There is no jealousy on his end. He's also a bit of a homebody, whereas I get pretty restless, so the arrangement enables both of us to do our own thing without the other feeling compromised. It sucks to be apart, but it certainly makes me treasure the time we have together. There's nothing better than getting home from a six-week tour. BRIAN COOK
Ben Gibbard is the singer in Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service. Khaela Maricich makes music and performs as the Blow. Sean Nelson is the singer in Harvey Danger, who are playing their last show ever this Saturday night, August 29, at the Crocodile. Heather Larimer writes songs and sings in Eux Autres. Linda Derschang no longer dates musicians. Sabzi is the guy in Blue Scholars and Common Market with the awesome hair. Jesse Sykes is the singer/guitar player in Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. Brian Cook is the bass player in These Arms Are Snakes.