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Are excessive touring demands causing young bands to burn out?

The Darcys (left to right) Michael le Riche, Jason Couse, Dave Hurlow and Wes Marskell pose in their tour van in Toronto on Monday December 2, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
December 18, 2013 - 9:02 AM

TORONTO - When it comes to horror stories of life on tour, the Darcys' Wes Marskell can spin a scary yarn like Wes Craven.

Consider the time he and his Toronto band were eating dinner in Guelph, Ont., before a show, when they were suddenly alerted to the fact that a 16-year-old with a long hunting blade was camped out inside their van — with all its irreplaceable gear — and had managed to get the motor running.

"In a split second, you had to weigh: 'OK, I give up or I go back to school and become a lawyer or something, or I wrestle this kid out of my van,'" the personable Marskell related recently over the phone. "Everyone flooded out of the venue and this kid was backed in a corner. The mindset was: maybe one of us will get stabbed, but we'll continue as a band.

"That was bleak."

They did manage to de-escalate the situation. But Marskell has more — for instance, the nightmarish road trip his band embarked upon back in early 2011. The — admittedly insane — plan was to drive from Windsor, Ont., to San Diego overnight. If they were to make the gig, there would be no time for sleeping, let alone stopping.

A fierce snowstorm in Indianapolis and an accident-clogged highway complicated the bold scheme. Marskell consulted his GPS, which suggested an appealing detour that seemed to sidestep the problem. But once they found the road, they were spooked: a two-lane highway flanked by farmland and a lake, with non-existent visibility.

Sitting behind the wheel, Marskell tried to navigate a curve and the van spun 90 degrees to a halt. Moments later, the vehicle — and all of their expensive, carefully collected gear — was fixed in the headlights of a semi-trailer truck.

"We had the time to talk internally about dying and our options," Marskell recalled. "Even though it only happened in four seconds, somebody said we're going to die. It wasn't even angry or afraid, it was a centralized commentary on what was next to happen while sliding down the road."

But the vehicle kept skidding and eventually the nose was facing in the right direction. Marskell stomped on the gas and they took off. The truck still made contact, slamming into one of the van's headlights and knocking the mirror clean off before continuing down the road without stopping. The Darcys pulled off into a McDonald's parking lot and, with help, performed quick surgery on their side mirror.

"The idiocy behind this project of touring was we had to go find a mirror to replace the side mirror on our van, so we could drive through the night to get to the show," Marskell sighed. "We couldn't afford to sleep. If we had slept through that night, we would have missed the first day and a half of a tour.

"You'd think when you get hit by a truck, you'd maybe take a night off. But this really nice kid sewed a mirror to the side of our van and we took off to San Diego."

Such is the reality of life for a modern-day rock band. With album sales dwindling into anemia, touring — relentlessly and constantly — has become even more crucial to survival for most artists.

And the rigours of the road appear to be extracting a toll. With time off becoming an increasingly scarce luxury, many fledgling young artists are staying on the road to the point of burnout and exhaustion.

While young bands fracturing early in their careers is nothing new, some recent buzzed-about acts have collapsed amid reports of bizarre behaviour. San Diego lo-fi duo Wavves, L.A. psych-rock pair Foxygen and Calgary experimental rock band Women are among the widely hyped bands that have suffered onstage meltdowns or even fist fights in recent years.

The Darcys actually performed with Foxygen at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., the day before the buzz band's singer Sam France — in another SXSW show — challenged a "coward" audience member to a fight and stormed offstage.

Even when the Darcys shared the stage with the volatile act, Marskell noted their odd behaviour.

"They were (bad-mouthing) the sponsor of the show, but it didn't really have a political point — he was just sort of tweaking out a little bit," Marskell recalled.

The Darcys, whose highly ambitious most recent record "Warring" came out earlier in the year, have toured relentlessly for years and possess an instrumental mastery somewhat rare in indie rock. Foxygen, meanwhile, was breathlessly hyped even at an embryonic stage, and Marskell mused that it might have been too much too soon, a phenomenon he thinks extends to many young bands who burn out before their time.

"With a band like Foxygen, it happened so quickly I don't think they had any awareness of what it was going to be like or the demands on them," said Marskell, whose band is partnering with Toronto-area elementary and high schools in January and February to help fledgling young musicians.

"There is this scary moment sometimes where you play with a band who you realize, they just don't have the instinct or the understanding that there's a lot more than that 35 minutes onstage. ... I think people just think they're owed their sparkling water and their rider and their soundcheck is going to be flawless and if there's any feedback, they're going to throw a hissy fit."

He adds later, not speaking specifically of Foxygen: "That's what happens when you wrote eight songs and all of a sudden Pitchfork gave you a 27 and you tour massive clubs around the world. It's a very peculiar place to be put in."

