Touring In the US When You’re Foreign

I wrote this for the new lineup of Berzerker, just before they headed off on their first tour of the States. It is a mixture of well meaning advice, my own biases based on touring there previously, some bad experiences, and the culture shock you get from touring around the US when you’re a foreigner. I gave it to Todd Hansen, Damien Palmer, and Tim (ex-Abremalin). I think Damien was the only one that read it:

You are not a proper touring band until you have done your first full-length US tour. It is the ultimate band experience. You will play at famous places you’ll have heard about, you will meet more celebs and industry people each night than anywhere else, you’ll see some amazing scenery, and meet gazillions of loyal fans. Your profile and the band’s profile explode after a full US tour, your sales double, and opportunities start pouring in.

That being said, the US is a very different place with a very different culture. This is easily forgotten – the ubiquity of US TV and culture makes the place feel familiar before you get there. And even though touring the place can be the best experience a band can ever have, it is extremely easy to have an appalling time.

We have made almost every possible mistake a foreign band can make on the last three tours, and witnessed bands make plenty of others. I’ve no doubt you’ll all find some new ones to make. There have been some occasions where we have escaped injury, fines, and jail through sheer luck. This document hopefully will ensure that you don’t repeat our previous mistakes, and instead have an awesome experience that you’ll want to repeat over and over again.

  1. travelling to the US

Be aware that Australian travellers to the US are now required to fill in extra paperwork (available from both the consul and the airport) before departing the country – on top of the customs declaration form and visa. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, check the Australian customs/travel website for notices concerning travel to the US.

Americans customs officers have even less a sense of humour than your average customs officer, so no lip to any of them. Having said that, our first visa officer ever encountered was listening to Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ when we entered the country and wished us luck on tour.

Make luggage accessible as customs will want to have a look in your bags and cases. Often if you have taped up a case, they will unwrap it so make sure you aren’t relying on the tape to keep your luggage together. If you have joined bags together so they count as one piece (I taped my bass case to a travel bag once in order to do that), make sure they are both tagged and labelled. I once had to search Chicago airport for my unlabelled, unstickered, unmarked bass case. If I wasn’t able to find it, then there was no real way for it to find its way back to me.

Security queues for international visitors are longer than most countries. Put plenty of time aside. US customs can be as invasive with luggage as Australian ones – in other words, very.

Once your plane lands in the US, any further flights are quite often counted as domestic flights – be aware of luggage conditions changing. Some airlines are cool with counting your connecting flight as part of the same trip – others aren’t.

Be aware that there are guys at some of the airports who will be wearing uniforms and will say that they’ve been sent to handle your bags. Your tour manager may have said that he’s arranged transport from the airport, or something, and if you ask these guys if they’re from the tour company they’ll say they are. The baggage guy will load all your stuff onto a trolley and then take it to a cab. He will then demand money or a tip for the service. Your taxi driver may refuse to take you if you don’t tip him. I go over this a bit more later on, but be wary of ANYONE offering to do you a favour in the US without working out first if they’re going to be wanting payment.

  1. police

I never have problems with the police in the UK, Europe, Asia, or Australia. I had HEAPS of problems with the police in the US. I actually had more run-ins with the police in the US in three tours than I’ve had in the rest of my life, elsewhere.

Put simply the US is a tense police state – this is no exaggeration – and a lot of the cops are straight-out bullies. The first lesson we ever learned was that you cannot pull over the side of the road and have a leak in the US (our driver freaked when we suggested that). It is a fast-track to getting arrested for exposure, indecency, and urinating in public. That should give you an idea how uptight they are over there. If you need to have a leak while travelling, by the way, get an empty water bottle and fill ‘er up. This is a new skill you are going to come back from the US with.

One of the main problems we got was speeding and parking fines – be aware that laws and speed limits will vary from state to state, and state borders are not always clearly marked. Unlike the Europe and the UK you can’t “g’day!” your way out of fines.

