On tour, food is fuel. We musicians fill up at diners, drive-throughs, grocery stores, and backstage, then burn it up onstage.
Back home, we have our kitchens – regular diets and comfort food – but that's thousands of miles away. When it's full speed ahead to the next city, hunger can spread through a van quicker than a sing-along. Do we hit the next exit and go greasy at the golden starches, or do we GPS the nearest Whole Foods and get fresh?
Time and money are constant concerns for touring acts, but so are health and happiness. This lifestyle, where both indulgence and efficiency match up in equal measure, remains a time-honored path, so professionals always have a program. A handful of Austin musicians who live by the highway offer a glimpse at survival on the blacktop.
Eating on the run has long been a serious consideration for Joe Ely. In his train-hopping teenage years, it was all about surviving off very little money. A 75-cent bag of dried red beans could keep him cooking for four or five days.
Since then, the longtime Austinite has enjoyed an epic career as one of the preeminent Texas troubadours, and at age 67, he's still conscious of what's on his plate.
"I've been eating on the road with a band for 50 years now and it's a damn wonder I'm still upright," chuckled Ely over the phone last week. "I probably wouldn't be if I hadn't picked up a few special tricks."
Tip 1: Eat Local
"The main thing to look for is a restaurant with a lot of cars around it, or, if you're in Texas, pickup trucks. You have to see what attracts the locals. Your enemy is old food that's been sitting around for five days and hasn't turned over. It'll kill you or keep you from getting to the show. If you see a Chinese buffet with one car at noon, keep on driving as fast as you can."
Tip 2: There's No Such Thing as a French Hamburger
"The worst thing I've ever eaten on tour was a burger in Paris. Thirty minutes after eating it, I was green and literally crawling down the street and an ambulance picked me up and took me to the hospital. The doctor asked, 'What did you eat?' I told him about the burger place on Champs-Élysées and he just shook his head. He had the most beautiful nurse I'd ever seen bring me in a big meal and a bottle of wine and said, 'Eat all of it.' So there's this gorgeous woman feeding me green beans, breaded steak, corn, and red wine. Afterward I felt so great they almost had to kick me out of the hospital. The doctor looked at me and said, 'Always eat good and drink wine.'"
Tip 3: Go Mexican
"I used to have a rule that you shouldn't eat Mexican food north of the Red River. I've taken that back because Mexican food throughout the country has gotten a lot better over the years."
Tip 4: John Prine's Buying
"John Prine once told me, 'Treat yourself to a nice meal at least every other day while traveling.' It'll make you feel good about yourself and sustain you physically and mentally."
Tip 5: Fist, Meet Stomach
When asked how, after decades of touring and tens of thousands of hours in buses and vans, he's remained so strapping, Ely held up his fist. "That's the size of your stomach. It's not that big. I quit eating when I'm satisfied, not when I'm full. Eating small amounts of food will keep you from feeling run-down at the show."
Tip 7: Italian Cuisine
"I'll jump at any chance to tour in Italy because of the food. It's heaven. The food is so well prepared and the way they eat is such an interesting social event. They'll purposefully sit enemies or feuding lovers across the table from each other and over the meal – which is seven or eight courses and takes three hours to eat – you'll argue and do what you need to do, but at the end of the experience you'll walk away smiling with your arm around the other person."
With his blond mane and brawny physique, Thor Harris looks every bit the God of Thunder. With a drumming résumé including Swans, Shearwater, Bill Callahan, Amanda Palmer, and Nazi Gold, he sounds like it, too. Beyond percussion guru status, Harris is also an impressive woodworker and visual artist, and an overall renegade of thought and deed who's authored two popular lifestyle lists.
On his recent offering, "How to Live Like a King for Very Little," which went viral last month, the veteran local advised readers to "buy most of your groceries from the produce section. Most of that other shit is not actually food."
Harris has been a vegetarian since his health-conscious eighth-grade science teacher inspired him to ditch the meat and potatoes fixation. At his East Austin abode, a castlelike compound with citrus trees and a rustic backyard workshop, we pick greens from his overgrown winter garden, which would be better tended if he didn't spend most of the year on tour. Inside his handcrafted home, I contribute homegrown tomatoes and carrots for a salad, drizzled with a signature dressing my host concocts in a mason jar. Can he possibly maintain similar standards on tour?
"Yeah, even a little bit better," he says between bites. "In Swans we all agree that eating tons of fresh fruits and vegetables is good for us, so our rider requests local fruits and veggies. When we show up to a club, the backstage looks like a produce section, except that there's a lot of beer, too."
When Harris hits the road with less established acts, he shops.
"As often as I'm looking for a restaurant, I'm looking for a decent grocery store and buy shit from the produce section, then graze on it all day instead of bombing my gut with one meal then sitting in the van. In some bleak corners of the Earth, the produce section is beaten down, but for the most part they've got worthwhile stuff."
Both on the road and at home, Harris avoids fast food as well as processed and dyed grocery items, remembering the adage, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
"Take these," he says, handing me a parting gift of Texas-grown grapefruits and pecans that he collected while recording at Sonic Ranch Studios, which is on an orchard. "This is real food."
An ume is a Japanese plum, often served pickled. "If you go to a Japanese market, you'll see them," observes Lauren Larson, frontwoman for Austin's heavy art-rock trio Ume. "They look like testicles."
