Interview: Q&A with a tour veteran (6 questions with Dan McKay)
Tour Managers and Sound Engineers are the unsung heroes of live music. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. It is always a good reminder, though.
The longer I’ve been privileged to run this site, the more I’ve been privileged to befriend movers and shakers in the music industry. And with that, you sometimes get some introductions that lead to some wild stories and unexpected sources of wisdom.
Enter Dan McKay, a mover and shaker who we came into contact with by way of Chris Hudson, a long time friend of Tuned Up and Los Angeles resident by way of our hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Dan is a man who wears many hats, who is one of those unsung heroes I alluded to above. Chances are, he has been the guy to make the tour tick for one of your favorite bands in the alt-genre—whether it be AWOLNATION, The Distillers, Five Finger Death Punch, Metric or a myriad of others.
His years of wisdom and stories stem from being inspired as a teenager to dig into the more “behind the scenes” part of being a musician, and that would lead him to tour manage for the first time at the age of 23. The foundation for this had been laid in his musicianship developed growing up as well as sound engineering punk gigs in a dive of his hometown of Montreal, Quebec Canada. Being a tour manager wasn’t something he trained for; it was something that came to him on a run of gigs as sound engineer where the existing tour manager had to drop off the engagement, and Dan was thrust into a dual role that he has excelled in since.
We sent him a few questions we thought you might enjoy reading the answers to. Enjoy.
Tuned Up: What was the most unexpected part of touring to get used to?
Dan McKay: Finding a good toilet.
Is there any difference in the basic grind of tour from scene to scene, in your experience?
I’d say it depends on the act I am touring with, essentially its not really different, but different bands have different needs. Some go to bed early, some never go to bed. It also depends if I am working as solely a Tour Manager or combining both Tour Manager and FOH Engineer. If we are doing arena tours, its almost as if I have less of a to do list but whatever I am doing is much more focused, whereas if I am TM/FOH on a club tour, I am doing it all, pulled in every direction. Another example, unfortunately since 2015, security is a much bigger deal then it was before. It kind of forced a new standard onto the touring industry that was already much needed before the events in Paris, and adapting every tour to these standards is very different on every tour I do. Different bands have different needs, and I have to know how to adapt and navigate the needs of each band’s keeping a high level of security. Touring with Eagles of Death Metal has taught me a lot about this. There is a lot of consideration that needs to be put into security, and luckily I have had a lot of help and guidance from security professionals and government agencies on that front. The key to all of this is being prepared really and making sure all your bases are covered before you get to the next show. Cause in the end, there will always be a problem to solve, a curve ball, a bus break down, a kink in the schedule, a snow storm etc.
What was a more memorable environment you’ve had to manage? Why?
There are so many. Getting 22 Nigerians American Visas in less than 24 hours, getting ambushed by Nazi Skinheads in northern Italy, The I-80 shut downs in Wyoming (3 Times!!!)
Let’s go with the “Chernobyl Chicken” story:
We had a long overnight train from Moscow to Kiev to take and our whole touring party, along with our handler, had planned on getting dinner on the train. We had spent the day visiting the Red Square etc. When we get on the train, everyone is ready to get a Stroganoff and Borscht, maybe a swig of vodka to then go to bed in our cabins, bellies full for the 12-hour train ride to Kiev. Problem was, there was no restaurant car on this train as promised by our hander. (Note that our handler was not Russian or Ukrainian and did not speak the language; he was from Ontario, Canada.) We are all “Hangry.” Our handler then gets on the phone with the Russians, the Ukrainians and comes to me and tells me there will be a stop in 2 hours where there will be home-cooked meals. I am reluctant to trust this guy. At 3 AM, 5 hours into the trip (NOT 2 hours) the train stops, I get off the train onto a platform and that’s all it is, a empty platform. No buildings, nothing. Just a platform with a lot of fog, in the middle of a forest somewhere in Russia. I unleash a fury of anger onto our handler who promised us food. And out of the corner of my eye, I see something straight out of a David Lynch movie, shapes, object in the distance, shadows wobbling slowly coming towards us in the fog, not human or anything recognizable, it was the weirdest thing ever, I had no idea what this was. As these shapes came into the light, there they were, a dozen or so old babushka ladies covered in stuffed toys and gifts to sell. It was unreal. One lady was very drunk and had a necklace of whole dried fish dangling from her neck, she was holding a piping hot cauldron, I looked into it and there was a full roasted chicken in there. I offered her money and all the other babushka’s started taking out newspaper wrapped meals with chicken, potatoes and pickled cucumber, I bought all they had at 150 rubles a pop. Cleaned them out. The band took pictures with them in the cold, and we all jump back onto the train to finally devour these meals. As everyone is happy, eating these delicious home-cooked meals, our handler comes up to me and says “See, it worked, and you know what’s crazy, we are about 60 kilometers from Chernobyl.” I wanted to kill him. I’ll never forget that night. And guess what, I had that experience a second time going over there. Unreal.
What advice would you give bands about to embark on their first multi-day run?
Preparation in advance is important. Book your hotels in advance, route your tour, practice your set, don’t be late, and soak it in. It’s crazy, and it’s fun.
What advice would you give aspiring FOH and TMs about to hit the road for the first time?
Touring is hard, so you have to make it fun. But be careful at how much fun your gonna have; you are there to work first and foremost. It’s stressful, the days are long, and there won’t be a lot of sleep, it’s going to be tempting take the edge off after a long day, but remember there is another show tomorrow, and partying will catch up to you quick. Also it’s inevitable to become “tight” with the act you are touring with. If everything goes well, you might become real good friends, but you need to remember that when you are on the road you are working for them, and that you are not there to “hang out with friends.” You are not in the band, you are there to work. It’s important to keep that separation and stay professional. Stay cool, don’t be a stress case, and it’s not all about you. Actually, it’s not even a little about you: it’s about the band and the fans. Bad vibes get sent home quick.
What music excited you this year?
The Desert Sessions Vols. 11 & 12. “Chic Tweets” on repeat. And Boots Electric performs “Long Slow Goodbye.”