The police in LA and the southern states are definitely the worst. In LA, our driver/tour manager parked the motorhome in a business loading zone in a residential area (it was Venice beach, just near the beach itself). He went into one of the apartments for a few hours and left the generator on. We were all asleep at the time. I was woken up by banging on the front windshield. I opened the curtain and we were surrounded by cops and angry business owners. They yelled at me until I got the tour manager back downstairs, at which point they promptly fined him. We couldn’t reverse back out because of all their cars, and they told us to drive onto the boardwalk, drive down to the next street, and get out that way. Matty guitarist had gone out for a walk (where, we didn’t know) but we weren’t allowed to wait for him even when we tried to explain he was a traveller and we had no way of contacting him. We turned onto the boardwalk and there were more cops waiting for us there. BAM! – Another fine, this time for driving on the boardwalk. They also took some of our insurance papers and tried to confiscate my passport when I objected. Basically, the other cops had set us up and then scarpered. We found Matt wandering nearby half an hour later by pure chance.

As a metal band with long haired, bearded, pierced, dreadlocked dudes, you will be profiled and pulled over with little or no cause. We know of an incident in the southern states where they pulled over a metal band because they were metal-looking guys. They ordered the band out of the van, got them to put their hands up against it, then went through and searched their entire van for guns and drugs. They basically emptied the van out on the road. At the end of an unsuccessful search they were then told they had twenty minutes to pack up the van and get out of the town. I’ll leave it to your imaginations how it would have gone down if they HAD found anything illegal.

It’s probably best at this point for me to advise against travelling with any drugs. Apart from not being necessary – you’ll be offered all sorts of stuff at almost every show…hell, you’ll be touring with Krisiun for god’s sake – if you’re busted you’ll be arrested and jailed, and often you’ll take your bandmates down with you. For every day you’re in jail, you miss out on playing another show, and the tour goes further and further into debt. Once released you will either be deported and not allowed back in the country or arraigned for a court case at a later date then not allowed back in the country. As a touring band of metalheads your chances of being picked up by the police for spot-checks is far, far greater than it is for normal people. You have been warned.

Even the nice police are tense. We got picked up for setting off fireworks near a highway. Apparently it was a dangerous neighbourhood and they thought it was gunfire. After finding out we were Australian travellers, the cop ordered us back to our hotel “for our safety”.

So there it is with the police. Be aware that you’ll be told to move on, fined, questioned for little or no reason, and lectured. It’s the basic schoolboy rules fellas – don’t mouth off at them, don’t do anything that is going to get you banged up, and play ball with them until they’ve finished up and gone looking for someone else to hassle. If you’re the kind of guy who runs his mouth and gets into trouble with soft-touches like Australian cops, then learn how to keep your mouth shut quick.

  1. other bands

The depth of talent and professionalism in US bands is far beyond that in Australia. Quite often, the opening band will come on with incredible gear and play a blazing set. Easy bands opening up for you to mow down are the exception, not the rule.

The metal scene in the US is HUGE. I cannot overstate that enough. Hell, the country itself is huge. Australia easily fits inside it and the US doesn’t have big uninhabited areas like we do. As a result there are incredibly popular bands that sell truckloads of CDs, are very well respected, and you will have never heard of them before. No-one in Australia had heard of Skinless when we first toured with them in 2001, but when we got over there EVERYONE owned their DVD and knew the guys. The point of this being that it’s best to respect all bands you come across: you never know when you’re playing with a US underground legend.

The fastest way to make enemies is to run over your soundcheck time or your allotted playing time. The tour manager will quickly pick you out as troublemakers and make the rest of your tour misery. The fastest way to make friends is to help load on and off, and assist other bands with setup if they’re having any troubles. Be cool to their techies and roadies. Sometimes if you’re known as being generally helpful the techies will help you out, which is helpful when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and your guitar stops working. And (as outlined further on) the US can have some really primitive backward states, where you’d be struggling to find stamps let alone guitar jacks, strings, or triggers.

