For a touring musician, the open road can quickly become a drag. One must juggle travel time, performing, shared hotel rooms and an unappetizing array of gas station snacks. The hours between between load-in and showtime require spending time in an unfamiliar watering hole that mostly resembles last night’s watering hole. Musicians are always calculating the thin margin between going for broke and just going broke.
It's a fatiguing cycle that local musician and studio owner John Vanderslice doesn’t miss.
“You’re like, 'Shit, we’re in Norman, Oklahoma on a Monday night, maybe we should flip this other date,'" he says, "And you start playing this chess game, and it’s just too complicated.”
With over one thousand live performances under his belt, it's no wonder Vanderslice grew weary of life on the road. He wrapped up his last tour in 2013, following the release of his last two albums, Dagger Beach and Vanderslice Plays Diamond Dogs, that same year. With his San Francisco analog recording studio, Tiny Telephone, in high demand, it made sense to call it quits on the touring front and channel his energies into nurturing his business, which expanded into Oakland in 2016 and is now angling at a third location in Los Angeles.
After some years away from the stage, Vanderslice found himself missing musician life. He began working on his next album (as yet untitled, due out in spring). And he’s ready to venture out on tour again. This time, he’s avoiding the club scene altogether: instead, all of Vanderslice's upcoming dates will take place in living rooms across the country.
The main difference? “When you walk into a bar [for sound check] at 4pm, you’re basically walking into a tomb because there’s no natural light. It smells like stale alcohol, and someone’s playing Thin Lizzy, and you just fry out," he says. "When you play house shows, you’re in someone’s house. They make cupcakes.”
Although house shows are hardly a new concept, one that punk bands, poets and folk troubadours have been utilizing for decades, there aren’t too many artists of Vanderslice's caliber systematically touring cross-country in nothing but houses. But that trend is beginning to change among veteran indie rock acts, with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tim Kasher of Cursive recently embarking on living room tours on their own.
For bands that prefer cozy house show environments over clubs, Undertow Music, based in Champaign, Illinois, organizes living room tours for a select roster of artists—an experience Vanderslice has had one other time, in 2013. He embarks on his next tour on Aug. 20, in Chicago and will finish the run on Oct. 3 in New York City—with more dates planned for 2019.
Best known as the artistic home of indie singer-songwriter David Bazan (a.k.a. Pedro the Lion), Undertow has their living room tour booking process down to a science. All ticketing is done in advance; shows only feature the headliner with no opening acts; hosts must apply and are vetted ahead of time by the Undertow staff. The individual artist—though not in charge of booking the entire tour—is tasked with finding willing hosts, and is his or her own sole representative on the premises come showtime.
“You’re kind of taking responsibility for the whole night, and it’s really about communicating with people,” Vanderslice explains. “You end up having to be really, really present, so it doesn’t work if you don’t want to do that.”
His favorite part? “Usually living rooms sound really good because they’re diffuse. There’s a lot of books, there’s a couch and there’s people, and they’re not reflective. They can just be the most pleasant acoustic environment.”
For their role in booking and promotion, Undertow takes 15 percent of the ticket sales (with tickets typically going for $20-$25) and lets the artist keep all of the profits from merch sales, a cut Vanderslice asserts is more than reasonable. Hosts offer their living rooms on a volunteer basis and are compensated with five free tickets for their friends.
“We want them to make money,” he points out. “When I had my other booking agent, he would take 10 percent, but he would also take 15 percent of my merch. In Europe, I had two booking agents and one here, so there would go 25 percent, right off the top, and then 15 percent of my merch. At that point, you’re just touring to even stay afloat.”
Closer to his Bay Area home, Vanderslice has also performed multiple times on local promoter KC Turner’s house concert series, which Turner has been running since 2007. Unlike Undertow, Turner is always on hand, in person, to set up and break down all of the necessary seating and sound equipment for the evening. These concerts have built an enthusiastic following over the years, not least of all from the musicians themselves, many of whom are repeat participants.
As his roster of artists continues to grow, Turner has also expanded into listening rooms and clubs across the Bay Area. And though Vanderslice has performed at some of these larger venues, such as HopMonk Tavern in Novato, he couldn’t be more excited to scale back down again for his upcoming living room tour.
“I would definitely not go back to touring the way I was, with a band in a van and a trailer," he says. "I just knew when I booked my house tour that this is the only way I want to do it.”
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