ouring the world is one goal that few bands ever accomplish. It requires a ridiculous amount of hard work, dedication, time and money, and most bands make big plans that never cut through the bong smoke of their practice spaces.
Valley of the Sun is not one of those bands.
For more than three weeks in October, Valley of the Sun (guitarist/vocalist Ryan Ferrier and drummer Aaron Boyer, with Nick Thieme of Mangrenade filling in on bass) traversed Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and Belgium for their second tour of Europe in a year. When their original merch guy (the person who sells shirts, music and more at gigs) was unavailable, they asked me to tag along and make them some money before, during and after the Rock & Roll madness on the stage.
I’ve been writing about music for almost a decade. Since I’m not a musician myself, writing is the closest I could ever get to the lifestyle that I love and idolize so much. Through the years, I’ve been able to live a great number of my Rock & Roll dreams, but one always eluded me: touring. So when Valley offered me the position, I took a leave of absence from my job, drained my savings account to buy my plane ticket, secured my passport and joined them. And in my three weeks across the pond, I learned a few things. Some were positive, some negative, but they were all eye opening.
In the weeks preceding my trip, I had many friends and family remark that I’d be going on a three-week vacation in Europe, and they were partially right. But what no one really understands about touring — at least until they join one — is how physically draining it can be. We had a great time on the trip and we were able to be touristy on an almost daily basis; we definitely did our fair share of sightseeing and shopping.
But rest and relaxation were nestled in between periods of hard work or tedious drudgery. We often had to drive two to six hours every day, then work for several hours straight preparing for the show, which led to the show itself and the eventual tear down before we could finally retire for the night. This adds up to many late nights and early mornings. It wasn’t uncommon for us to be awake and active for more than 18 hours a day or more. So, yes, it was like a vacation in some respects. But it was a vacation we paid for with hard work, every day.
You may be asking why we didn’t just sleep or rest in those two to six hour stretches of nothing and I can say that we did, but it was a difficult process. We were often too amped up to get any rest in the van. This process highlights another element of tour: the constant “hurry up and wait” mentality.
At every stop, we had a designated load-in time, where we were expected to show up, load the gear into the venue, set up merch, sound check and do all the other pre-show errands that needed to be completed. But what often happened was we’d arrive, load in … and wait. Then the sound checks would roll around and we’d wait for the doors to open. Then we’d wait for the openers to play, or if roles were reversed, for the headliner to finish before we could think about closing down for the night and sleeping in a new (and often uncomfortable) place. Tour is full of dead stops and frantic starts that can fray the nerves of all involved, especially when it occurs almost daily for more than three weeks.
The ceaseless nature of touring was lessened by the joy of being in new countries and being surrounded by different cultures. At least for the first two weeks or so. By the end of tour, we were all ready for a little slice of home. I was surprised by the level of homesickness I felt by the third week. Initially, we never wanted to leave. We were awash in free beer, cheap pastries, fashionably dressed and beautiful women and breathtaking landscapes.
As the tour progressed, the gorgeous veneer began to rub off. It can be quite lonely to only speak to the same group of people day in and day out. Fighting a language barrier seems quaint at first, but by week three, you just want to order a Coke in English and not be met with a confused gaze. Apple strudels for breakfast and Turkish doner kebabs for lunch are great for a week, but I don’t even want to see a donut now that I’m back.
It was harder still when I took into account all the things at home that I was missing. I couldn’t attend one of my good friend’s wedding or see my other friend’s first time onstage in almost a year. I didn’t celebrate Halloween, my favorite holiday, since it isn’t nearly as popular in Europe as it is in the U.S. Touring puts your life on hold and trying to catch up on everything you missed is almost impossible. It’s like hitting the pause button on a movie then mashing on fast forward and trying to figure out the plot afterward.
Now that we’ve gotten the negatives out of the way, it’s time for me to gloat a bit. OK, I’ll be gloating a lot.
For all the sleepless nights, sore muscles, lack of showers and general exhaustion that we all faced, we knew that we had it better than most bands back home. For a band to tour the U.S., expectations are often much lower. The pay is pathetic, the nightly lodging consists of either a fan’s floor or the van’s benches and food choices generally begin at Taco and end with Bell.
In contrast, we only slept on a floor once and Taco Bell is nowhere to be found in Europe. Most European venues have access to either a band apartment or a room in a local hotel. This means that we were usually sleeping on some sort of bed. They usually weren’t the most luxurious accommodations, but they sure beat the hell out of a night cramped up in a van with four other guys. Food is another plus. The venues usually provided food for the bands as they arrived and either fed us homemade meals or paid us a stipend to snag some grub outside the venue. We got a bit tired of all the wurst by the end, but it sure beats the hell out of Taco Bell (or nothing at all).
I was also pleasantly surprised by just how excited and hungry for Rock & Roll the fans are in Europe. At a local Rock show, merchandise sales are often fairly paltry. Money for shirts and CDs is in short supply for the average concert attendee, especially since they know that the band will likely be playing live again in a short time. But in Europe, Rock shows only come around every so often. For some of the smaller towns, a Rock show is downright rare.
Because of this, the fans take advantage by loading up on merchandise. That helped make the tour a profitable venture for the band, even after considering the upfront costs of traveling to Europe and losing out on paychecks back home.What’s even more impressive is that most of the attendees at Valley’s European shows had never heard of the band before. This was only the second time they’ve toured the area and this tour featured mostly secondary markets that weren’t hit the first time. But by the end of every show the boys had new fans flocking to them for autographs, something they’d never done before in the States.
What this all adds up to is a touring experience that was quite deceptive. On the surface it looks like nothing but fun and excitement. I won’t lie, there was plenty of fun and excitement to be had, but there was a ton of work, agitation and stress involved as well. It’s an experience punctuated with highs and lows, usually mixed into one day. Touring is hard; it takes a lot just to keep the whole operation rolling. It’d be positively debilitating if it weren’t for all of the awesome opportunities that went along with it.
Traveling five hours a day will put anyone in a rough mood, but exploring a gorgeous city nestled in the bottom of the Swiss Alps balances it out. Waiting for the show to start may be boring, but seeing a circle pit start at a Stoner Rock show puts it in perspective. Your body and sanity is subjected to one big balancing act for the entirety of the tour.
And that’s the real reason why a lot of bands don’t tour; they aren’t cut out for it. It’s takes a special group of people to take on this challenge and succeed. And I’m lucky enough to now be one of those people. ©
For more on VALLEY OF THE SUN, visit valleyofthesun.bandcamp.com.