The worst insult you can get from anyone on tour is ‘rockstar’. If someone tells you that you’re behaving like a rockstar it is not a good thing. Basically if you’re always complaining about the tour, never help, always run over your allotted time, demand special treatment, backstab the other bands on tour, etc, then you get tagged as rockstars. Again, tour managers and headliners pick on bands they think are behaving like rockstars and ruin the tour for them – they become unhelpful, cause problems, pull shows on you, and talk rubbish about you to every other band, promoter, and agent they come across. They can be utterly unfair and arbitrary sometimes how they tag you: Luke got tagged a rockstar because he needed an urgent doctor visit and didn’t want to disclose to the tour manager what it was for, we got tagged rockstars because we complained when a tour manager didn’t honour our contract to use the headline band’s gear and forced us to pay to use the opening band’s equipment. Our mistakes on these occasions were to respond by going “stuff ‘em” when we heard anyone branding us rockstars. In retrospect, if we had taken the time to talk with them and clear the air we may have saved ourselves some bigger problems on tour. Then again, maybe not.

Almost everyone on tour smokes weed. It is around everywhere, all the time. In fact it seems to be the reason why a lot of the bands tour – so they can get away from their girlfriends and jobs for a month and smoke every day, all day.

I recommend you don’t smoke in the motorhome. Apart from Luke’s allergy to smoke, if you’re in a nice motorhome it will quickly be infested by every smoker on tour and your privacy will be gone for the rest of the month. Additionally, if you are crossing over the border into Canada or Mexico your van or motorhome may be subjected to an extremely vigorous search. If they find any trace of weed such as a lost bud, seed, etc then you will not make it into the country and may be refused entry in the future. And if the aforementioned police find any in your vehicle, whether it’s yours or not, game over. You will be arrested, deported, etc, even for tiny amounts. Australian police are chill when it comes to smoke misdemeanours, US police definitely are not. Additionally your vehicle insurance is null and void if there is any evidence of drugs or drug use on the vehicle, so if you have a bad stack and they find even traces of weed you may be liable for some large amounts of money.

I also recommend you don’t fall into the habit of smoking daily while on tour. You will need every bit of physical and mental energy you have, and need to be awake and helpful for long periods of time. It’s the heavy smokers who crumble into depression and break when the horrible, dire emergencies of touring the US happen – AND THEY WILL HAPPEN.

Too many bandmates on previous tours have fallen in with the daily smoker crowd on tour, and become distant from the rest of the band. Gary had been like that for most of the tour when he got his leg broken by bouncers. The reason he got his leg broke was because he so dopey from daily smoking…I cannot conceive anyone in their right mind would challenge skinhead bouncers with nazi tattoos in a NY club when asked to stop smoking dope in the lighting booth. And he had been so distant, moody, and unhelpful during tour that I was ready to break his legs myself.

One of the best experiences on tour was <yeah, better redact this bit>. So the message I’m giving isn’t abstain. But definitely be smart about it and be careful. You are over in the US to climb back on the top of the extreme metal pile, drop jaws, make contacts and hopefully make some money from music, NOT to sit around for a month solid getting wasted.

Generally though, the other bands are the coolest people you’ll meet in the US. Troublemakers are the exception not the rule, and most bands (even if they’re not on tour) will go out of their way to help you out when you’re on the road. The idea of ‘metal brotherhood’ is very much alive and well in the States.

  1. people in general

Here are a couple of facets about the general population of the US you’ll encounter while on tour that I found a challenge at first:

There are a LOT of dudes over there that drop names like no-one’s business. Aussies don’t really do it much and only the obvious freaks really indulge in it in the UK. But they’re everywhere in the US. I tend to take people at their word so I spent the first few tours over there thinking I had made some amazingly well-connected contacts. On tours you get people who are all talk, but the States take it to another level. So prepare yourself to get some incredibly desperate dudes wanting to cordon you off and tell you all about all the bands they know and tour with. Take it with plenty of salt until they give up photos and email addresses.

