Tour Life: A Conversation With Rocky Rodrigues, Merch Manager

For as long as I can remember, music has always been such an important staple in my life, and through failed musical endeavours, learning to play guitar, bass, even badly attempting drums in my old music class in high school. This was before my eyes opened fully and I realised that musicians are only a small fraction of those who work in the music industry. Soon, I would discover music photographers and videographers online and drown in awe at their incredible jobs, knowing my whole life I had been snapping photos, stealing video cameras at family parties, unaware that my dream job even existed.

My teenage years were spent obsessing, going to gigs, coming home, and counting down the days until my next trip to Glasgow for a concert. When I was 17 I photographed my first show, picked up my first press pass and nervously stuck it to my leg. The more shows I attended, the more I understood what they were doing, and even to this day, when I’m not working at a show, my eyes are darting to photo pits, watching other photographers, intently looking to learn. From attending more gigs, I met more bands, crew, and realised that fans and fellow creatives weren’t sure how to get into those jobs.

This is where our new interview series, Tour Life comes in, these features are for every person who wants to work in the music industry, whether it’s as a musician or a tour manager. Kicking off Tour Life in style, for our first article I spoke to touring merchandise manager Rocky Rodrigues about her job, being the only woman on a male-dominated tour, and her career highlights so far!

Photo by Poppy Biss

Jen McAnally: Hey Rocky, for those out there who don’t understand your job and think slinging merchandise is an easy feat, could you give us your definition of a merch manager?

Rocky Rodrigues: My definition of a merch manager would be someone who is in charge of the organisation, reordering, accounting, and sales of a touring band. It’s so much more than just hanging up displays and selling clothes. Your sales skills, visual display techniques, and organisation is the core of whether a band will actually make money on tour, which of course enables them to continue touring, putting out more merch, and paying off everything else involved in running a band. I think the art and soul of the music industry overshadows the very fact that at the end of the day, it’s a business. Numbers aren’t always fun, organising a messy trailer on an off day isn’t always glamorous, but it’s necessary to keep the band afloat. I take merch so seriously because I understand the importance of it. I also go above and beyond, even pushing myself further, so that I can make it fun, immersive, and impactful for fans as well.

JM: How did you get into the job and how did you get on your first tour?

RR: I got into touring because I absolutely loved going to live shows. I scheduled my entire life as a teenager and young adult around the shows I had already bought tickets to without actually knowing how I would get there. I ended up becoming friends with a guy who did merch, who later ended up touring himself in his own band. I was 19/20 at the time and even flew out to Texas from California to see his band play a Christmas festival with some of my other favourite bands and offered to do merch for them there. Their manager was at the show and saw the sales I pulled in for them and 2 months later they offered me a job on their first tour.

JM: When you’re touring in male-dominated crews, have you faced any major adversity? How do you deal with it?

RR: Every tour I’ve ever done has been male dominated, but that’s just how it is. The main hardships I deal with are definitely people not taking my role seriously or just assuming I’m a glorified groupie who they let sell shirts. Venue guys not treating me with the same kind of respect they show the male counterparts on the tour. Constantly getting my laminate questioned. The usual problems women endure in this field. At first it upset me wildly, and I would lash out. But now it’s just a fun social experiment to me in which I use these obstacles as teaching opportunities. If you make people explain their insults or microaggressions, you will see them falter and start floundering to try to justify their sexist or rude comment. In the beginning of my career I unfortunately did not have a supportive band or crew around me that acted like allies or stood up for me. I am fortunate enough to now work for bands like As It Is and Unwritten Law who intercept bullshit like that before I even get a chance to. I would encourage anyone who experiences discrimination in a field where you are a minority of any sort as a moment to prove everyone wrong. I am so damn sensitive, but I’ve learned to not take it to heart and let my work ethic, numbers and personality prove these idiots wrong.

JM: On the flip side, have you had a moment on tour or working with a certain band or artist where you’ve had a “wow, this is my life” moment, what’s been the most surreal experience?

