On the Road with Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall

We have to admit we’re a bit jealous of “Sam”. Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizzard, The Intelligence…this Frenchman is friends with some of the best bands of the American and Australian alternative rock scenes. Trained as a sound engineer, Sam works as a driver, sound engineer, roadie and tour manager (sometimes all at once), and spends his year on the road, living from concert to concert.

It takes finesse just to track Sam down to talk about his life on tour, especially at the height of the summer festival season. But right after a few shows with American stoner band Red Fang and a few days before joining Thee Oh Sees for a month on the road in France, Europe, and North America, he found a moment to open up to us about the struggles of touring, his best (and worst) memories, and the daily rock’n’roll lifestyle.

How did you start working on tours?

It was a happy accident. In 2007, I was contacted by an association in Strasbourg that was organizing a visual-kei concert and they needed a sound engineer. When I arrived, I realized the venue wasn’t equipped at all for what they needed: it was an old cafeteria with columns everywhere and the band was freaking out. I floated the idea of having the band play between four columns, creating a quadriphonic sound with the speakers, and letting the audience surround the band. They gave me the green light, and it went really well—at the end of the concert, the band’s tour manager asked if I was licensed and took my phone number. A week later, he offered me a five-date tour in February 2008 with Marie Modiano, a French artist. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to meet Buzz from U-Turn Touring. He had some bands who needed a driver, so I went. And I’ve been going ever since…

What’s a typical day like on tour

In some ways, it’s like any other day: you get up, you go to work, you go to bed… the difference is that sometimes you don’t sleep a lot on tour. When I travel with a tour bus as a sound engineer, I sleep more. But when we’re touring in a van and I’m taking care of everything, it’s a lot harder… After the concert, the band is always invited to an after party. On tour, I’m serious and focused on my work: I don’t drink, I try to sleep well. That often means I leave someone the address to the hotel and slip out before the end of the after party to get some rest. The problem is that sometimes, right then, one of the band members tells me he’s smoking his last cigarette and asks if he can come with me… that type of cigarette can last four hours!

Do you manage to maintain a healthy lifestyle on tour

I move in more professional tour circles these days—we play in good venues and the organizers know what it’s like to be on tour. I no longer have to eat a cheese sandwich or pasta with tomato sauce every night. Aside from the food, I try to work out. Lauch, a friend who has done a lot of tours, converted me. He told me: “You drive bands around for weeks at a time and eat junk food at the wheel, that’s not good for you… You’re going to end up with the body of a truck driver!” That gave me the motivation to start running during tours and doing jump rope. I also play chess! I always bring a chessboard with me, and I always find someone at the venue willing to play a game. For me, that’s also part of being healthy, it clears your mind, and it gives you something to think about besides the tour 24/7. Often, there are also showers at the concert venues which is great for washing away all the grime from the audience: I remember a Ty Segall concert in Berlin where a guy paid me for a record with a 20 euro bill he had taken out of his sweaty sock. They say money doesn’t stink, so you should take it, but that’s not always true; money does sometimes really stink, I have proof!

What are real rock band tours like? Is there any truth to the myth of “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll?”

I’m going to answer this question in three parts:
1. What happens on tour, stays on tour.
2. Each person has the right to make their own decisions: sometimes you do things, sometimes you don’t.
3. Lastly, I’m going to dispel the myth a bit: I’ve seen guys go to bed right after the concert.

What I do know is that when a group goes on its first tour in Europe, the guys often treat it like a vacation, so a little attitude adjustment is needed if you don’t want them to burn out after of a few days…

What’s your worst memory from touring?

I have four.

The first is when we got a flat tire on a small country road in the Massif Central with the band Left Lane Cruiser. Normally, a flat tire isn’t that big of a deal… except when you don’t have a jack in the rental car. No one passed by on the road for 25 minutes and we started getting really scared that we would be late for that night’s concert. Then some hunters showed up and they had a jack. That was the first time I thought hunters could be useful (laughs)! We gave them a record to thank them. They probably used it to as a clay pigeon.

