Chasing Illusions: My Day as a Roadie for Failure


Approaching the end of Spring, 2015, I received an announcement from the 90's "space rock" band Failure. Though Failure struggled to achieve commercial success prior to their breakup in 1997, the advent of digital music distribution saw a noticeable increase in the band's popularity. Failure reunited in 2014, one year before the announcement of their fourth studio album, The Heart is a Monster.

Several venues across the U.S. were offering unique concert perks like VIP sound checks, signed merchandise, and 'Roadie for a Day' experience packages. The allure of joining the road crew and stepping into a rock 'n roll fantasy world, where my childhood dreams converged with reality, was irresistible. But, as with many fantasies, reality was fraught with zeal and poor judgment.

Despite my growing interest, the add-on was still several hundred dollars extra and did not include the concert tickets. I was also on the hook for lodging and transportation from my home in Milwaukee, WI, to Cincinnati, OH, and I had already purchased tickets to several upcoming concerts. I was apprehensive and opted to wait, though all it took to overcome my apprehension was a single comment.

"I'd bet they'd give you a job in a heartbeat," said my good friend Chuck. "You've done great with your company and I'm sure they'd see how skilled you are." My friendship with Chuck revolved around karaoke and online gaming, though still, the proposition was exciting. As a teen, I often imagined the grandeur of rock shows while working on the stage crew for school plays, handling lighting, sound, and video. Those dreams now whispered that my work ethic and technical background might just transform my fleeting moment of fantasy into reality, securing me a permanent place in this world.

I started my morning with Lisa Lombardo, General Manager of The Merch Collective. She introduced herself, told me all about her "freak squirrel attack", and presented me with my All Access Band/Crew badge. Twisting back and forth frantically, she began handing me heavy, brown cardboard boxes overflowing with signed t-shirts, CDs, and posters. My presence was Lisa's opportunity to make up some lost time due to the rabid squirrel that had placed her leg in a splint. Together we set up the booth, tables, and signs, arranging the merchandise and other unique collectables. I wanted to be as useful as I could, volunteering for every task that I happened to come across. Within an hour we had nothing left to do as we waited for the rest of the stage crew to arrive.

The opportunity for an official Meet and Greet was proposed just before lunch. We grabbed several half-empty boxes and rushed towards a no-frills coach bus, knocked twice, then entered. The band was already gone, making their way to a radio station to promote the tour. Lisa's phone buzzed abruptly as she slumped into a soft bench seat. From my vantage I could see the band's sleeping quarters, entertainment and lounge area. Much like a tiny apartment, everything was set up into quadrants and packed tight. The band's practice equipment lined the back of the bus, patiently waiting for the next jam session. I was intrigued, although the visit became tedious as Lisa spent the next 30 minutes on the phone sorting out an issue with vinyl records warping during shipment.

I was reassigned to the crew's Visual Tech, who quickly promoted me to "Junior Screen Builder" and pointed me to a massive cable trunk. I was face-deep and practically falling in while I grabbed as many 'roadie wrapped' matte black cables as I could, making sure to appear professional as I hustled to and from the stage. I laid everything out, three sets of eight television-sized LED array screens with each pair of power and data cables, in a neat and tidy fashion. My version of an on-the-job resume and cover letter, possibly spattered with the telltale signs of an overzealous student.

Lost in the fantasy of being an integral part of the show, I was soon brought back to reality by a single malfunctioning screen, phasing in and out like a flickering fluorescent light. The other screens were functioning perfectly, displaying the mostly usable Windows 7 desktop from the computer driving it. The electrical current running through those lines was powerful and warming up quickly, hastening my decision to unplug the screen and fix it the only way I knew how: turn it off and on again.

"Stop! Stop! Stop!" the Visual Tech shouted as he reached towards me. "Let go of the cables now and don't do anything." I dropped the cables, hands frozen in mid-air, sweat pouring down my forehead, waiting for instructions. A torrid wave of anger and frustration hit me, fingers pointing and pacing as the tech yelled. I apologised, turned around, then walked to the exact opposite side of the concert hall.

The tension seemed to settle like a thick smoke across the venue's floor just as Failure's Guitar Tech, Duane Burda, waved me over to his station. His fully loaded equipment trunk required four people minimum to lift its massive girth from the floor to the stage, and they were short just one person. I grabbed a corner and heaved, muscling the massive trunk several feet up into the air until it rested safely on stage.

The trunk was flat black with silver rivets and chrome trim across every line and corner, standing five feet tall and loaded with hidden compartments. Failure and Nine Inch Nails logos were stencilled across the sides in white paint. War stories kept us occupied as Duane's tasks required more and more of his attention, signalling an opportunity to roam the venue alone.

Duane Burda in the process of giving me a copy of his album, The Greatest Touchdown Ever Scored by Tgtes

Backstage, the room's dim light revealed worn-out furniture set against maroon walls, surrounded by leftover cold cuts and drinks. Hungry and tired, I was about to dig in when I spotted Ken Andrews, the lead singer of Failure, standing near the pool table.

I lost my appetite immediately, discarded my empty plate, walked right right up to Ken and challenged him to a game of pool. We conversed awkwardly about nothing, circling the ripped green fabric of the abused pool table. Every forth or fifth shot required ceremoniously jamming our fingers into broken pool pockets to rescue the mismatched cue balls stuck in the return. The game dragged on—exacerbated by a lack of interest in forfeiting—until I finally made the winning shot.

Ken quickly departed in a sportsman-like fashion following the completion of our game. I returned to the stage floor and discovered that most of the crew had ventured out for the evening. The merchandise table was staffed and making their final preparations as eager fans lined up just outside the venue doors. I found a comfortable chair near the sound booth and planted myself, watching the opening bands set up their rigs and race through sound checks. My head was getting tight, my voice was crackling at every word, and my joints stiffened. The fantasy of standing stage-side during the concert was fading fast.

As the venue doors swung open, eager fans pouring in got louder and louder as they split off into different parties at the bar, bathrooms, merchandise tables, chairs, and stage. I quietly shifted locations as people ebbed and flowed through the venue hall, waiting patiently for the openers to start playing. The bouncers were all in place, providing the first opportunity for me to wave my all-access badge like a VIP. I snagged a bottle of water and made my way backstage.

I was exhausted by the time Failure began their performance. I didn't bother to return to the floor, sound booth or the stage, opting instead to continue nesting in the off-limits balcony. My head pounded with growing intensity, echoing like a drumbeat in a cavern. I watched as the LED array screens I helped assemble flashed, pulsed and strobed with a vivid technicolor palette, perfectly in tune with the latest creations from Failure's triumphant return to recording. Above all, I was determined to stay until the show's end, remaining steadfast through the last song.

I thanked Lisa with a quick text message and snuck out with the fans as soon as the crew laid hands on the set pieces. After a quick dinner I was back in my hotel room, reflecting on my experience as I fell asleep watching TV. My trip home was a revolving door of questions, "What did I do?", "What went wrong?", and "Why wasn't this fun?" The six-hour drive home felt like days as I re-lived each interaction, ruminating endlessly.

Years later, distanced from the haze of that day, I realized my approach had been both imprudent and disrespectful. I was so absorbed in living out my fantasy and proving my worth within it that I became blind to my own condescending attitude. I transformed what should have been a simple fan moment into an awkward, self-imposed job interview, oblivious to the discomfort it caused the band and crew. They were essentially stuck with an overeager, unqualified enthusiast who had paid for the privilege of being there.

A bit of a downer; can't get around that. The outcome was ultimately positive though. I am still an enthusiastic fan of Failure, and will continue to be for quite some time. :-)