RR: I honestly have so many “I can’t believe this is my life” moments on each tour. I am incredible sappy and always just shake my head in awe that I was able to make a living out of the thing I love the most: live music. One of the biggest ones was when I got the call that Unwritten Law wanted to take me to Australia with them. I was finishing my last quarter of college and had no idea when I’d have time to even eat between merch and finishing a thesis, but I found a way. One day the band had a tattoo artist come do tour tats for everyone at the venue before the show. I was sitting there, getting a tour tattoo across the world, eating a veggie burger the venue had given me, and I was like….”Is any of this even real?”. The fact that my job has given me the opportunity to travel the world blows my mind everyday. Touring with As It Is has also given me so many of those moments. Seeing them play shows to thousands of people overseas was mind blowing. Meeting fans who already knew who I was insane. This life is so good and I always make sure I work my ass off and go above and beyond so that I can maintain this career.

JM: We’ve seen your incredible merch set-ups and inventive ways of getting fans involved, do you think this is where a lot of venues and merch sellers are missing the mark?

RR: First of all, THANK YOU!!! I feel like a mad genius weeks before I leave for a tour because my room’s an explosion of crafts, I’m making labels for the shirts all night, ya know doing the absolute most. I definitely think people do the bare minimum, which is fine if that’s what they want and it gets the job done, but I’m always seeing what others are doing and thinking, “How can I do MORE? How can I introduce something else to merch and make the table even more immersive for everyone?” I remember being that kid who just loved going to shows, seeing all the merch, and getting to take home a piece of the band/show every night. I just want to make the merch table more than a place you visit briefly. I think we can all collectively take merch to that next level if everyone shared that same ideal. I think more people just need to give a damn and act on that drive.

JM: As someone who has attended and worked at Warped Tour multiple times, give us your wildest Warped story!

RR: Oh man, my wildest Warped story….amongst them is definitely any of the storm days! No matter where the Georgia date of warped was placed, it stormed and flooded every time. In 2018, I already knew what to do to be prepared. I had zip-ties, weights for my tent ready to go, an emergency plan on how to protect all my merch bins from flooding and everything. I started helping everyone around me secure their tents while the attendees of Warped got evacuated to the amphitheater. We were all just soaking wet, cold, waiting for the okay to either set back up pack everything up and close for the day. My friend Dakota, who literally survived Hurricane Katrina, was just walking around in flip flops handing out beer to everyone and visiting everyone at the their tents. It totally boosted everyone’s mood, and we all just started making the best of the situation. It’s in those insane moments where you see the people from production rushing around telling everyone to take their flags down and prepare for the storm, your entire outfit is ruined and you’re trying to protect all your electronics from getting wet, where you just kind of laugh and think to yourself, “We’re in this shit, we’re working warped tour, every day, doing the damn thing.”

JM: Finally, what is your biggest piece of advice for someone considering a touring lifestyle, particularly merch management?

RR: My biggest piece of advice is to never let anyone tell you you can’t! If I could pull off doing almost 2 full years of college on the road while learning how to do merch on my first tours, anybody can. Get involved in your local music and art scenes, make your art and make friends for the love of it, not for the clout factor. Invest in yourself and network whenever you can. There are so many ways to get involved and so many jobs you can have in the touring music industry. Take every hardship and setback as a learning lesson and just keep pushing. The timing will work out for you when it’s meant to, trust me! Also, never let yourself think you’re too cool to go in a pit every now and then or dance your ass off during a set. We all joined the industry because we love music, never let anything kill that passion or the fun that comes with it!

By Jen McAnally

Are you a touring musician or promoter at a local venue? Guitar or lighting technician? Photographer, videographer or tour manager? If you’re interested in joining our Tour Life series please contact us at speaksoftmag@yahoo.com!

Doll Skin Interview

Our editor Jen met with the Doll Skin girls before they hit the stage supporting Trash Boat in Glasgow, for a chat about their new album, musical influences, and women in the alternative music scene.

For just the audio, visit our SoundCloud!