Something which took a lot of getting used to for me in the US was you get a lot of people who’d do you a favour seemingly out of kindness, and then later on they’d ask for payment and if you said that you were low on money, then they’d start asking for CDs and t-shirts. I even remember some guys who auditioned for the drummer part when we were stranded in Florida, and after their utterly inept unsuccessful audition they hassled us for petrol money. If you find yourself being offered a favour from someone non-tour/non-established band then it’s best to mention upfront apologetically that you don’t have any money and see if the favour still stands. And no offering merchandise for favours unless it’s cleared by Luke, naturally.

Off the back of that, remember that the US is a tipping culture. Luke’s approach, which you might be interested in adopting, is not to tip anyone. Which is cool – but be prepared to put up with yanks getting all bent out of shape when they don’t get their tip.

People in the US are on average larger than anywhere else. None of you guys are pipsqueaks, but you’ll be surprised at how many human buffalo are wandering around. Prepare to get dwarfed.

Racists are everywhere and unapologetic. Aussie bigots tend to keep quiet and are apologetic if they state their beliefs. Not so in the US! We had dudes tell us we could stay at their house and that it was in the good part of town because it had “no n-ggers”. I was in a hot tub in Arizona with a cute, smart girl who started talking about how good it would be to go back in time and “buy and sell n-ggers”. Matt had some black dude call him a “fucking cracker” in New York when he wouldn’t give him some money. They’re screwy about race in a lot of parts over there in ways we don’t even come close to. Just thought I’d give you a heads-up.

Let me state the obvious: people carry guns. LOTS of people carry guns. There are signs above the entrances to some clubs: “no cameras, drugs, or firearms allowed”. You can walk into pawn shops and the walls will be filled with artillery. And lots of yanks have a chip on their shoulder as well, so put these two factors together and be sensible. Do not give any raving idiots an excuse to use their guns.

I cannot think of  many happy experience with American girls where they didn’t end up being utterly unbalanced and psycho. I’m not sure if we were unlucky or anything, but all of the broads we tangled with ended up being big-time trouble. There were girls posting allegations of rape on our messageboard after happily hooking up with us, girls we hooked up with who had gun-toting fiancés they neglected to tell us about, Gary hooking up with a stripper who had blown our tour manager earlier in the day, etc etc. Trouble, every single one of them. So feel free to go for it, but you’ve been warned!

Another feature of people that you’ll meet on tour is that quite a few have done time. It’s neither here nor there, but I found it surprising just how many people over there have been banged up before.

Having said that all that though, we met some of the coolest, most helpful dudes ever in the States. The Skinless guys are a laugh a minute. The Dying Fetus dudes were humble. The Immolation guys were the very model of multicultural enlightment. Heaps of guys helped us out at venues, gave us places to stay at, or came on tour to work merch for a week just out of a love of helping out. There is a huge metal culture in the States where it actually means something to be into the music and other people will help you out just for being into metal as well. So don’t go expecting everyone to be a freak. However don’t go expecting them to be the same as the Aussies and Poms either. Aussies and Poms are practically indistinguishable when you compare them against the yanks.

  1. the country, general

The first tour we did, the Alarum guys requested a rider with “raw vegetables, raw fruit, mung beans, filtered and purified spring water”.

In some areas of the US the most filtered and purified water you can get is ‘decaffeinated’.

Australia is a first-world country apart from the few aboriginal settlements which are tucked a gazillion miles away from anywhere. The US will range anywhere between first-world and third-world, and you’ll often be shocked how ghetto and primitive some parts of it are. For example, you can find a post-office in most towns in Australia. Don’t count on that in the US. You can drive through towns which are breeze-blocks. The metal festival at Asbury Park, New Jersey is basically in an abandoned development on the seafront. It truly looks like the apocalypse hit. Australia is young, brand-new, and sparkling. A lot of the US looks like it has needed a spring-clean for the last two hundred years.

In Australia you get some dodgy suburbs but they do not compare to some of the places in the States. There are definitely the Wrong Parts of Town over there. Illinois especially is dodgy. First time we played Detroit the club owners guaranteed that our van would be robbed unless we parked it on the sidewalk outside of the club under a streetlight with a passenger in it at all times. We walked down the street later looking for food and every store was barred with bullet-proof glass. When the locals back at the club later found out we had walked down the street by ourselves, unarmed, they freaked. The next day some of the guys watched an armed robbery take place at the service station across the road by some dude with a shotgun.

