Not everything is about the end of the world. Sometimes Hell World is about the relatively minor indignities we’re subjected to, where we’re presented with a choice: Figure out how to work through this or piss off back home. It’s something that will be familiar to any of us whatever career we end up pursuing, but as someone who’s spent most of my life performing in bands, I can assure you the music industry is its own particularly insidious corner of hell for the vast majority of the people involved. Even the ones who “make it.” This time out for Hell World I asked some of my pals who’ve made it much further than I ever have if they had moments that made them want to give up like most of the rest of us do. I wanted to know if they could pinpoint a specific crossroads or a particularly memorable bowl of shit they had to eat, and what, if anything, convinced them to go on.
Don’t worry I’ll return to death and suffering next time.
I spoke on the phone or emailed with members of some of my favorite bands and some very good up and coming ones, including Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, Geoff Rickly of Thursday and more (as well as some other motherfuckers who are tardy in responding but I will add once they do).
Riley Breckenridge of Thrice
Between when we put out Beggars in 2009 and Major/Minor in 2011 you could kind of tell the writing was on the wall. Spirits weren’t particularly high, we were plateauing as a band. Some of the guys seems like they were kind of burnt out on touring and getting caught up in the cycle of write a record, record a record, get on the road and tour and do it all over again. It can kind of eat you up if you let it.
At the same time Teppei our guitar player’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and her health deteriorated very quickly and she ended up passing away. Then my dad got diagnosed with cancer and deteriorated very quickly and passed away. Dustin’s father also was diagnosed with cancer and ended up passing away a little bit later. And to top it all off when we were writing Major/Minor, which came out in 2011, we had our entire storage space completely emptied out, robbed; multiple drum kits and guitars dudes had been collecting over the years. Everything from instruments to fan art, just old stuff that you can’t really replace.
We had a public storage space and our manager went over there one day and the whole thing was empty. He was like Does this look normal to you? and I was like, Uh, no. Apparently he people next to us were like these crazy drug addicts or something and went on like a meth binge and tore down the drywall in between the two spaces and pulled everything from our space into their space, put the drywall back up, and then started pawning off all of our stuff.
That’s fucked up.
Yeah! So with stuff like the health problems people were having, the general morale of the band being down and that thing, it was like, man, there are several signs pointing to us that we should not be doing this right now. Somebody or something is telling us to stop. That was definitely the most obvious point where I was like We need to take a knee and not do this for a while even though I didn’t know what else I was going to do. We did end up taking a hiatus like a year later.
Do you think fans think of bands being just regular people doing a job? Or do you think they have this romantic idea about it?
I think there’s a decent level of romanticism still there but I think social media has helped make people seem more real. I guess at the same time it’s made other people seem like a bigger deal than they are. I guess it depends on how you use it. For us we’ve always tried to be transparent, but social media has helped us be more open about what we believe in, what we’re going through, and what matters to us outside of guys being in a band. Then there are other people who use it like… there were only 250 people at this show last night but I’m gonna act like there were 2000 and post pictures of myself partying with famous people. I’m trying to create this aura of fame when it’s not really there yet.
Over all does being in a band suck or do you feel lucky to do it?
I think… it’s a hard question to answer. It depends on where you’re at in your life. When I was young and I didn’t have a girlfriend, didn’t have kids, and a lot of responsibility, it was easier getting in a van and just saying Fuck it I’m gonna do this, and if it sucks it sucks, but I’d rather be doing this than working at a coffee shop or interning somewhere. Now as a father and a married man it sucks being away from my family. That’s the part that sucks. But the positive side is I’m out here with my friends playing music, getting to see the world, and I’m making money doing it that I can support my family with. And when I get to come home I’m 100% home. I’m not at a job from 9 to 5 and seeing my kids late at night or something. That’s not something I would get from any other job. I’d much rather be doing this than some other shit I did during the hiatus, the 9 to 5 kind of stuff my heart wasn’t in.
Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years
It was 2010 and we’d been saving up all of our money, personal money from working jobs, and band money from touring. We had saved up like $12,000. We went on a tour in the UK and we were getting ready to fly home. The driver we had was an English guy and he didn’t really know how to drive around Germany and his GPS didn’t work so we was using an atlas and we missed the flights home from Germany. It’s was like the Price is Right or whatever, I was watching the money drop. We had to spend $3,000 on flights home.
So now we have two weeks before our first really big U.S. tour supporting Streetlight Manifesto. It was going to be like: This is the start of a career it’s not a hobby anymore. We went to see the guy who sold us our van that didn’t work anymore. We got a new one that ran well but it was corroded. The bottom was rusted out and you could see the road. He wanted $3,000. So we went to another place, there was one there and we said we’d take it.
It’s a couple days away from the tour now so I go to buy the van and they said bad news we found some rust spots on the bottom and we’re gonna sell it to auction. I said No, I need it now. I said I’ll give you $6,000 for it as is. They said ok. I took it to a mechanic down the street he said it looked good. I was driving back to the guys and it felt a little weird. We get through a day of it and we take it to the mechanic and only five of the cylinders were firing. So we bought this lemon with no warrantee because I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
The tour started and we had to drive to Baltimore in a car and my dad’s SUV. We played the first show, drove straight back over night, and then played the next show in Philly. Then there’s a day off. We go back to the first guy and we say here’s our last $3,000 give me that rusted out bucket that runs really well. We take it home and stay up all night ripping out the seats, building a loft, put the trailer on it. We get about three miles from the house and it’s so rusted the trailer hitch rips out of the van. The trailer hits the street and pops open so we’re fucked. We were on our way to Starland in New Jersey. We take all the gear our of the trailer and put it in the van. I go get my dad’s SUV again, play that show, drive home again back to Philly, load it all into the van, drive straight to Worcester, play one more show, drive back to Philly over night again.
At this point I had called Dave our agent and and said “We’re not gonna do it man. We can’t. We quit." That’s three vans in a week that we owned that don’t work now, we lost all this money on this flight. He convinced us to take out a loan and we bought a van that we still have today.
Did you really think about quitting?
When I heard the trailer hit the street and I looked back and it had ripped out the bottom of the back of the van I was like, Yup, I’m gonna go be a teacher. This is over.
Had you guys built a following at this point?
We had put out The Upsides on No Sleep, we were just starting to pick up steam kind of. We had never made money of our own. Well, actually after these shows we had done around Christmas that year everyone in the band received $100, which was $100 more than we’d made in the past five years doing it. Obviously we made enough on those tours and in our jobs in kitchens and carwashes and shit to save up enough money to buy a van. But you know it was not looking like a viable future for us. I just thought what fucking terrible luck.
Lots of bands say that’s the type of stuff you have to go through. The bands that say that are people who actually make it through that stuff though. There are tens of thousands of bands who probably quit at that moment.
It definitely tests your mettle. I think the biggest thing is, the things you learn from being in band are, well, problem solving is close to the top of that list. What are you going to do if you’re stranded in Germany? What are you going to do when your battery dies on the van and you’re in the middle of the West Texas desert and you have to get to the show the next day? I think without times like that you don’t learn those lessons and you break down. But we just kind of leaned on each other a little bit and said ok let’s fucking figure it out. We can either quit or figure it out.
Our agent was like Yes you can, you can do it. This tour is going to be great. Trust me.
Seems like you made the right decision. I’m glad you didn’t quit.
So am I! But I can also totally understand why someone would say Holy shit fate is telling me to walk away from this.
Driving back and forth home on tour every night sounds brutal.
Every time I walked back into my dad’s house I was like a little more defeated. We broke another one.
Did your parents want you to quit ever?
No. The only thing was when I stopped college for a semester they said we don’t think you should do that. I said I promise you I’m just taking a semester off to see what happens. And I really did go back and we all finished our degrees.
