In the Van with the Band

They’d been driving almost non-stop since late the night before, heading for a gig in Lincoln, Neb.

Finally, after his six-hour shift behind the wheel, it was Sturgis Cunningham’s turn to relinquish the driver’s seat to one of his band mates, and he crawled into the back of the van to catch some well-earned shuteye. He wanted to be fresh when they pulled up at the next venue, still many miles away, ready to unload his drum set and their other equipment for that night’s gig. The long, straight roads through America’s breadbasket were easy to drive, but the monotony could wear you down.

Cunningham stretched out on one of the back benches and shut his eyes.

But he couldn’t sleep. It had started snowing out, and the roads were slick. He’d first learned to drive growing up on the back roads of New Hampshire, and one of his first jobs when he came to the Valley over a decade ago had been driving the State Street Fruit Store delivery van. He could feel how treacherous the roads had become. He sat up and offered to take the wheel again, but he was told to relax.

He lay down again, but almost instantly felt something shimmy. They had a trailer full of drums, keyboards, guitars, amplifiers and other equipment hitched behind their van, and in his bones he could feel it had lost traction. He bolted upright just in time to see the trailer whip around and jackknife with the van. As he opened his mouth to alert the driver, the trailer’s tires hit the rumble strip. Something snapped and something gave.

The trailer unhitched. The huge white container tilted to one side, one set of wheels spinning freely in the air, the other set pushing the trailer across the double yellow line and into oncoming traffic.

Before it went far, though, the trailer tipped onto its side and skidded across the pavement. The walls broke open like a pi?ata. The band’s carefully packed gear went spinning and tumbling across the icy asphalt.

The driver was able to pull over to the side of the road. The musicians leaped from their seats, trying to salvage what they could as traffic screamed past, honking at them.

*

The accident happened in the winter of 2008. Being married to Sturgis’ sister, I got the email with the harrowing news and photos from the scene.

No one got hurt retrieving their busted-up cases and instruments from the road. That night’s show was cancelled, but Cunningham and the band managed to go on the next night, largely with borrowed equipment. Still, the accident rattled all the players. At least one band member called it quits and took a train home early.

Cunningham reached the end of that tour and agreed to do another. This year he traveled with the same act he’d survived the Nebraska experience with 18 months earlier: Nerdcore Hip Hop artist MC Frontalot. It was Cunningham’s third continent-spanning tour with Frontalot, and his seventh tour in all—not including many mini-tours or one-night-only performances he’s played around the nation.

Coming off the six-week tour earlier this summer, Cunningham sat down for an interview about the job of touring. We discussed what happened between the music on tours in general—what it was like to live out of a van professionally, working with colleagues whose foot odor and sleeping habits he got to know intimately, and doing business at high speed thousands of miles from home.

*

I already knew something about what it was like. Eight summers ago, in a time when I was less well employed, I hitched a ride with Cunningham on one of his first tours with his now-defunct band, the Patio Kings. It served a test run for their future cross-country efforts. Their route took them to Cincinnati, up to Chicago, and then back home to the Valley again, playing dates along the way. They spent a couple nights as part of the lineup for an outdoor weekend festival known as Camp Buzz in parkland outside Cincinnati.

Not a musician myself, I brought my camera to disguise that I was a mere fob (friend of band). All I really wanted was to be part of the road trip and to share in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Having to do none of the work, I had a ball, but for all the band’s effort, they barely broke even. They went for publicity and to tone their touring muscles, but playing was the least fun—it required more courage and endurance than joy and creativity.

At Camp Buzz, for instance, they were the first act to play on Saturday at noon. Under a searing sun, on a humongous stage, they played in the middle of a vast, scorched field that was completely empty except for a sound technician hidden in a tent far away. Everyone else was off camping in the woods, still working off the buzz from Friday night.

In Cincinnati, they played for a lone guy who nursed a beer bottle for the entire set. At another venue, there had been a shooting in the street near by not long before the Patio Kings were set to play. The place in Chicago was packed, but mostly with their college buddies.

Most of the time was spent on the road, eating cheap food and sleeping on strangers’ floors. There was plenty of lounging around, shooting the shit and tipping back the bottle, but it was far from living in the lap of luxury. The band members were glad to return to their own beds and paying jobs back home.

