Dark Entries with Mike Hill: Dark Entry One

I was recently talking to a friend who had returned from being on tour; his band was supporting an established, popular band that has an extensive back catalog and has been an influence on a whole sub genre of bands. It was a good tour; they had the opportunity to play for a lot of people every night and the whole operation ran smoothly. One of the things that my friend took away from the experience was how cool and easy to deal with the band was. There were no ego trips; they were stoked to be on the road and were genuinely appreciative of their fans.

I shared a story from a few years ago that illustrated the other side of the coin. Tombs was out on tour supporting “Winter Hours” and we were on our way down to Austin, TX to play South By Southwest. I learned that during that time frame, bands that normally wouldn’t be playing together often found themselves on the road, sharing the same stage. It’s something that booking agents do to deal with the fact that so many bands are converging on Austin during that one or two weeks and the usual routes are now jammed with twice as many bands all looking for shows. We found ourselves on the road with this band that had enjoyed a certain level of success during the 90’s but had either broken up or had gone through a long period of inactivity. I wasn’t familiar with them, so I had no expectations. It was only for a few days, basically just to get down to South by Southwest where we joined up with Wolves in the Throne Room and Pelican for a West Coast run.

The first date was in the Midwest somewhere. It was one of those college towns: the main drag had pizza places, a Starbucks, a head shop; there were some dudes playing hacky-sack outside of this record store that had dancing bear stickers on the front door. I had been there before, a land-locked, brown colored village with a median age of 25. We rolled up to the venue and parked the van out back. The first thing I noticed was the roadcases; there were roadcases for everything, all with the band’s five-letter name stenciled on it. Soundcheck was happening as we loaded in; basically two guys in shorts randomly hitting drums, playing some chords on the guitar.

Aside from their tour manager trying to take our food money from us, the guys in the band didn’t even make eye contact with us. Their roadies did their sound check while those guys posted up with their computers, checking their email, shopping on Ebay, whatever. I wasn’t used to this kind of thing; most of my touring experience had been with bands that we had been friends with; at the very least, we were aware of each other and were able to maintain at least a neutral, working environment. Even on larger tours, with more established bands, there was at least an acknowledgement. This was like going to your job and ignoring everyone in the office, it created this uncomfortable awkward vibe.

Each day was pretty much the same; they would sound check until door time, not say anything to us. On one of the nights that I checked out their set, the singer gave us a shout-out from the stage and later, waked right past me without even a glance. When Andrew, our drummer, told their drummer that he played well, he replied, “thanks for coming out.”

The last day with these guys was a show in San Antonio; Tricky, the guy from Massive Attack was the headliner. It was a weird pairing of bands, but keep in mind this was all part of the South by Southwest “Anything Goes” trip of shows. We drove up to the venue and saw this massive bus with a trailer parked outside. Tricky’s band was sound checking. It was massive; huge low end, back-up singers, insane light show, it was an impressive, totally professional production. I have a few Massive Attack records, but I wasn’t really familiar with Tricky’s solo work. It was like an elephant, high on MDMA walking through a field of purple flowers. It was an interesting yin to our yang I suppose.

We pulled the van around back to the load-in door. Tricky was out back, shirtless, shadowboxing and drinking what looked like some kind of blended vegetable juice. He waved to us and said “hello.” He offered us drinks and said that we could eat whatever food was set out in the backstage. That sounded totally cool to us.Later that night, Tricky was hanging out, talking to everyone. He invited us onto the bus for drinks but we had a stiff drive ahead of us so we opted to hit Denny’s and get on the road.

I guess the point of this is that Tricky is a legit “rock star” yet he was totally cool; his crew was professional and, for the most part, easy to deal with. The other guys had, apparently, been marginally successful and were trying to rekindle their careers, yet they had a really bad attitude and were front and center with “rock star” trip.

I was fascinated by this phenomena and the only explanation I can come up with is that confidence is the key to keeping the ego in check. Tricky and his crew were confident, they had achieved a lot of success and felt secure, therefore, it wasn’t such a reach to be human to the unknown support band. On the other hand, the only thing the other guys had was their egos. They made up with ego for what they lacked in confidence and achievements. It made me wonder why they even bothered to continue as a band if being on the road was such a drag for them. None of them even looked like they even enjoyed being around each other, let alone anyone else.

Over the years, I found myself thinking about that experience from time to time. The idea of ego and keeping that aspect of consciousness in check became an objective for me. It would be easy for whatever meager successes the band has experienced to influence me; it doesn’t take much for that to kick in. I would catch myself feeling envy for other bands that had achieved more or had somehow gotten breaks that I thought we should have gotten. It’s an ugly feeling. At times, I would obsess about getting submitted for tours and take it really hard when we were passed over. At those periods, I would feel the doubts creeping in; I would wonder what I could do to improve the situation. Should we do something different with the music for more people to like us?

For the most part, these feelings remained inside, bouncing around in the back of my brain. I found myself thinking about “the business” end of things too much, about “PR” and “marketing”. I remember going to see Gates of Slumber play in New York City one night. There was a large percentage of “industry” people there; the show had apparently been a showcase for a PR company that was working with Gates at the time. I remember when their set started, most of the industry people hung back with free drinks and the kids that were there for the shows were up front, getting into the band.

It was as if I had seen some kind of secret information. I began to realize that though it’s important to make smart decisions, the real core of making music is the creative process. As a musician, the focus should be on making music and not obsessing about whether or not the right people are into your band or if you’re getting on the right tours. None of those concerns should enter your thoughts; the primary concern is making music that you love, being in balance with your band mates and getting your spirit nourished by the experience.

After all this time, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s best, at least for me, to reach the point where none of it makes any difference. The good, the bad, the positive and the negative enter your consciousness and just as easily pass through. Playing music is not a sport, it’s art; it’s easy to measure yourself against the success of your peers, but ultimately, none of those influences have anything to do with the creation of your music.

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