"We've tasted them," confirms her bass-playing bandmate Eric Larson. "They're disgusting. But ume also means perseverance and devotion in Japanese."
That's a more fitting translation considering the Larsons have been married over a decade. They met in Houston's underground punk scene, with Eric being the first guy to ask for Lauren's number. They've been making music together ever since. Ume's early tours were hand-to-mouth, playing scattered shows at crust-punk houses and anarchist collectives, where food was often the only payment received. "That was part of booking," remembers the singer. "If we could get a meal out of it, then we could make it work."
Over the last couple of years, Ume's stepped up its touring, opening for Helmet, the Toadies, and Jane's Addiction, and hitting Europe. This year, with the upcoming release of third LP Monuments, the local threesome's road schedule should be equally busy. How does the Larsons' tour diet differ from their domestic life?
At home, they start each day with homemade juices, which Lauren says helps her with singing and her immune system. Taking the juicer on tour? Tempting, but cleaning it out in the dirty bathroom sink of a club isn't convenient. Of all the interstate fare, the Larsons and drummer Rachel Fuhrer prefer the down-home fixings of Cracker Barrel, while in urban environments the frontwoman uses Yelp and Trip Advisor for recommendations, which they also solicit from the club staff.
As part of Ume's 2012 Kickstarter campaign, they offered a "Foodie Pack" reward that included an international list of the 25 best restaurants the band visited on tour. Despite nine-hour drives, load-in, sound check, setting up merch, performing, and load-out, the Larsons frequently break off for some quality time together.
"That's what I look forward to most on the road," admits Eric. "To sit down for an hour and enjoy a nice meal – and have it with Lauren – is the best."
"We're the fastest-eating band around," laughs Eric Owen from a corner booth at a Mexican restaurant in East Austin. He and bandmate Kevin McKeown have finished their plates and I'm barely one taco in. "I'm from a family of six and Kevin's from seven, so you had to make sure you eat that shit up or you don't get seconds."
The Toronto transplants, who've played music together since adolescence, moved to Austin in 2009 and formed the heavy blues rock duo Black Pistol Fire. The best buds have shared many a meal, including one outrageous poutine- and burger-eating challenge that left them vomiting in and around a Canadian restaurant. That gastrological disaster notwithstanding, the duo are actually very conscientious eaters who understand how to eat efficiently in transit.
"Look at eating on tour a couple ways: the economics of it, your nutritional aspect, and then taste," prefaces Owen.
One daily staple, he explains, remains the Clif Bar, a high-density energy bar whose logo indicates it will prepare you to scale dangerous rock formations, and is readily available at most gas stations.
"That's usually breakfast," continues McKeown. "There's a lot of good stuff in it, and it provides for a pleasurable exit."
"We also eat a lot of $5 foot-longs from Subway," adds Owen. "On the interstate, that's the best option. You're driving by McDonald's, Wendy's, Carl's Jr., and you just say, 'Where can I get anything I won't feel terrible after eating?' Subway, at least, has fresh veggies and whole-grain bread, and it's affordable."
While occasionally a venue will provide dinner for Black Pistol Fire, most of the time they take the "buyout," which in McKeown's Canadian accent sounds like "buy-oot."
"A buyout is when the venue will give you cash to buy your own dinner," he explains. "We might get $30 or $40, then go purchase something simple and healthy, and save the leftover money."
A bad diet on tour results in lethal van farts and weight gain, but the worst possible consequence might be lethargy. "It's all about staying healthy and feeling good," nods Owen, "because in the end, you have to be able to drive all day then get on stage and rock your ass off."
Shakey Graves burns more calories onstage than most musicians. "I basically get up there and run in place for 45 minutes while singing," laughs the popular one-man band, who sings mysterious ballads while fingerpicking a guitar and working two foot pedals to beat a suitcase drum.
If he doesn't manage his preshow routine properly, a missed meal can have serious ramifications. "I've felt like passing out during a show," he says. "I felt like I was in the right zone when I hit the stage, but then I start exerting energy and realize I have no reserves and get lightheaded. It can be intense and surreal."
Graves describes his tour diet as "burning it clean." He avoids sugar and eats a lot of fruits and nuts. His hospitality rider furnishes him almonds, beef jerky, apples, wine, and a bottle of Jameson at every show – all durable items he can take with him in the van and munch on the next day. There's one item, not on his rider, that he can't live without. "I'm a disgusting coffee addict, especially on the road," he admits, shaking his head. "I've even been going to McDonald's because it's the only place I can find decent iced coffee in some areas."
The caffeine helps with the long drives between shows and also has notable digestive benefits. "I think that pooping properly, especially when you're traveling, is essential. If you're not pooping, you're fucked. Coffee is a cheater's way to pooping, but it works."
Tour life has turned the 26-year-old Austin native into a self-proclaimed "food dork."
"When you're traveling to new places all the time, it's fun to get excited about a local thing like getting fish on the East Coast or a cheesesteak at Pat's in Philadelphia or checking out some restaurant from a TV chef who's supposed to be badass," says Graves, who admits that, at least once, he's booked shows specifically to eat at a favorite restaurant.
Whether he's dining at a swank restaurant or assembling a "poor man's salad" in the parking lot of the Walmart where he just slept in his van, Graves understands that satisfaction from food is equally mental and physical.
"Ultimately, it all comes down to your brain," he posits. "If you think you're maintaining your body, you feel good. That's what matters.
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