*

Now that playing drums has become a full-time occupation for Cunningham, he can’t afford to go on tour to perform to empty rooms. He needs to get paid.

As a drummer-for-hire based in Holyoke, Cunningham needs to keep himself constantly available when he’s not touring. He’s forever networking, alert for gig possibilities, ready to fill in at a moment’s notice, and able to pick up a band’s entire set list on the fly. One night he might be playing the blues in Wendell at the Deja Brew; another he could be playing jazz at the new Arts Block Cafe in Greenfield.

Like Abe Lincoln, he’s got an even-spoken, reassuring confidence. Also like the former president, he is tall, lanky and angular, apparently designed to be a drummer. Whatever group of musicians he plays with, he plays the diplomat: he doesn’t just blend or adapt his style, but incorporates it into what he’s playing and gently transforms the music. He can do as he’s told, but he has more to offer as a collaborator.

Despite the wealth of musicians he can work with in the Valley, at some point each year, the road calls Cunningham. Touring gets him off the treadmill of having to keep his calendar booked and offers him a chance to find new collaborators.

A few summers back, Cunningham went on tour with local singer-songwriter Martin Sexton. He got to travel the country in style, watching the landscape fly by through tinted glass on a deluxe touring bus. Though he delighted in the comfort and privacy the bus offered and found it easy to get used to stagehands unpacking his equipment for him, in some ways Cunningham preferred touring in a van. Though often arduous, the logistics and teamwork that go into planning and executing a tour appeal to him, and he’s good at them. The streamlined accuracy of his playing he also brings to such seemingly mundane tasks as packing the van.

“We were driving in a Ford E3-50. Not the full-extended van, but the second biggest,” Cunningham said, noting that this year they decided to go without the trailer hitch. This meant they had to fit both their equipment and themselves into the space of a standard white van. “It was a nine-passenger, I think. Two captain’s chairs up front and two benches. We had everybody’s day bag, everybody’s luggage, everybody’s shoes, extra jackets, miscellaneous crap, food, everybody—there were four of us initially—and then, behind the last bench, we had all the equipment Tetrised to the max,” he said, referring to a 1980s video game where players earned points based on how tightly they packed digital boxes. “There was absolutely no usable space in the rear third of the van that didn’t have someone’s equipment filling it.”

Packing the van is an art, and the first thing I learned traveling with the Patio Kings was to stay out of the way when it came time to start hauling equipment into or out of the van.

“I have to say, this year was one of the best packs I’d ever seen,” Cunningham said. “We did it systematically. These guys are all nerds. Me and another guy were coming from a touring experience perspective, and the others were trying to figure out how it worked on paper, trying to guess-timate the proper procedure. We’re all a bunch of know-it-alls, so there’s was a lot of debate. But we got it all in on the first try and spent the next few days perfecting it.”

*

After a week of rehearsal at Cunningham’s studio in Holyoke, the band took to the road.

Nerdcore Hip Hop is music from the right side of the tracks. Instead of gangsters singing about life in the ‘hood and hard times, MC Frontalot sings a vulgar history of video games he’s played. Another song is about how annoying people can be when they correct your grammar. Ever since their first tour had been documented by a video crew and made into a film, Nerdcore Rising (available on Netflix’s instant watch), Frontalot’s nerd cred on college campuses and other places where geeks assemble has grown, and so have the audiences who come out to see him. The warmth and good humor of the fans was another reason Cunningham enjoyed playing with MC Frontalot, and true to form, the turnout was strong.

Things went smoothly at first.

“We started out in New Jersey,” Cunningham said, “and headed down the coast. Then we headed across the south, ending up in Austin.” They brought the first leg of the tour to a close in Denver less than a month after they began, and from there they hightailed it to Berkeley, where they’d scheduled a short break.

While the first leg of the tour generally followed a logical and direct path and there was little backtracking, early on they discovered that some of the dates their agent had booked had fallen through. It soon became apparent that their well-packed itinerary was unraveling, and they found themselves with awkward holes ahead in their calendar.

A decade ago, such a dire problem might have resulted in a series of hot, frantic afternoons huddled in a remote telephone booth pumping quarters into the box, but this time it was negotiated from the comfort of the van via the band’s mobile wi-fi connection.

