Pretty Little Empire Explains How to Survive on Tour
Local Americana mainstays Pretty Little Empire recently returned from a few weeks on the road. Its stops included Chicago, Asheville, North Carolina, Lee's Summit and Austin for SXSW. The band comprises Justin Johnson on acoustic guitar and vocals; William Godfred on lead guitar and vocals; Evan O'Neal on drums, guitar, keys and vocals; and Wade Durbin on bass and vocals. Together, they sat down and came up a few pieces of advice ("Never pass up an opportunity to shower") and some stories of success and failure.
Photos courtesy of Pretty Little Empire.
A to Z: What did you tour in?
Pretty Little Empire: Our touring rig is a pink and white 1988 Ford Econoline van that we've named "Peggy Sue". The interior is mauve shag carpeting. It looks like it may have had a former life as a Mary Kay cosmetics vehicle, but it's extremely comfortable and has more than ample space for all of our gear. We were lucky to find it, really. A band without a van is operating with a distinct disadvantage.
What was your cheapest meal?
Some venues will have a complimentary meal ready to go for touring acts, so it doesn't get any cheaper than that. It's always much appreciated and a lovely gesture. Failing that, we're usually reduced to eating stuff like 25 cent packs of cheese 'n' peanut butter crackers. Free and easy access to nutritional meals is the first thing you give up on tour.
Which venue treated you the best?
When you're playing outside of your hometown, you usually can't predict what kind of reception you'll receive from the bar staff. More often than not, they'll treat you as an annoyance that's in the way. That said, we were surprised and delighted with the treatment we got from the Double Door in Chicago. We got a private dressing room, a cooler full of bottled water and (best of all) an honest-to-god soundcheck. Next door to the venue was an excellent taqueria called "Big Star", which (as a die hard Alex Chilton fan) was pretty mind blowing. It's not surprising at all we played probably one of our best shows that night.
Where did you sleep?
By far, the worst part about touring is figuring out the logistics of when and where you can sleep. Hotels are usually a last resort since an up-and-coming touring band can rarely earn enough money on the road to justify the splurge. The crash-pad scene is hit or miss; sometimes you'll luck out and your hosts will have air mattresses and clean towels and what not. It's more likely, though, that you'll be sleeping on a bare floor surrounded by half empty beer cans. It's your own fault if you don't bring your own pillows and blankets, though.
Who was the most interesting person you met?
We didn't exactly come face-to-face with the most interesting person we encountered on the road, but the story is worth telling. Justin was using the bathroom in a venue in Lee's Summit, MO, and overheard some bizarre sounds in the stall next to his. It sounded like a grown man imitating a child's voice chanting weird little sing-songy phrases. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like "Batman's name is a fat man's game and a fat man's name is a Batman's game..." It also sounded like he was in there playing with Legos. You can't make this stuff up.
What was your best show?
On our first day at SXSW, we had two shows booked. The second show was at a bar called Nomad's, which was well outside of downtown Austin. When we first arrived, the staff was bordering on being outright hostile towards us. It was not a good vibe at all. Anyway, we set up and did our set and it went fairly well as far as we were concerned. What we weren't prepared for was the complete reversal in our treatment from the bar staff after the show. When we went to pay our tab, the bartender said something to us like "I hate all bands but I like you guys." He took our bar tabs and tore them up in front of us. When we do local shows, we're usually preaching to the converted, so it was amazing to see that we have the power to completely change someone's opinion of us in the span of a 35 minute set.
What did you bring with you in the way of merch and music, and what sold best?
Unfortunately, I think the days of making money on merchandise on the road are numbered. Hard copies, cd's especially, are quickly becoming non-essential items for most people. We do have a vinyl edition of the first album available, but it's not selling nearly as well as we'd hoped. I think our choice to do a vinyl pressing was more of a statement of intent, though. "Vinyl is final"; it shows how serious we are about this. However, we had a nice surprise when we got back home to see we had sold 26 iTunes copies of our albums while on the road. I know 26 albums isn't going to make us rich, but it proved people out there were paying attention and thought to look us up later.
What was the best band you played with?
We really clicked with a group from Asheville, NC called Doc Aquatic. Those guys seem like they could do whatever they want to musically. They're also about the nicest four guys you'll ever meet. We'd love to bring them to STL sometime soon. Look 'em up!
What piece of advice do you have for other bands heading out on tour?
The most important thing to remember on tour is to stay positive. The living conditions can be pretty harsh, but you'll gain nothing by complaining about it. Also, bring pillows and blankets and keep a cooler stocked with bottled water and ice. Don't buy the food they keep under the heat lamps at the gas station. Never pass up an opportunity to shower. Be sure to be cool to the sound man---he's got the hardest job of anyone, and he usually has to deal with obnoxious faux rock star crap every night of the week. Most importantly, never EVER eat at Captain D's.
What did you give up in order to go on this tour?
We're all service industry guys, so touring means taking a huge pay cut from all of the lost shifts. There's no such thing as sick days or vacation days for bartenders, so planning ahead financially is the only way to survive. Even still, it's terrifying to take the leap of faith that playing some random show will end up benefitting you more than an average night of work. We've walked out of places with a total gross of $11, which is just absurd.
What did you gain on this tour?
You can get a lot of useful information playing to a crowd that's never heard of you. The quiet, introspective stuff that everyone loves on your home turf can be the boring song that everyone talks through in another city. We try to notice what works and what doesn't and use that information to make the set as solid as it can be.