"Men Without Ties" is a segment where we interview people who aren't musicians but who are essential to the music scene, to get a slightly different outlook about music and the music industry.
Managing a band’s tour and keeping everything (and everyone) on track and in check can be extensive and tricky. More established and famous bands may have lots of help in this area with multiple handlers, but for the majority of indie bands, the crews are small. As the leader of the entire entourage, a tour manager has to wear multiple hats every day, acting as the accountant, travel agent, baby sitter, stage hand, instrument tech, and gate keeper, often all at the same time. While you do get to travel and run an entire operation, it also seems like a position that requires super-human ability and incredible patience-how does one person do it?
To gain some insights on this, I sat down with Craig McQuiston, tour manager for The Hold Steady recently at a bar called HiFi in the East Village of NYC. McQuiston has been The Hold Steady’s tour manager now for over three years, and previously, had been an accomplished bassist in bands like The Glands and The Tom Collins when he lived in Athens, GA. McQuiston also provided bass and writing support for The Whigs on their huge Mission Control record. Whigs lead singer/guitarist Parker Gispert says he was thrilled to have him play.
-Parker Gispert on McQuiston
McQuiston moved his operation from Athens to NYC late last year.
BL&L: You were a bassist in bands for a long time. What made you want to go
from being in a band to being a tour manager for a band?
CMcQ: I got old (laughs). I was a punk rock kid and put out my first record when I was 15 on Amanda McKaye’s D.C.-based label which was Sammich, back in 1988 or something. I started touring when I was like, 16 and just played music from then on. My last band, The Tom Collins, fell apart when I was 33 years old, at which point I had to do something else, rather than start from scratch playing music.
BL&L: When did The Tom Collins break up then, 3 years ago?
CMcQ: It’s been...4.5 years now. A buddy of mine named Jordan Coopersmith-he’s a front-of-house/production manager for metal bands like Kilswitch Engage and Avenged Sevenfold- I was very depressed about my last band breaking up so he said, “Come out on the road and drive a truck.” So that was my first fore into working for bands, driving a truck with all of the gear.
BL&L: Gotcha. Do you feel that all the time you spent in these bands helped you know more things instinctively to do as a tour manager than say someone who has never been in a band?
CMcQ: Absolutely. I think it helps for the people I’m working for to trust me maybe, cause they know I was/am a musician or whatever, and I understand the deal. So it tends to give a little bit more trust.
BL&L: Do you still play? You played bass in all your bands correct?
CMcQ: Yeah, mostly a bass player. And I’ve played a little bit of guitar here and there, but mostly just straight-up bass.
BL&L: You played bass for The Whigs after Hank Sullivant left following the release of Give Em a Big Fat Lip, as well as helped with songwriting. You also show having credit on their Mission Control record. Can you talk about how you would up doing that? Any of the songs on Mission Control yours?
CMcQ: That came about was that Hank left the band to play with MGMT, and I saw Parker [Gispert, The Whigs lead singer/guitarist] out at a club one night. I said, “Hey do you need a bass player?”, because at the time I didn’t have much going on. And he said, “Oh no way, you want to play with us??” I liked the band so I rehearsed with them, and they were writing songs for Mission Control at the time. So I helped them write and we did some demos in a couple of sessions. I don’t know how many songs ended up on the record.
They also wanted me to record the record, but I couldn’t because I was on tour with The Hold Steady (THS) at the time when they did that record in LA- I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule then. The guy that they got to do those bass lines on the songs that I worked on and wrote, he played the bass lines exactly the way that I played them on the demos. It’s almost creepy because it sounds like I played them. I don’t know the guy but it came out great (laughs).
BL&L: How did you get started in with THS?
CMcQ: Well, going back to the time when I drove a truck was for a band called Thursday....I did that for one tour and then I guitar-teched for them for an album cycle [when a band puts out a record and your tour behind that record]. I was with them for about a year and a half, including the Warped Tour. I was visiting some friends in Italy, and I got an email from Tad [Kubler, THS’s lead guitarist], and he said they wanted me to be their tour manager. I’d only done one other tour management gig to that point [for the Australian band You Am I], so I said I wasn’t sure that I’d be the guy because they’d had a lot of European stuff coming up, and I’d never toured really that extensively in Europe at that point. But Tad said, “Well we’ve asked around about you and we’ve heard that you are a cool guy, and we want to give you a shot at this job.”
