Coffin Beds and Dance Parties: On The Road With A Christian Band
What are the first things that come to mind when you hear about bands touring?
Take a second.
For me it was drugs, sex, booze, and the glam of it all. But believe it or not, that’s not always the case. At all. At least not during my recent experience.
I got the opportunity to have this eye-opening experience this past winter thanks to a good friend of mine. Chuck is the tour manager of a band called Family Force 5. Yeah, I’d never heard of them before either but turns out they’re pretty awesome (and if you get a chance make sure to listen to their latest CD “Time Stands Still”. You won’t be disappointed). I asked Chuck once what it was like to tour with a band, and he invited me to join them for a weekend on Winter Jam, a Christian tour with ten bands which travel to 47 cities, every weekend for 3 months. I thought Chuck was a little crazy for asking me at first. I mean, I’m going to just get on a tour bus with a bunch of guys I’d never heard of, and travel to different cities? I remembered my promise to myself when I turned 30: do something out of the ordinary. So I took Chuck up on his offer, and my life will never be the same. I learned how things worked behind the scenes, met new people, and really understood the sacrifices some of these musicians make.
I first met Family Force 5 after flying out to Chicago at the end of January. I stood in front of the tour bus freaking out a little because I wasn’t sure what to expect.
On the inside was well, a tour bus: a front lounge, bunks in the middle, and then a back lounge. Oh, and a tiny little bathroom where you can’t flush toilet paper or poop into (TMI? Sorry, this was one of the first things everyone warned me about). The five members of the band and the crew welcomed me. Lead singer Jake already had a nickname for me: “Zar Zar Beans.”
Jake then set up his steam thingy-ma-bob and started inhaling steam for that night’s performance (guess it helps his voice), and his brother and bass player Josh was in the back strumming his guitar. It was so cool to see how these guys prepared.
It was time to eat lunch, so inside the venue we went (the tour has chefs who travel with them). The halls were filled with band and crew members, people running around, pushing giant pieces of equipment around as they tried to get things in place for the night’s performances.
In catering, the bands didn’t just sit with their band mates, they sat with everyone on the tour. There weren’t really any cliques. It honestly felt like a giant family. I loved (and was kind of giddy) that I was able to eat with all these talented musicians. I stared more at the people than the food on my plate (and that says something about me). Things got even more exciting when I realized that John from Skillet was sitting at the table across from me. Skillet was really the only band I was familiar with on the entire tour.
Next stop was to see the stage being put together for the performance. So much went into it all: the lights, the screens, instruments. I just sat there with Chuck in silence and watched the stage slowly come together and the whole thing get built up from the bottom.
(Pictures are of different stages in a few of the cities)
Soon it was time for the concert to start. Thousands of people who had stood in line for HOURS streamed into the venue to see their favorite bands perform.
Thanks to Chuck I got to stand to the side of the stage and watch the musicians prepare before their acts started: getting mic’d up, checking their instruments, maybe sing a note or two. They went on stage and performed. Then once they were done, they had to grab their gear and get it out the way for the next band. It was rushed and seemed quite hectic and made me sweat just watching them run around.
The time had come for Family Force 5 to perform. They came to the side of the stage and got ready for their act. The five guys were all dressed up in their brightly-colored outfits and ridiculous jackets. They high-fived me as they each climbed the steps to get in place for their performance. Getting to see Family Force 5 on stage was extra special because I had just met these guys that morning and watched them prepare for the show… and here they were in costume and putting on an amazing performance for the thousands of people in the room. The lights. The music. Jake’s LED jacket. The jumping around on little trampolines. The moment when Jake took the camera from the camera man and walked around the stage with it. It was spectacular and I was soaking it all in. (You can watch their entire performance here)
Watching Skillet was a lot of fun as well because I’d been listening to their music for years and had never seen them in concert until that night. I especially enjoyed watching Chu, the violinist, play his violin and jump around just a few feet in front of me as he got ready to take the stage with Skillet. I’ve always had so much respect for his talents.
After the show was done, we had to rush upstairs and wade through crowds for signing. Hundreds upon hundreds of people stood in line to get autographs and take pictures with Family Force 5. Children were so excited as they got closer to their turn. One kid, who was probably 5 or 6, screamed, “I’M SO NERVOUS I’M GOING TO DIE!!!!” And the five guys signed every…single…CD, paper, hat, shirt, whatever it was…and took selfies until there was no one left in line. There were never any sighs or signs of annoyance on their part (even when I thought, “Oh my God…this person is being obnoxious”). They just kept going.
When everything was over we all headed back to the tour bus where everyone hung out and talked. Some of the guys called their wives to tell them about their night (something I realized they did every night). I felt so lucky to be part of this whole crazy day.
