My Week as a Roadie – SXSW 2014
Flight cases, speaker fires and the time we pretended to be a car….
An article in which I follow a band around Austin for a week; pretending to be useful, but mainly drinking beer and making an arse out of myself.
Ostensibly, or if anyone asks, my last minute trip to Austin, TX, in the guise of a roadie for the group DEMS, was a chance to chronicle the escapades of a young band on the rise for XWHY… In reality, it was a great excuse to dance around in the sun for a week and come home with an inconceivable number of free condoms.
DEMS are, in their own words, an “indie-electronica” trio, hailing from South East London. They have a singular kind of sound, though, that doesn’t quite allow for them to be slotted comfortably into a genre shared by the likes of Alt-J and Purity Ring. Whatever label you want to assign them, they’re getting radio play, some beautifully produced videos, billings on an increasing number of big festivals and growing support from different corners of the globe…so their appeal is broad.
This year, their billings included four sets at one of America’s biggest music events – South by South West (SXSW), during which they were followed intermittently by a crew filming the most promising British artists. See clip below:
And, to cut a long story short, less than a week before SXSW, I woke up on a sofa, after their gig at Shoreditch’s cavernous Village Underground, with a “crew pass” to the festival and an email confirming my flights to Texas. Fine.
A roadie wears many hats, especially on a small tour. It’s not just about carrying around a couple of guitars and plugging things into the right holes you know. There is band-welfare to take into account, too.
So, when it turned out that the venue for their first gig, – a rainbow-flag sporting club called The Iron Bear – was giving away free contraceptives, it became imperative to ensure as many latex products ended up back in our motel as was humanly possible to transport…a large number of which turned out to be femidoms.
Femidoms as change purses, femidoms as sleeping bags…femidoms as socks – certainly no-one was going to be getting syphilis of the foot on my watch.
Also, with lead singer Dan Moss’s voice being, arguably, the most valuable commodity belonging to the band, oral-hygiene was of crucial importance. The health of his mouth was expertly safeguarded by the swapping of his toothpaste for savlon at least once during the course of the week. The day he learns to brush his teeth with the light on will be the undoing of him.
Perhaps more obviously than oral hygiene, a roadie’s job is also about making sure nothing ends up on fire. This is clearly why, on the one afternoon that I decided to skip the DEMS gig in favour of a beer-fuelled (on my part) conversation with Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, everything decided to spontaneously combust.
It turns out that learning to plug the right thing into the right hole is, in fact, the most important part of using electrical equipment. Turning around to find flames rising from his speaker, drummer and tech whiz-kid (usually), David Gardener, darted to its rescue.
Unfortunately, the staunchly Christian (it is Texas, after all) owner of the venue took issue with the surge of “fucks” that were also jettisoning forth….
Neither speaker, nor reputation survived the ordeal. Had their roadie been present, none of this would have happened, undoubtedly…
The American propensity for giving stuff away for free is staggering. All ye Brits who’ve been to Glastonbury or Secret Garden Party will know that shelling out for festival tickets is only the beginning. Beer, food and all manner of things that glow in the dark are going to set you back a small fortune.
Not so at SXSW. There wasn’t a day gone by which didn’t include pockets full of key-rings, bottle openers, headphones and a bag brimming with new sunglasses. Probably the most astonishing freebie, though, was the booze. I mean, just….who does that?!
An abundance of giveaway alcohol, however, does not a particularly conscientious roadie make. Heading to the Hype Hotel, a hangar-like space hosted by Hype Machine, we soon discovered that the drink ticket system was being overlooked in favour of a new system that involved every punter being handed two mugs of all-but-neat vodka upon arrival.
Double fisting neat spirits, in a crowd with no tables (and spillage being lickage and all that), ensured that there was no place for it to go but down the hatch. How you’re ever supposed to look out for the wellbeing of other people when you’re squinting at the back of someone’s head, sway-dancing and holding onto strangers for support is beyond me… Nothing much I could do to prevent guitarist and pretty-face Duncan Mann from going missing in a girl-wards direction towards the end of the week.
Also, London Grammar, I’m told you were pretty good, but I was too busy marvelling at the twinkly lights and feeling pleasantly fuzzy around the edges to confirm this for myself.
A good roadie, it turns out, also knows when to keep quiet.
I am aware that I’ve sounded largely useless, in real “band crew” terms. I’ll have you know that I did, in fact, do a certain degree of flight case management, or so I’m calling it.
Unfortunately, the only time it ever crossed my mind to perform actual roadie duties (for I fear the femidoms and savlon don’t strictly count), was usually post-gig and post fireball shots. And in such cases, my “let’s wheel this flight case at a run so we can get back to the party” attitude wasn’t entirely well received.
Someone who definitely proved her worth, on the other hand, was band manager Jen Anderson. Here we have someone who knows exactly the balance between fun and efficiency. Despite my, no doubt extremely valuable input, it was actually Jen who shepherded the boys between their various shows, ensuring the correct equipment ended up in the correct places and that each person was smiling and chatting to the right music blogger / record label / documentary crew.
Screw having a mother hen, everyone should get themselves a Mother-Jen.
On the final night Mother-Jen, exhausted after a week of managing her gaggle of adult-children, headed for a much-deserved sleep. She needed what was left of her mothery reserves for a day of getting six people, plus equipment, to the airport on time and on a range of different flights home.
Left alone with the three DEMS, I considered my roadie duties reinstated. This included the procurement of more alcohol (why are you not surprised) and the search for sustenance.
Here is a synopsis of what followed:
Shots in a bar with some record label chums, including hat swapping and pavement wrestling.
Joining the convoy of vehicles queuing up for the Wendy’s drive-thru.
In the absence of our own vehicle, making one out of…ourselves. For future reference, David Gardener does a very convincing windscreen wiper. And Dan Moss, only a slightly less credible pair of fog lights.
Denny’s…Denny’s diner definitely happened. And what started as milkshakes and hash browns turned very quickly, you might say predictably, into clearing all the furniture to the sides of the room to make way for the longest “doing the worm down the length of a restaurant” feat that’s probably ever occurred.
It’s hard to explain what came after this. Let’s just say, it’s all fun and games until someone’s swapping the clothes on their back for a set of nunchucks, in a carpark.
My week as a roadie was a resounding success from all points of view. I absolutely don’t expect to be re-hired.
Like this article? Be sure to read XWHY Mike’s account of the unexpected life lessons he learned at SXSW 2014.
WORDS and PICTURES: Natasha Bird