May 27, 2010
As tour manager of alt-country band Deer Tick, Mike O'Neil has spent much of the past few years working from the back of a van. Today, he speaks with Converse.com contributor Alix McAlpine about his experiences on the road.
I met Mike O’Neil last summer when Matt & Kim offered a dozen of my friends and I a ride back from the beach at Fort Tilden in their big red tour van. We piled in, some of us squeezed in on the back banquette, some cramped five-deep in the windowless trunk, some of us perched Indian-style on the van’s floor, and poor Mike was smushed in the corner by the window, hugging his bike, trying like the rest of us to not panic at the overcrowded situation as we inched slowly forward on the Belt Parkway. A few days ago I got to pick Mike’s brain about what exactly his life is like when he’s not bartending or zipping around on his bike delivering pizza, but when he is, just like the day I met him, crammed in a van full of people, touring the country. In the past few years, this young Springfield, Massachusetts native went from working merch for local favorites Matt & Kim to tour managing folk rock quartet Deer Tick, who he is currently out on the road with.
AM: I met you when you were still working for Matt & Kim. How did you start working with them?
MO: I met Matt and Kim around six years ago. My good friend in high school was in the same program as Matt at Pratt. I’d come to Brooklyn from Massachusetts for warehouse shows and whatnot and realized someday I’d need to live there. After a few years, I ended up in Brooklyn, interning for D.I.Y. show-thrower Todd P and sort of re-met everyone. During college, Matt and Kim had asked me to travel here and there, but school had prevented it. The day after I took down my thesis photography show, they flew me to L.A. to meet up with the tour they were on and I’ve been out with them in one way or another about six times since then. I’ve always wanted to do more than merch, but M&K is an operation I’m not quite prepared to tour manage yet. Recently, I’ve been with Providence, RI band Deer Tick. This is my first US tour with them. I’ve gone out for a week or two here and there, but this one is 6 weeks. I’m in the van with four of my best friends and my brother [a member of Deer Tick] about seven hours a day.
AM: What is your favorite part of touring? Your least favorite?
MO: This is by far the most insane country in the world. We were in Vermont two weeks ago and there were forests of birch trees and melting snow that is flooding the entire region. Now I’m in the desert and it’s 95 and dry. Aside from the landscape, I’ll forever stand by the idea that America is the best country in the world. I think touring bands take for granted how good we have it here and tend to lose sight of this stuff. This country rules, and I wouldn’t tour any other for months on end. And with Deer Tick I get to be with my brother. We have some heavy stuff happening back in Massachusetts, so it’s good to live in this van together for a few months. When I’m out with anyone else, we just end up criss-crossing and we won’t see each other for up to a year. For brothers in the same profession and 15 months apart, that’s pretty bad.
[On the downside,] I have poor bladder control and have to pee out anything I take in every 30 minutes or so, which is pretty annoying. Also I tend to be too busy to take photographs.
AM: Which comfort from home do you miss the most?
MO: I miss pizza. Every time I go back to Brooklyn it’s all I’ll eat for a few days. I stand by the statement there is no pizza worth eating in this country outside New York. [So] awful. Aside from my girlfriend and pizza, I miss my bike.
AM: On the flip side, is there anything you take out on the road with you that you can’t live without?
MO: Sounds [crappy], but as a tour manager, if I lost my phone or computer, my job would be essentially gone with them. Plus, they help me to keep in touch with back home and set up hangs with friends in future cities, which is always nice. I also need my camera(s). Someday, when I’m old and every band I’ve worked for is famous, I’ll publish them all and be rich and famous myself. Oh, and clean underwear.
AM: Do you have any good gross out stories from being in the van or on the road in general?
MO: When you have seven dudes in a twelve passenger Chevy Express towing a 3000 lb trailer containing merch, gear, and irreplaceable vintage instruments, there tend to be more bottles of pee lying around than water, which is tricky. Especially when you’re wearing sunglasses or it’s dark out. Also, it’s great to go to grocery stores and make healthy sandwiches instead of fast food, but if you lose a slice of turkey it gets [nasty] in here fast.
AM: You must meet a lot of people while out on the road, can you tell us a story of some exceptional hospitality you’ve encountered out there?
MO: Just this morning our good buddy Jacob Smigel made us homemade Mexican quiche with home-roasted peppers and tomatoes, homefries, beermosas, and coffee. That ruled. I once had someone sleep on their own floor and insist I take the bed. That was pretty awkward.
AM: Did you ever think you’d be touring the country for a living? What did you think you’d be when you grew up?
MO: Funny story: I went to college in Providence for event management and hated it. I transferred, got into photography, worked for Todd P in Brooklyn and went on tour the day I finished school. I wanted to study something in school I could tolerate for those four years, then figure out a job I liked after. I’m happy and I’m getting paid to do what I want to. That’s sort of the definition success, right? I’ll be doing this for a while.