I've interviewed musicians since I was a teenager, and in that time, I've learned two main lessons. The first lesson is that playing in a band is the greatest job in the world. For months at a time you and your friends get to travel from place to place sharing your art and ideas with audiences who are excited to see you play. The second lesson is that playing in a band is the worst job in the world. For months at a time you're away from your family and loved ones, performing songs you poured your heart into for minuscule crowds that are only there for the beer.
There are a lot of highs and lows for touring musicians. Anyone who has spent time on the road can tell you that one of the biggest concerns is figuring out where they're going to spend the night post concert. Recently I sat down with a handful of bands and asked about the worst place they've ever slept. The results are below.
Stefan Babcock (PUP)
The first time we toured the States, we had absolutely no money and didn't really know anybody who could put us up. We used to put out a sign at our merch table that just said "Let Us Crash On Your Floor. " For the most part we had wonderful experiences. But our first time in Portland was a fucking disaster.
Some dude took us back to his place, and the first thing I noticed when he opened the door was the smell—rot, mold, and old cigarettes.
We walk into the first room where he says a couple of us can sleep. The room is completely bare except for this old shag carpet. It looks like the carpet was white once, but now it's piss yellow. His roommate is sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, cutting his toenails. Looking down into the shag carpet, I can see it's just filled with dirty old toenails, cigarette butts, and clumps of pube-looking hair.
Nestor (Bass) and Steve (Guitar) grimace and start blowing up their air mattress, and the guy says to them "hey if you're gonna use an air mattress, might just wanna take a look at where you put it, there might be some needles lying around. " He wasn't joking.
So then the guy leads Zack (drums) and I down to the dingy basement. It smells like piss. The walls are dirty concrete smudged and there's one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. There's a bed down there that the guy says we can sleep on. The mattress has a huge brown stain on it—I don't know if it's piss or shit or blood or puke. There's a dirty old blanket on top of it, and it's covered in cum stains.
Zack and I move the blanket off the bed, and we get into our sleeping bags, and pull them up over our heads, very careful so that not even the tiniest bit of exposed skin touches the mattress. We turn out the light, and I smell something really, really, terrible. I turn on the light and look under the bed—there's a half-eaten Subway sandwich that's green and fuzzy with mold. I gag.
We lie awake in the dark for a few hours. We can hear rats or mice or something scurrying around the basement. At a certain point, around 5AM, we just say fuck it. We pack up our shit, slip out the backdoor, and get as far away from Portland as we can.
We should've slept in the van to begin with, as we've done plenty of times, but somehow, it felt rude—this guy invited us to his house, and it felt weird to check his place out and then leave. So we decided to sleep in this disgusting crack house rather than offend the guy. How Canadian is that?
Rob Moir (singer/songwriter)
This summer I decided to do a bicycle tour across Europe. Touring on a bicycle is a hell of a lot cheaper than trying to rent a van. I also figured it would get me into great shape, and it gave me a hook when trying to get people out to shows. That first week of concerts was really amazing and equally as brutal. The shows were good, the audiences were cool, but my legs were wholly unprepared for the amount of work it would take bicycling between cities. My girlfriend had joined me on the tour. We were sore and exhausted so we decided to spoil ourselves by pre-booking a cozy hotel along our next route. Between Schaffhausen and Basel I blew out my back tire. By the time it was fixed the sky was pitch black and we were almost out of batteries on our phones. We're in the middle of Switzerland. If we get lost, we're fucked.
By the time we get to our hotel it's almost the middle of the night. The place is locked up tight. No one picks up the phone when we call. We're exhausted, we smell, and we have no place to go. We bike around for a bit looking for another hotel. There is one place in the area that seems open, but when I bang on the door the employee is totally unhelpful. I tell him our story, and plead for a room. In return he says: The hotel is fully booked, we are not in New York City with full service hotels. If I could remember the name of that place I would totally give it the shittiest fucking Yelp review.
With no other options we set up our tent in the field by the hotel parking lot. I gave my girlfriend our single air mattress. We rolled up some clothing up as pillows and tried to get some rest. I laid there with just thin fabric between me the ground. I was still covered in a day's worth of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt from changing an inner tube. As these twigs were digging into my back and bugs were flying by my head I just kept hoping that no one would tell us we had to leave. I also realized that because our original hotel was non-refundable this whole experience was costing me like 125 Euro. Bike tour. Glamorous.
Laura Jane Grace (Against Me!)
There are three places in particular that qualify for the worst place we ever slept, but I'll let you choose which tops the list. The first European tour we ever did was like two months long and it was in squats. All squats. There is this squat in Leipzig, East Germany. We played there like three times. In the upstairs they have sleeping quarters for the bands. There are these bunk beds someone made themselves and they have these mattresses that you just know are infested with scabies and other skin contagions. Every single time we slept there someone came in and pissed in the room. The first time we played there this guy came and pissed in the corner while everyone was trying to sleep. Then he came over, and one by one he tried to crawl into bed with us. We're all in our sleeping bags and when he nuzzled up we told him to fuck off.
