Live Music Exchange Blog

A good day at the office: tales from the road – Graeme Smillie


In this week’s guest blog, musician Graeme Smillie looks back at some of his own memories on the road as bassist for Emma Pollock, Unwinding Hours, The Vaselines and Karine Polwart.  He sets up a typology of touring musicians – those who love it and those who don’t – before offering his own enjoyable take on his four favourite venues across Europe and the USA.

The experience of touring has a polarizing effect on musicians. There are some that find it to be an ingrained part of their being; to others, it is a necessary evil, something that must be done to prolong your career as a musician, and the only way feasible to communicate your music in flesh and blood, to people who want to hear it outwith your own town.

The ‘unnatural’ tourer’s condition can range from slight discomfort to absolute neurosis; the natural tourer’s profile ranges from passive acceptance to round the clock elation. The extremes of both of these typologies can be equally intolerable.

There are many factors that can turn a member of the former into a member of the latter, and vice versa. The working environment is extraordinarily changeable, and because you actually don’t go home every night, the working environment is quite a broad concept to the touring musician, and one with many entry points. Your place of work for part of the day could be the splitter van. For most, this is a private place, where your audience generally does not see you. You can sit in the back, listen to music, play cards or read. However, the poor driver, often a band or crew member,  is very much still on the clock. In this case, it most definitely is their place of work. This illustrates an intense aspect of touring, in that it is a round the clock job with little or no solitude, and very little opportunity to completely clock off.

The most relevant of these factors is undoubtedly the place of work within which you will be plying your trade in front of your audience, therefore the workplaces I have found the most liberating or constricting are the venues that stage the musical performance. This is probably the most obvious entry point in mapping the touring working environment, and the venues you visit can have arguably the most influential effect upon your daily experience. The venues you visit on a tour can turn a pleasant day sour, or a dreadful day into a fully emancipatory hug-fest.

My experience, certainly as a headline artist, has never exceeded ‘club’ status. My experience is limited to <1000 capacity venues, and is so far restricted to North America, the UK, and continental Europe. Touring in continental Europe can be as varied as any other continent in the world, and countries like Spain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria all have a distinct identity and flavour. Within this frame of reference I would like to highlight some of my most memorable experiences of music venues, in a simple, light and easy to digest top four. There are countless great venues out there, and equal amounts of terrible ones, and many receive their dues from touring crews, and in popular discourse; The 9.30 Club in Washington, The Vera in Groningen, First Avenue in Minneapolis, and the AB in Brussels all reside in the outstanding category; the terrible ones shall remain nameless for now. However, I want to try and remember some of the other good ones,  that don’t always seem to make it onto the run of usual ‘best venues’ list.

12yMedio, Murcia, Spain

With Emma Pollock, 14th March 2008 & 11th February 2011

Generally speaking, touring Spain is unlike a lot of other countries. Things tend to happen at slightly unconventional times, and the assumptions we are guilty of making include: you will be onstage before 3am;  you will get a good nights sleep; you will be able to just leave after the show; these simply do not apply. Although this might sound like criticism, it isn’t, this is mere observation. Indeed, for the obvious drawbacks, there are equal benefits if you approach the situation graciously and in the right frame of mind; you can’t possibly take yourself too seriously. This particular venue in Murcia springs to mind for a few reasons. On paper, it is nothing spectacular. A reasonably well equipped venue, with one of those dressing rooms that never has enough chairs and folk keep mistaking for the public toilet.

Where its strength lay was actually with an enthusiastic few members of staff and local musicians. First of all the support band played a cover of one of Emma Pollock’s old band’s songs right before our set. The tension of playing her first solo show was instantly ramped up a few thousand Pascals, and in any other location, with a different frame of mind, this cover version would have spoiled the show entirely. However, after speaking to them after the show, there was something oddly endearing and honest about their act.

Secondly there was an extremely enthusiastic bartender, who remembered us upon our return, pointed us in the right direction, kept us right as the night went on, and plied us with numerous unpronounceable drinks, ensuring that the five drink tokens we received as catering went far further than they ought to.

Both of these examples encapsulate a courageous spirit of outreach to strange, alien touring musicians, that results in them feeling welcome. This is of far more use than overly reticent shadow dwellers, unwilling or unable to initiate contact with you. I would say we each only recognised around 5-10% of what we said to each other that night, but nobody let the language barrier get in the way.

[As an aside, I also remember the incredible scenes in Egypt we were able to watch on cable news with tour-mate Laetitia Sadier on the 2011 visit as Hosni Mubarak resigned and fled the country after 18 days of unrest, handing over power to the Military. It’s funny what stays with you.]

It is important to note, there are many times in Spain where I have felt like the stars were aligning and that I had discovered the meaning of life. Special mention must go to mad Boris in Zamora, Teatro de Losetta, and the beautiful Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, which is a venue in which you just can’t help but feel that you’re lowering the tone.

Rot Fabrik, Zurich, Switzerland

With Unwinding Hours, 16th July 2011, 11th September 2012.