I didn’t know THS really up to that point, but I’d heard their music, a couple of songs from Separation Sunday, and I really liked it. My friend Bob Strakele, who helped them record Separation Sunday, he was on some tours that I did with Thursday, so he was the connection between me and THS. Bob’s done a lot for THS, and he’s a dear friend of both of ours, and I think Bob had a lot to do with...
BL&L: Putting your name out there?
CMcQ: Yeah, yeah.
BL&L: That’s really cool. It had to feel great to know you’re so well regarded.
CMcQ: Well that’s what you try to do. I think, working for bands you just try to do the best job you can, work hard, and hopefully, people can recognize that. And in turn, you get more jobs and advance your situation.
BL&L: If THS is out on tour, you’re the tour manager. Is that typical, a band retaining the same tour manager or do they tend to change them every tour?
CMcQ: You know, a lot of bands try to keep their crew intact. [But] bands go through ups and downs and they can’t afford certain crew and whatnot. A band like THS is great because they really want to keep their people together and have a sense of family out on the road. And I think it’s good for the guys because you just get used to the people you’re touring with and maintain that relationship. Some bands, they have a different tour manager all the time. At the end of the day, everything is usually the tour manager’s fault, so a lot of people get fired....it can be tough.
BL&L: Do you have any crazy stories where things wound up just maniacal and whatnot, that you helped take care of or you got blamed for? (laughs)
CMcQ: (laughs) I think the craziest thing just in my time with THS is we had a show in Zagreb, Croatia, which was a festival with The Stooges headlining. We were flying from London, UK to Zagreb and we were checked in at 9 am. It was an hour and a half flight. We ended up being in Stansted Airport outside of London from 9 am until we got on the plane about 1 am, and we were trapped inside the airport because we couldn’t leave and go back through security. That plane ended up flying us to Slovenia, we didn’t even fly into the country that we were supposed to go to. We got into Slovenia at 4 am and had to get on charter buses, and got to our hotel around 5:30 am and they had sold our rooms out. You can imagine what a bum-out that was.
BL&L: Yeah especially with a crew and a band. I mean THS is five guys alone.
CMcQ: Right. There were eight of us total so when we finally did get to our destination it was like we had no manger so to speak (laughs). And then you’re dealing with Croatian cab drivers and trying to get into another hotel at 5:30 am...it was just total madness.
But those things happen on tour. What I always say is I can only look out and do so much. At the end of the day, no one can control certain outside factors. You can only try and anticipate things going wrong. Inevitably, something will go wrong but you just have to try and roll with it. And if you’re lucky enough to work for guys as cool as the guys in THS, they’re able to roll with those situations, you know?
BL&L: Yeah that’s important. I mean being from indie bands, I’m sure they spent a lot of time in vans with Lifter Puller and such, so they’ve had a lot of experience with just dealing with crazy things that come up. So they’re better at adapting than say someone like Christina Aguilera (laughs).
CMcQ: Yeah, or you know just some 19, 20 year old kids that have big heads because they’re having some success. I mean, [THS] have been around the block and done it the hard way so...
BL&L: Apart from having a good memory and organizational skills, what are some qualities you’ve found are essential to have as a tour manager?
CMcQ: Hmm...people skills, being able to get along and relate to people. You have to be nice, but you also have to be firm. I think you have to know when to be an asshole and when to be cool about things, and just stand your ground on issues...things like that.
BL&L: Right. THS seems to have many younger fans like 20s and under. Do you have to deal with them differently than you do an older crowd?
CMcQ: In their case, they have very fervent, awesome fans that are really into the band, and sometimes they can be a bit overzealous. For me, it’s not my job to be those peoples’ friend, you know what I mean? It’s my job to...and I don’t want to say “protect” the band from certain overzealous people, but just to be firm and make sure they respect the situation. And maybe I may come off as a pain in the ass to some of those people but, you know, that’s why THS hired me, at the end of the day. But more often than not, they have great fans. And the band loves their fans. So maybe sometimes I have to be...
BL&L: the bad cop?