There are some people we meet in bands whose parents had the means to buy them the van right up front and never had to experience that shit. Our families didn’t have that so much. My parents didn’t have the ability to help with that.
Nathan Hussey of All Get Out
The lowest point in the band is also an amazing memory. For the record, I would use the word “low” fairly loosely. We were trying our best to get out in front of people by touring nonstop. One time the best we could do was a chain restaurant. We played a Denny’s in Orlando, Florida with O’Brother sometime around 2008 or 2009. We loaded in while the restaurant was still open and watched in humility as they rearranged the booths to form a stage for our bands. We weren’t too cool for it, though. We got free food which is still always a big deal 10 years later, and I still hear about it from fans who saw the show.
Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms
Most musicians don’t have the option of deciding to quit touring. The free market economy tends to make that decision for them. So anyone who’s ever been in a position where they think “Should I stop doing this” is already breathing pretty rare air and living their dream, even if they dreamed of a bus instead of a van and giant theaters instead of dingy shit holes. That being said, being a touring musician still sucks bad enough a lot of the time that these kinds of thoughts enter every traveling performer’s mind at some point. And it’s not just the shitty drives and constant disconnect with reality. Consider the following scenarios:
Let’s say you’re on a successful tour. Let’s say, and I’m just pulling this out of my ass, but let’s say you’re on a six week tour and a young band called Taking Back Sunday is opening up for your band. Every night, things go pretty much according to plan. Taking Back Sunday plays and gets a decent response, then you play and, as the band everyone is there to see, people go nuts. But, hypothetically, what if one day you went to the Chain Reaction in Orange County and the show was suddenly packed. Four times bigger than any other show on the tour. “Holy shit! The OC must finally love the Lawrence Arms” you might think. Taking Back Sunday plays and people go fucking insane. Recall, the crowd is massive. Spilling out into the parking lot and then into the streets. “Wow. Our show is going to be absolutely bonkers!” you’re probably thinking as their set ends. Only, as soon as they’re done, suddenly everyone leaves and you’re playing to the same 30 weirdos that always come see you in the OC.
No big deal. It’s the OC and the OC kinda blows. But then, what if that becomes what happens every night for the rest of the tour? What if suddenly you’re forced to go on stage and essentially jizz mop the main event for the next 21 days. It’s (I’d imagine) pretty humiliating. Probably makes you wonder what the fuck you’re doing with your life.
But I like Taking Back Sunday, and as much as that situation sucks, it’s not like it’s incomprehensible. So what about if you’re on tour with a couple of bands that are very of-the-moment, but for whatever reason just aren’t for you. Like, you can’t comprehend why anyone would like their music. But here’s the twist: everyone at all the shows loves them to the point of being in tears. Oh, and those same people? They absolutely hate your band. Loudly and demonstrably. You may be the only band on the bill that you think is worth a shit, but you’re literally the only three people in the room, every night of the tour, who don’t think you just absolutely stink. That is a hard thing to deal with.
What if you play a show in Florida and one guy shows up and halfway through your second song he leaves? What if, at that point, the sound guy makes you keep playing so he can still get paid for the night? Something like that may make you rethink what you’re doing out there.
What if you play a festival and you’re woefully out of place? What if you get thrown on an emo fest in New Bedford, Massachusetts and everything there is just bangs and sadness, and you stagger your drunk asses onto the stage and when you go into the guitar solo during the first song the crowd begins to laugh, like, so loudly that it’s as though it were a comedy show? That will make you wonder if you’re just making something that no one on earth would ever want to hear and if you’re not only bumming out a room, but also wasting your life.
What if you somehow are a no frills punk band and you get mistakenly placed as a headliner on a festival alongside Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge? Can you imagine sitting through 27 brutal bands for like 9 hours knowing with 100% certainty that everyone in attendance is gonna throw stuff at you? It’s a good, self affirming feeling that really stays with you for years.
