Rock The World, Pass The Twizzlers: A Crash Course in Tour-Bus Survival

The tour is about to begin, the open road is calling, and for the next couple of weeks, the tour bus (or van, or RV, or really crowded Volkswagen) is going to be your home. Time to get seriously prepared! Making sure that your vehicle is properly stocked is crucial. You can’t pack anything that will keep you from getting cabin fever, wishing you were home, or occasionally hating your bandmates—that goes with the territory. But there are tricks that seasoned musicians use to make sure that life on the road is a little more livable.

We polled a number of our Boston legends to glean some advice about what you’d need on the road. Singer/songwriter Kay Hanley is definitely an authority: She’s spent most of the past two decades on the road—first as the lead singer for '90s pop faves Letters to Cleo, then as a soloist and more recently as part of Miley Cyrus’ touring band (she’s also been doing Cleo reunions lately). Kay compiled this list for us: “Tour bus MUSTS would include jugs of water for brushing teeth-- Bus water is non-potable. One of those big canvas folders for DVDs and CDs. A communal medicine chest with Advil, Tums, Sudafed and vitamins. A toaster oven—The food universe improves exponentially with this handy addition. Be vigilant about unplugging after every use."

“And speaking of food prep,” Kay continues, “I have learned that the microwave is your friend when it comes to eating healthy on the road. And be creative when you stock the fridge—There’s nothing like a baked potato with steamed broccoli and sour cream for lunch as you’re driving through the Smoky Mountains. It’s good to pack a duffel bag with jammies, one change of clothes and basic toiletries to keep in your bunk. Sometimes it’s impossible (or just a pain in the ass) to get your suitcase underneath in the storage bays. Bring notebooks, pens and a tape recorder for those moments of bored inspiration. And, most of all…Fluffy slippers!”

Even more necessary than the slippers is a GPS system that works for your van: The last thing you’ll want is to have to consult the ‘net for directions in real time. Advises Ted Drozdowski, who plays in the Nashville-based blues band the Scissormen—“When you’re negotiating the likes of Kansas City or downtown St. Louis, knowing where the roads fall apart and reconnect or become one-ways—always the wrong way for ya if yer’ drivin’—is really helpful. Also, when you’re on the highway trying to make some quick miles, you can punch in a request for the nearest Jimmy Johns and skip conventional fast-food hell.”

So much for the essentials. Beyond that, choice of music may be the most important decision you’ll make. If you don’t believe us, just imagine what happens when the whole band is hung over, nobody’s slept, there’s a 200-mile drive ahead and someone puts on a CD by that artist you really hate. Bands have broken up over less. Boston rock heroine Juliana Hatfield recently published a book (When I Grow Up) that chronicles a no-glamor, small-club tour she did recently, and spends a few pages describing the meltdown that occurs when her soundman insists on playing live tapes by a cult-hero guitarist (who appears in Rock Band and so shall remain nameless). I’m with her soundman on this one, but there are times when nobody wants to travel with a frustrated DJ.

On a similar note, Damon Krukowski—who once drummed in the fabled cult band Galaxie 500; and now makes softer but still stellar music as part of Damon & Naomi, reports that his partner Naomi Yang once hid a bandmate’s unpopular CD in the laundry bag; thus making sure nobody would find it until the tour was safely over. But since Damon & Naomi are only two people, there’s now a better chance of agreeing on music. As he points out, “Customizing the aural environment is really the only thing we can do in these rental vans, without getting in trouble with the rental companies.” And Kenny Chambers, who led the now-legendary Boston punk band Moving Targets, says that his tour listening revolved around Elmer Fudpucker, who did a few cassettes’ worth of trucker comedy that few of us Yankees have ever heard. 

So don’t be shy about using individual headphone players, iPods and other anti-social devices; sometimes being social is overrated. Barring that, songwriter Corin Ashley (who told us about his encounter with XTC in an earlier part of this series) offers this advice “I think this necessity applies to vans, girlfriends’ hatchbacks, the #66 bus, and all other modes of band transportation: Bring a copy of Exile on Main Street.” That would be the Rolling Stones double album, about as close to a universal taste as it gets.

Autumn Pincus is a professional tour manager—her latest client, Tina Parol, was recently signed to Universal/Motown—and mentions a few more essentials that you learn along the way—like Emergen-C vitamin packets; an extra power strip, and a traveling hand sanitizer. For personal comfort zones, she recommends eyemasks for naps (or a sweatshirt you can pull over your head); your favorite pillow from home, and a comforter to curl up in “when everyone else wants the bus thermostat colder than you do.” On that note, Kenny Chambers recommends “pictures of a loved one, assuming you have a loved one.” And Mona Elliott, who played in the notable indie bands Spore and Victory at Sea (and is currently in the band travels) recommends “something productive to do in the van—My thing became making stuffed animals.”

Others had different strategies. Laurie Geltman, a singer/guitarist who lately moved from Boston to the West Coast, says that a tub of Twizzlers saved her life more than once. “That kept us going for many van tours. As soon as the lid came off, everyone reached out a hand, Twizzlers were distributed, and all was calm.” Perhaps related, Laurie also recommends that you “bring along merch girls, if you happen to be the only girl in the band.”

Of course, the most exotic bands have the most exotic needs. Another Boston group, Walter Sickert & His Army of Broken Toys, does a sexy/quirky cabaret thing, and their singer/accordionist Edrie has this to offer: “Bring a tour mascot. I brought a stuffed bunny who visited grumpy people with his fluffy ears a-twitchin’—Anybody who got grumpy got the bunny to pet (OK, I mostly had it the whole time). And, the most important!—Stick-on moustaches for on moustaches for cast, band mates, crew and people you meet along the way (including the stuffed bunny tour mascot). Nothing is more funny then a stick on moustache - we made a giant one for the last tour bus we were on, it was the talk of the tour.”

Got all that? Now get on in and burn up some road!