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Cameron Crowe’s ‘Roadies’ highlights music’s unseen heroes

Jul 26, 2016

Just how real is Cameron Crowe's new show? We asked a few real life roadies to find out.

Last month, a freshly spun music series joined the airwaves, but instead of a rags to riches story (Empire) or a peek into the pandemonium of the ‘70s (Vinyl), this TV spotlight beamed on part of the roving road crew.

Written, directed and executive produced by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Pearl Jam 20), Roadies follows the backstage frustrations, antics, and camaraderie that’s experienced by those in charge of making live music happen. The series focuses on the professionals that are the skeleton of touring productions: the sound tech, lighting director, set designer, production manager and tour manager—a.k.a. the “roadies.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WnLeNWBoMU

The show has been eight years in the making, and features J.J. Abrams and Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life) serving as executive producers, with Pearl Jam manager and longtime Crowe collaborator, Kelly Curtis, as a producer and music supervisor.

The cast includes Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots and Machine Gun Kelly, all of whom play pivotal characters and staff to the fictional Staton-House Band.

[pullquote]Tupac Shakur got his start as a roadie with Digital Underground, Henry Rollins was a roadie for The Teen Idles, and before he was the drummer in My Chemical Romance, Bob Bryar worked as a touring sound tech.[/pullquote]

While attending the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, Crowe said: “Over time I was struck by the fact that Almost Famous spoke loudly to people. It was a very personal story for me and I didn’t expect it to touch people that way. I wanted to revisit the world of writing about music, but in a different and contemporary way…[Telling] authentic stories about people behind the curtain presenting music to people every day.”

Each week viewers follow the band and its crew as they travel from city to city, with added cameos of talent like Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Lindsey Buckingham and Eddie Vedder. Storylines are derived from real-life experiences; from Freddie Mercury to Elvis Costelloroadies have seen it all.

But how much of Roadies is real? Is it a glamourized production that speaks more to the average viewer than the roadies it portrays?

We decided to get some insight and ask professional roadies what their everyday lives are like: how they stay afloat on tour, and whether Roadies is similar to the real deal.

Below, we talked to Mike St-Jean (Steve Vai, Devin Townsend), Mike Herkimer (Blue Rodeo, Billy Talent), Vanessa Vai (Ice Age on Ice) and a man simply known as DAD (Cypress Hill, Simple Plan). See the slides above for more detail about their collective experiences; from lighting and sound design to carpentry, these roadies have seen and done it all.

AUX: Some bands pay respect to their road crew within album liner notes; Tenacious D even penned a track called “Roadie.”

There are depictions of what a roadie looks and acts like in the video above. Is it really one big party? Here’s what you should know.

Mike Herkimer: I think on some levels your intentions need to be pure in this business. If you’re in it for the wrong reasons (partying, connections, travel, etc.,) you will be let down in a hurry!

DAD: You gotta stay grounded and away from the party if you wanna succeed. It’s easy to get caught up in that. Long days and lots of dead time, but if you want to be successful in this industry you gotta stay haze free and grind it out.

Mike St-Jean: I’ve had some moments in my earlier tours where I went off a bit on a birthday or night before a day off (‘Roadie Friday’), but these days I’m a combination of relaxing and working on other projects in my spare time, which I think probably describes a lot of folks on the road. When there’s a show the next day, it’s like a school night and as my good friend Armando puts it: Lots of people won’t drink on school nights. Then again, some people drink when they wake up in the morning,  same as office life.

Vanessa Vai: The pressure to be fast and efficient is very much there. Once the work is done, everyone parties or does whatever they want, but until the last case is off the truck or the last piece is in the air, it’s not a relaxed or party environment whatsoever.

In an interview with EW, Cameron Crowe summed up his version of a roadie’s life as: “First in, last out. They’re the first to get there and the last to leave, and they’re the vagabonds with a very special emotional soundtrack that’s always playing, and I love that.”

But really, is it that emotional?

MSJ: Tour life is interesting. You travel with, see every day, and rely heavily on, a small group of people. Navigating interpersonal dynamics is one of the most significant parts of the job. Being able to do your job is the bare necessity.  You drop everyday into a new venue in a new city, town, or country, meeting relative strangers and build an experience that’s meant to be some people’s reason for living.

DAD: You have to be mentally strong to pull through. 22 hours of prep work: logistics, transportation, accommodations, dealing with production managers, all for a 50-60 minute show. It gets tough at times.

MSJ: This may sound melodramatic, but we’ve all been there. That concert, your favourite artist, they sang your song, for a moment you transcended the day-to-day, and for some people they’ll remember that moment for the rest of their lives. For the touring crew, it’s a daily challenge to make sure everything works out so those moments can happen.

VV: In a way it reminds me of being an athlete, it’s a very physical job and you’re part of a team, and that team is the most important thing.

MH: We all take extreme pride in doing what we do, some have described it as being a navy seal compared to a soldier. You must be highly precise, calculated and educated.

