A column about music and travel would be remiss if it didn’t take a brief glimpse at the travel inherent in much of music-making: the tour. This month, we’ll take a look at touring through the eyes of two filmmakers (full disclosure: one of them is my former editor from my days as an intern at Paste magazine) who set out to make a documentary about live music by putting rubber to pavement and imitating the tour life while filming. As it turned out, the experience itself gave them a newfound understanding of how this intersection of music and travel can be fulfilling — and the sacrifices it requires.
The allure of the road is a time-honored cliché in rock and roll. It brings out the debauchery, the visceral tension in personal relationships, and the knack for altering one’s sense of …oneself. In the summer of 2010, two old friends Steve LaBate and Scott Sloan set out to document musicians’ life on the road and take the pulse of rock and roll in America in a project called 40 Nights of Rock and Roll. Traveling 16,000 miles in 40 days, they met idols, saturated themselves with music, almost killed each other, and flirted with the very redemptive, punishing road muse they had set out to understand. Neither the filmmakers, nor their relationship, has been the same since.
“Me and Scott were sort of at a crossroads in our lives,” Steve told me of the spring of 2010. Steve had just left his position as associate editor of Paste magazine after seven years. Scott, an aspiring filmmaker, had long worked in the corporate world and was ready to get out. “He started acting like the guy in Office Space, showing up late, having a few cocktails at lunch, trying to get fired. He had been such a good employee, they just didn’t understand. They were like, ‘What can we do to help you?’ Somebody would be getting dressed down in a meeting, and he would stand up and start clapping,” Steve recalls.
Sure enough, Scott got himself fired, so when Steve called looking for consolation after his last day on the job at Paste, “Scott was like ‘Fuck yeah, congrats buddy!’ He thought it was a big opportunity and that we should do something big.”
After seriously considering a gig in Argentina using assault rifles to take out the pumas who were terrorizing grape pickers on a vineyard, Scott and Steve settled on making a movie. They’d hop in a Jeep and drive all over the country, interviewing everyone from Charlie Louvin to of Montreal about what brought them to rock and roll, why life on the road is “brutal and dangerous and difficult,” and what makes all the hard work worth it.
“I think when you look at the archetype of the road in America, that’s something very special,” Steve says. “Traveling becomes a metaphor for freedom and transcendence. Those things are a big part of what rock and roll is. It’s almost the same as riding the rails. People used to have all these adventures, and you could travel all around the country. There was this untethered sense of freedom. One way to have those experiences is being in a touring band on the road in rock and roll. The sense of freedom and rebellion that goes with being on the road — travel and rock and roll go hand in hand in that way.”
Two and a half months after their fateful phone call, Scott and Steve were behind the wheel. Scott had sold his home, and together they raised Kickstarter money to finance the project. They quickly fell into the touring lifestyle.
“It was brutal,” Steve says. “Throw in the fact that we’re drinking every day. You start to see how musicians develop drinking and drug problems. Our lives started to mirror the bands on the road, which I think helped us connect with the bands in a big way.”
“Many of the artists we interviewed talked about the hardships of the road; getting your gear stolen, sleeping on the floor, eating ramen. Blood, sweat, tears,” Scott says. “But you get onstage and look around and say, ‘This is what makes it all worth it.’ The artists and ourselves were reminded of that each time the music started up. It’s something that helps you get through the day. The magic of the event. It speaks to the strength of the music that there is something you can go do that night that is so good it makes up for everything else that sucks, sucks, sucks.”
As for the “everything else that sucks” — it didn’t take long before Scott and Steve started to clash. Hard. Their story began to imitate the stereotype of bands, like storied hatred that grew between Smashing Pumpkins or Liam and Noel Gallagher.
“You work with someone who’s stubborn, lazy, irresponsible, yet totally self-confident,” Scott says, still sounding irritated two years after he and Steve wrapped shooting. “It’s fucking awful! But I’ve learned to look past that. And he has a nicely trimmed beard.”
Steve and Scott were witnessing firsthand what seasoned touring bands already know — as transcendent and rebellious as touring can be, “the road is a magnifying glass for your faults as a human being. We saw the ugliest sides of ourselves,” Steve says. “Everything you can normally suppress comes out under those circumstances. I remember being with Scott on the phone [after we’d finished filming and settled in different cities], and he we has like ‘I hate your fucking essence! I hate your soul!’ And I was like, ‘The second you get off the plane [to meet me in Atlanta], I’m gonna punch you in the mouth!’”
The music, as it has been for innumerable bands over the years, was the thing that held the project together. No matter how much they fought, both Scott and Steve baptized themselves each night in the press of the crowd and the thrum of a guitar’s opening chords. They developed a wealth of shared experiences with the artists they were interviewing — living on gas station food, spending working hours in bars full of vice and temptation, cramming into small spaces with a creative partner they often wanted to sock on the nose — that afforded them a special connection with their subjects.
“I feel like every single person we talked to saw it in our eyes and knew. There were a handful of bands that weren’t really road-tested bands. But any of the real touring bands were like, ‘Oh you guys know,’” Steve says. “There’s this band in the movie called The Moaners, these two totally badass girls from North Carolina who play sludgey Delta blues/metal. We were talking about how we were getting in all these fights and arguments, and they started recounting some of their own, and it threw them back into one and things got heated between them. One was like, ‘Remember that time we were in the airport and you were such a bitch?’ And the other one said, ‘Yeah, you want me to tell them why? You want me to tell them why I was being a bitch?!’”
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