The anticipation in arriving at this venue is undoubtedly perpetuated by the fact that both visits have been preceded by long sweaty drives, where hallucinations kick in half way through the legendary Swiss border check (enough for another blog entry alone). Indeed, you can’t quite believe your eyes when you arrive at the venue, and see legions of naked people sunbathing and wading in the crystal clear waters of Lake Zurich. Once you have got over the shock of seeing the most old men penises you will ever see in your life, you realize that this is not a mirage. Indeed, you can load in your backline and swim in the actual water after soundcheck, then dinner is served to you as you all sit down together: headline band, support band, local crew… It’s a wonderful thing, and for me really cuts out the crap of being the distanced and precious artist. Our singer Craig, a self confessed miserablist, is so moved after the show that he too stripps down to his undergarments and dives into the lake from the highest available point (which to be fair was not really that accessible; it required climbing a few fences and the diving point was about 50ft up. Oh, and it was pitch black). Again, there is a shit dressing room with no lock that everyone keeps trying to piss in, but it really doesn’t matter when the exterior of the venue is so special. Let your singer warm up in the dressing room, take a couple of beers and go and sit on the pier; watch some old dudes wade around with no clothes on and look like happy dogs; listen to the support band as the sun goes down behind a mountain. My god, I love this place.

The Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, USA

With Emma Pollock, 11th November 2007

This was towards the end of the longest tour of my life. A couple of months in North America, the first few supporting a much bigger band, followed by smaller headline shows. This was part of the latter, and apart from the rickshaw parked square in front of the sound desk, this is a pretty ordinary venue.  However, rather than your usual Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors, they have good beer on tap. Very good beer.  What made it truly memorable was the chap behind the bar wearing an Avalanche Records t-shirt. Avalanche Records now only exists in Edinburgh, but at this point it was also a Glasgow institution. We got talking to him, and found him to be quite the Scottish indie aficionado; he even ran a blog called glasGOwest, in which he verbalised his charming, trainspotter-esque obsession with knowing every Glasgow band. He was amazed by our everyday tales of how we know the Twilight Sad, and that I used to work in the same bar as a member of Belle & Sebastian. It’s the strangest thing being on tour, because throughout the year you can get bogged down with your own city. It can wear on you, become grey and uninspiring. Then you are away from it for an extended period of time, and you realise you actually miss it. Then as the end is palpably close you meet a guy who not only confirms that you miss it, but manages to convince you that you’re from the Mecca of modern alternative rock music [sic].

Years later, the enthused barman got in touch about my own band – Olympic Swimmers – as we were releasing our debut album, and recalled how he had previously met our guitarist Jamie Savage, completely oblivious that he had met me and Jonny (who plays drums for both Emma Pollock and Olympic Swimmers) and I as well. Actually, his words were ‘Jamie Savage and his road crew’- that road crew was Emma, Me, Jonny, and Jim Putnam from the Radar Brothers who was doing our sound.

Union Chapel, London, UK

With Karine Polwart, 12 October 2012

In terms of the ambience and milieu of the venue, Islington’s Union Chapel is pretty unique. It sticks out as a big imposing gothic-styled building, and is still a functioning church.  In this regard it’s a million miles away from Glasgow’s Oran Mor, another former church building, which on a Sunday morning is probably getting vomit hosed off its stairs. I’m not the biggest fan of organized religion for a number of reasons, but The Union Chapel seems to do it right. It’s Congregationalist, non-hierarchical and runs the Margins Homelessness Project. It’s enough to make even the most committed cynic a bit misty eyed, and, when viewing your own work in the context of the venue’s work, makes you feel small, humble, and more than a little reflective. As a framing device for Karine’s music, I don’t think there could have been anywhere better. Ingrained in the church walls, and within her music, there are sentiments of noble protest, a sense of belonging to a much larger world, and a knowing acknowledgement that all is not right in it. For such a spiritual place, it all felt so damn human. This might not be what everybody wants from a gig day, but it certainly stands out on a tour. If the committed activism and egalitarian philosophy doesn’t get you, then the scale and aesthetic magnificence of the venue surely would.  I am itching to play this venue again.

These four venues aren’t a definitive list of the best ones out there, but do present differing ways in which a venue can stand out. Through each example the venue is never taken out of context of the other factors that are part of its location; social milieu, history, and people (staff and audience). They all make a venue what it is, and this is absolutely true of every great club venue. You can design and spec a venue to the nth degree, and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on its implementation, but if you don’t have the right people working there, dictating the overall philosophy, or going to the show, then you don’t have a venue worth its salt. Also, this isn’t a call to undeniably successful arena bands to start asking for 3am stage times, and sit down meals with the local fork-lift driver, nor is it a telling off to the bands who really are out on the road for nine months out of the year playing Southampton, Northampton, Wolverhampton and then Watford. This is simply a collection of pleasantly memorable experiences which have personally enriched and shaped what my perception of touring is, and this may mean it is dreadfully askew. However, if you do find yourself in either of the extreme camps of the two touring typologies, try to see the humour in situations when there is good humour being shown back at you. Remember faces and people who treat you well, and soak up the experience as much as you can. You might find you actually enjoyed yourself a few years down the line.

Graeme Smillie

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *