Realities of touring with drummer Robin Guy
"I don't want any of that Mötley Crüe shit..."
The realities of touring are quite different to the rock and roll stories that have been recounted time and again. For Brit session drummer Robin Guy touring means a relentless schedule of learning setlists, adapting for multiple gigs, fitting in with new groups of people and very little sleep. His last couple of months have proven eventful and also educational to him as a player. Here he gives us a warts and all look into touring with Rancid's Lars Frederiksen.
"Hi Robin, it's Lars, - my drummer just broke his arm and I need you to finish our tour - can you do it?"
It's every drummers dream to get called out of the blue, let alone from a high profile musician, with a mission of mercy.
I said yes in an instant, and then checked the diary...
Lars Frederiksen is one of the guitarists and singer songwriters of Rancid, he's also written & played for Dropkick Murphys and has other bands such as Lars and the Bastards and The Old Firm Casuals. If you are familiar with any of these bands, you will know that he doesn't write rubbish songs and I think it's safe to say I am a fan of his work.
I recorded some tracks with Lars (& Steve Whale from The Business) almost a decade ago, for a project called The Masons (apparently due for release on Epitaph records, hopefully in the next decade...).
Fast-forward to Aug 2014 and I was already booked on a tour - filling in for the drummer (Joe Lewis) of a band named Control. I'd recorded a couple of their albums and played shows in the past and they were main support to The Old Firm Casuals. I was to do the first half of the tour playing in Control and was then going home to mow my lawn and pay bills.
I was looking forward to a well-earned rest as I'd just come out of a hectic teaching schedule, headlined a stage at Guilfest with Sham 69, gone to Frankfurt with Control, gone straight into the Freddie Gee Drum Academy 2014, up to play Rebellion punk fest and then out on this tour... so when I was woken up a couple of days before it all started with the phonecall from Lars, it all changed again!
I was instructed to "go buy the new record on iTunes, I'll email you the setlist, make a playlist, learn it. Oh, and Robin, I don't want any of that Mötley Crüe shit - we're a punk band..."
I said "ok, no problem, but I will be wearing a bandana, I sweat a lot!"
That seemed ok. I think Lars was under the impression that all I did was show off and twiddle my sticks, which, if you have studied some of my playing, in some situations and gigs could be fair comment, but this was a great challenge to step up to - learn 18 songs with little or no rehearsal whilst on tour with another band, don't spin sticks, play like the drummer on the record (Paul Rivas), don't 'Robin Guy' it up, nail it down and deliver the goods, save the tour.
"This is home for the next few days..."
In the first week I am playing for Control. We are travelling in a Crawley-hired 15-seater Minibus and have tour openers Runnin' Riot from Belfast travelling with us. They seem lovely lads and we are soon joking and passing the traffic-jammed time in the bus sharing tales and banter, laughing, snoozing, reading or nibbling peanuts to kill the boredom, all in an upright sitting position.
Ray Dust, drummer from UK Hardcore band Knuckledust and Oi kings Argy Bargy is doing the first leg with OFCs. We would be using house backline and Joe's kit and everyone was to 'muck in'. Between the van, the venue and a solitary Travelodge room for the entire band, it's home for the next few days...
Bristol, on a rainy Monday, was packed and a fantastic start to the tour. We had lockable band dressing rooms, towels, showers and a great sound on stage! Exeter was an underground club so with a ton of people there was no oxygen and it was very hot and sweaty - perfect for Rock n' Roll!
The Travelodge was full so Runnin' Riot all slept in the minibus, without giving it a second thought! I was thankful for my hot shower and clean sheets, despite sharing the double bed with Shifty the bassist (and Iain, vox, and Ryan, guitars, on the two kiddie pull-out beds!).
We all thought a new venue in Cardiff that no-one had played before was going to suck, but despite the promoter telling us he didn't have any budget for band food and drinks and giving us all a solitary bottle of water, turned out to be the highlight thus far, with a busy crowd all singing and dancing! I had a meeting with a guy that wanted me to record some tracks too, so that was a cool meet-up!
Derbywas an upstairs venue (stairs and Marshall amps don't mix) but packed again and a great atmosphere, with all the bands hanging out, singing on each other's songs on stage and all round tour cameraderie!
The next night was Friday night and that meant one thing - a sold out show in London. It was also my last show with Control and I gave it every last drop of Rock. We all played great and had a blast onstage, and so did the audience!
But almost as soon as I came off stage I began to feel a slight 'seriousness' come over me. Tomorrow was my first show with The Old Firm Casuals. Had I memorised the songs well enough? Had I done enough homework? Had I got the beats down? Could I differentiate one song from another 17...? Amongst all the volume and rowdy celebrations I began to feel slightly on edge and anxious...
"I had no rehearsal, no run-through, no soundcheck, no line-check, and now no fan"
In Watford the next day we found out that every show on the tour from now on had sold out. This was fantastic news, but it also increased the pressure a tad! I set up the drums and awaited the rest of my 'new' band to arrive and soundcheck.
