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On touring as a non-musician / by Chris Lee

“Are you a musician?”

I’ve just come back from a month-long tour with two of my favorite people, Emily Reo and Noah Klein, who also happen to be musicians with real tapes and records and bandcamps. Emily plays as Emily Reo and Noah plays as Cuddle Formation.

I don’t play as anything.

Touring as a non-musician is a strange thing. While the stress of loading in, playing, and putting yourself out there is considerably diminished, there are also serious downsides, the worst of which is being ignored constantly. Despite whatever confidence you might have in your sparkling wit, interesting projects, or social ability, some people just won’t give a shit about you.

Maybe that’s okay, but it doesn’t feel great.

“What do you do?”

I don’t identify as a musician, music writer, or show-booker—not because I don’t care about those roles or haven’t occasionally tried them on, but mainly because I don’t consider them the primary markers of my reality; and besides which, still understand ‘occupations’ to be the language of pollsters and parents. But it can still sting a little to be asked whether or not I play music—because even as I generally say “no,” “not really,” or ‘not seriously,” I also think about ten years of piano lessons, five of music theory, and several sad iterations of ska-punk cover bands that I both regret and bear shamelessly as my teenaged history.

“Do you play music?”

It’s an innocent question that betrays some not-so-innocent assumptions about what it means to be a musician—because while I technically ‘play music,’ and mostly know how, I don’t do it sincerely, ambitiously, or with any intent. This question wouldn’t play out with any personal consequence except that answering it evasively or figuratively results in some people writing you off, walking away, or worse yet, pretending that you’re not literally right next to them, breathing the same dumb air.

I play this awful game a lot living in some of the smarmier pockets of Williamsburg: avoid telling people what I do, where I hang out, or who I know, in hopes of demonstrating how little social capital I offer them, and, more importantly, how few fucks I truly give about proving my relevance.

It can be a humbling thing, then, to tour with performers, and to be dismissed frequently and completely; and to be asked by a well-meaning norm if you are a ‘roadie or a groupie’; and then, subsequently, to take stock of your decisions in full—why and how your life has led you to trap yourself in a car, carry gear, and sell other people’s things for no compensation and little recognition (though sometimes you might get a drink ticket, which is actually kind of nice).

None of this was a mystery to me before deciding to go on tour, and despite my foreknowledge, I knew it would be worthwhile in my own narrow scope, which meant seeing a bunch of places with friends that I liked and for reasons that I hadn’t yet figured out. The rest would come together.

“So, what’s your band’s name?”

When I decided to go on tour, I also started thinking about an anti-tour diary, documenting all of the things that happen just outside the highly guarded and prized domain of performing—because even on a month-long tour with over thirty dates, the vast majority of your time isn’t occupied with doing anything vaguely show-related. Most of your time is spent just being together, tolerating each other, fighting a little, and feeling a lot.

All of us seemed to accept this immediately, and despite my vested interest in visiting DIY venues, and despite many, many shows with radical, talented, and considerate people, the highlights of our trip still seemed to show through in all of the spaces between music, in small towns and state parks, friends’ homes and shared meals.

“Are you playing tonight?”

A tour itinerary laid out in its barest structure can never hope to capture the full weirdness of driving across North America —from the Pacific Northwest, to the Southwest, up through the Midwest, into Canada, and back into the Northeast. And a list of dates and places certainly misses all of that time between shows, which can tend to overshadow the albeit considerable novelty of experiencing live music.

Even when you respect your musician friends, care about their success, and want to help them achieve it in any way you are capable, fifteen to twenty shows in, you may want to escape, to a place where you don’t have to shout just to be heard.

I was able to do a lot of escaping, in part because the ‘musicians’ I toured with were grounded enough to realize that, beyond playing music, listening to it, and supporting it, they are also humans with human needs and desires—desires like eating a vegetable, seeing a waterfall, and hugging a dog. We did those things, sometimes in that order.

“Where are you guys staying tonight?”

Touring as a non-performer can be difficult and uncomfortable, and you might end up in some funny places, and in some funny headspaces. You might sleep on a pile of towels that you lovingly call your rat’s nest and you might start to mime a rat pawing at soft fabrics with your hands and you might even dream of becoming a rat and having rat friends who play little rat keyboards. You might eat at Chipotle a lot and somewhat less often at Subway.

The greatest gratitude will almost always be reserved for those hosts who open their homes to you, who offer you a clean towel or a comfortable couch or laundry (!), and who kindly overlook how long you haven’t showered, how bad your feet smell, and how much stuff you’ve brought into their living space.

That so many of those friends we encountered along the way had some stake in music didn’t seem to matter, ultimately—save for the fact that they, too could relate to the difficulty of plotting a month-long tour without a dedicated show-booker or an excess of funds. More importantly, though, we were able to see their environments and communities, where they’d grown up, and how they’d developed their creative stakes, perhaps even before they’d considered music as an organizing identity.

“Where are you guys playing next?”

The funny thing about obsessing over an occupational ‘musician-ness’ is that it somehow minimizes even the experiences of musicians, who themselves come from places and backgrounds and bear complicated histories. Emily is not merely Emily Reo (FL) and Noah not just Cuddle Formation (CA), though these identities might comprise large portions of their creative force and social media presence. Emily is also a meticulous planner, an amazing photographer, and a person who thinks about death more than anyone I know. Noah is a brilliant thinker, an equally brilliant writer, and a virtually unbeatable Mario Kart player.

On long drives I’d sit behind them, cramped in the backseat beside our pile of things. Taking wide turns would topple this stuff-pile, pinning me against the car door in a comical and futile way; but most of the time we took straight, scenic roads, and I’d rest my head against a suitcase, dozing off, and waking up in new and unknown places.

In those moments my life felt small and manageable, having something to do with music, and nothing at all

This piece originally ran in Issue 52 of The Miscreant..

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