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Life on the road no holiday for hard-touring bands

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The Darcys, from left, Michael le Riche, Jason Couse, Dave Hurlow and Wes Marskell, have had more than a few harrowing moments on the road.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

The Darcys, from left, Michael le Riche, Jason Couse, Dave Hurlow and Wes Marskell, have had more than a few harrowing moments on the road.

TORONTO -- When it comes to horror stories of life on tour, the Darcys' Wes Marskell can spin a scary yarn like Wes Craven.

Consider the time he and his Toronto band were eating dinner in Guelph, Ont., before a show, when they were suddenly alerted to the fact a 16-year-old with a long hunting blade was camped out inside their van -- with all its irreplaceable gear -- and had managed to get the motor running.

"In a split second, you had to weigh: 'OK, I give up or I go back to school and become a lawyer or something, or I wrestle this kid out of my van,'" the personable Marskell related recently over the phone. "Everyone flooded out of the venue and this kid was backed in a corner. The mindset was: maybe one of us will get stabbed, but we'll continue as a band.

"That was bleak."

They did manage to de-escalate the situation. But Marskell has more -- for instance, the nightmarish road trip his band embarked upon back in early 2011. The -- admittedly insane -- plan was to drive from Windsor, Ont., to San Diego overnight. If they were to make the gig, there would be no time for sleeping, let alone stopping.

A fierce snowstorm in Indianapolis and an accident-clogged highway complicated the bold scheme. Marskell consulted his GPS, which suggested an appealing detour that seemed to sidestep the problem, but once they found the road, they were spooked: a two-lane highway flanked by farmland and a lake, with non-existent visibility.

Sitting behind the wheel, Marskell tried to navigate a curve and the van spun 90 degrees to a halt. Moments later, the vehicle -- and all of their expensive, carefully collected gear -- was fixed in the headlights of a semi-trailer truck.

"We had the time to talk internally about dying and our options," Marskell recalled. "Even though it only happened in four seconds, somebody said we're going to die. It wasn't even angry or afraid, it was a centralized commentary on what was next to happen while sliding down the road."

But the vehicle kept skidding and eventually the nose was facing in the right direction. Marskell stomped on the gas and they took off. The truck still made contact, slamming into one of the van's headlights and knocking the mirror clean off before continuing down the road without stopping. The Darcys pulled off into a McDonald's parking lot and, with help, performed quick surgery on their side mirror.

"You'd think when you get hit by a truck, you'd maybe take a night off, but this really nice kid sewed a mirror to the side of our van and we took off to San Diego," Marskell said.

Such is the reality of life for a modern-day rock band. With album sales dwindling into anemia, touring -- relentlessly and constantly -- has become even more crucial to survival for most artists.

And the rigours of the road appear to be extracting a toll. With time off becoming an increasingly scarce luxury, many fledgling young artists are staying on the road to the point of burnout and exhaustion.

While young bands fracturing early in their careers is nothing new, some recent buzzed-about acts have collapsed amid reports of bizarre behaviour. San Diego lo-fi duo Wavves, L.A. psych-rock pair Foxygen and Calgary experimental rock band Women are among the widely hyped bands that have suffered onstage meltdowns or even fist fights in recent years.

The Darcys, whose highly ambitious most recent record Warring came out earlier in the year, have toured relentlessly for years and possess an instrumental mastery somewhat rare in indie rock. Foxygen, meanwhile, was breathlessly hyped even at an embryonic stage, and Marskell mused that it might have been too much too soon, a phenomenon he thinks extends to many young bands who burn out before their time.

"With a band like Foxygen, it happened so quickly I don't think they had any awareness of what it was going to be like or the demands on them," said Marskell.

"There is this scary moment sometimes where you play with a band who you realize, they just don't have the instinct or the understanding that there's a lot more than that 35 minutes onstage. I think people just think they're owed their sparkling water and their rider and their sound check is going to be flawless and if there's any feedback, they're going to throw a hissy fit."

He adds later, not speaking specifically of Foxygen: "That's what happens when you wrote eight songs and all of a sudden Pitchfork gave you a 27 and you tour massive clubs around the world. It's a very peculiar place to be put in."

Still, even seasoned bands who follow a more steady arc struggle with life on the road.

Charlottetown's Two Hours Traffic recently brought an end to their decade-plus career, largely because -- according to frontman Liam Corcoran -- they were struggling to make a living.

Each time they came home from tour, he and guitarist Andrew MacDonald would work retail jobs. And, given that the band rose to relative prominence just as album sales were shuffling over a cliff, he knew they'd have to spend as much time as possible on the road.

"If you wanted to be a band, I don't know a way to even come close to making a living without being on the road pretty much all the time," he said.

Sometimes, Corcoran said touring life was "soul-sucking," while other nights would be inspiring. Sleep is usually scarce -- the bands interviewed for this story agreed that five hours of rest would be a luxury -- while booze and occasionally other substances are plentiful. Touring Canada is, of course, a particular challenge, given its size and winter weather.

And the longer one stays on the road, the more damaging the effect can be on an artist's personal life.

That's something Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy considered carefully when he invited his son, Devin, to open the band's upcoming tour, which kicks off Jan. 2 in Vancouver.

"We knew that he was touring with us, and his mother mentioned it to him at dinner, and he hadn't sort of fully worked it out with his partner," Cuddy said.

"I think he's really happy with what's happening to him and I think it'll be really fun. I also remember what it was like when those opportunities came my way and I recognized how destructive it was going to be to my personal life."

 

-- The Canadian Press

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 D6

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