They never arrived.
I had to sit there until showtime, watching all the bands soundcheck, getting all the volume levels correct on stage to play a perfect show, whilst pacing up and down, listening to the OFC's song setlist again and nibbling on crisps. During this time, the sound engineer reliably tells me that 'that drum monitor is pretty useless'. Nice, thanks for that. So on top of the fact that the band aren't here for the all-important virgin soundcheck/run-through with me, I am now told that I'd be unlikely to hear anything onstage if they did show. Pressure? Much?!
Then, just as you couldn't think it could get any worse, the soundman comes to me during showtime saying: 'the bass amp is overheating - can we borrow your onstage fan?'
Now, when playing I hit pretty hard, I work up a sweat and in sold out sweaty clubs with no oxygen it's rather important to have your own fan, especially when the band you are playing for decide to run the first seven songs into one-another with no break. The news that I had to volunteer up my fan was quite a blow.
At this point I was pretty much gibbering - I had no rehearsal, no run-through, no soundcheck, no line-check, and now no fan. I was surely going to boil, vaporise, or faint, or pass out due to brain-overload.
"I counted 1, 2, 3, 4 on the hi-hat and then we made music for the first time"
On tour you have no space, no privacy, its loud all the time - either soundchecking, performing, DJs before/after the show, or radio/music/talking/shouting all throughout the day.
The dressing room/backstage (if the club has one) gets rammed full of well-wishers and by mid evening the backstage area is chock full of people drinking your drinks, eating your food, standing chatting where you are trying to get changed. When you finally come off stage, it becomes quite a mission just to find your own bag and change out of wet clothes - the dressing room is more packed than the concert...
With all this in mind, I was desperately trying to find some physical space and mental peace to clear my thoughts and prepare for the fast-approaching show. I think, together with the fact that it seemed all odds were against me and someone bought me a large Jack n' Coke, I ended up totally slaying my first show! The adrenaline was on a par with expectancy and I had a whole crew to my stage-right, spurring me on. I have grown to know myself well enough that in times of 'Do or Die', I'll somehow always 'Do'. This was one of those times.
I counted 1, 2, 3, 4 on the hi-hat and then we made music for the first time. As we played the intro I swear I actually saw Lars grinning - I'm guessing he was having a "We're going to be ok" moment! The show was a blur of bodies, sweat, water flying everywhere, frantic setlist stares and blind count-ins, but we got to the end with big hugs all round - "well done Robin - you stepped up."
I was soaked through, but beaming. Then, in an instant, back to reality - we all had to do the load-out!
"I chose to take everything on this tour as a chance to learn"
After a day off, we reconvene in Watford to gather band members and head off to Manchester, however on the way we heard news from Lars that would alter the whole tour. Colin, the lead singer from Runnin' Riot, had died in his sleep.
Confusion was instantly rife. What should we do? How should we be? Should we play the (sold out) show in Manchester? Should we continue the tour? There were instant tears amongst some - there was history and friendship between all the bands - and numbness spread. We knew he was a diabetic and maybe this was a contributing factor, others thought a heart attack.
All we could do was sit and wait. At times like this you want a Tour Manager to tell everybody what the best way forward is and what everyone should do. We had no such thing - the OFC's regular Tour Manager couldn't do this tour, and Lars had appointed Paul, his drummer to be TM - but he was in an Austrian hospital.
Eventually we heard - Lars was going to do the honourable thing and stay behind to await Colin's wife flying over from Belfast, and we would postpone the Manchester show and head to Newcastle.
The next day we all met and set up the show in Newcastle. It was quite a sombre air which was to be expected, but we 'got amongst it' as much as possible and tried to be normal and concentrate on the matter in hand.
The thing is with all forms of entertainment - Rock n' Roll or otherwise, people have paid hard-earned money to go to your show and have a good time, to drink, dance, celebrate, forget, shout, cheer, meet with friends and buy a t-shirt. What goes on behind the scenes is very private - the audience don't want to know what the traffic jam was like, whether you ate/slept ok, or whether you miss your wife, girlfriend, kids, mum etc but at the same time we felt a duty to tell them of the tragedy.
Lars already had a friend's recent death to deal with, and now this, coupled with the fact that he was on his fourth drummer, and suddenly having to Tour Manage. His plate was full.
Despite me warming up tons and doing what I thought was more 'song preparation' for the show, there was something amiss. The guys from Control were crouching behind me for the show and they said I did great, but after we played Lars beckoned me over: "Robin - it's not sitting right - in places you're too tight, too slow, too metal, too much kick drum, you're spending too long between songs - no time for water, I don't like the bell of the ride - it's gotta wash more, you gotta get the count-in speed more correct.... whatever you did in Watford, I need that."