CMcQ: Right, the bad cop, exactly (laughs).
BL&L: So this is in three parts: what sorts of activities do you have to do before a tour starts, during, and after? And then I’ll ask the same question for before a show, during, and after. I’m trying to get a feel for the tasks and activities that a tour manager has to do and is responsible for. So for example, say THS tells you they're planning a tour. How far in advance of the first date do your responsibilities begin?
CMcQ: Well, say on a 3-4 week tour, I start roughly 2 weeks before the tour begins and start contacting the promoters, promoter reps, production managers at every venue/city...
BL&L: Are the dates already established at this point and you’re just confirming?
CMcQ: Yeah, I get an itinerary from the booking agent and basically, I work with the management company to come up with budgets, figure out our mode of transportation, etc...those are all things that are part of pre-production.
I also get their mode of transportation together. If they’re flying, then arranging all the travel arrangements, doing all the hotels...basically just on a daily basis, contacting the venues, setting up daily schedules.
BL&L: So you’re the one who fills out the “Hello you’re in (name of city here )” sheets? (laughs)
CMcQ: The day sheets? Yeah, and then the tour books before the tour starts. It’s a lot of emails, and being on the phone and just putting the whole thing together, day by day, before it even starts. And everything changes on a daily basis too, so you just adjust to whatever the situation is.
And then during a tour, for most managers, you’re the first one up and the last one to go to bed. So the day starts, you roll into a town, get up, do some odds and ends, start getting people to the hotel to shower and whatnot if there’s not showers at the venue, do your load-in, set up the stage, do your sound check...
BL&L: Do you control load-in too? Do you have to know the stage set up?
CMcQ: Absolutely, yeah. And I kind of fulfill the production manager role with THS. So it’s just basically the day-to-day operations while we’re out on the road, just making sure the day can go as smoothly as possible. It’s scheduling, all the accounting, set up the stage, do the show, settle the show, get everybody on the bus to the next town...it’s a long day with several jobs involved.
BL&L: Is THS a big band to move around? Do they have a lot of equipment?
CMcQ:They have a good bit of equipment but it’s not anything insane...it’s not a big production really. I think on this next album cycle we’re going to try to put more production into it. Other than that, they have their backline [amps and whatnot] and stuff.
BL&L: During the course of a show, I have sometimes seen you act like a fill-in tech sometimes, as well as a tour manager. You stand on the side of the stage and if something needs to be done, you go out on stage and take care of it. Is that another typical tour manager job, to keep an eye on things during the show?
CMcQ: During the show, at set change, I help make sure the stage is set for the show to start and ready to go, so when they walk out on stage after the opening band, they’re up and running, and not slowing down the show by having to mess with their own stuff. The guy with the big glasses [with THS], his name is Dustin Miller. He’s our stage tech and mainly Tad’s guitar tech, but he helps everyone. He’s a genius with amps, and guitars especially, and he's also a studio engineer. He helped them record this record that’s about to come out.
We roll pretty light, we have a light crew. We have a front-of-house person, a merch person, I’m the tour manager, and then Dusty on stage...THS, they don’t have a monitor person because they’re not sticklers about their monitors. So Dustin’s on stage left taking care of Tad, and I’m on stage right, just making sure everything is going smooth. If something should happen, I’m there to help him really.
BL&L: So after a tour and after a show, in that order I guess, what do you do?
CMcQ: Well, when a tour finishes, I have to assemble all the accounting and turn it into the business manager, settle the tour and make sure all of the money is right, and that we come in under budget. Really that’s it for the end of the tour. I just sit down and crunch numbers and make sure the money is right.
As far as after a show? Settling the show with the promoter and make sure the band gets paid properly, make sure we’re all loaded up and everyone’s taken care of, make sure everyone’s on the bus when it needs to leave...stuff like that.
BL&L: In terms of press stuff....tour managers seem to be the ones that set up press lists on site (in my experience anyway)-is that typical?
CMcQ: Well the tour manager acts as a liaison between the publicist and the band’s management. We get press requests, usually through the publicist, and the publicist goes to management, and then management comes to me and says, “Hey, this is what we have for today” or “This is what we need to get done this week, when’s a good time for us to do it?” I work that into the daily schedules, like letting the guys in the band know like, “Hey you have a phoner at x time.” That goes into another daily task, making sure that requests are scheduled in times that the band is available to do interviews and whatnot.