Now, consider that as this parade of public embarrassments haunts your every waking hour, your friends are at home, getting real jobs, making money, having fun, forgetting who you are and hanging out with one another. You may love the people that you spend 20 hours a day in a rolling tin box with, but eventually, you’ll start to get annoyed by their idiosyncrasies and, lemme tell you, they’ll begin to HATE yours. Your girlfriend, she’s at home, hanging out with your friends, living a life that you’re not part of, and you’re out here getting laughed at by Yellowcard fans. And for what? A bottle of Titos, a few hundred bucks and the opportunity to share a Motel Six bed with another guy who was too tired to shower off their flop sweat after yet another horrible embarrassment of a show? In fucking suburban Buffalo no less?
Everyone questions their life choices at some point, but when you’re in a touring band you get the opportunity to do that almost every single day. It’s a real dream job in that regard.
Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die
I was standing in the small shower of a German hotel room. The shower was small because the room was. The door to the shower was completely transparent for some reason so I could see the single bed under a window that overlooked a bunch of grey wet bricks that came down and in from a few different directions and if anyone had been sitting on the bed they could have seen me but I was alone and I had been for a while. I guessed they felt too awkward to talk to me just yet and I didn’t blame them. It was May of 2012 and at that moment I was being held captive by shame from the night before that twelve hours later still radiated an absurd amount of heat and made me want to peel off my own skin and just start fucking running and screaming like that scene in Punch Drunk Love except underneath my skin was just more garish skin and there was nowhere to run because everywhere I went would be in flames. I remember understanding clearly in that shower that the world I had spent years assembling around myself wasn’t mine anymore, but not in the cool way that you might create something lovely like a child and send it off to school knowing it has its own calling now or how you shoot an arrow from a bow because that is in the world and this was the world. “Mutiny” is probably the best word.
Then suddenly I had a thought, which was this: “If I smash my head against the tiles hard enough and long enough they’ll find me and the tour will have to be cancelled”. And so I started to do that. The first thump was thick and it vibrated the deep underside of my skull at the crown and tickled my hair follies but when I did it again all nerves attended to the point of impact and I knew here that it was going to take some inhuman conviction to finish the task. So, I went back to the night before. I wore that skin and sat in the fire feeling it all and hearing every cruel word and felt a hand or fist I still don’t know against my jaw and looked into everyone’s face as I lost my footing and when the shame appeared I was pleased to find it was still gruesome enough to keep me inspired and so I kept at it. But at around maybe the fifth stupid, hollow thud my brain made some desperate, hail mary sort of blind lunge at self preservation and responded with a thought of its own which was this: “If your band members come in here and find you bleeding with your dick out it’s going to be even more embarrassing than what happened last night. Just quit instead you fucking coward.” And it was right and I had every reason to do so and so I stopped trying to split my skull open and got out of the shower somewhere in Germany and promised myself that I would quit after the show that night. But I didn’t. And I haven’t yet. At the time it was because, as I have said, I was a coward. But since then I’ve learned that the death of one kind of world is just the birth of another kind of world and it turns out that the middle of that fire in the middle of that street running through a creepy foreign city was exactly where the entire violent, bloody and miraculous process took place. What are the odds? Now my wife and I have a healthy daughter and a modest home and I’ve made really good friends which I owe to the music we make and to take all of this for granted would be infinitely dumber than trying to crack my own head like an egg. I’m also not good at anything else and I’m barely even good at this, so.
Geoff Rickly of Thursday
We were on tour in Canada and had a day off, in a suburb between cities, so we made a big production of going out to breakfast, all together.
I had about seven pancakes and three coffees and I started to feel like I might have to run back to the room to go to the bathroom. But when I got back there something felt wrong. There was a dull, persistent pain somewhere around my lower back or lower stomach area and when the rest of my band came back they were all joking that I was going to be the first touring musician to die from gas pains and kept fucking around that they’d be cursed with the dead farting singer. But the pain got worse and worse and worse until I was rolling around on the ground totally unable to speak.
