>>> Down Under with the UK Subs <<<
An interview with tour promoter TIM EDWARDS
By Marc Brekau
With the UK Subs about to embark on their final tour of New Zealand and Australia in September/October 2013, Time & Matter's Marc Brekau, who himself lives in Australia, presents an interview he did last year with the New Zealand based tour promoter Tim Edwards, of Punk Rock Road Trips.
It's a fascinating insight into all the hard work Tim does...
UK SUBS DOWN UNDER 2013
25: The Civic, Perth, Australia
26: The Bendigo, Melbourne, Australia
27: Enigma, Adelaide, Australia
28: Hermann’s Bar, Sydney, Australia
29: Magpies City Club, Canberra, Australia
30: Hamilton Station Hotel, Newcastle, Australia
02: Prince of Wales Hotel Nundah, Brisbane, Australia
03: Dux Live, Christchurch, New Zealand
04: Bodega, Wellington, New Zealand
05: The Kings Arms, Auckland, New Zealand
For many bands, a visit to Australia and New Zealand can be a rewarding and engaging experience. Despite the tyranny of distance from England – both countries are located on the bottom right hand side of the global map – Australia and New Zealand continue to remain high on the ‘must tour’ list for many of today’s punk rock bands.
However, touring down under can also be an expensive and time consuming exercise. Many employ the ‘low budget, no budget’ approach to touring Australia and New Zealand, and arrive with few insights into the logistical challenges a tour of this nature can present. For example, in Australia the distance between capital cities can vary from 900kms between Melbourne and Sydney or Adelaide (a 9-10 hour drive by car with minimal breaks, longer if you stop), to 3,500kms between Melbourne and Perth (Perth is the most remote city in the world, and it’s a journey that can take 3.5 hours by air or 72 hours by road, if you could drive straight through without a break). And unlike the UK and Europe, there are few towns between the capital cities to support live gigs. Where a town does exist, they may be too small to support live gigs, or hold an audience with minimal interest in punk or rock (no disrespect to the country folk, but I know punk is rarely your bag!) To make the journey from Melbourne to Hobart, you either fly for an hour or travel overnight by ferry, which can take up to 10 hours, weather and sea conditions permitting (Bass Strait, which separates Tasmania from mainland Australia, is also considered one of the world’s most dangerous ocean crossings!)
While in New Zealand, you have a beautiful country that affords few straight highways, resulting in a slower travel time between cities and venues. For example, the distance from Auckland to Wellington in the North Island is around 640kms and takes 9 hours, give or take an hour for traffic. To reach Christchurch in the South Island you either fly from Wellington or catch the ferry from Picton, both of which can add time and cost to your itinerary. Although airfares have become more affordable over the years, especially if you book in advance, many bands still rely on vans and coaches to get them around Australia and New Zealand, which increases the travel time (and monotony associated with same.)
Despite the problem of distance, and the cost associated with touring, many bands have successfully toured around Australia and New Zealand. Often employing the punk ethos of ‘low budget, no budget’, their tours have been sustained through the generosity of fans, and the revenue generated from ticket and merchandise sales. Some tours lose money, some break even and occasionally, just occasionally, some make a profit.
One thing that makes touring sustainable for bands like the UK Subs is the commitment and experience of independent promoters like Tim Edwards. Tim operates Punk Rock Road Trips, an Auckland based company that was born in 2008, with the primary goal of managing the UK Subs second tour of New Zealand. Since then, Tim's business has grown organically, and he has successfully toured bands like Strike Anywhere, DOA, The Business, Sham 69, GBH, The Varukers, The Vibrators, Steve Ignorant (from Crass) and the aforementioned UK Subs. Not once, but twice! Not a bad CV for someone who works full time; manages a young family after hours and positions his sideline business as 'just a hobby.'