BL&L: Is it overwhelming in terms of requests sometimes?
CMcQ: Sometimes it can be, especially with radio station appearances and things like that. It’s very hard to fit some of these things into a day just logistically. The most important thing at the end of the day is for the band to play their show, and I think people can and tend to lose track of the fact that that’s really the priority, that’s my priority, you know? Press would be a secondary priority. It’s just a matter of scheduling and fitting it into the day around what the band has to do, both personally and in terms of the show they have to do that night. I mean, we do our best to get everything done, but sometimes things just aren’t doable.
BL&L: THS seems to tour a lot. I recall from my interview with Tad Kubler that they play about 265 days a year. Do you work just for them, or are there other bands that you do tour management for?
CMcQ: They’re my main gig, and then I do other stuff to try to fill in my time. Last year I did a tour as guitar-tech for Tom Morello, which was interesting.
BL&L: Why interesting?
CMcQ: He had an all-star cast on a nightly basis. He had a set band but then he would fly in...it’s all on Youtube (laughs). One day Slash is there, and then Perry Farrell, Steve Vai, Stewart Copeland...kind of like every North American rock star that you can think of, Tom Morello is friends with, and gets people to play at his shows. It’s kind of like an all-star jam every night.
BL&L: Does that make your job harder dealing with, not just your people, but also someone else’s people in terms of working logistics at the last minute?
CMcQ: I wasn’t tour manager on that one, I got hired to be Tom’s guitar tech. But I figured out really quick after the first show-the crew for that tour was me and Carlos Donahue, the tour manager-that was the crew. And Carlos, he got hired to do front-of-house, but he was so swamped dealing with just the logisitics of all of it, he couldn’t do front-of-house. So during the shows, he was dealing with people’s entourages and guest lists and whatnot, and I was the only guy on stage. There were a couple instances where he hired additional guitar techs to help. But I basically stage managed the shows on that tour, making sure people got up there when they were supposed to, and making sure that the show ran smooth according to how the set list was going to go. [With guest musicians] I made sure the guys were ready to come on stage and showed them an amp to plug into.
I just got finished in Nov and Dec tour managing this guy, Harper Simon.
BL&L: Is that Paul Simon’s kid?
CMcQ: Yeah, he’s Paul Simon’s son. And he had a really great band. We did an east coast run, had about a week off, and then we went out to the west coast, up to Vancouver and back down to LA. So I did that in Nov and Dec, and those were his first two tours as a solo artist.
Now I’m just waiting for THS to start back.
BL&L: With someone like Harper Simon, where it was his first tour, I think we communicated during the course of that tour and you commented how swamped you were because you were doing everything yourself. Is a newer artist like that tougher to manage because things aren’t already established and in place as they are with, say, THS, who’ve got it down pat by now?
CMcQ: Yeah. I ended up calling it the “Crew of One” (laughs), as I was the only guy hired, outside of the band members. I drove everyday, set up the stage, set up merch..sometimes I had a merch seller, sometimes I was selling merch and doing guitar hand offs at the same time.
BL&L: Did you sleep at all during this tour? (laughs)
CMcQ: Not much, like 4 hours a day, if I was lucky. So I kind of did everything on that tour except for front-of-house and monitors. I guitar-teched, did merch, drove, did regular tour manager duties, and I actually played bass at the Seattle show because his bass player couldn’t play that show....I kind of did everything, even played in the band (laughs).
BL&L: Wow! How did you wind up with that tour manager/jack of all trades gig?
CMcQ: Vagrant Records is THS’s label and I have a good relationship with people who work there. They’re distributing Harper’s record so basically, they needed help. So Vagrant called me and that’s how I got that job.
BL&L: You’re an independent tour manager, not a part of any company or whatever. I seem to recall there being companies set up that have a cadre of managers-is that more typical than an independent person like yourself?
CMcQ: I don’t think that’s typical really. Most guys I know are just freelance guys. They may start a company-for instance, on my invoices it says “McQ Touring.” There are those crew companies that provide crew for tours and stuff like that, but I don’t know that much about it. Everyone that I know just does it freelance.
