Why You Do This – A Musician’s Take On Touring
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The above video is Michael Dafferner’s hour-long documentary Why You Do This. Dafferner is the vocalist of the Long Island math-metal band Car Bomb, and his film follows the band on three tours in the late aughties (2007, 2008, and 2009). Why You Do This originally came out in 2010; Dafferner posted it in its entirety to YouTube in December 2011.
Why You Do This raises an uncomfortable question for underground metal bands with both its title and its content. In 2007, Car Bomb occupied an enviable position. They had just released their debut record on Relapse Records—not a major, but as close as any band that self-applies the term ‘mathcore’ is likely to come. The album, Centralia, was a moderate critical success.
But their 2007 tour—dubbed the “Loss of Pride Tour” by the film—was a disaster. Judging by Dafferner’s cinematic account, the tour was a string of humiliating empty-bar gigs and even more humiliating outdoor shows in gazebos and parking lots. The local openers were often truly horrid. Says Dafferner: “When we arrive, there is an opening act playing his music through an iPod strapped to a statue of a dog. There is no way for me to put into words how incredibly stupid this makes me feel.”
Car Bomb’s 2008 tour was equally catastrophic. Van breakdowns and skeezy promoters abounded. For some musicians, the romance of traveling the country with a band would compensate for the tough breaks.
Not Dafferner. “Every show we play makes me feel like a bigger and bigger failure,” he says. “The reality of being in a metal band is like an overwhelming weight, crushing my hopes and dreams.”
Brutal, as we like to say. And he’s not alone—many upstart bands have equally bad experiences on tour.
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So why do virtually unknown metal bands take to the road for weeks at a time? My own band [Editor’s Note: Doug is vocalist for the band Pyrrhon] is in a similar position as Car Bomb circa 2007, and I’ve been asking myself the same question lately.
Why You Do This reaches its emotional nadir after the 2008 tour when Car Bomb’s members assess their financial situation. For most of that summer, gas prices exceeded four dollars a gallon and sometimes reached five. The consequences were dire.
Their ledger broke down like this:
+$6,400 in tour earnings/sales
–$3,200 in merch manufacturing costs
–$4,000 in automotive costs (gas, repairs, etc.)
–$2,600 in van rentals
The bottom line: Car Bomb lost $4,500 dollars in 2008, or $1,125 per member. That’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped young musician to lose. Car Bomb’s members have professional day jobs; many bands aren’t so lucky.
Certainly, not all DIY tours need be so punishing. Small bands make money on the road all the time. Chris Grigg of Woe, for instance, offers this set of rules for successful DIY booking. They make good sense.
But his rules are demanding and not all inexperienced bands have the discipline, organizational acumen, or interpersonal network to apply them successfully. Even salty vets can fall prey to the harsh economic realities of the extreme metal circuit. Witness Ryan McKenney of Trap Them’s painful rant about the difficulties of maintaining the underground-level touring lifestyle.
And maybe touring isn’t as necessary as it once was. It’s becoming increasingly possible to build and maintain an international fanbase without relentless road-dogging.
Darkthrone, of course, never plays live. Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, both more recent it-bands, don’t play live either. Cobalt hasn’t toured, though they might soon. Agalloch didn’t tour until they were popular enough to do so profitably, and they typically stick to festival dates. The inverse is true of Neurosis and Pig Destroyer: both used to be road warriors, but now they’re both in the mostly-fests camp.
In spite of these facts, grueling low-budget tours remain the standard for underground metal bands.
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There’s no simple explanation for this persistent state of affairs, but tradition and emotion figure heavily into it.
Sixty years of historical pressure urges bands towards the road. What do rock bands do? They jam; they party; they go on tour. It’s a shibboleth as old as the genre itself.
The DIY tour as we understand it today is younger—perhaps 30 years old. It was developed mostly by American punk bands in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Such tours have never been glamorous enterprises; read Get In the Van, Henry Rollins’ compiled diaries from his five years in Black Flag, for some truly horrifying tales.
But these tours nonetheless retain a sort of ramen-chomping romance. You pile into a van with your best friends and hit the freeway. Together, you see the country—or at least its truck stops and dive bars—and meet new people. You live as frugally as possible and develop creative solutions to problems of scarcity. And you get to rock out in front of strangers every night.
This lifestyle satisfies the wanderlust of the young, who are often desperate to forestall the punch-clock drudgery that will eat up most of their adult lives. Many of them are willing to eat the potential financial costs, just for the sake of that experience.
Other folks have tried the workaday lifestyle, found it lacking, and have found ways to make DIY touring sustainable in its stead. Mike Hill of Tombs, for instance, does sound work for films and TV. He said the following in his interview with Justin Norton last year:
“Travel has always been something I’ve enjoyed. I like going to new places and seeing new things, and it’s something that’s important to my life. To do the same thing every day, see the same people without new stories to tell or interesting people to meet—that’s not for me.”
And then there are those who have been touring unsustainably for years, doing irreparable damage to their lives in the process, but still don’t know when to quit.
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Why You Do This offers some answers to its own question in its third act. Car Bomb toured with Gojira and The Chariot in 2009. Dafferner says in the film that this tour is the first time he’s felt like he’s playing in a professional band; there’s no talk of shame or failure here.
Dafferner also interviews some better-known metal musicians about their reasons for touring. Randy Blythe of Lamb of God says that he enjoys making thousands of people beat the shit out of each other. (This is the kind of answer that someone who doesn’t listen to metal might invent for why metal musicians tour.) Joe Duplantier of Gojira offers a more nuanced response:
“I can’t explain the reason why I’m playing this music, but I feel it in my whole body. I need to express something that I can’t explain, but it’s here in my body, and I need to get rid of it . . . Music is nothing. It’s just vibrations in the air. But at the same time, it’s so powerful—it means so much to everybody. Everybody can understand music without being able to explain it. It talks to people.”
Dafferner himself explains that he plays in a band because it offers him the opportunity to be remembered as more than just another office drone. It allows him to reach out and touch thousands of strangers, and what better way to do so than in person? Touring may leave you poorer in the pocketbook, but it can bring spiritual riches to you and your audience.
And sometimes, the central question of Why You Do This has a ready-made answer: “That is why we do this,” says a band member in the film’s opening minutes, pointing to a packed club. The crowd’s roar speaks for itself.
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Car Bomb – “Gum Under the Table”
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