My three other worst memories involve stolen equipment. I’ve had my backpack stolen twice, with my laptop in it, once in the Czech Republic at a gas station, and the other in a Brussels parking lot. It’s awful, I’ve lost entire recorded sessions with some bands… I guess it was useful for teaching me the importance of taking safety precautions. Someone stole half the stuff from a van in Rome, Italy, when I was with The Intelligence. No more computer, no more clothes, no more passport, half of the instruments gone… and obviously, the car insurance doesn’t cover what the vehicle was transporting. You have to act fast: you call the tour organizer, the venue you’re supposed to play that night, you have to find solutions as quickly as possible so that the tour can go on.

And the best?

It’s tied to my worst memory. After the theft in Rome, we unloaded at one of the most beautiful clubs in Italy, the Spectre Live Club. It’s a semi-private club in an old Italian city between Florence and Rome, on top of a hill. The place doesn’t even have an address, just GPS coordinates. When you get there, there’s a pool, an outbuilding for the bands… paradise! Once we arrived, the organizers did everything to help us: they gave us t-shirts, boxers, socks—they did our laundry. They made us a great meal with an excellent olive oil that came straight from the olive trees that grow there. That night, we put up a sign at the merch stand to explain what had happened to us. The audience was great: some people overpaid for the records to help us out. But after supporting the band all day trying to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, it was my turn to break down the night after the concert. Everyone pitched in to help me out. A tour is also a family where everyone supports each other.

Another great memory is the time Fuzz tried to speak French at the Cabaret Vert festival in front of more than 10,000 people to wish me happy birthday. Then there are the people who come congratulate you after the show for the sound quality. There are the shows you are proud of where you can congratulate yourself on a job well done. There are the chance meetings with friends or bands that you haven’t seen for a long time, like when I ran into Charly, Sean, Tim and Josh from White Fence. There are all the girls that you BAAAAANG… no, no, I’m joking!

What are some of your favorite concert venues?

In France, La Sirène in La Rochelle, Krakatoa in Bordeaux, Stereolux in Nantes and La Paloma in Nîmes. As for the rest of Europe: Vera in Groningen, John Dee in Oslo, Paradiso in Amsterdam, Sala Apolo in Barcelona. Also Brudenell Social Club in England! Nathan Clark is one of the best promoters I’ve ever worked with. He really puts the bands first. If there is one place you have to play in England, it’s there.

Do you ever get to play the tourist while on tour?

That’s a question people often ask me… I don’t necessarily take the time to do it. I’m usually tired so I’d rather rest. However, from time to time, when it’s my turn to plan the tour, we make a little itinerary. I generally organize a visit to Paris for the bands who are coming to France for the first time. In London, the traffic is terrible, so we never visit anything there.  

How is touring with Ty Segall or Thee Oh Sees? They’re not full of themselves?

I’ve toured with Ty Segall since 2011, back when he could hardly fill a 200 capacity club. And I can tell you, he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still the guy who bawls me out for loading the van by myself, who asks how I am when he sees that I’m tired, who’s going to pay you a bit more if the group earns more cash than expected!

Now John Dwyer, from Thee Oh Sees, he’s really demanding but always fair. He’s a little cranky but he rarely gets riled up on tour. He’s someone I really like. He taught me a lot about how to get what you need on short notice while touring.

How do you feel at the end of a tour?

You learn to handle going from full speed to full stop. Before, I needed to party for a week afterward to forget that no one needed me anymore, that I didn’t have any responsibilities. Now, I handle it better: a person isn’t his work, he can also be something else. I’m very busy outside of touring, with music, my studio, a few trips. I’ve managed to cure the post-tour blues.

And sometimes, you’re just really happy to come back home. The perfect tour lasts three weeks: one week to get into the tour, one week when you’re really happy to be on tour, and one week to prepare yourself psychologically to come home. I’ve done eight-week tours and those ruin morale: you don’t feel like working, you want to go home, and after handling tricky situations for so many weeks, the smallest roadblock makes you super irritable. Not everyone sees it the same way though: take my friend Wouter Bakker, who is always on the road, touring with bands like Ty Segall or Mac DeMarco. He really enjoys living like that!

Photo: Romain ETIENNE / Item
Article translated by Andrea Perdue

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