BL&L: Do people just kind of fall into being a tour manager do you think? If someone wanted to do that themselves, how would they go about it, just try to get in and get to know bands and such?
CMcQ: Well I can speak in my case, I think it was something that I kind of fell into. And I think it’s like my natural place outside of playing music. I mean, I love to tour, and I love to be involved in a show, and I think my personality is just suited for that job.
BL&L: Can you describe that further? If someone never met you, what sort of personality would you say you have as a tour manager?
CMcQ: Well, I think you to be a...a freak really (laughs). It’s a lot of multi-tasking and it’s never a dull moment...I kind of get off on that.
BL&L: Right, so you have to roll with things and not sleep a lot, and enjoy a pace that’s not static?
CMcQ: Yeah. I mean, the goal is to have every day just be a smooth one and not have crazy shit happen. Some people are really suited for it-you have to be organized and maybe a certain personality...but people have different styles too you know? Some are the more hard-nosed style; I would say I’m more of the mellow style tour manager.
BL&L: Sure. And by “hard-nosed” you mean keeping everyone regimented and such? But I never see you smile onstage, for whatever that’s worth (laughs)
CMcQ: Right, yeah, that’s true (laughs).
BL&L: So what’s the best and the worst thing about being a tour manager?
CMcQ: Hmm...I don’t know what the best thing is, I couldn’t tell you. The worst thing is that everything’s your fault. Ultimately, everything falls on your shoulders to an extent. That’s the worst thing.
BL&L: But I mean there must be something good if you’re still doing it after all this time. Unless you’re a complete masochist of course (laughs).
CMcQ: Yeah (laughs). Well, it’s exciting and I like to travel...the one shitty thing is that sometimes you’re in a place that’s really cool...and I’m in my room working. Everyone’s saying, “C'mon let’s go out” but I mean, I can’t. If it went out, they'd be fucked for the next five days, you know what I mean? You kind of have to have your shit together, so you do miss out on some of that fun stuff sometimes. But there’s plenty of opportunities to have a good time. And it’s fun.
BL&L: So you can say I've been all over the world but have I seen stuff outside of my hotel room? Maybe not so much (laughs).
CMcQ: Well anyone who tours will tell you that that’s just the way it is. I mean, you’re in a really cool place, and you’re lucky if you get to walk around the corner and find someplace cool to eat, if you have time. That’s just standard.
BL&L: Right. So is there one tool, like a phone or a screwdriver or whatever, that you find is crucial to have when you’re a tour manager?
CMcQ: Yeah. The iPhone, the Macbook...
BL&L: Sounds like you could be the indie rock Apple Spokesperson.
CMcQ: Heh yeah....Canon IP90 portable printer would probably be third on the list. A Scorpion flashlight...a lot of gadgetry.
BL&L: (laughs) Do you have a big toolbelt? Do you come packing?
CMcQ: (laughs) No..but I have a friend named Jimmy Pearlman, he’s a tour manager for All American Rejects, and we always call him “The Batman” because he’s got the bat-belt with all the gadgetry and all the shit hanging off. But I’ve just always tried not to roll that way.
BL&L: He sounds like Schneider from “One Day at a Time” (laughs).
CMcQ: Yeah, he’s “Gizmo Schneider” (laughs).
BL&L: So what advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a tour manager?
CMcQ: “Careful what you wish for” (laughs). I think it’s with anything in life, if you work hard, good things will happen. I think if you really bust your ass and have a work ethic, and just do your best and work hard, people will recognize that. You gotta start somewhere. I mean, I started out driving a truck like 5 years ago and..I’ve done pretty well you know? You just work hard, and hopefully people will recognize it.
BL&L: That’s true. Now you hail from Athens, GA originally?
CMcQ: Originally from Buffalo, NY. but we moved to Atlanta, GA when I was 9. I moved to Athens, I think in 1992, and lived there until 2009, when I moved to NYC. Around 1996, I lived in San Francisco for about a year and a half.
BL&L: Why did you move to NYC, to better deal with the logistics of THS tour managing and whatnot or...?
CMcQ: Yep. Part of the reason was to be more involved with that, and also because...you can only live somewhere for so long I think (laughs). I lived in Athens a long time. Logistically, it was just tough to fly somewhere to start a tour and then always fly home. And since I’ve been working for people based out of NYC, it just made sense.
