If there's any part of the music industry that's been rocked by coronavirus restrictions the hardest, it's got to be the live touring sector. With the onset of the global pandemic in March, the finances of stage technicians, touring managers and road crew dissipated within a matter of days as every single festival, sideshow and international support slot was indefinitely postponed before ultimately being canceled, and even seven months down the track, things still aren't looking much better for the sector.
For Australia's Dave Herington, this scenario couldn't be any more relatable. As the guitar technician, stage assistant and tour manager for the likes of DZ Deathrays, Skeggs and Dune Rats, Herington's entire livelihood revolves around being on the road, and when his gigs began to vanish one-by-one as borders shut and lockdowns were instigated in March, it looked like an indefinite hiatus for his touring career was on the cards.
Thankfully, tour crew members tend to be a crafty bunch, and for David, this break in schedule gave him the chance to create the ultimate ode to touring. Released today, Stage Right sees David reflect on life on the road in zine form, showcasing his talents behind the lens with a collection of behind-the-scenes shots of some of Australia's most loved acts on tour.
With the release of the new zine, we caught up with David to chat all about the making of Stage Right, as well as to hear about what's involved in his profession, his funniest stories of life on the road and his thoughts on how the live entertainment sector will recover in the wake of COVID-19.
Hey David, thanks for taking the time to chat! Can you tell us a bit about your professional background, and how that inspired the making of Stage Right?
It is my pleasure, thank you so much for taking the time.
I first started working in the music industry in 2011, working as a recording studio assistant and then pretty quickly after that as a guitar tech.
I have always been really passionate about photography. In 2016 I lost almost all of my photographs through the loss of hard drives and a mobile phone, as well as not being able to afford cloud storage. As a result, I returned to photographing with film and began solely working with that medium, figuring it was easier to store and keep negatives than digital files. I have always really greatly enjoyed viewing photography as a physical print and a book or zine seemed like the most logical step to catalogue my photographic memories.
As a music technology and audio publication, I think we can all understand the importance of having a guitar technician on hand. How did you initially get into the business as a guitar tech/tour manager in the first place?
I have always loved music and have come from a position as a music lover. I first started as a studio assistant on an Ash Grunwald album and he ended up taking me on the road as his guitar tech. Truthfully, I am an absolutely terrible guitarist but I am good at fixing things, work well under pressure, and do not take up much space on tour.
Through Ash’s management, I met Dune Rats and quickly started working as their guitar tech, bass tech, drum tech, tour manager, driver, loader, assistant, occasional sound engineer, medic, personal carers, and occasional merch seller. I am really grateful to have had experience in all of those roles and it has helped me to understand what each touring crew member needs as their careers and mine, have progressed.
Run us through what an average working night was like for you. Under normal circumstances, what are the highlights and challenges of the job?
I am not entirely sure average or normal circumstances ever exist but ordinarily, I will wake up wondering what might go wrong on that day and then set about fixing it up when it inevitably does go wrong. On an international tour, I usually try to walk around and explore where we are and take photographs of where I go before load-in, then usually load in around mid-afternoon.
With all of the bands photographed in Stage Right, I am the only stage tech so I set up everything on stage (often with the help of the band) and make sure it is all working before they soundcheck. If strings or skins need changing, or repairs needed, I will do that before the band is called for soundcheck and we’ll go from there.
We usually all have dinner together then I do a brief with security, make sure everyone is happy and we open the venue up. I try to always watch the support bands and am side stage tuning guitars as they finish up. I make sure everyone in the band is happy, rush through a changeover, get the band on and the show always flies by. Then we pack down and load out.
On a good night, I am in bed by 1 AM and ready to do it all again the next day. All through the day, I am photographing anything that catches my eye.
It might look exciting from an outsider’s perspective, but in reality, touring’s a bit of a drag - there’s a lot of waiting around, a lot of driving, a lot of really shit food and hotels, and a whole lot of boredom. Why was it that you chose to spotlight this aspect of live music for your zine?
I would never deny that there is some tedium involved with the whole process. Being away from home, people you love and care about, being away from familiarity and routine can be incredibly draining when you are away for months at a time.
The feeling can be isolating while you are in it and when you come home it can be isolating again as friendship circles move on, life continues as normal without you there and then you have to somehow fit back in. Sleep is never easy, food is usually rushed and not particularly nourishing, exercise is difficult and the whole experience is usually terrible on your back, especially if you are a 188cm tall weakling like myself.