I always do the best I can with whatever tools I am given, under whatever circumstances - hard or easy - so with this in mind I could have easily replied: "I am saving your tour, we've had no rehearsal, you should be thankful" etc but I chose to take everything on this tour as a chance to learn. They are his songs. They are the band's songs. The drummer played them in a way that works with the band. Shit happened drummer-wise and they need someone good enough to fill that position. They think I am good enough. I am good enough. So I gotta do whatever it is that needs doing, to be good enough. End of.
I knew that whatever it takes, I simply had to 'nail it to the wall' at the next night's show - there was no other option...
"The band needed unbridled fire and punk rock brimstone"
Edinburgh, strangely not raining! The venue was absolutely rammed, with oxygen at one end and the stage at the other! After shaving Lars' head (a unique tour-bonding moment) I shot a Jager, grabbed my 'Rehydration Drinks Holder' (anti-cramp Electrolyte replacement water, water, Coke and Red Bull for energy, beer for the encore) and headed into the throng.
The show was insane. I was quickly getting accustomed to the seven song-intro and was able to get halfway through and then quickly rehydrate, plus the songs were sitting better now. I realised that I had been referring to the album versions of the songs and was playing them a little too stationary, or clean. The band needed unbridled fire and punk rock brimstone to push them, relentlessly, and I finally tapped into that formula. High fives all round afterwards and cause for a wee drink.
9am beckoned and I realised that it was probably time to finish the 'wee drink' and head back to the band digs (we were all sleeping above the venue), so I scraped Control's Ryan and Shifty off the floor of the party and wandered back. After a full 1.5 hours sleep we all woke for the load-out and headed for Glasgow.
The venue had a pretty big stage, but the smallest dressing room. Even smaller when there's eight suitcases and guitars that need re-stringing! A kettle, tons of ham sandwiches, nachos, beer and water balanced on a precarious-looking table - not much room for pre-show stretches, or any rudiments/hands warming up.
The empty venue was absolutely freezing and after soundcheck, together with my lack of sleep I decided that I needed a lie-down. Luckily for me I was now on the OFC's bus and that had some bunks so I crawled into mine and listened to their setlist once again and dozed. I was very aware that if I got too much sleep I wouldn't be able to play, so I kept on edge, whilst trying to chill - an interesting combination!
Showtime, I entered the building and it was 100 percent packed, and very hot! Some great dedications, the crowd went crazy and afterwards the floor of the venue looked like two brewery trucks had crashed - those Scots know how to party...
"Being on tour is like a cross-between camping and warfare"
The next day we took the ferry to Belfast. It was the hometown of Runnin' Riot and we were all wondering if we were going to be playing to a downbeat, sombre and mourning crowd, or an insane, happy-to-be-there-yet-mourning crowd - I think you can guess the outcome!
Before we played, every band member came onstage and together with the audience had one minute's silence for Colin, followed by one minute of cheering, a bottle of Buckfast was passed round the gig (Colin's tipple of choice), & then we set about business.
Business was good - a pot was passed round to raise money to fly Colin home - it finished with over £4K!
Possibly the weirdest place I've played thus far - the venue in Corkwas down a road that hadn't quite been built yet. The 'backstage' was two attic rooms - most definitely haunted –and the stage was behind a huge bench seat. It was actually a drum riser, but Lars & Co didn't bat an eyelid. I think Lars actually played the whole show about 6" from my ride cymbal (a 22" Sabian OMNI, btw) - he certainly felt the 'wash' on his arm. I looked up halfway through the show to see sweat literally running off his elbow like rainwater. He said that this was his favourite show thus far. Go figure...
Dublinsaw the end of our tour. The promoter, venue, crowd and bands were all awesome. After a bunch of swiftly-bolted celebratory drinks we all did the load-out to the trailer, said goodbyes and then myself, the German merch-girl Adina and the driver, Michael, drove through the night to the ferry, hit Holyhead, then headed to Croydon (me) then Dover and ferry, destination Berlin.
At some point I passed out in my bunk, waking up a few miles from home - result!
More loading in, unpacking and then I must've done about five washes, sat in my hot tub for a record nine hours and stared into space.
I felt jet-lagged, exhausted to the core, numb through relentless volume and exertion, emotionally and physically drained, yet completely jubilant and high. I had been true to myself and obtained my initial objective - to blend in both musically and personally, to make the band feel comfortable enough to not worry about a 'new stranger' on stage with them so they could 'be themselves' onstage, but also to test my adaptability and professionalism and deal with anything in my path to play the way they wanted it to sound. And not spin a single stick!
I've always said being on tour is like a cross-between camping andwarfare - whatever you have with you, you can use. If you need something but don't have it, you have to make do.
Thanks to Lars, Casey and Gabe (and Paul) in The Old Firm Casuals; Iain, Ryan, Shifty and Joe in Control; and Marty, Ralph, Eden and Colin (RIP) in Runnin' Riot.
Robin plays the Scottish Drum Fair on Sunday 2 November.