Still, even seasoned bands who follow a more steady arc struggle with life on the road.

The Darcys spent roughly seven months on the road in 2012. Marskell recalls suffering a "legitimate meltdown" in Amsterdam, worried that the band wasn't making enough progress on "Warring" and that their live shows were becoming lacklustre.

"They just locked me in a room," he remembered. "Maybe I was just (messed) on drugs ... but I had been on a tour for three and a half months, I couldn't make a phone call, my Internet didn't work and I just had my prima donna moment where I just broke down.

"I just think we've been lucky in the sense — and also unfortunate — that the spotlight hasn't been that bright, and we haven't been pushed out there that immediately so that meltdown didn't happen onstage or in the middle of an interview. But I always see internally where those moments come from and how close they are to happening publicly."

Charlottetown's Two Hours Traffic recently brought an end to their decade-plus career, largely because — according to frontman Liam Corcoran — they were struggling to make a living.

Each time they came home from tour, he and guitarist Andrew MacDonald would work retail jobs. And, given that the band rose to relative prominence just as album sales were shuffling over a cliff, he knew they'd have to spend as much time as possible on the road.

"If you wanted to be a band, I don't know a way to even come close to making a living without being on the road pretty much all the time," he said.

Sometimes, Corcoran said touring life was "soul-sucking," while other nights would be inspiring. Sleep is usually scarce — the bands interviewed for this story agreed that five hours of rest would be a luxury — while booze and occasionally other substances are plentiful. Touring Canada is, of course, a particular challenge, given its size and winter weather — Marskell notes with rueful humour that a recent whisk through Banff, Alta., heralded the discovery of a phenomenon called "ice fog."

And the longer one stays on the road, the more damaging the effect can be on an artist's personal life.

That's something Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy considered carefully when he invited his son, Devin, to open the band's upcoming tour, which kicks off Jan. 2 in Vancouver.

"We knew that he was touring with us, and his mother mentioned it to him at dinner, and he hadn't sort of fully worked it out with his partner," Cuddy said. "Devin's now at that stage where he's getting ... offers of longer tours. He's away a lot.

"I think he's really happy with what's happening to him and I think it'll be really fun. I also remember what it was like when those opportunities came my way and I recognized how destructive it was going to be to my personal life."

Sebastien Grainger chose not to tour his recent solo record, in part because he didn't know if the cost of pulling a band together would be justified.

But he was also put through the paces to such an extent during his original run with dance-rock duo Death From Above 1979 (who have reunited to work on a second record), that the lustre of the touring life has long faded.

"We had to do it," he said of punishingly rigorous tour schedules. "That's how bands get in front of people. And that's why bands break up. And that's why people become alcoholics. And all that stuff happened to me. We already did that. Luckily, I don't have to do that anymore.

"With Death From Above, we can play a certain amount of shows and maintain the excitement and we don't have to play every (crappy) bar anymore. We already did that 10 years ago and we did it for a long time.

"Every time I do a new record, I'm faced with: Am I going to shlep this record?" he added. "I'm 34. I'm not 24 anymore."

For a different take, observe jagged pop-punk masters Pup, who toured extensively before and after dropping their splendid debut earlier this year. Asked about touring, frontman Stefan Babcock brims with as much enthusiasm as one of his bubblepunk compositions: "Being on the road is pretty much like the most fun thing that any of us has ever done."

"I'm not looking forward to coming home and returning to my (crappy) life," he says.

A day earlier, his band had completed a nine-hour drive in B.C. between Nelson and Kamloops — a trek "between two tiny markets; that takes a toll, I think." Still, he says that he derives as much satisfaction from the smaller gigs in those towns as bigger shows in their native Toronto.

"The most important thing is just being happy with your bandmates, loving them, being best friends," Babcock said. "I've played in bands before where I didn't like the other people and I hated playing and I burned out so quickly."

It's possible that Babcock's perspective will change as Pup grows and tours the same cities again and again.

But almost all the bands here who lament the increased touring demands of the modern music industry are still acceding to them. If they want to play music for a living, they don't have much of a choice.

"Always it straddles that line between being enjoyable and impossible and kind of satisfies that weird compulsion that you need to be out there performing and playing," Marskell said. "There's always those moments where you're sliding across the highway on Rogers Pass and you hit a barrier, and you look down, the van has stopped, and you realized you could just plummet to your death. And there's no one around, so no one would even know you did that — someone would find you like six years later with your van down at the bottom of the mountain.

"And there's times when you go through emotional or physical illness and you go through these waves where you couldn't be doing this any harder and the return or the response isn't that great," he adds.

"The physical catastrophes (are) always looming and you'd have to be an idiot not to weigh those factors into going on tour. ... I think this is the reality to making a band work. And it is something that's very enjoyable. But there are those moments where you just look around like: 'What the (hell) am I thinking right now?'"

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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