Eventually this dude came up to our friend Jordan, who was our tour manager at the time. Jordan is defenseless in these situations. The guy just ended up sleeping on top of him. Like physically on top of him. Later in that same squat one of the touring bands came in while we were sleeping and pissed on Jordan's head. I think I actually got angrier than Jordan did. I was chasing this guy around yelling: "WHAT THE FUCK."
On that same tour we played somewhere in northern Italy and it was just this abandoned house in the middle of a field. It was cold outside, like thirty degrees [Around zero C], just freezing cold. There were maybe twenty people there. The bands play their sets, and then everyone is just like: we'll see you later, we're going home. It turns out that nobody lived at that house. Nobody. So we just slept in this abandoned house in an Italian field with no heat and no running water. We huddled into this tiny room and curled close in our sleeping bags trying not to get hypothermia.
In 2005 it was the first time we went really far east in Europe. We were going to Warsaw. One of the bands we passed on the road told us that they had just played in that place and they got robbed by Nazis while they were leaving. At gunpoint. They said to be really careful. We were sketched out going in there and when we rolled into the neighborhood in Warsaw things were just rubble. It was all this bombed out rubble all around except for this weird complex in the middle of the disaster. There was this one weird squat standing. It had the squatter's rights flag on top. There was no electricity and no running water. If you wanted to shit, you go outside and shit on a pile of rubble. The "promoter" is showing us around the squat and eventually we get up onto the roof. There are these crates of rotten eggs and broken bottles. We asked what they were for and this dude says: "You see all the rubble around here? Junkies live in that rubble. And every once in awhile the junkies try to attack the squat because we have a nice squat. So occasionally we have to battle the junkies with the broken bottles and the rotten eggs."
Ryan McKinley (Pkew Pkew Pkew)
Our concerts get a bit rowdy. If we did a good job everyone is drunk, including us. In the early days of the band we were playing a show at the Rehearsal Factory. The Rehearsal Factory is the place we practice. Which means it is in Toronto. Which means we are there literally all the time. Like, I know where the rehearsal factory is but...on that night I decided that it was a good idea to drink a whole bottle of whisky, despite the fact that drinking a whole bottle of whisky could nearly kill me. The set goes okay, I think, but everything after that gets a bit hazy.
After the show I start walking home. The whole band are big walkers, but there is also this one time a bus driver kicked me off the TTC because I was too drunk, so I don't like taking the TTC if I don't have to. Anyways, I'm basically black out. I live like an hour from the rehearsal factory, and I know the general direction home, but I reach for my phone and it's nowhere to be found. No Google maps. I'm winging it.
I don't really know what happened, but I must have been really tired, and at some point I guess it was a good idea to take a little nap on somebody's porch. Just the steps of some stranger's porch, in a neighborhood I don't recognize. I wake up a couple of hours later with this weird mark on my face, and these people – I guess they lived at the house – they're peering through the curtains. It's like six in the morning, I'm in the city I live in, and just woke up on a stranger's porch. I gave a little wave and I stumbled around until I found a cab.
Joan Smith (Little Foot Long/White Cowbell Oklahoma)
I was touring with White Cowbell Oklahoma, and we were playing a show in this German town called Chemnitz. Before the wall came down the place was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt, which is... yeah.
The gig itself was actually pretty awesome. Afterwards we were given directions to the band flat: "Go three blocks north, just past the bombed out building, and through the parking garage. There will be a door at the end."
We walked through the parking garage, choking on petrol fumes, and see a small door. Through the door was one room, about 20x20 feet, with two rows of joined foam things covered in thin stained material, thrown on wooden platforms. These are our mattresses. The window in the place is boarded up, and every inch of wall was covered in punk rock posters and dick drawings. There is, inexplicably, a shitty plastic coffee maker in the corner of the room. The coffee maker has a sign that says: Please clean after use.
The place is terrible but it's all we've got. At about 4 AM I get up to go to the bathroom. I see a shower and a sink, and after I look around some, I make the dark realization there is no toilet. There is no goddamn toilet in the bathroom.
I come out of there and with a quivering voice ask one of my bandmates where he peed. He says something about the sink. Without a funnel this is not an option. I burst into tears, and wonder what I'm doing with my life.
Franz Nicolay (The Hold Steady)
I know this isn't a typical beginning/middle/end story but one of the ways I count my own aging is by the contracting boundaries my body sets for itself: first I couldn't sleep on floors anymore, then I couldn't sleep on couches, then I couldn't sleep in shared rooms.
Which was the worst? Was it the hairy southern sound guy with cat shit all over his house? The kid who brought us to his sugar daddy's house, where we had to pretend to be still sleeping when the latter came home? Any number of unheated European squats with a toilet two floors down disconnected from any running water? The toddler beds? The muddy tiled kitchen floors? The bare air mattresses? Or simply anyone who says I can sleep on their living room couch and then stays up all night with their buds playing video games?
It all blends together in a montage of sleepless nights that flash before my eyes anytime I see someone suggest that touring musicians just need to keep it real and sleep on more floors.
Graham Isador sleeps on a twin mattress in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.