The role of the road manager is something of an anachronism in the world of rock 'n' roll. Janis Joplin's road manager called it the "25-hour-a-day job," and Richard Cole, perhaps the most notorious road manager in rock history, who toured with Led Zeppelin for 12 years during the band's heyday, started in the profession because "there was no pussy" in construction work. His brashness revolutionized the job, but he was finally sacked in 1980 amid growing concerns with his worsening drug and alcohol intake*. A road manager has got to be sharp, punctual, and vigilant—that, and never sleep. They have to get the band there on time, make sure they get paid, and then make sure everyone gets to the next gig. Promoters try to screw them out of money, and groupies and fans can gum up the works—hell, sometimes the band's own members can gum up the works. If Shane MacGowan arrives at the venue incapacitated, it's his manager who has to find the local Rock Doctor to inject the singer with whatever will inveigle him onstage.
Portland's metal-tinted rockers Red Fang have a reputation as wild men. Their music videos feature them, among other things, blowing up their road manager Chris Coyle with a Molotov cocktail, plowing a station wagon into a full china cabinet, and unsuccessfully attacking a group of LARPers with armor made of spent beer cans. And as the band engages, year after year, in a seemingly deranged tour frequency—an estimated 50 times, both in North America and Europe, since the band formed in 2005—I called up Coyle to discuss the nuances and demands of his particular job.
How’s it going down there? Good. We just got back from the tour. Just wearing a lot of sweatpants around the house.
Tell us about your role as road manager of Red Fang. I imagine you’ve had some notable experiences out there. Well, I remember you telling me the other day to get some stories in order, but it’s hard for a couple reasons. For one, at this point we really feel like we’re all on the same team, like we’re in sync. And the other is, well, we just got… old. [Laughs]
Have the tours mellowed over the years? They definitely have, but I think that's a combination of age and experience. When you first start out touring, it's kind of like a vacation. But as the band grew and everything started coming with that, we just decided [no]. You know, we all had bar jobs, and it's like, I can't show up hammered to work at the Shanghai Tunnel, you know? But we had finally got our dream jobs, so why would you show up hammered to do this? Not to say there aren't still occasions when things go off the rails, but... You look around at the people who blew it, it's because they do it to excess. Once they start buying their own hype, like Yeah, we're the partyers; we're rock stars. And I can't live that. There's a reason that VH1's Behind the Music exists [laughs].
For the uninitiated, describe your role as road manager. Before the tour, I start out with a list of shows, and then I advance them all, meaning I call or e-mail all the clubs and basically say, “This is what we’re gonna need when we get there.” Then ask them things like “What time do you want us there? What time do you want us to go on?” Et cetera. Then I put together a tour book, so when we’re in the van we can just open it up for reference. Then I go through and book all the hotel rooms if we’re gonna stay in one. That’s also when I say, “Okay, everybody reach out,” because we’re still not afraid to sleep on floors. Then, when we’re on the road, I’m the first one out of the van and the last one in: Get out, meet the promoter, find their crew, introduce them to our guys. Then make sure the dressing room rider is met, which, most people don’t get that that’s something you pay for. It’s like “Well, you have $200 for catering taken out of our budget. Where is this $200, and where are the receipts?”
The tough part for me is that I still sell all the merch, so when that’s done, I have to go count in all the merch because we keep a daily inventory so I know exactly what we have. Then I take in all the money for that and put it into this or that spreadsheet. Then there’s the whole press-agent aspect where I say, “Okay we’ve got interviews at 5:30 and 6:30 and this is how long they’re gonna be.” So I handle all that. It’s a pretty nonstop thing. And then I handle all the money intake as well—with that, I sit down with the promoter and see how many people paid, and how much the tickets were, add that up, and then subtract the promoter’s fees, plus whatever else gets taken out, to make sure we’re not getting ripped off. Then I take the check—hopefully it’s a check and not a pocketful of cash [laughs]. Then head out to the next town and do it all over again.