Having said that, somewhere amongst the chaos is something that is infectious and addictive that continues to draw me back in year after year. There is camaraderie built from sitting silently in a van while driving down a foggy highway in the pouring rain at 3 O'clock in the morning that I have never found anywhere else. There is something that bonds people together through this acute shared experience that I find absolutely fascinating. I do not necessarily think it is exclusive to music, but it is what I see and what I chose to point a camera at.
There are so many talented photographers around the world that will always outclass me at live music photography, however, I have intimate access and close personal relationships that they will most probably never have and I think that is what makes this different.
The zine is packed full of photos from your tours with DZ Deathrays, Skeggs and Dune Rats, who I’d imagine to be an absolute hoot on the road. Do you have any really memorable moments on the road with any of those guys you’d be able to share? Any funny stories or near-disasters?
It's funny, I was speaking to BC, the drummer of the band Dune Rats today on the phone, and we talked about a time we were driving through Belgium and making prank phone calls to bars. One answered with “hello” and he responded with “hello”, to which the person on the other end said “hello” again. This went on for about five minutes and by the end, I could barely see the road through tears of crying with laughter. All of us we in hysterics including the person on the other end of the phone and while we both agreed it does not sound particularly funny being retold, at the time it was the funniest thing I could possibly imagine.
There was another time in Hobart I remember having to stop the van with DZ Deathrays because I could not see or breathe from laughing so hard. I have never not had fun on tour, regardless of how long or how hard the tour is, I am so grateful I get to spend so much time with friends I dearly love.
In terms of near disaster stories, I have had a van door opened on me by someone screaming and holding a syringe in Toronto, I got punched in the back of the head and knocked to the ground in Melbourne by someone who wanted to crowd surf, I broke a rib in Townsville when the crowd barrier broke and I was trying to hold the crowd back but got pulled onto the floor by the audience and was trampled.
Someone once tried to open the driver's door while screaming shirtless in the middle of the road and then as I slowly drove forwards he tried to smash the back window of the van in while I was driving in Manchester, it was like a scene from Terminator and just this year, a truck driver opened his door directly in front our van narrowly missing taking Shane’s head off. However, I think the scariest moment was when I was put into a van in Slovakia by men with assault rifles. I talk about that moment in Stage Right.
It’s a pretty tough time to be working in live music right now. From your perspective, how effective has the response from Federal / State bodies been towards the live entertainment sector been? Do you think there’s been enough funding or up-skilling programs introduced to ensure the industry comes out the other side okay?
I think in terms of public safety, limiting case numbers and ultimately deaths, our State and Federal governments have done well, especially compared to some other countries. I do think the information roll out to the entertainment sector has been poor however, and financial assistance has been terrible.
I have spoken with many friends and colleagues who have absolutely no idea how to pay rent in massive warehouse spaces holding huge amounts of equipment that just simply cannot be used or venues that cannot open. The rent alone is expensive let alone the pain of laying off staff that are like family. I think if assistance is not given to providers and venues, coming back will be difficult as they will need to move on to other things or foreclose in the meantime to survive. It is devastating seeing this across the whole sector.
During the recent federal budget, the entertainment industry was not even mentioned by the Federal government despite the massive employment it generates and the national income associated with that. I think ultimately people cannot hang on waiting for things to “get back to normal” and will need to find other employment if they can, just to get by and that will certainly lead to a skills shortage when things do return to a more regular pattern and that is incredibly sad.
How do you think the industry will evolve to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19? Further to that, how long do you think it’ll be until touring returns in a capacity that resembles the norm?
I am not sure how things will evolve. So far, physically distant concerts are happening - for example, Hockey Dad just performed a drive-in concert, but all of these things are far removed from the concerts people are used to.
Touring itself looks completely different. If someone from NSW wants to perform in WA right now they will need to quarantine for two weeks at their own expense before they can even play a concert and that is just not financially viable, especially if you are flying crew as well.
I think in Australia, soon we will see an increase in regional touring, moving away from just capital cities and longer tours with more dates in smaller places not usually played. In terms of returning to the norm, I’m not sure that will happen until we see a vaccine.
Is there any way in which the average music fan could help support industry workers who might have lost work during this period?
There are some incredible organisations looking after bands and crew at the moment. Support Act and Crew Care are two great organisations that need support. They can be found at www.crewcare.org.au and www.supportact.org.au
Check-in on your friends, if they are artists and you can support them, buy merch or music. If they are crew, make sure they are okay, that they have what they need to get by and if you know of any work going, let them know. Maybe let me know too.
David Herington's new zine Stage Right is out now. Grab a copy here.