Nicole (Bass), Meghan (Drums), Sydney (Vocals), Alex (Guitar), Jen (Editor)

Introducing: James and the Cold Gun

The Postal Service, The Last Shadow Puppets, Gorillaz. These three iconic bands have something major in common. They were all at one point, side projects or supergroups. The Postal Service, the notable sad electronica-pop venture of Death Cab For Cutie‘s Ben Gibbard. Indie music’s kings, Alex Turner and Miles Kane joined forces to become The Last Shadow Puppets. And possibly one of the most popular “side projects that became almost more iconic than the original band”, Gorillaz, the brainchild of Blur‘s Damon Albarn. If the bands noted here tell you anything, it’s the musical power and status artists can go on to achieve through these often dismissed side projects.

James and the Cold Gun is fresh from the brains of James Biss, and James Joseph, best known for being the bassist of Welsh emo powerhouse band Holding Absence.

Our editor Jen spoke to frontman James Joseph about this new project, the band’s influences, and future tour plans.

Speak Soft Magazine: Hey, James! Firstly, for those reading who don’t already know, you’re currently the bassist of Holding Absence, and James and the Cold Gun is your new solo project. How did it come about?

James Joseph: “I’m a bit of a busy body and since Holding Absence has started to get more serious and our releases are more strategic/planned out, there is a lot of waiting around and lots of the music you hear tends to be stuff that we have recorded months ago. I’ve wanted to do a project that is purely for enjoyment and is a creative-outlet for me where I can create and release music/content whenever I feel like it. I think part of the reason so many people in bands have side-projects is to keep them busy whilst having to wait on things with their main bands. I’ve also always wanted to challenge myself by playing guitar and singing, which I’ve always found difficult!”

SSM: How does JATCG differ lyrically and musically from HA in your opinion?

JJ: “Firstly, I consciously aimed to make JATCG different to HA as I didn’t want either bands to have to compete or for any weird comparisons to be made between the two. I also think JATCG allows me to ‘scratch a different’ itch than HA whilst ensuring that my own personal preferences don’t get in the way of what HA is supposed to be. “

“HA is definitely more emotionally charged and the lyrics are more poetic, however it’s early days for JATCG so it’s pretty hard to comment on lyrics overall. Musically I wanted Cold Gun to feel like a ‘garage-rock band, I want hard hitting drums and loud amps in the face, I want to be able to write a song in a few hours whilst having fun and jamming together, this band makes me feel like I’m 15 again.”

SSM: Maybe I’m alone in this but I immediately picked up Queen of the Stone Age-esque sound in your first single ‘She Moves’, were they an influence?

JJ: “They’re a huge influence yeah, I love how they balance ‘rock and roll’ and ‘punk’ so well. Homme is a god! In some ways, I’ve started looking at ‘older-dudes’ like Josh Homme or Dave Grohl who are still killing it and almost wanting to set myself up with a project that can blossom and grow over the next 10-20 years. Those guys are still making some of their best music after 20 years, which I find super inspiring.”

SSM: How did you find directing the music video? What influenced the visual elements of ‘She Moves’?

JJ: “I actually really enjoyed it! To be honest, it was more a case of what was available to us at the lowest cost. We did the video on £0. It was shot in a friends house, who has an orange paper backdrop and we decided to film purely performance shots in an old-school square format style so that any grain or quality drop would look like it was done on purpose. I’m already thinking ahead to how we can do the next video ourselves and make it more ambitious! It’s all part of the fun.”

SSM: If you had to pick one film or television show to perfectly encapsulate your music and aesthetic, what would it be and why?

JJ: “I’ve not actually seen it… But I think I’d say Twin Peaks! Our music feels slightly old-school with an eerie kind of edge. Plus I love coffee and cherry pie!”

Chloe Davis, via the Holding Absence fan group on Facebook, You Are Everything: Are there any plans to tour with the project in the future or is it a studio-only type thing?

JJ: “We will definitely play live, but we don’t want to rush into anything! We plan on having our ‘live-band’ as a bit of a revolving door of whoever is keen at the time. It’d be really awesome if you recognised our drummers/bassists/extra instrumentalists from their other bands. I feel like it’d kind of add an extra element of excitement to our live shows if you had no idea which drummer would be playing for us live until the night or whatever.”

SSM: Do you have any advice for people starting bands or exploring new musical projects?

JJ: “Make music for YOURSELF, that YOU love and never try and follow trends. If you start a band based on a trend, chances are the trend will have moved on by the time your band actually releases music, plus I can assure you making a song that you genuinely love listening to is the most rewarding feeling. Also, surprise yourself, push yourself out of your comfort zone and just go for it. I want to continue pushing myself with this band, dance moves, makeup, whatever. You got this.”

SSM: And finally, what can we expect from JATCG before the end of the year?

JJ: “I’d like to aim for two more singles plus some acoustic bits and bobs. In fact, I’m going to force myself to work my ass off and just say: WE WILL release two more singles and some acoustic bits and bobs. I also want to be able to play live by January.”

To be the first to hear about new music from James and the Cold Gun, here’s where to find them online:

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/andthecoldgun

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/andthecoldgun/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/andthecoldgun/

To help contribute to a new JATCG song: https://jamesandthecoldgun.bigcartel.com/product/black-ringer-tee-pre-order

The Life and Legacy of Elliott Smith

Next week the Speak Soft Magazine team are headed south to document the charity tribute show in memory of the iconic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, celebrating what would have been his 50th birthday.

Host of the evening Dan Caleb will be performing alongside Benjamin Langford-Biss (As It Is), Georgia Maria, Aaron King, and more incredibly talented musicians all coming together to play songs from Elliott’s back catalogue and most importantly celebrate his life and legacy.

For those of you who don’t know much about Smith or even if you do, we have composed a short timeline of his life and his musical career up until his tragic death in 2003:

  • Stephen Paul “Elliott” Smith was an acclaimed American singer-songwriter, known distinctively for his melancholic sound and often deeply personal lyrics that danced around the topics of addiction, alienation, and depression.
Photo by Wendy Lynch
  • Born August 6th 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, he endured a difficult childhood, his parents divorced when he was six months old, and he moved with his mother to Texas. The strained and possibly abusive relationship with his step-father became a reason to sedate himself with drugs as an adult.
  • Smith began playing Piano at age nine alongside guitar just a year later. He began writing and recording his first songs around the time he moved to Portland, Oregon at the age of 14.
  • His musical influences included such iconic stars as Bob DylanElvis Costello, and the Beatles; he said he was inspired to become a musician after hearing The White Album.
  • After graduating high school, Smith began calling himself “Elliott“, saying that he thought “Steve” sounded too much like a “jock” name, and that “Steven” sounded “too bookish”.
  • In college he met future bandmate, Neil Gust, and formed the indie rock band Heatmiser and released three studio albums and two EPs before disbanding in 1996, shortly after signing to Virgin Records.
“Blackout” by Heatmiser
  • Smith‘s girlfriend at the time convinced him to send some of his solo demos to Portland-based record label Cavity Search Records. The label immediately expressed interest in releasing a full album, and so Roman Candle was born, using mostly acoustic guitar with a handful of other instruments, entirely home-recorded on a four-track tape recorder.
  • In 1997 he became a mainstream name with the success of the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, which he contributed “Between the Bars”, “Say Yes” and “Miss Misery” for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but lost to “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. This mainstream exposure led to a record deal with DreamWorks, resulting in Smith‘s first album, XO, being produced in professional studios.
“Miss Misery” in the closing scene of Good Will Hunting
  • In 1999, he contributed a cover of the Beatles‘ “Because” to the soundtrack of Best Picture winner American Beauty.
  • For the next couple of years, Smith laboured over what was to be his next album. He parted ways with DreamWorks, and after a falling out with fellow musician and producer Jon Brion, he scrapped an album they had started working on together.
  • Elliott Smith was arguably the Van Gogh of music, a heavy drinker and drug user, diagnosed with ADHD and major depressive disorder. He died on October 21, 2003 in Los Angeles, California, after he was found in his home with two stab wounds in his chest. The coroner was unable to determine whether it was suicide or the result of homicide, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation remains open.
“We miss you”, a fan tribute on the Figure 8 album mural.

We spoke to co-producer of the My Favourite Elliott Smith Song podcast, Robert Comba about Smith’s legacy:

 “What’s so great about Elliott Smith, for me, is how his songs seem to get better with every listen. There are things in songs he’s left for you to discover only when you’ve listened for the 500th time. It’s like with a good film – you notice more, the more you watch it.”

“What’s been interesting about doing the podcast – which I now make with my co-producer Elizabeth Withstandley – is hearing how he still has such a strong influence on artists today. People we’ve spoken to like Benjamin Langford-Biss, Phoebe Bridgers and Lindsey Jordan (Snail Mail) all discovered him after he died but cite him as a major influence on them. From that perspective, it’s reassuring to hear his legacy is continuing in a major way.”

If you can, come along to the Finsbury in London on 6th August to celebrate the life and legacy of one of the greatest singer songwriters of all time, on what would have been his 50th birthday.

Elliott was known by his friends as a very charitable person – he set up his own music studio and let smaller bands record there for free. So, in keeping with his spirit, all money raised from this event will go to the charity Help Musicians UK. So, what are you waiting for? Tickets below!

Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/elliott-smith-50th-birthday-party-tickets-63494629145?fbclid=IwAR3ljzmCoslwRvhGoIcWCyRHnQsj5hXGd8P8orMSm4N59MhZRQiPUb-HtdQ

Sources for timeline:

Introducing: Witch of the East

If you love grunge and want to listen to music that screams horror movie soundtrack, Witch of the East are an essential. With the upcoming debut album ‘Queen of Insecurity‘ ready to drop on 5th July 2019, we caught up with front woman Aeris Houlihan for a chat about her new project:

Firstly, for those reading who don’t already know, you were in a band called Chambers, and Witch of the East is your new solo project. How did it come about?

My previous band (Chambers) came to an end. Mainly because we were pushing in different directions artistically. We have a lot of good memories together that I’ll always cherish. Ultimately, I decided to leave because the time felt right. One night driving back on my own from Manchester to Wakefield after a not so great practice. I looked over to the other side of the motorway to see a paramedic trying to save the life of a man that had just been in a bad car accident. I don’t want to get graphic but I saw something I try to forget regularly. It was like a bullet to the brain. Why continue to do something you’re not enjoying? Life is too short!

Tell us about the album title ‘Queen of Insecurity’, is this title a reflection on yourself or a new persona to accompany the new project?

There are a few reasons why I decided on that title. One of the main reasons was because I became the ‘Queen’ of my own insecurity’s a few years back. It felt right! I think a lot of people can relate to overcoming their insecurities.”

If your music (past/present/future) was to be the soundtrack for any film, what film would it be? And why?

Funny you say that! I’m also a photographer/videographer. When I write music, I feel like I’m also screenwriting. I think in a very visual way. With characters and visual settings for the music and lyrics. I’ve had my music played on a Netflix show and sports channels in the past. Which was interesting as it places your music in a new context. However, a thriller like ‘The Shining’ would be nice. My style of writing came about through thriller films.

What has your experience as a trans person in the music industry been like? 

Not easy at times! I’ve had to get the police involved from a hate crime in the past. I’ve also had a lot of great experiences and met some really cool people along the way.

What advice would you give to young LGBT+ musicians?

Enjoy what you’re doing! Some days will be challenging and others not so much. Embrace what makes you unique and share it with the world.

Who (or what) are your biggest musical influences? 

The Beatles and Nirvana hooks have never left my side. Like a little familiar! In terms of aesthetic and vibe. Siobhan Fahey (Shakespears Sister). Especially, in the video ‘Stay’.

From ‘Queen of Insecurity’, what is your personal favourite song or lyric and why?

When You Fuck Me! It’s brutally honest, scary and morish. Just like the title!

Finally, what can we expect from Witch of the East after the album release, what have you got in store for the rest of 2019?

We have another 4 music videos being released throughout the year. Also, a new single for Halloween. The single launch is going to be held at a haunted museum. Lots of festivals and tour dates! 2020 plans are already underway!

Queen of Insecurity will be released 5th July 2019 through I’m Not From London Records.

Where to find Witch of the East online:

www.youtube.com/c/witchoftheeast / www.facebook.com/WitchotEast / www.instagram.com/witchoteast  / www.witchoftheeast.net