You guys in a bus these days or what? This last tour we took a bandwagon, which is sort of a beefed-up RV, but we only took that because both [the bands] Opeth and In Flames were in buses, and it was like an eight-hour drive every day, and we were loading in every day at 1:30 p.m. So if you roll into a city at 3 a.m., and you have to be at the club at 1 p.m., you’re gonna sleep for what—four or five hours? Where, in a hotel? So we had to hire a driver just to make it safely. But other than that, when we’re just booking our own headlining tours in the US, we’re in a van. It’s just us and our sound guy, Adam, and that’s it.
In Europe, we use what’s more or less an airport shuttle converted into a tour-bus-type setup. So we figured out that renting hotels at night in Europe versus renting a Sprinter—it wasn’t that much more, so we just got this thing and didn’t have to worry about it. This way you just wake up in the next city, so you can take more time and see a bit of the town instead of waking up in Berlin at 6 a.m. and heading out for the next show.
How would you compare touring in Europe versus the United States? It's way better over there, because they appreciate the arts. And they treat you better. You go play a club in, say, Germany, and they say, "We'll pay you whatever you guys need to do it." Because the government subsidizes it. Also, there's the old adage in the States where it's like, "Okay, you guys get three drink tickets each, and a beer is two drink tickets." In Europe, it's like, "Okay, here's an entire fridge full of beer, here are some local wines, and my mom just made you dinner from scratch [laughs]."
What rules for survival have you learned? We have a couple mottoes when we're on tour. One is "When in doubt, freak out!" [Laughs] The one big thing that we all had to work on, myself especially, is communication—if that falls apart, it all starts to come unraveled. If you're having a problem with someone, try to talk it out, because if you don't, it's just gonna fester for the entire tour. We used to have this hat that said, "I usually wake up grumpy, but I let her sleep in this morning," but we crossed everything out so that it just said "grumpy." So if you were in a shitty mood, you would get in the van and put on the grumpy hat, and that let everyone know: "Okay, just steer clear of him today, he's got the grumpy hat on [laughs]." Ultimately it's just kind of a sociological experiment. You're just driving around the world with six dudes in a mobile studio apartment, so you have those days where you think, "If he rolls down that window one more time, I'm gonna punch him in the face."
Can you think of a quagmire you helped the band get out of? Every day [laughs]. One time we rolled the van over twice coming down I-5 from a show in Seattle. But everyone was alive, and we thought, should we cancel the tour? But then we decided no. What, are we just gonna sit around and freak out about how we almost died? We gotta just keep moving. So we needed a new van. I called my buddy Mark and said, "Hey are you using your van?" He said, "No, not really, why?" I told him, and he said, "No, man, go ahead." The next day we had a new van, and we ended up finishing the tour in a borrowed van. That was lucky, because we couldn't afford to rent a van at that point. That would have crushed us.
For me, it’s just picking up the pieces of every day—there’s always something where it’s like “Okay, well now we’ve gotta solve this problem.” I try not to dwell on anything. My mom used to say, “If you’re looking behind you, you’re gonna trip on whatever’s in front of you.”
Even on this upcoming tour, the logistics of shipping the gear overseas and then getting it back here—it’s stuff I don’t even think of as a problem anymore. It’s part of the job. It’s like if you work at a bar: “Somebody barfed in the toilet again. Better go clean it up! It’s part of the job.” [Laughs]
If you could impart any wisdom to the road managers of tomorrow, what would it be? I always think of the road manager in Spinal Tap, Ian, when he's like, "There's no sex and drugs for Ian." [After which he follows up with "Do you know what I do? I find lost luggage."] It's a job. You're crew. The band can sleep in the van all day and then wake up for sound check and then go back to sleep. If you're doing anything that requires you to be on the road [as part of the crew], you've got a 12- or 13-hour day in front of you. Just don't think, "Oh, I'm gonna be a rock star, too." 'Cause it doesn't really work that way, but still it's an amazing job. I remember getting my passport, just staring at the pages, hoping I could get a stamp. Then last year I had to get pages added to it because there was no room left for any more.
* Interestingly, Richard Cole was then sent to Italy for rehab, where he was summarily mistaken for a member of Italian left-wing terror group the Red Brigades after they bombed a railway station, and was jailed for six months. “I’d been in Italy for only a little bit, but I had already gotten quite a nice tan and had a big beard,” he told Vice recently. “I fit the description.”