By the time I couldn’t form words anymore, our tour manager grabbed my face and got my attention, “Do you think you want to go to the hospital?”
Thankfully I was able to get out a “Yes.”
So they loaded me in a cab and sent me to the hospital. I still remember that the cab driver was listening to a cassette about The Healing Power of Laughter. The voice on the tape instructed us to take a deep breath and push out a full throated yet sincere laugh. I tried. A mangled sound came out of my mouth. It was full throated yet sincere. The cab driver stopped laughing but the tape kept on telling us how good we felt.
The next I knew I was on a table and a doctor was telling me it might hurt for a second. When he pushed the plunger on the syringe my central nervous system slipped out of my skin into a warm bathtub against the ceiling. The room lit up around us like it was filled with Christmas lights and the doctor asked me “Does that feel better?”
I watched his words kick up sparkling white swirls through the water of the snow globe that we suddenly found ourselves inside of.
“If the kidney stone was any bigger, we’d have to operate. 1cm is the cut off. Yours is only 9mm, so we’ll let you pass it.” He was showing me a sonogram while rubbing something cold on my stomach.
Andrew, our keyboardist, squeezed my leg. I was so happy to see him! I loved him!!! I loved my band!!! I loved the Canadian doctor, the miracle of modern science and all of socialized medicine. The world was a beautiful place and I loved it and I suddenly had to piss.
“Ok, you might pass the stone, now. We gave you some fluids and the pressure is probably building. If you can, catch the stone in this paper cup and we can test it.”
I floated into the bathroom and stood at a urinal feeling my whole body inflate like a balloon. Suddenly a small, bone-tinted pebble ricocheted off the urinal and across the room.
I was supposed to catch that... I thought before a stream of blood starting shooting out from the tip of my dick. It was pure body horror. I couldn’t stop laughing. My dick belonged in Fangoria magazine.
I told Andrew that the National Health gets a bad rap: no wait, no fuss, no red tape. The doctor laughed and showed me to the waiting room. Easily 300 people. He told me I was screaming and couldn’t even tell them my name. It’s policy to admit without intake in such cases. Then he gave me enough pain killers to make the rest of the tour a really nice time.
Paul Michel of Spirit Animal
Christ this job is mind-numbingly, shoot yourself in the face, soul-sucking, fucking boring. At least in the corporate world I could fill out a TPS report or some shit. In the van my only lifeline is Twitter, which is also a form of hell. Wake up bleary-eyed, maybe hungover, definitely not enough sleep, get in a van full of discarded shit that smells like a mix between a teen boy's bedroom and the McDonald's run you forgot you made the night before, drive for god knows how long (boring), arrive on time only to wait till the headliners is done sound checking (boring), wait till your set time (a mix of boring and stress), play for 30 minutes (fun!), and then drink and wait and drink and wait to load out (boring!!). Is that 30 minutes worth it? Some days.
And let me let you in on a little secret about low/mid level touring: dressing rooms are a rare, seldom realized ideal. So you and the 4-10 other members of the opening bands share a little corner of the club the owners deemed too shitty to monetize. Maybe you get a couch, but everybody's shit is on it so you can't lie down and take that nap you desperately need but couldn't anyway because people are blasting demos on their crappy phone speakers and talking over each other and part of you is like this is the life and another part of you is like fuck this I'm going across the street to that shitty bar and hope they have a drink special and holy shit it's only 3 pm. But then the bands become your friends, so there's a plus, and sometimes the headliner lets you on the bus to smoke their incredibly strong weed, which is a mixed bag.
Touring, like bartending, breeds misanthropy. Finding alone time is impossible so you have to create a little place in your head that, while not a happy or peaceful place, is at least not invaded by other people. Headphones help.