Gary James' Interview With Train Tour Manager
Thomas O'Keefe is the tour manager for Train.
Train my be best known for their song "Hey Soul Sister". It was the most downloaded iTunes song of 2010, the best selling single in Columbia Records history, the most played song in Australian history and certified Quintuple Platinum by the R.I.A.A.
What does it take to get the guys in Train on time to each and every gig? How do you get to be a tour manager? We posed these questions and oh so many others to Train tour manager, Thomas O'Keefe.
Q - You passed through Central New York in August (2011) when your band performed at the New York State Fair.
A - You're right. I think we did three or four state fairs this year.
Q - Has the recession affected Train at all? Train really seems to be on the move.
A - Yeah. We've dome some ridiculous stuff this year. We did 320 shows in 26 countries in the last 2 years and 4 months. It's kind of like beer and wine sales. People are gonna go out to bars and drink and they're gonna go see the bands they want to see.
Q - Except the bars are hurting. You have to be a band like Train to get the people to come out and see you.
A - Right. Exactly. Well, it's just the shift in the music industry. All the bands make money from doing concerts now. They don't make their money as much from selling records anymore. So now they're all trying to make the money playing concerts.
Q - That has to be tough because when you're on the road, your expenses have to be through the roof.
A - Well yeah, absolutely. And here's the other thing; no one ever quits! You have Rock bands out there that are in their mid-60s that are still out there playing shows and still fighting for the dollars. It's almost like there's no... I always put it this way; I'm 47 years old. The Rolling Stones took my mother's school lunch money from her and now they're still trying to get money from me this many years later.
Q - That's a clever way to look at it.
A - There's very few bands in music history that ever quit while they're ahead. I can only think of a couple of examples of bands. I can think of bands that quit because their popularity waned down to zero. Name a band that was on top or at least doing well that actually, truly retired.
Q - The Beatles.
A - The Beatles. Right. Well, The Ramones did too. I think Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane actually retired. That's about it. I'm hard pressed to think of any others.
Q - Let's ask the obvious; What exactly is it that you do as tour manager for Train?
A - Well, I think the best way to sum it up is, if you think of the touring entity of the band being the band, the crew, the bus drivers, the truck drivers, the whole entity that moves from one city to the next, it's sort of like being the General of that army, 18 to 20 people, depending on what type of tour we're doing. Basically what happens is, our manager and booking agent give me say, here's the tour we're doing. We're gonna do this, this, this and this and I just kind of put the whole thing together from renting buses to planning travel to deciding who's gonna go, how many, budgeting, accounting, just every aspect of it, from start to finish. Basically I'm given the assignment that I take them out and do everything we're supposed to do and bring them back.
Q - So what is your background? What did you do before Train hired you?
A - Well, that's the crazy part about being a tour manager. There's no real school to learn how to do it. There's only, I would guess, probably not much more than 150 people in the whole country (U.S.) might do it professionally. Where I came from, I played in a Punk Rock band called Antiseen. That band, we traveled all over the U.S. and all over Europe. The best way to describe us is we were one of the Grunge Rock bands that didn't get famous. Kurt Cobain was a fan of Antiseen, but that didn't pay the bills. I didn't realize it, but I was the tour manager of that band. I was the one who said "Hey! If we're gonna get to Albuquerque we better leave in the morning 'cause it's 700 miles." I was that guy. Our drummer in Antiseen started another band. He wanted me to be the bass player of his band he was starting. I didn't do it. Next thing you know, that band got signed. I was about to hang myself in the bathroom 'cause I was so bummed out and depressed. I thought I'd blown my opportunity and then 6 months later in 1995 they approached me about being the tour manager and I said "I don't know how to do that." They're like, "You've been doing it all along. You just don't know it." So, I quit my job and became their tour manager. That band was called Lustre. They were on A&M Records. They sold just 4,000 - 5,000 CDs and ended up getting dropped. But I took them out on tour and did it. I said "Wow! This what I've been doing all along." I continued to do it. I worked with Ryan Adams forever in his first band Whiskeytown. I started with Train in 1999, right when their first record was really starting to take off. So, I've been with Train ever since. Fall of 1999.
Q - So, in Antiseen you were a bass player?
A - That's correct.
Q - You said Kurt Cobain knew about you. Did you ever meet Kurt Cobain?
A - No. Our drummer did. I never did. I made the mistake in the early and mid '90s and that was that I didn't go out and see a bunch of the bands that I would have later liked. I didn't go out and see bands a lot back then. I was playing in the band and I was busy. I was working a lot and there really wasn't much time for it. I just kind of chose not to do it. It was a terrible mistake. I missed seeing Nirvana in a bar. I missed seeing The Replacements. Of course later I learned to love those bands and then it was too late.