“We really credit our bass player with patching things up when they fell through,” Cunningham said, explaining that via email and online booking web sites he was often able to find replacement venues, resulting in few gigless nights.

“On the first leg of the journey, Frontalot was able to tether his G1 Google phone, providing a small network off his cell phone. It had access to the 3G network, and when it was available, we could share access,” Cunningham said. “It was a good system, but it was limited, and sometimes it would slow down in forests and on mountains.”

“When we got to Berkley, though, Nick [a sound technician] joined us,” he said. “He had two laptops, a portable Internet card and an external antenna he suction-cupped to the window of the van. He was running a much more efficient, high-speed network. At any one point, at least three of us were using the Internet: all hunched over, headphones on, lit up by the glow of our laptops.”

With the connection, his friends in the Pioneer Valley got firsthand reports from when they drove through a blinding sandstorm while traveling along the Great Salt Lake in the Bonneville Salt Flats, and when they had to figure out how to attach chains to the tires when crossing the Donner Pass in California in late April.

*

A fter the band’s break in San Francisco, the tour’s itinerary became geographically erratic. While they were playing regularly, each venue was an Odyssey-length journey from the last.

Just as soon as they finished a gig in the city by the bay, they headed 300 miles south to the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Though the staff were friendly and helpful, Cunningham was surprised to find that the famed venue was “a complete and utter shithole.” As soon as they bade adieu to their Hollywood audience, they headed back north, traveling over 1,000 miles. They had a day and a half to get themselves to w00tstock, a Seattle geek festival they were invited to at the last minute.

The festival is an annual event that bills itself as “3 Hours of Geeks and Music,” and this year it featured such nerd celebrities as Wil Wheaton (of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Adam Savage from MythBusters. While the event was a haul for Cunningham and the band, they were surprised and delighted with the tremendous 1909 Moore Theater and the reception they got.

The appearance was “completely worth the effort and turned out to be the highlight of the tour for me,” Cunningham said. The show was a far cry from his days at Camp Buzz, playing with the Patio Kings to an empty field. As special guests, they were given a huge dressing room and the opportunity to hang with the other celebrities. “We got to do a gig on a big fat stage in front of a huge crowd [over 1,000 people],” he said. “It put us in front of a lot of people who wouldn’t normally have checked out our show, since we weren’t on the bill.”

After Seattle, they turned around and drove back down the coast to Portland. The next gig was in Rock Island, Ill., nearly two thousand miles away. This leg was done in two 14-hour shifts.

*

With the exception of a handful of nights in hotels, the band would often crash at the homes of fans who had offered them room and board, taking the place over “like a virus,” Cunningham said. “There were plenty of floors, but also a good assortment of beds and couches,” he added.

On occasion, too, they were able to stay with friends who had moved from the Valley, which Cunningham says is one of his favorite things about touring. In Oregon, he visited with his former Patio Kings band mates, and he saw an old work chum from Northampton’s State Street Fruit Store who was pursuing a degree in Berkeley. While staying in Chicago, he stayed with a friend and colleague, drummer David Moss, whom Cunningham considers a mentor.

For the longest treks where stopping wasn’t feasible—from Oregon to Illinois, for example—the members would “rotate sleeping shifts,” Cunningham said. “At times it would get really difficult,” he added. “You’re exhausted, but you can’t sleep. Because of the stuff wedged between the seats, you couldn’t really sit on the back bench. We took some plyboard, taped foam to it, and made the bench something you could stretch out on. Everyone stored their camp pads and pillows there, and it became sort of a ‘snuggle nook’ where you could chill out and relax.

“It was as comfortable as could be, but you’re not in a seatbelt at that point,” Cunningham explained. “If something were to happen…. You just had to let go. The sleeping thing could be a bummer on long rides. It felt like we were all slowly dying back there.”

The long days on the road and the erratic sleeping arrangements all took a toll on the band members’ health and sleeping habits, but Cunningham said it didn’t seem to affect their playing.

“It was an awesome band to be a part of; they’re all really professional players,” Cunningham said. “And as for me, well, playing drums is my favorite thing to do. So getting to do it night after night to a big, warm and responsive crowd was a joy. When you get back home, it’s making the music that you remember.”

Cunningham will continue touring with MC Frontalot this fall. Their kickoff performance will be at the Iron Horse Sept. 25.

Author: Mark Roessler

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