In Baltimore, there was a place near the venue called The Block. It was called that not only because it was a block of stripclubs and shops selling porn and weapons, but because it was cordoned off at both ends by a police roadblock so as to contain the mayhem. Or maybe it was just a lucky night, I don’t know. The singer of Dying Fetus nearly got hit by a joyrider in a stolen car getting chased by police on the way back to the club. One of the barstaff girls got into an argument with some gangstas in a car out the front of the club. He pulled a gun on her. She told him words to the effect that he should shove the gun up his ass. We couldn’t believe the sass she gave the guy. The bar-staff chanted “Welcome to Baltimore: duck motherfucker!” when we left.

Interesting fact: the yanks can’t tell the difference between the English and Australian accents. I’m sure Todd will be able to play that one up. You’ll come across the occasional person who will ask you what country you’re from, and when you tell them you’re from Australia they’ll complement you on how good your English is. You’ll also occasionally get people yelling “Go Home Aussie” at shows. They’re yours, Damo.

I found club owners and promoters to be mostly obnoxious and rude with only a couple of shining exceptions (Laura from the Key Club, for example). There were a number of occasions where we were screwed over on food or pay. Some of the venues are very fly-by-night outfits. We played a place called the Thunderdome in Florida. It was like a small classroom, 1 foot high stage, with the room lit by a fluorescent bulb. I’ve already mentioned the club in Poughkeepsie NY where the bouncers were all Nazis. We played a venue in Georgia where there was no stage, and it all went down on a concrete floor. We have been banned from playing Jaxx in Virginia. We were late to our show there in 2002 and even though the tour ran ahead of time and everyone agreed for us to go on until curfew, the owner of the club threatened to cut the electricity if we went on. The promoter at Peabodies in Cleveland didn’t pay us, and Immolation slipped us some money to keep us going until the next gig. We played at a rundown bowling alley in Chicago which had water leaking out of the roof. These are just a few of the many experiences we had. Expect the worst from each place, and you will be pleased by the occasional venues and people that are grateful for your presence and provide everything that has been agreed to.

  1. the other bands on your tour

This is what I know about them:

Obituary – are rednecks. Picture yourself going on tour with a drunken bunch of rednecks from Gympie, change the accent a bit, and you’re there. John Tardy especially drinks hard.

Krisiun – brazilian trio. These guys are absolute demons on their instruments ESPECIALLY the drummer. By all reports, they will spend the entire tour ripped as. They are also apparently extremely nice guys. They’re kind of the old school ‘metal warrior’ type of dudes.

Goatwhore – New Orleans dudes. We’ve met Sammy a couple of times before, and the guy is an absolute legend who you’ll all get along with. I met Ben the singer briefly and he was cool. Be warned though – the last time I saw Goatwhore live they blew EVERYONE off the stage and Ben is one of the best frontmen I’ve seen. If you see “nocturnal holocaust” or “satan’s millennium” on their setlist then get your A-game gig ready.

I don’t know anything about Warbringer.

For more tour information, get the book “Tour: Smart” by Martin Atkins. It has EVERYTHING you need to know about touring the US and is extremely practical. Every problem encountered in touring has an answer in this book.

Lastly, good luck! – Aussie metal musicians who have toured the US are rare. You are about to enter an exclusive club, dudes. And good or bad, you are going to have memories from this US tour for life.

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2 thoughts on “Touring In the US When You’re Foreign

  1. Toozey says:

    Very good read Sam! Makes me glad I have sort of given up on the idea of being in a touring band.

    David

  2. […] Well, tour stories do get more unfortunate than that – Evile, Decapitated – but even my schadenfreude has limits. This is about as bad as it gets where I can still sympathetically laugh about it. It also serves as a good example of why you should never transport drugs on tour. […]

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