I first encountered Tim after seeing The Business play Melbourne's landmark venue The Tote, at the tail end of 2011. While watching the band, I had stood beside Tim at the PA, but I didn’t know who he was per se, or that his company, Punk Rock Road Trips, had organised this tour. After the gig I emailed Tim via his website, seeking the return of my entrance ticket. A strange request I know, but I have always retained my ticket as a reminder of the gigs I have attended. Being the friendly and obliging chap he is, Tim kindly posted me a signed ticket from the gig, and then revealed that he had toured the UK Subs in Melbourne (and across Australia) in 2009. I had also attended that gig, and as a fan of the band I dropped him a line seeking an interview for the Time and Matter website. He kindly agreed, and I am indebted to Tim for his time and insights on the UK Subs, and their adventures down under.
I began by asking him about his association with the New Zealand music scene. ‘Well I’ve been a fan of punk since the 1980’s. I also played in my own band, Last Orders. We’ve played a few gigs here and there, and we’ve broken up and reformed a few times as well! But we never really amounted to much as a musical concern, as we mainly played local gigs. New Zealand has always maintained a small, but vibrant, local punk scene, and Last Orders were just one small part of that scene. More recently I had a short stint playing bass with another local band, The Bludgers, but beyond that I have been more a fan and less a musician.’
So why did you form Punk Rock Road Trips? ‘Well, it’s an unusual story, for I never set out to become a music promoter. It more or less happened by accident and the same comment applies to my association with the UK Subs, as they were the first band I promoted in NZ. Back tracking, the band had first toured NZ back in 2007, but they only played Auckland and Wellington. During the tour a friend of mine, Bryce, got Charlie Harper’s email address, so he could buy some records from him once they returned to England. Between emails Bryce found out that Charlie wanted to return to NZ the following year, so they could undertake a more extensive tour. Bryce knew I was a huge fan of the band, and asked if I could help them out. Of course I said ‘Hell yeah!’, for as far as I was concerned, that was the stuff dreams were made of. Bryce also felt that if anyone was going to make the tour happen, it would be me. Even though I had no experience touring bands, and was already working full time in another job, I had to have a go. So I started Punk Rock Road Trips and toured the UK Subs. Since then I have brought out other acts, including The Varukers, The Business (twice), Sham 69, DOA and Steve Ignorant, among others.’
So how would you describe your business? ‘Basically, Punk Rock Road Trips is a one-man promotion band that tours punk bands as a hobby (with a little help from my friends, of course). A key feature is that I only tour the bands I like, mainly bands I grew up listening to in my youth from the 1980’s and 90’s (the UK 82 era bands, as a guide). I try and organise a couple of tours each year, in between managing my day job and my family, which is not so easy as I have two young children now. But I’ve done okay so far, and that keeps the momentum up for future tours’.
Tim recalls seeing the band on their first tour of NZ, which was also the first time he had seen the UK Subs live. ‘Oh yes, I remember that tour well, as I went to the Auckland gig. Given our location (geographically), and after that first tour, I never expected the band to tour here again. Unfortunately for them, the 2007 shows were not particularly well promoted, and as a result the crowds were not as good as they could have been. I initially thought this might put the band off touring NZ again, but once I started communicating with Charlie, I found they were extremely keen to return for another tour.’
I understand you started Punk Rock Road Trips without having any prior experience as either a promoter, or tour manager. Did this fact concern you at the time? ‘Yes and no. Previously I had booked gigs for Last Orders, so I had some idea on what the UK Subs were expecting from me, as their promoter. I also believed that I could do a good job for them. That was key to my success with that tour, the self-belief that I could make it work. Looking back now, I also knew that I had nothing to lose either, money aside. My view was simple. If the tour didn’t work then I'd simply shut up shop and never organise another tour. Back then (as it is today) I had a full time job, and I viewed the idea of running a promotion company as something that would be fun and enjoyable, like a hobby. As I said earlier, I had nothing to lose, and I held the belief that I could do a good job in touring the band in question.’
‘Once the tour discussion took off, and the band confirmed their tour dates, I started to work harder on the tour. Looking back now, I have to say I was keen as fuck and naive as hell, because I booked this mad tour across New Zealand for them. I took them to many places that punk bands generally don't get to. We even got as far south as Dunedin, which turned out to be a great place with loads of fans at the gig, including an ex-UK Subs roadie. At the end it proved to be a great tour, and overall I felt that it was an overwhelming success. It turned out that many of the smaller towns were chuffed that a band like the UK Subs were coming to visit, and the locals turned out in droves to show their support!’
‘After the tour, I thought I had done a good enough job to keep the business running. I certainly knew I had done a good job in managing the band and their tour expectations, and this was confirmed when the band asked me to book another tour for them in 2009. But this time around, they also wanted me to throw in some Australian dates as well. Since that tour, the whole enterprise has taken on a life of its own, and I have now done a lot more tours, often running across both countries. Once that tour had finished, I found there were other bands wanting to come down under, so much so that I’ve had to say no to a few bands, which is unfortunate. But I cannot be all things to all bands. Since that tour I have endured a kind of love / hate relationship with the business. It can be extremely hard to deal with all the challenges it presents. But that's balanced by the positive side of the business, like meeting passionate people, many of whom will offer to help out, and touring with the bands I grew up listening too. This always makes up for the challenges I face, and in turn this makes me continue with the business.’
Were you a fan of the band beforehand? ‘Absolutely. I’ve been a Subs fan since I first heard them back in the mid 1980’s. And here’s a funny story for you, I’ve always held a personal fantasy about the band. I’ve always imagined that one day I would run off to England and play bass with them! But the dream remains exactly that, so Alvin's role is well and truly safe within the band. For me, the next best thing to playing with them was promoting them. I think that going on tour is the closest one can get to being in a band, without physically playing in the band, so upon reflection I’ve come pretty close to achieving the dream I had.‘
Is the concept of running Punk Rock Road Trips more like a hobby, than a full time concern, given your other commitments? ‘Oh yes, I definitely run the business as a hobby. My idea is to only tour the bands I like, mainly for the love of it. But I guess, in the long term, after I’ve toured all the bands I personally want to, I could apply the skills I’ve learnt toward something more lucrative, and possibly make a living out of it. Although I have no illusions about how hard the music game is, especially given the current financial environment. I believe that to get anywhere in life you have to have a dream, and then do your best to try and make the dream happen. As I said earlier, it’s still early days for me as a tour promoter, so you’ll need to ask this question again after I have toured all the bands I love.’
‘I think the challenges I have are the same for all promoters in NZ. Having said this, my main focus is to tour the bands I like, and when they arrive I make sure they enjoy themselves, and then leave without holding any regrets about coming here. This applies on two levels - financial and personal. New Zealand, like Australia, is far from where the bands usually tour, and when they tour they are 100% reliant on people like me to ensure their journey and tour is both enjoyable and profitable. They don’t want to arrive 12,000 miles from home and find the tour is a disorganised affair, or worse still, find they have no money to get back home when the tours end.’
‘I also think it’s important to find a venue that has a good production level, preferably one suitable for an international band. At the same time, it has to be a venue that is neither too big nor small. I mean to say, there’s no point booking a 1000 person venue when you know the band is only going to pull a crowd of 200. Likewise, you don’t want to cram 200 people into a venue that can only handle 50. It’s always a juggling act to fit the right venue to the band I tour. The same comment applies to the support bands. Good (and helpful) support bands are definitely an asset for the shows I organise.’
When you organise a tour, do the bands require anything in advance from you, aside from the airfares? ‘Not really, as most of the expenditure for the tour, and their requirements, will be covered by ticket and merchandise sales. We usually discuss things like accommodation, food, equipment, venues and financial expectations well in advance. As the promoter, it’s my role to ensure their requirements are in place for the duration of the tour.’
So in the case of the UK Subs, was the NZ tour of 2008 and 2009 funded solely by ticket sales, or a combination of merchandise, ticket sales and the generosity of the venues you booked? ‘Yes, it’s the ticket sales that cover the big costs, like airfares. It’s good if you can generate advance sales, as this helps you financially, and allows you to gauge how well the tour is progressing, often well before the band arrives. Once the tour starts, a combination of ticket and merchandise sales will provide the money to cover the bands day-to-day living expenses, like food, entertainment and pocket money.’
‘In the US and Europe, many bands will have their meals and rider supplied by the venues (well in most cases, at least). But down under, the provision of meals, riders and even accommodation, when it’s available, is always achieved through negotiation. I never assume that the band will get food and drink when they play, and as a promoter I'm always embarrassed to tell them that the food and booze bill is coming off their tour expenses! Thankfully, I think I have been fortunate to work with bands that have been around for a while, and have an understanding and appreciation of what it takes to tour places like NZ. I also believe they appreciate the chance to tour such countries, and as such they will often put aside their usual requirements just to ensure the tour happens. If they demand too much, it may prove unrealistic to tour them down under, and this situation is something I try to avoid. I don't want bands to hold false expectations when they travel down under.'
'For example, the UK Subs first toured down under in 2007, yet they formed in 1977, so it took almost 30 years for someone to bring them out. Ditto bands like The Varukers, DOA, GBH, Sham 69 and The Business. All of them have ventured down under well after they had peaked in England and the USA, so I think the fact they have someone wanting to bring them down under helps promoters like me. They don’t hold grandiose ideas when they arrive. If they did, they would be well disappointed, and we’d probably not have the opportunity to see them tour this part of the world as a result.’
What is involved 'behind the scenes' when setting up a tour, prior to the bands arrival? ‘The itinerary is the big one for me. Typically this dictates where the band will play, on what night of the week and the geographic location of the gig. Once you have confirmed the itinerary, you can then fill in the rest of the tour requirements, like where to advertise, when to book gear, accommodation, flights etc. The list is sometimes endless, but it’s a crucial part of the role I play as both promoter and tour manager.’
On the band’s last tour in 2009 you covered both Australia and New Zealand. How did you manage to set up the Oz side of the tour, given you are based in NZ? ‘That’s correct. I did manage both countries during that tour. Prior to this, I had only toured the band in NZ. For the 2009 tour I had a lot of help from another Kiwi promoter and friend of mine, Pudd, who was living in Australia at the time. Another friend, the late Nigel Halloren (R.I.P), had done a few tours before and offered loads of advice to help me tour the band in Oz. We also stayed at his house in Sydney, which was a great help as we played several gigs in that city. I also used MySpace a lot to promote the tour, back when MySpace was still good, ha ha!’
Can you give us any insights into the bands’ requirements when they tour (i.e. the rider), or what is generally offered by venues, to the bands, when they play. ‘With the exception of one or two venues, that have been really good with free accommodation, and generally speaking, we are lucky if we get a free case of beer from the venues we play. As for band requirements, I found the UK Subs were easy going, and not excessive with their requirements or demands. There were minor considerations to manage for Nicky Garratt, who is a vegetarian and doesn’t drink. He also loves to play table tennis when he gets the chance, so I tried and help him find a place to play when we had the time. As for Charlie and Yuko, they love fishing, so I try and find them a place to fish in each area we visit, again when time allows. Interestingly, Charlie and Yuko bring their own telescopic rods in their luggage, and every time we drive past a lake or river they would insist we stop for a quick fishing break. But beyond that the band members are easy going, and don’t generally make great demands of me as their promoter.’
Did you notice any differences within the crowd the band pulled in Oz and NZ? ‘No, not really. The UK Subs seem to attract a mixed crowd, and at their gigs you’ll see everything from the Mohawk crowd through to the shirt wearing, weekend warrior types. Everyone gets along well, and I’ve found that the crowds they pull always seem to have a great night out with the band.’
Over the years it seems the band have sustained themselves using a 'low budget, no budget' approach to touring. Is that how you found them on the 2009 tour?
‘I think the Subs are realistic about the market they operate in, and like to keep things at a level where they feel comfortable, and can keep an eye on what’s going on with their tours. Borrowing equipment, or asking for favours here and there, especially from willing fans, is pretty standard for most tours of this nature. Most punk bands appear to adopt this philosophy when they tour, especially today, and I found the Subs were no different in this regard, despite their reputation and longevity within the music scene.’
I've always viewed tour promoters as tour guides, in that they entertain their visitors at a local and cultural level. As a Kiwi, do you attempt to do this for tours in NZ? ‘Absolutely, I always try to be a good ambassador for my country, and make a day or two available for sightseeing or fishing, or whatever. Obviously it’s easier for me in my own country, but I take a similar approach with the Australian shows. That’s a big part of what I try and offer these bands. I give them the opportunity to see some of the ‘real’ country, and not just the inside of hotels and pubs.’
With the first tour, in both Aus and NZ, it seemed the band played frequently, and across both countries, but sometimes to low crowds. What did you do to address this with their second tour? ‘Well I assume you’re talking about the 2007 tour? I wasn’t involved in that tour at all, so I can’t really comment. But the tours I did in 2008 and 2009 were very successful, and we enjoyed decent crowds even in some pretty remote parts of Australia. I work hard to promote the tour and gig, and I think that has helped me generate the crowds for them. Regarding the shows, I usually reckon less is more, as there’s no point playing more shows than is actually feasible. With the punk bands I tour, there are only so many fans out there to see them, so there’s no point in overkill where tour dates are concerned.’
What were some of the high and low lights of your last tour with the Subs? ’The highlights would definitely be playing in some of the remoter places, like Hobart and Perth in Oz and Dunedin in NZ, and finding we had pulled a decent crowd. With a decent crowd you know the band will have a great gig. The downside would definitely be driving for days on end. Bands don’t realise how big our countries are until they hit the road and experience it for themselves. Oh, and sleeping on floors or in flea-bitten motels!’
Tim, you seem to operate as both tour manager and promoter with the bands you manage. What pressure does this place on you personally? ‘It keeps me busy, that’s for sure! As a small operator, I have to be mindful of costs, and often there’s no budget available to hire extra support, like a road manager. Generally speaking, everything is tight financially, and you have to be mindful of the costs, otherwise you might find yourself taking a financial hit. And that’s something I can ill afford to do in my game. Typically, for all my tours, my role will be tour organiser, on road tour manager, Chief Financial Officer, equipment supplier and roadie. As I said earlier, I take on these roles because there’s no budget to outsource it, and partly because it’s my hobby, and that’s what I want to do (when I tour).’
Watch the Subs playing 'Rockers' at Bar Bodega, Wellington, New Zealand. 22.10.09
Watch the Subs playing 'B.1.C.' at Bar Bodega, Wellington, New Zealand. 22.10.09
I understand that you own most of the equipment that you use when touring. What cover do you have in the event something gets damaged? ‘For the New Zealand tours, I’ve gradually built up enough back line to operate a tour with just my own gear and I generally loan it to the bands to save on equipment costs. In Australia I do a mixture of beg, borrow and hire, depending on what we need, and when. Regarding damage, I don’t have any special insurance for anything that gets broken, if that’s what you mean. But we always make sure that spare amps are available at the gig, just in case something breaks down on the night.’
‘Although I’ve learnt that sometimes you simply have to manage the madness as and when it occurs. On the first tour, each gig was a learning experience in its own right. I remember one memorable gig when Nicky’s amp blew up, 30 seconds into the first song of the tour, and I didn't have a spare one. The fans were screaming for the band, while I desperately tried to borrow an amp from the support bands. It seemed to get quite wild at one point, and I honestly thought the fans were going to tear the place apart, and lynch me. Eventually I got it sorted, and the band played a fantastic gig. But it taught me a valuable lesson about using good equipment, and making sure a spare amp was nearby for the next gig. As a promoter, I gained a lot of confidence from that tour, and I like to think I have evolved from there into a promoter the bands can both like and trust.’
What do you most enjoy about your role? ‘In addition to touring the bands I like, I get great satisfaction from seeing the tour finally come together. When the band’s on stage, I can stand at the back of the room with a beer, look at everything going on and think, ‘hell, I made this happen.’ I also like meeting people who share the love for the bands I tour. When people recognise me, and come across to say hello, or buy me a beer, it can be a great feeling. And then there is the interaction with the band members themselves, bands you've been listening to for years and are now friends with. On the downside, it’s hard to say no to the bands that approach me, seeking a support slot on the tours I organise. There's simply not enough time for all the bands who want to play with them.'
'Another issue is managing the people madness that seems to come with being a promoter. I often find myself dealing with situations that are not of my doing, and I have found people will try and blame me for their issues, or frustrations, often when it’s got nothing to actually do with my role as promoter or tour manager. When I started I was quite green in this regard, but I wised up quickly, as I try and make the tours I manage as enjoyable as possible. But when something niggles the band, or individual band members, you can easily find yourself being blamed for the issue, and that’s hard to deal with as you are trying to manage the tour and the band, and at the same time make sure they enjoy themselves and, concurrently, ensure you enjoy yourself at the same time. It’s damned hard to get it right all the time, but I try.’
I was keen to more know about the individual members of the UK Subs on tour. But Tim, being the consummate professional gentlemen, was keen to keep quiet about what he observed and experienced. ‘Now you know that old rock and roll adage, about what goes on tour stays on tour. Well I can’t divulge much about what happens with you and the readers, and for different reasons I guess I could write an entire book about what happens on each tour. Having said that, I can tell you that Jamie was the most mischievous member, and often he would find himself having some kind of on-tour adventure. I recall a nice story about him and the Customs people in NZ, but as a gentleman I’ll have to let Jamie tell you about that one!’
‘Having been with them for an entire tour, you get to see them a lot closer than your average fan would. Overall, I found them all to be very nice people, who operated effectively as a band. Bands are akin to teams, in that you have individuals operating in a team environment. And they all work well in this regard. But away from the stage, they are completely different individuals; from their interests and hobbies, to their outlook and experiences in life. Yet as a band they put these differences aside and function brilliantly as a band.'
'It’s quite interesting to see these different personalities in action, as on tour you see them at work (playing live) and then at play and rest. They are an interesting mix in that you have older musicians playing with younger ones.'
So what differences did you note Tim? 'Well if we had a day off, Nicky would be looking to play table tennis; any chance of a game and he was off, even if it meant playing with strangers! He’s also a great cook, so he’d get stuck into cooking whenever the opportunity presented itself. I mentioned earlier that Charlie and Yuko love fishing, and we’ve done a few fishing trips when time has allowed. They’re quite passionate in this regard, and they would often want to cast their lines into any stream that looked big enough to hold a fish! As for Chema and Jamie, well they love their drinking and ‘socialising’, which they both did whenever they could.’
Pictured right: Tim (left) - pictured with Charlie...
When you finish a tour, do you conduct any formal post-tour review with the band members? ‘Not specifically, I don’t do anything so formal as such. I find you can assess the tour as it progresses, especially if everyone is happy with what’s going on. When you are living so close to the band, essentially living in their back pocket for two weeks, you soon get to know how everyone is feeling, irrespective of whether it’s good or bad. Thankfully for me, most of the feedback has been good!’
I understand you are trying to tour The Subhumans this year, but do you have any plans to tour the UK Subs again? 'Yes, I am looking forward to the Subhumans tour, as they are making their debut down under. I think they will do well, although the shows are most likely to be in smaller pubs and clubs. As for the Subs, well we have had some discussions about another tour, but I have not been able to get anything booked as yet, which is unfortunate. But I am open to the idea of another tour, and I think the band would love to come down under again, so I’m sure we will see them back in the near future. You'll have to keep an eye out on the Punk Rock Road Trips and Time and Matter websites for details, if and when they emerge.'
Tim paints an interesting picture about life on the road as a tour promoter and manager, and the challenges of managing tours for a band like the UK Subs. Bands that rely on his talents when they tour down under. Without Tim, they may not have toured as frequently as they have done, and hopefully will continue to do so.
Marc Brekau and Tim Edwards, June 2012.
Above: Marc - click image to enlarge
Interview first published 25 August 2013