Q - When you got the call from Train, you were working at a job. What were you doing?
A - I had been tour managing. The first time I saw Train I was tour managing Whiskeytown, which was Ryan Adams' first band when he was in his mid-20s. Train actually opened for us. So, the first time I saw Train was at The Whiskey in Los Angeles. They were opening for us. There were like 50 people watching them. No one knew, who would have known, that they would have ended up selling millions of CDs later down the road. When I saw Train that night, I was working with them barely a year later. Who would have guessed that it would have done that? It really has worked out fine for both of us, me and the band. My background is much different than theirs, but for some crazy reason it works.
Q - What do you mean by that?
A - I'm a Punk Rock guy. I came from the Punk Rock world. My band Antiseen made an album with G.G. Allen. Train as a band and Antiseen as a band are not similar. We came from two different kinds of music. I have tour managed them successfully for many years, but our backgrounds are completely different is what I'm trying to say.
Q - When you're a tour manager, is it important that you like the music of the group you're working for?
A - Overall I don't think you have to like it. Theoretically you could tour manage somebody that you didn't like their music. Short term I imagine you could do that. For me personally, it would be hard to be involved in something long term if I didn't believe in it and think it was really good. If you have the chance to see anybody that is at that level, even if you don't like them, you would understand why they were successful. For me personally, I'm so involved in the whole thing, I would have to be a fan to be a long term, willing participant.
Q - Do the guys in Train respect you? Some bands give their tour managers a lot of grief. If you tell them to be someplace at a certain time, do they listen to you?
A - They're grown-ups. It's not like they're a group of 18 to 20 year olds. I imagine if I were tour managing a kiddie band of 18 to 20 year old kids, of course it would be that way. Train guys are all very punctual. There's one of the guys in the band, the guitar player, to my knowledge has almost never been late, ever. If I say "We need to be in the lobby at 4 o'clock in the morning," they're all there at 4 o'clock in the morning 'cause they all understand we have a job to do. We work very, very hard. Our schedule is far more rigorous than most bands, even at our level. They understand if I say we need to leave at 4 in the morning, they might say "can we leave at 4:15?", something like that. Short of that, they understand my role and their role in the whole thing.
Q - Being a tour manager, can it lead to becoming a personal manager or are you content with being on the road and being a tour manager?
A - I think that's a natural progression. I think that happens a lot. There are certainly a lot of stories in music history where tour managers have become managers. I actually managed Whiskeytown for a very short period of time just because Ryan Adams had fired his previous manager and there was no one to do it. I sort of took the job by default almost for awhile. I've seen how tour managers naturally progress to management because sooner or later you get to a point in your life where maybe you don't want to travel that much, but this is the only thing you know how to do. Of course switching from tour management to management seems like a natural progression.
Q - So, when Train's tour ends, does that mean you're out of work? Do you go out on the road with another band?
A - No. Some people do. I'm fortunate that I don't. So if Train takes three months off, I take three months off. We just finished 320 shows in 2½ years, so we're all ready for a substantial break. There are certainly some tour managers who are sort of like pirates in a way. A lot of crew and guitar techs and sound men are sort of that way to a certain extent, they're always looking for their next job. I've just been fortunate that I've kept this one for so long. This is really the only job I really do.
Q - I guess what I was getting at is, in the down time you must be on the payroll.
A - Right.
Q - The bills are still coming in and you have to be able to pay them.
A - Of course. Yeah, exactly. We're always in a position where we will always do a show here or there. Even if the band were to take a substantial amount of time off, we are still capable of going out and doing a show. By doing that, I mean, we keep a handful of staff on retainer so we're able to do it. Several of my primary crew guys we retain, so if someone calls us and says "we need you to play at the Grammys", we can do it.
Q - Did you ever go to college?
A - No. I never went to college. I always read a lot of business books, especially in my Punk Rock days. My counterparts were always "why are you reading that Donald Trump book?" or "why are reading that Richard Branson book?" I always read that stuff to try to... because I always figured the basic principles of business apply to any business. It doesn't matter if you're wearing a suit and tie to work or if you're wearing a Ramones shirt to work. So, it's all the same. I don't have a business background, but I'm aware of all that stuff.
Q - You're very disciplined, straight forward and on top of things. Train is very fortunate to have you.
A - I could go tour manager another band and be fired as hour later. A vast percentage of it has to do with people's personalities, how they get along. Our singer and the band have a very rigid... they're very hard working and I am too. So in those respects, we're all very similar. That probably accounts for why we've been able to work together so long successfully.