And then it was time for the bus to leave to the next venue (shout out to the most awesome bus driver Aaron). Chuck looked at me and said, “If you need to do anything but pee, go now because we’d have to stop otherwise.” This of course caused panic to set in. What if I suddenly had to poop in the middle of the night (that’s never happened by the way) and then the whole bus would know why we stopped at a truck stop?? My other option was taking a plastic bag and lining the toilet with it and then pooping in that. I was mortified. Thankfully, I never had to poop in the middle of the night and none of these things had to happen.
More panic set in when it was time to get into my bunk to sleep. So here’s how it works. Everyone has a bunk. There are 12 of them: 3 stacked high, 2 wide. And they’re small. Like a coffin. With a curtain for privacy. I am claustrophobic. So when I climbed into my bunk, which was the top one, I was not happy. I was sure I was going to suffocate or die in the tiny little 7 by 3 death bed. I’m glad to say I’m still alive and did get some sleep once I got somewhat comfortable. I do also have to point out that there was a lot of rocking because of all the bumps in the road. That’s something the band apparently gets used to. For the record, I never got used to it.
I was very happy to still be alive the next morning when we arrived in Pittsburgh. It was this day when I realized something about bands that tour. A lot of people think band members get to see so many cities. But all they really see, for the most part, is the outside and inside of the venue, maybe a nearby coffee shop if they get lucky. Their day is spent preparing for their performances and there really isn’t much time to explore or do much else. Like in Chicago, a few of us did get lucky enough to get away for about 45 minutes. Josh, Chuck, and I got a chance to head to a Target nearby and get some Starbucks.
Unfortunately I had to go back home that evening before the show in Pittsburgh. But the moment I stepped onto my plane, I told Chuck that I wanted to come out on another tour and experience it all over again. And I did. I flew out to Cincinnati a few weeks later, and then a third time to Wichita.
Despite seeing the show several times my third weekend in, I still looked forward to all the performances. On my last day in Oklahoma City, show time came quickly and I watched the bands (for the fifth time) go on stage, perform, and rush off for the next group. It was pretty much the same spiel as every other night before for each band: “Hello (insert city name). How are we doing tonight?!” etc. I thought, “How can these bands do this every night and not get bored with it?” I think I get it though. It was the reaction from the crowd, that energy and excitement, that really seemed to make everything worth it.
For instance, Joel from For King and Country gave out a bracelet to a young girl every concert to pretty much tell her she has worth and that men should honor and respect her. I’ve seen that moment happen several times, and it becomes routine most likely. But watching the reaction from the girls who get those bracelets is so emotional. It tears at my heart strings when the girl takes the bracelet from Joel, looks completely shocked, and then begins to cry and laugh at the same time. I’m sure it’s a story and moment they’ll remember forever…and it could possibly, for at least one night, change the way they feel about themselves.
I was lucky that I was able to tour with Family Force 5 for those three weekends, including in my own home state, good ole’ Palace of Auburn Hills. And each time, I understood more and more that it wasn’t all glitz and glam. On every tour, the guys would talk about missing home, missing their wives, their family (although sometimes the wives/family members came out for some of the tours, which was great to see them being supportive). One night Derek’s (guitar player) parents came to the show. I stood next to them when Family Force 5 performed. I watched Derek’s mom and dad react as their son played his guitar and danced around on stage. The smiles on their faces and the obvious pride they had for their son was so heart-warming. I think I watched them more than the band that night (creeper right here).
I really realized that things weren’t all that glamorous when I talked with Deena from the group Veridia one day as I was waiting for the shower to become available. (I had to use the showers in the girls’ dressing room. Side note: I was more comfortable the second weekend asking if I could use their shower and actually held conversations instead of awkwardly running out the room once I was done). Deena said she loved touring but she never realized all the things that came with living her dream of singing and performing: being away from her husband, missing important events, friends, family. But despite all this, Deena said it was worth it. Musicians continue to do it all because it is something they love to do and because of the fans; the fans who come out to see their favorite bands perform, who scream in excitement when the groups come on stage, who sing every word of every song and look up to these bands, maybe as role models, or maybe to get away from sadness in their lives.
In just the three weekends I got to travel with Family Force 5 during Winter Jam, I met so many people and learned so many things. I have to be honest, going into it all I had no idea what to expect. I was also worried that me being Muslim would be an issue on an all Christian tour, but everyone was so friendly.
I still miss the after-show dance parties that were held on the bus where people did gymnastics off the bunks and danced against the side of an open bathroom door. I miss the late night talks and laughs with some of the crew and band members as we traveled to the next venue, and I miss getting to know and talking to the musicians on tour.
And by the way, there was no booze, sex and drugs on this tour. Just a bunch of wonderfully-talented people who love to have fun. And I’m lucky I got to experience it and be a part of it all.
(Wearing Jake’s glasses)
(Should I mess with the board during FF5’s performance?)
(posing with Skillet)
(I love their silliness.. Left to right: Derek, Teddy, Josh, Nate, and Jake)