BL&L: How are you finding it as a southerner?
CMcQ: Well I’ve had a lot of close friends that have lived here. I think I started coming up here in the early 90s. I probably should have moved here a long time ago, but as anyone from Athens will tell you, it’s a hard place to get out of because it’s an easy place to live. And there’s great people there.
BL&L: Sure. So talking about Athens, you were part of The Glands, a band that has become quite the cult favorite in the last little while. I’ve seen them namechecked in many music publications as of late and the records are named in top 100 records ever lists. Can you talk about how you got involved with that band, and, if you’re still in contact with them, what y’all think about this cult status?
CMcQ: The Glands was not a band per se, but more Ross Shapiro’s recording project. I worked at a restaurant in Athens with him- he was the manager and I was a shitty line cook, in about the mid-90s, like 1994/1995. Basically, he rented out studio time and invited whoever to come in and play a song. For the first record, Double Thriller, he’d say, “Come over when the bar closes.” So I’d walk in there half-lit, or more than half-lit, pick up a bass, and maybe run through a song one time, and record it. And he’d say, “No, we got it, it’s done.”
But I told him as I heard the demos, even stuff that I didn’t have anything to do with...I loved the songs so much that even when I moved to San Francisco, I said if you ever want to put a band together and put out a record, I’ll come back. And that’s how I ended up coming back from San Francisco, back to Athens, was to do The Glands.
BL&L: Wow, that’s amazing. I know someone will kill me if I don’t ask this question: is there any chance that the band will do a reunion? I mean, even Pavement got back together (laughs)...
CMcQ: I hope so. And I hope that if there is a chance of it, I hope that I’m involved. Now that I live up in NY, it’s a bit trickier. But we’ll see, I don’t know, there’s always a possibility.
BL&L: Do you still play bass? Are you looking to get involved in a band up here in your copious amounts of spare time?
CMcQ: Yeah (laughs). I love to play, and I really miss playing. But what I do for a living now just doesn’t afford me the time. You can’t really do a band that includes a guy who’s always out on the road doing his job, so I dunno, it’s difficult. Last summer, The Tom Collins played a couple shows, which was great. I do miss it, but it’s just something you give up.
BL&L: Being out on the road so much, it seems like it would be hard on the personal life. In your experience, and from fellow tour managers you've known, is it tough thing to maintain?
CMcQ: Yes, it is hard for anyone who is constantly traveling and being away from home to maintain good personal relationships with friends/family/ significant others. That goes for bands and their crews. You just have to hope that people are understanding of your job and your being away for long stretches of time.
BL&L: You’re in your what, mid 30s? Do you foresee tour management as your chosen career now?
CMcQ: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I always defined myself as a musician up until the time my last band [The Tom Collins] broke up. It just depends though. I mean some guys are dead set on it happening [as a musician] and they’re really talented, and they can make it work for themselves. But it’s a tough thing to do, it’s a tough road. For me, I just didn’t want to work a shitty day job in order to play music anymore you know? I was just kind of over it.
BL&L: So do you find that tour managing helps you to be ‘there’ but not have to deal with some of the more difficult aspects?
CMcQ: Well one of the things that my friends will ask me is, “I don’t know how you can do that. You’re a good bass player. How can you watch other people play?” I don’t feel that way because if I’m working a show and I’m watching the band, I’m working. I don’t get jealous or anything because at the end of the day, I’m watching. In the instance of THS, that's not my band, they’re not playing my songs, so why would I be jealous of that?
I mean, I really like the sense of accomplishment you get out of working for a band that plays a huge show, and knowing it went smoothly...everybody’s happy, the band had a great show and they feel awesome when they come off stage-that’s a high. And making sure that stuff runs right, that’s exciting.
And I’m still involved in something that I love. I don’t know where else I would be, you know what I mean?
BL&L: Absolutely. So one last thing: Given the recent departure of Franz, can we expect to see you wearing the blue polyester suit and sporting the mustache? [Nicolay, THS’s keyboardist who announced he was leaving the band a couple weeks ago]
CMcQ: Never, I abhor facial hair for myself (laughs).
Give a Listen: