After my band The Thermals released our seventh record, We Disappear, in March of this year, we toured the United States for close to six weeks. Since then we’ve only done a few shows on both coasts. We did not go to Europe or anywhere else outside of the US.
In years past, releasing a record meant touring for at least a year and a half. Two full US tours, two EU tours, plus a few shorter trips in both territories. We would then play a handful of one-offs around the US and Canada, and perhaps some support tours on either side of the album’s release. When we released The Body, The Body, The Machine (2006) we supported Cursive for seven weeks before the record even came out. At the end of the touring cycle for Personal Life (2010), we did almost two months on the road with Matt & Kim, crossing the US no less than four times in a single tour.
I’m done living in a world in which alcohol is more prevalent, and considered more valuable, than food.
Schedules like these are normal for many bands that are really hustling, and they were normal for us for the past 14 years. But no longer. I am over it. I will not be touring any more—not at those lengths, anyway. Here’s why:
1. I’ve toured enough.
I’ve been touring in bands for 20 years. I went on my first tour with my band Magpie. when I was 19. (That’s not a punctuation error, there was a period at the end of the band’s name. It was 1996, and punctuation was mandatory for indie bands.) Magpie. was anti-folk, like the Moldy Peaches or early Beck. An amplified acoustic act, we covered the Violent Femmes and the Misfits in addition to singing originals. Magpie. toured the Pacific Northwest for a week, playing cafes and basements. It was a very fun trip and an amazing time of my life. It was on that trip that I fell in love with cozy, rainy, Portland, despite the fact that our Toyota van was stolen there and emptied of all our gear. This was the second time I had lost most of my musical equipment to theft. Which leads me to my next reason…
2. Touring is a liability.
Most cliches about trying to “make it” as a rock band involve outside parties scheming to take your hard-earned money. Greedy record labels want to screw you out of royalties. Sleazy club owners want to stiff you on guarantees. I’ve had the good fortune to have never been screwed or stiffed like that, but l have had just about every piece of gear I’ve owned stolen more than once.
These thefts happened when I was 17 and 19, so obviously I learned my lesson(s) early: Touring means being constantly vigilant. Keep the van doors locked, keep the gear covered, bring the small instruments inside. The Thermals have been incredibly cautious for our entire career. The only time we’ve been victims of theft was three years ago, when our rented Sprinter had its windows smashed in Oakland. A few personal items were stolen, but none of our gear, only because the break-in happened while we were inside the venue, playing. Theft, and the constant stress of worrying about the safety of the gear, is one of many things that can suck the fun out of touring.
3. Touring is unhealthy.
All this talk about the safety of the gear, what about the safety of the band? It is often the last thing on everybody’s minds. Lack of sleep, exercise, and sunlight are all par for the course on tour. Sitting in a van for eight hours a day? Do it just once and you’ll be sore. Do it for 40 days in a row and you might go crazy. Do it for 14 years and you might be where I am right now—done with it. I’m done being in a cramped van every day. I’m done being in a loud, dirty club every night. I’m done living in a world in which alcohol is more prevalent, and considered more valuable, than food. If a club provides anything to a band, it is water, alcohol, and then food, almost always in that order. Free drinks are nice, but they’re still part of the problem. My band has it better than some, we are fed just about every night. But I still feel unhappy being part of a culture that encourages substance abuse. Touring is unhealthy for your body, your mind, and your art itself. Which brings me to…
4. Touring is artistic death.
I started a band because I love to play music. The more success my band had, the less music I played. I spent more time doing interviews and having my picture taken. I spent most of my time sitting in a van. I wanted to do all of these things. I wanted my band to be known, famous even. But I did think that it would all lead to playing more music, not less. If I could have used all the time I spent traveling on writing and recording songs, I think I would be a lot more satisfied.
I have, on rare occasions, been able to do some writing in the van or green room. I know some artists that are able to write and even record while on the road. When we toured with Cursive, Tim Kasher would retreat to their van after soundcheck each night to work on songs for his other project, The Good Life. Cursive was touring in a van that was the same size (12-passenger) as we traveled in back then. I admired and envied Kasher for his ability to create in such a cramped environment, while on the road. I wished I could too. But in order for me to be creative, I need more room and more privacy. I find neither on tour.
5. Money is not important to me.
This isn’t completely true. I like spending money—therefore, making money is important to me. I make money from record sales and television licensing, but the majority of my income does still come from touring. The last real job I had was working for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland. I quit that job 10 years ago. Not touring will mean I will finally have to find a new job. I will complain about finding a new job similar to the way I am now complaining about touring, but at this point I am more excited than scared to find gainful employment.
My life has stayed the same for a long time. I’ve found some modicum of stability in a very unstable environment, the music business. I’ve been rich and I’ve been broke. I’ve enjoyed the comfort that comes with having money, but It never brought me happiness. Sometimes I was happier with no money, and I felt like I had more to work towards. Money is important to me, but I’m used to not having it, and I’m not scared to go without it for a while.
6. I have to pee.
Like, really bad. Really, really bad. I know we stopped to pee just an hour ago but yes, I have to pee again. This isn’t a “getting older” problem for me, this is just how I’ve always been. I have a small bladder, and I always have to pee. I’m sick of announcing that I have to pee, I’m tired of asking permission to pee, and I’m done peeing in bottles. It’s a minor humiliation that feels major after 14 years.
I could have saved a lot of time by using only six words to explain why I won’t tour anymore: I’m too old for this shit.
I know there are a lot of bands that have toured much longer than I have, under the same—or worse—conditions. A lot of them still have no problem with touring and will continue to do it for a lot longer than me. To them I say: Congratulations! I’m very happy for you. I wish I felt the same way. I still enjoy performing, and touring less means I will perform less. But it is my choice. I wasn’t forced into this lifestyle, and I am not being forced out of it.
For all my complaining about touring here, I don’t feel bitter about the decisions I’ve made or the experiences I’ve had. I’ve enjoyed many tours I’ve been on immensely. But enough is enough. I don’t want to discourage any young bands from touring, and honestly I don’t think I will. True drive and ambition are impossible to extinguish. Everyone has to learn for themselves if they have what it takes to achieve and sustain their own dreams. I’ve achieved a lot with music, more than I ever thought I would. I want to do more with my life. I want new experiences. I’ve seen the road, a lot. I don’t need to see it again for a while.
Part of being an artist is being constantly unsatisfied. It’s what keeps us going. It is through art that we are able to process sadness and search for happiness. I have loved touring. I have also hated it. Will I tour again? Probably. Will I enjoy it? Partly. Will I complain about it? Absolutely.