Life as a roadie is an ongoing learning lesson

MSJ: Though I wasn’t out in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even ‘90s, I’m sure a lot has changed. It is also very different depending on what level of touring you’re at—small bars where the band is their own crew or big theatres and stadiums where the crew are more technicians rather than labour. There’s a wide spectrum there.

MH: It is of the most importance you get along with those you work with, don’t get me wrong there are some super aggressive American crews I have worked with that are fuelled on tension, and some Canadians as well. But, I find those people to be transient in this business, the staples are the people who know how to bring a team together to do an otherwise impossible job. That’s the new school way, the old school way was a lot more posturing, aggressive and about flying solo. As stages get bigger and more complex, so do the employees hired to get the job done.

What are the fundamentals of the job?

VV: Half the job itself rests on people skills. You have your production manager whose job is to make sure everything goes smoothly, you know, keeps people happy and all. That takes a certain type of person.

MH: To operate at a high level in this business, the first assumption someone needs to make before hiring you is that you are a ‘cool guy’ as they say. What that means is: are you reasonable, pragmatic and professional when required to be?

MSJ: You find all the personalities on the road that you do in the office. There’s the party animals always looking to release and have fun, and of course, are the jokesters who keep things lively. There are the insular lone-wolves. There are negative attitudes and jubilantly positive socialites.

Must you like the band you are investing in?

VV: When I work for a band or an artist I want to love them. For example, Francesco Yates, he’s only 20 and so talented, and simply just a genuine human, you know? I see him headlining big stadiums in five years.

MH: I feel the importance of liking the music is relative to the job you’re doing. As an LD it really helps as you are going to listen to the songs 1000 times in order to program and get your cues down. Most important is a healthy respect for the music. I will say that if you don’t respect what the artist is doing at all it’s going to make your job way harder. Being a pro and having a healthy respect are far more important than how much you like the music. Liking the music is a major bonus.

MSJ: I have been very fortunate to only work with bands I am really into, and respect, musically. I’m sure people will take jobs for the money, or to fill in empty schedule etc., but at the end of the day, most people are in this industry for the music, so there’s a good chance they’re excited about who they’re working with.

What do you think of Cameron Crowe’s Roadies?

MSJ: I haven’t seen it yet but it seems interesting, sure! Cameron Crowe, J.J. Abrams—looks like a highly dramatized version of the real thing. Everybody probably speaks more eloquently though. I would bet a lot of it is based on true tales.

VV: There are pieces about it that seem very realistic, but like some of my colleagues have said—there’s no way in hell any tech would be skateboarding through the venue, especially with headphones on. That’s just an accident waiting to happen. But, how she loses her bunk—that feels pretty accurate.  I do find all the downtime they have to be a bit unrealistic though, you’re not just always chilling in the stadium you know? However, I really like how the audio technician is a woman, which is very rare to see. I know about 100 audio techs and probably seven of them are females.

DAD: Haven’t seen it but I definitely want to check it out. When I get some downtime I’d like to watch.

MH: I am somewhat surprised with the legitimacy of the set and their daily work flow. It is very accurate, even some of the vernacular. The dramatization of it all is inaccurate, and the amount of downtime they have. If the show were accurate they would be working 95% of the time and using technical terms no one would understand. So I’d say it is about as accurate as it can be if they wish to have a successful TV show. Even though it does make me cringe to watch the sappy drama sometimes. After three episodes I’m giving it a 6.5 out of 10.

What are the unwritten rules and honest truths of being a roadie?

VV: No #2’s on the tour bus. 

MH: If there is enough time for you in a day to be a tourist, get completely f-d up and all chummy with the band, chances are you are highly replaceable and will not be a permanent fixture in that role for the band, a.k.a. fired.

VV: On my current tour I’m sharing a bus with 11 men and I’m the only woman. That’s the reality of my job. I’ve been in crews of 200 people and I’m the only woman, you have to deal with it and most often people are pretty cool. Yet, there are men that, as soon as they find out a woman is the audio engineer, they’ll start belittling, giving attitude; sexism is real in this industry but that’s just why I come in strong. I know my tasks, how to execute them and what to do if something goes wrong. It’s crazy though because every time I do a show I have to earn the respect whereas a man is just given that respect unless he proves otherwise.

MSJ: I can’t think of anyone who went from zero touring or performing experience to working on a large tour, off the top of my head. I’m confident that everyone who is in those positions has worked very hard to be there. Even if you did get handed a job, there aren’t many cushy positions on the road. The work-life balance is generally a failing struggle. Lots of folks will do well to exercise, eat right, imbibe less, and sleep as much as they can, but there’s no replacing face time with family and friends.

DAD: I found tour managing and being a production assistant a great fit, it’s easier to get paid being a camp counselor, a.k.a. DAD, to a bunch of musicians.

VV: This industry is hard and fast; there’s no room for mediocrity.

Roadies airs Sundays at 10PM on Showtime. The official 16-song soundtrack will be released on August 26.

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